Key­board cham­pi­ons

16 top of­fice, gam­ing and por­ta­ble key­boards on test

Computer Shopper - - FRONT PAGE -

HERE AT SHOP­PER we spend a lot of time and words on find­ing the most pow­er­ful PCs, the fastest smart­phones and tablets, the most ef­fi­cient pro­ces­sors, and so on. And while it is im­por­tant to make sure that you buy the best tech hard­ware you can, it would all be for lit­tle if your tools for us­ing them were rub­bish.

Yet many peo­ple are will­ing to put up with a medi­ocre key­board. It is, along with the mouse, your phys­i­cal in­ter­face, your way of de­riv­ing util­ity and en­ter­tain­ment from the PC, hand­held de­vice or even smart TV that you have spent so much on.

Don’t, then, set­tle for small, spongy keys or dodgy build qual­ity; look for some­thing that’s gen­uinely wor­thy of all the time you will – quite lit­er­ally – have your hands on it. To help out, we’ve tested and rated 16 key­boards, from sub-£10 Blue­tooth mod­els to pre­mium gam­ing gear, and here’s our buyer’s guide to choos­ing the right board.

FIT­TING THE OC­CA­SION

It goes with­out say­ing that there will be dif­fer­ent key­boards for dif­fer­ent uses, so be clear about how and where you in­tend to use

yours. Gen­eral of­fice key­boards are per­haps the most com­mon, but that doesn’t mean that stan­dards for them are any lower. They need to be fast and re­spon­sive enough to keep up with skilled touch-typ­ists, and since they’re likely to be used for long typ­ing ses­sions, they should be com­fort­able to use even if they’re not spe­cialised er­gonomic aids.

Por­ta­ble key­boards can have a tougher time, since they must bal­ance the need to be thin and light with the re­quire­ment to pro­vide a suf­fi­ciently prac­ti­cal typ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence; some sim­ply set­tle for hav­ing tiny keys, which can be dis­as­trous for speed and ac­cu­racy. In our ex­pe­ri­ence, any­thing much smaller than a lap­top key­board is likely to be more trou­ble than it’s worth. Many por­ta­ble key­boards save space by drop­ping the num­ber pad – this is known as a tenkey­less de­sign.

Gam­ing key­boards couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent; they’re de­signed to pair up with pow­er­ful desk­tops, and thus value strong builds, ex­tra keys and high-end mech­a­nisms far more than they aim for min­imised form fac­tors. Like their favoured PCs, they’re also keen on flashy fea­tures such as cus­tomis­able back­light­ing and pro­grammable keys.

MER­CHANTS OF DOME

The sec­ond most im­por­tant thing to con­sider is the type of keyswitch tech­nol­ogy used by each key­board; in other words, the mech­a­nism each key uses to reg­is­ter an in­put.

The cheap­est style in­cludes a thin plas­tic sheet cov­ered in cir­cuitry, typ­i­cally re­ferred to as the mem­brane. Press­ing a key forces down an in­ter­nal plunger, which makes con­tact with the mem­brane, com­plet­ing an elec­tri­cal cir­cuit and send­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate in­put to the con­nected com­puter. To add re­sis­tance (and make sure the key pops back up af­ter be­ing pressed), each key has a small rub­ber dome un­der­neath, which col­lapses when depressed.

There are nu­mer­ous vari­a­tions on the mem­brane/rub­ber dome switch combo, such as To­pre switches, which use spring-loaded keys and ca­pac­i­tive sen­sors in­stead of com­plet­ing a cir­cuit through phys­i­cal con­tact. There are also scis­sor-switches, which mount the key­cap on an in­ter­lock­ing scis­sor mech­a­nism that al­lows for a much shal­lower travel dis­tance in or­der to de­press the dome.

The main mem­brane al­ter­na­tive are fully me­chan­i­cal switches. These in­cor­po­rate a full switch in each key (so each in­put comes from the in­di­vid­ual mech­a­nism, not from a shared mem­brane) and can be con­fig­ured to of­fer var­i­ous de­grees of tac­tile or au­di­tory feed­back, which we’ll dis­cuss shortly. ‘Lin­ear’ me­chan­i­cal switches, such as Cherry MX Reds or SteelSeries QX2s, sim­ply move up and down with lit­tle noise, but other de­signs can add a lit­tle bump sen­sa­tion (so you can clearly tell when a key has fully depressed, or ‘bot­tomed out’), or an added, au­di­ble click sound.

CON­STRUC­TIVE FEED­BACK

To some, this might beg the ques­tion of why you’d want a key­board to be louder, and po­ten­tially dis­tract­ing, than it needs to be. Ul­ti­mately, it all comes down to feed­back: how tan­gi­bly you can sense that a key has fully depressed, thus en­sur­ing a suc­cess­ful in­put. Au­di­tory feed­back can thus be quite use­ful for speedy touch-typ­ists, as an un­ex­pect­edly ab­sent click or clack can sig­nal that key­strokes have been ac­ci­den­tally missed.

On the tac­tile side, a bump (or any kind of re­sis­tance) can serve a sim­i­lar pur­pose: if you don’t feel the bump, you’ve prob­a­bly missed a key. Feed­back can also train you to be a bet­ter typ­ist, as you’ll ac­tively at­tempt to pro­duce the click sound or bump feel­ing with more ac­cu­rate, de­ci­sive strokes.

This is why, de­spite me­chan­i­cal switch key­boards typ­i­cally cost­ing more, we’ll usu­ally rec­om­mend them more read­ily than rub­ber dome key­boards, as me­chan­i­cal switches tend to de­liver clearer, cleaner feed­back than dome switches. The lat­ter, on the other hand, have a ten­dency to feel mushy and in­dis­tinct.

This might leave lin­ear me­chan­i­cal switches, which in­ten­tion­ally lack a tac­tile bump or added click noise, as a weak link, but that’s not the case: their smooth, fast and con­sis­tent de­press­ing ac­tion makes them per­fect for gam­ing. The lack of au­di­tory feed­back ac­tu­ally works well here, too – a game’s sound­track or di­a­logue would oth­er­wise be com­pet­ing with con­stant real-life click­ing, un­less you were to wear noise-can­celling head­phones.

FUR­NISH­ING TOUCHES

While a qual­ity core typ­ing/gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ence can out­weigh a lack of ex­tra fea­tures, that doesn’t mean you should ig­nore the lat­ter. Things such as in­te­grated USB ports can be use­ful for of­fice work­ers and en­thu­si­ast gamers alike, while more spe­cialised fea­tures can make a good key­board great – such as the abil­ity of Blue­tooth key­boards to pair with sev­eral de­vices at once.

We’ve paid ex­tra at­ten­tion to side fea­tures on gam­ing key­boards, since these are usu­ally the most awash with them. RGB light­ing is a com­mon party trick, and a very good one, com­bin­ing user cus­tomi­sa­tion with bet­ter read­abil­ity in low light. Set­ting light­ing colours and ef­fects is mostly done via op­tional soft­ware, which can also be used to set cus­tom key bind­ings; we’ll take a look at each man­u­fac­turer’s take on such soft­ware as well.

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