There was a time when keyboards were aggressively utilitarian. There was one style (essentially an electric-typewriter keyboard with a few extra buttons), it plugged into the back of the computer using a PS/2 jack, and it was beige. There was no other option (and, dag-gummit, we liked it!).
Never a fan of stock anything I started grabbing Microsoft ergonomic (“Natural”) boards as soon as they started pushing them out in the mid-90s and stayed on that bandwagon for a good long time. The downside is that, while I enjoyed the extra real-estate, the odd configurations that they put your hands in only really worked if that was all you ever typed on. Having to switch back and forth between a laptop keyboard and my MS Natural always resulted in a cornucopia of mistakes. And for a touch-typist like me, who’s used to banging out a couple hundred words a minute, mistakes start to add up fast.
So I decided to go Back to the Future.
I heard about Das Keyboard a few years back when they pushed out their original mechanical keyboards. Modeled after those old-school IBM Model M keyboards (the beige wonders mentioned above), they have two things going for them that make them stand out – each key has a mechanical switch, instead of the membrane-under-key method that most modern keyboards utilize. This gives every key press a very solid and very distinct feel and sound. The second thing? They’re cool. All those switches = a whole lot of LOUD clicking whenever you’re engaged in a dense project. And the keys themselves have no labels whatsoever – it’s just an expanse of glossy black from here to the horizon. These are the kind of keyboards that Deckers sling on their backs when heading out for a corporate hack job in Shadowrun (a wonderfully outdated RPG property, think Lord of the Rings meets Neuromancer…ahhh, nostalgia). But that blank expanse meant that it was totally out for me when it came to choosing work keyboards. IT techs don’t like it when they can’t hunt and peck while they fix your computer. Lucky for me, Das Keyboard pushed out a professional line with “laser etched” labels on all the keys. It’s now my de facto work keyboard and, while it requires a slightly softer touch (if I hammered at full power, I’d be kicked outside for sure), that’s actually not a bad thing. It’s a precise instrument and doesn’t need the kind of heavy-fingered mashing that a lot of keyboards require. When you press a button, you’re, well, pressing a button and you get immediate feedback as to whether or not it was successful. The result is fewer errors and quicker input.
At home, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Take a look at that wedge over on the right – that’s possibly the thinnest thing I’ve ever typed on. It is not mechanical, it is not loud, but damn if Apple didn’t make their wireless keyboard sexy. It’s a single piece of machined aluminum, so despite it’s thickness (or lack thereof), it doesn’t feel like it’s going to crack when you really start waling away. And wale I do. It’s the companion to my iMac and it’s what I use for my regular World of Warcraft sessions. While, for most, this wouldn’t constitute a lot of typing; my brother and I refuse to use voice chat and like to verbally abuse each other, a lot. So this deck is subjected to thousands of words a night as I type faster and faster, trying to keep ahead of the insults. While the Apple Wireless doesn’t have the tactile feedback the Das Keyboard does, it does do a solid job of keeping up with me. And, it’s quiet. A full-speed typing session on this sounds more like wind through leaves rather than machine guns on the front lines. Despite it’s apparent size, the Apple Wireless is a full-sized keyboard (a bit cramped in spots, but no more so than a large laptop).
Which would I take with me if I was trapped in a post-apocalyptic world and I had to survive using my wits and computing skills alone (Yes, I think about these sorts of things. Shut up.)? The Das Keyboard. Of course, every irradiated mutant for a mile around could hear me typing on it; but it’s built like a tank and is heavy enough that it could take out a few teeth with a well-placed swing to the face. I’d miss the Apple Wireless, sure, but silent and sexy only gets you so far.