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Why mechanical keyboards

Why mechanical keyboards

In recent years mechanical keyboards have seen a resurgence in popularity, mainly because of enthusiast and professional gamers. On Amazon, a search for mechanical keyboard reveals a plethora of gaming keyboards with back-lighting and special multimedia/game-ready features testifying to their popularity. My own interest in mechanical keyboards began in or around 2010-11 when I discovered the legend of the venerable IBM Model M keyboard the original buckling spring keyboard, which has unmatched typing characteristics compared to even modern mechanical key switches . Thanks to my brother, I got my hands on a used German layout Model M a few years ago, so I can attest to the Model M being unique. The Model M’s base clacking noise can be a bit loud even for those tolerant of regular “clicky” keyboards.

Though I’ve mostly used my laptop over the years and not regularly used a mechanical keyboard, I also own a TVS Gold keyboard with Cherry MX Blue switches[1].

Recently I’ve had occasion to start using my mechanical keyboards on a regular basis once again. To those who’ve never typed on a mechanical keyboard, it can be quite a revelation to start using one. The normal “membrane” keyboards[2] have a mushy feel to them, where you need to press the key fully to be sure that it has registered. The lack of tactility in rubber dome/membrane keyboards mean that your fingers never get the actual feedback of key actuation. But not all mechanical keyboards are tactile, clicky or both. In fact, there are also mechanical key switches that are non-tactile (linear) and non-clicky and yet they offer different advantages to the clicky and/or tactile kind.

There is a lot of literature on the internet about the advantages and disadvantages of mechanical keyboards and the wide variety of key switches available, so I’ll restrict myself to personal experience. Here are my own thoughts on the advantages of tactile, clicky mechanical keyboards, meaning those with mechanical key switches that offer a tactile “bump” on actuation, and also a physical click sound which gives audible feedback of keystroke registration

  • Much pleasanter typing experience overall – the overall experience of typing on a mechanical tactile keyboard cannot be described. It has to be experienced. I can type several pages of long form content using a mechanical keyboard and still not feel my fingers start to tire or ache. Of course, the pleasantness of clicky keyboards may not be appreciated by those who don’t like the continuous rattling noise especially in a quiet office atmosphere.
  • Less finger fatigue – yes, despite the soft feel of membrane keyboard buttons, typing on them continuously can get tiring on the fingers especially since one needs to exert enough pressure on each keystroke to bottom the keys out, since there’s no actual point at which you are sure that the key stroke has registered. I’ve used both Cherry MX Blue and the buckling spring keys of the IBM model M and I think both are excellent for typing long form text.
  • Greater typing accuracy – I’ve found that using a mechanical keyboard has not only increased my typing speed but also increased my accuracy, mainly because I don’t accidentally double press keys or sometimes miss keystrokes for lack of enough pressure on the key.
  • Sturdier construction – mechanical keyboards are more expensive, but are also solidly constructed. Of course, nothing beats the IBM model M for sheer weight and sturdiness, but most mechanical keyboards are built to last much longer than their cheap membrane counterparts. Even the TVS keyboard, which is less expensive and built with cheaper materials compared to premium mechanical keyboards, feels quite well-built and durable compared to the ultra-cheap garden variety membrane keyboards manufactured these days.

To me typing long form text on a membrane keyboard feels painfully awkward these days, particularly laptop keyboards and I do prefer to hook up a mechanical, full-size keyboard to my laptop whenever possible. While I understand that most people won’t appreciate the benefits of mechanical keyboards, particularly the ones considered too “noisy” for regular use, luckily there is still a large enough market for them thanks to the large segment of enthusiast and professional video game players.

Finally I leave you with an old video of me testing out the IBM Model M keyboard:

and another video, wherein I type on the TVS keyboard (note the not-so-subtle difference between the sharp click of the MX switches and the distinct base clack of the buckling springs):

If you are somebody who spends a lot of time typing, a suitable mechanical keyboard may well be an excellent investment.

  1. at least back then, the TVS-e keyboards shipped with genuine Cherry MX switches. These days, I understand that they use Long Hua, a Chinese clone of the blue switches. I can attest to the fact that TVS did use genuine Cherry Blue switches earlier and in fact, my own TVS keyboard is a genuine Cherry MX Blue keyboard, and the confusion arises because a few years back TVS have stopped using them[]
  2. which also include those scissor-switch keyboards in laptops as well[]
Alternative touch screen device input methods

Alternative touch screen device input methods

smartphone

I am not a big fan of touch screen devices for input. I may be old school, but I think touch should not be a primary mode of input for any reasonably complex computer with a small display area (which most smart phones/tablets are). Touch input is best used for simple menu based information retrieval systems where the screen has a grid of large icons and at best, require simple numeric input occasionally. Unfortunately the smart phone revolution has ensured that touch input has become the norm on mobile devices. On-screen text entry methods are not ergonomic and quite inefficient for typing large amounts of text by design, because these devices are primarily meant for voice/video communication, portability, and consumption of information and entertainment, not content creation.

But using a powerful smartphone/tablet just for communication, information or entertainment consumption seems to be a gross under-utilization of their computing power. As I pointed out in an earlier post, apps like Collabora Office allow mobile devices to become reasonable productivity devices. Both Android and iOS have a wide variety of productivity apps for note taking, photo-editing, digital painting, music composition and much more.

There are, of course, some common alternatives to touch input on mobile devices. In this article, I’ll explore some of their advantages and limitations.

Passive styluses

Passive styluses are simple, cheap alternatives to using a stubby finger on small screens. But they are just that: finger substitutes. They need a reasonable contact area with the screen which makes them not quite accurate for touching an exact point on the screen. Besides, stylus touch is not recognized as any different from using bare finger/hand touch, so if you plan to draw or write using a stylus, then you have to make sure your palm and fingers are off the device surface to avoid unwanted input. To me, styluses are a fairly comfortable alternative to using bare fingers for basic user-interface functions like swiping, scrolling, mark-making and on-screen keyboard input on smaller screens for fat-fingered folk.

Advantages: very cheap and usable on all capacitive touch screen devices.

Disadvantages: almost as inaccurate as using finger for touch input; not distinguished as a distinct input type by the device.

Active pens

“Active” pens are a more recent technology as far as touchscreen mobile devices are concerned. The most famous examples are the Apple Pencil (1st and 2nd generation) and the Samsung Galaxy S-Pen. Of course, there are quite a few third party active pens for supported Android tablets and Apple iPads. The distinguishing feature of active pens are that their input is treated as distinct from actual touch input thus allowing for touch rejection/palm rejection when they are in use. They are usually battery powered and use bluetooth/NFC technology to communicate with the devices. Their biggest advantage is that they are small-tipped and allow accurate and smooth writing on the screen, meaning that they are practical for note-taking and also doodling/drawing.

Of course, with some active styluses like the Apple Pencil and Samsung’s S-Pen you get extra features like pressure-sensitivity and tilt-sensitivity, making these pens useful for digital painting and artwork with apps like Procreate[1] and AutoDesk SketchBook[2].

Advantages: very accurate, allowing for short note taking and doodling/drawing apart from substituting for the basic touch operated functions; treated as distinct input from touch allowing for additional features like touch/palm rejection while in use and pressure sensitivity and tilt sensitivity.

Disadvantages: usually expensive; specific to devices that support them only; battery operated and thus require recharging from time to time; pen tips are subject to wear and tear and may require replacement after prolonged usage.

External Keyboards

External keyboards for mobile devices fall into three categories: wireless (bluetooth), wired and proprietary. Bluetooth keyboards are less expensive, more common and made by numerous third parties and work with Android, iOS and even Windows devices. Compact wired USB keyboards that can be plugged into Android devices with USB ports are available, but these are rarer these days. Specialized keyboards with proprietary connectors made for specific hardware like the Apple Smart Keyboard which work only for Apple iPads are quite expensive. The best choice in my opinion is bluetooth, since bluetooth works with most devices. In this segment, there are quite a few external keyboards which come with integrated protective cases for specific model of tablets which make them convenient to put away safely with the device when not in use.

Advantages: allow for more comfortable typing than on-screen keyboards, making longer text entry more ergonomic and efficient for things like e-mail composition and shorter documents.

Disadvantages: are quite cramped compared to full sized desktop or laptop keyboards; bluetooth keyboards require pairing and consume battery power, so require regular recharging; external keyboards, however small or lightweight, make mobile devices just a bit less portable.

Voice input/dictation

Voice input/dictation mode has become popular with the increasing computing power of mobile devices. But having used voice input a few times, I can say that voice recognition is still a bit faulty and voice input is unsuitable in noisy environments and also environments where you are not expected to disturb those around you, like open office environments. I personally haven’t much use for voice input, but I think it’s a convenient method both for recording short snippets of information in the form of voice memos or for dictating short e-mail messages or SMSes. A third common use for voice input is voice commands using tools like Siri and Google Assistant for common tasks.

Advantages: No external physical device required, hence zero cost; convenient for voice commands for common device actions and dictation of short e-mails/messages.

Disadvantages: Unsuitable in noisy environments and in environments where speaking aloud will cause disturbance to others.

Final thoughts

While I’ve covered the common methods of input in mobile devices, I believe heavy-duty input is still a big issue in mobile devices, with or without external accessories. Long form text entry is the biggest issue and only external keyboards resolve the issue to some extent. While text input through touch can be slightly improved using third party apps to replace the in-built traditional QWERTY layout on-screen keyboards, having to use touch itself is an ergonomic problem that cannot be resolved in software.

If at all you plan to use a tablet or mobile device for regular long form text entry, the best choice remains a cheap external bluetooth keyboard. Passive styluses are best for fat-fingered people who just want a more elegant touch input method. Specialized and more expensive devices such as active pens make no sense for long form text entry despite text-recognition technologies like Apple Scribble. Their use case is taking short handwritten notes, marking up PDF documents and doodling/painting.

  1. paid software, iOS/iPadOS only[]
  2. free, available for both Android and iOS/iPadOS[]