Journal: News & Comment

Tuesday, July 08, 2003
# 8:09:00 AM:

My favourite keyboards

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Like some others, and as someone who types for a living, I have a thing for good computer keyboards. I own a stack of them, with several available for each computer I have. Sometimes I even have more than one plugged into a single machine at a time.

Here are my nominees for the best keyboards, new and old, you can buy for your Mac or PC:

  1. Apple Pro Keyboard - Available in black or white, the Pro Keyboard replaced the small original 1998-era iMac keyboard—which many people hated (mostly because of the mouse it came with), but which I found quite adequate—in 2000. For the most part, the Pro Keyboard won everyone back, in part because of its lovely, heavy, butter-smooth transparent housing (which does, unfortunately, show trapped dust, crumbs, and hair rather nastily), but largely because it's so nice to type on.

    The keys are unusually wide and subtly curved, with a meaty feel despite their relatively short throw, which has a good snap to it, even if it's not noisy. The Pro can also lie very flat, which I find ergonomically better than the raised-back design of most traditional computer keyboards. I initially disliked the Pro Keyboard, at least compared to its predecessor the Extended II (see below), but now I prefer it to any other one I own. Luckily, Apple ships this keyboard with every computer it makes these days. Since it uses a USB (Universal Serial Bus) plug, you can connect it to a newer Windows or Linux PC too if you like.

  2. IBM 101 or equivalent - The original 1981 IBM PC came with a metal-cased, indestructible monster of a keyboard. IBM continued to make solid, heavy, loud clackety keyboards using the same "buckling-spring" design (though with heavy plastic housings instead) well into the 1990s, but they weren't easy to find.

    I have one in the den hooked up to our Windows machine. The keys are tall and quite tapered—rather different from the Apple Pro Keyboard—but they click so solidly that your typing blazes away effortlessly. They're especially good for "pound-the-keys" typists, or anyone who learned on a Selectric typewriter. Now that IBM no longer makes them (shame!), other companies carry the 101 torch. If you have a PC, can find one of these beauties, and don't have office- or housemates who hate the racket, get yourself one of these suckers. You won't be sorry.

    UPDATE May 2004: It is possible to hook up an IBM 101 (or other Windows keyboard ) to a Mac with a simple PS/2 to USB adapter (widely available at computer stores) and free uControl software to remap the keys. I may try this sometime.

  3. Apple Extended Keyboard II - Like the original IBM 101, a classic. Using it with a newer USB-based Mac requires an adapter for the ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) connector. The original Extended Keyboard is very similar and just as nice (some say better), but much harder to find. Extended IIs are plentiful and cheap used (as low as $15 in good shape), and like their aircraft-carrier nickname, "Nimitz," they're wide and hefty. The keys have a feel somewhere between the Pro and the 101, with a solid click but not the thwack of the IBM. I have several Extended IIs, but have only used one regularly, since they never seem to wear out.

  4. Fujitsu PC-AT Keyboard - If you want an IBM 101 but your spouse or coworkers won't tolerate the wacka-wacka din, hunt around for an older Fujitsu extended keyboard. They're quite nice, and fairly quiet too. I used one for years at my old employer's office, and moved it from computer to computer as I got upgraded. I wouldn't let the company foist any other mushy keyboard on me. Too bad I had to leave it behind when I got laid off.

  5. Apple Standard Keyboard (a.k.a. Apple Keyboard or Apple Keyboard I) - Built like the Extended and Extended II keyboards, with the same lovely keycaps and mechanisms, but without all the extra keys, and so much better for smaller desk surfaces. I treasure the one I have, and use it as an external keyboard for my PowerBook.

  6. Apple IIgs Keyboard - Yes, it plugs into ADB Macs too, and it's beautiful in its minimalism. The keys are strange, with a ridged edge. They have a satisfying short-throw click. The housing forms almost no border around the keys at all, so the keyboard is tiny yet easy to type on. If only Apple had been brave enough to release the original "Cassie" prototype on which the IIgs keyboard was based.

The old Macintosh and Macintosh Plus keyboards were also wonderful, but they won't plug into anything built after 1987 or so, and thus they aren't viable today.

No, I don't think all Apple keyboards are great. The AppleDesign model was a mediocre, middle-of-the-road mushpad, as was the Apple Keyboard II, of which I've inherited a few. The original USB iMac keyboard I mentioned was a direct descendant of the Keyboard II, i.e. nothing special. I own an Apple Adjustable Keyboard, and it sucks. The keyboards IBM provides with its current PCs are fine, but that's all. Fujitsu still seems to be making their good models.

Most keyboards you can buy, regardless of their spiffy features, are merely tolerable to type on. If you type a lot and want a real typing tool, try one of the models above.


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