While you primarily use keyboards for typing—and while a $10 keyboard will type just fine—they can do oh so much more. A nicer keyboard gives you extra buttons for quick media control, volume control, or even app launching, and if you experience any RSI, a new keyboard can help eliminate that by forcing you to use good posture. When you're ready to bite the bullet and pick up a new keyboard, here are some things to watch out for.
Just like mice, your keyboard is something you use all day at your desk, so you should make sure it isn't going to cause you any strain. Keyboards with adjustable height and tilt are always a good idea, so you can get it at just the right level for where you're sitting. It's also great when a keyboard includes a wrist rest, but you can also buy these separately if need be. Some people love "ergonomic" keyboards like the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite or the Logitech K350, since they force you to align your wrists in a more comfortable, friendly position. However, they can take some getting used to if you prefer more traditional, flat keyboards, so be ready to make a commitment to your new posture if you buy one of these.
The other half of the ergonomic factor is the feel of the keys. Some keyboards have more traditional raised keys, though laptop-style keyboards are becoming very popular for desktops, like the Logitech DiNovo Edge or even chiclet-style keyboards like those from Apple. If you have the money to spend, though, mechanical keyboards like the SteelSeries 6Gv2 have become very popular as of late—that is, keyboards with a mechanical spring inside instead of a rubber dome. These keyboards have a bit more resistance to the keys. It takes a bit more effort to press them down, and they'll spring up faster, but overall they have a better and more consistent "feel" to the keys. They don't wiggle around like traditional keyboards, and you're less likely to get one key that sticks down more than the others. If you can find one to try out, it's worth a look—many people who use mechanical keyboards say they'll never go back to the standard rubber dome. They do tend to be a bit louder and more expensive, though, so keep that in mind as you shop.
Wired vs. Wireless
Like mice, the main draw of wired keyboards is the responsiveness, which can be important in gaming. In my opinion, however, wireless keyboards hold less of an advantage over their wired counterparts than wireless mice do. Since you move mice around a lot, that wire can get pretty annoying, but your keyboard generally stays in one place most of the time. As such, the only thing that really matters is how the keyboard looks with a wire coming out of it, unless you're prone to losing your keyboard on your lap. Wireless keyboards have the same downsides as wireless mice, too: they're more expensive, require batteries, often take up a USB port on your machine anyway (unless they're Bluetooth), and generally just cause one more link in the chain where something could go wrong. Still, if you want to move your keyboard around (or if you ever plan on using it for a home theater PC), getting rid of that wire can be convenient.
Extra Function Keys
Lots of keyboards nowadays have extra function keys that usually correspond to launching apps, controlling your music player, controlling your volume, and so on. Often, they come as either separate buttons above the normal F1-F12 keys, or as extra actions on the F1-F12 keys that you can access with a FN key. They can be very handy, and you can usually remap them to pretty much anything you want with the the software that comes with your keyboard—though if your keyboard's software suite isn't very good, you can always just create your own global keyboard shortcuts with something like AutoHotkey, too.
Keyboards come with all sorts of different features these days, so it's hard to cover them all here. For example, some keyboards come without number pads, some come with alternate keyboard layouts like Dvorak, and some even come with extra USB ports for your other peripherals. And if you're a gamer, you have a whole other set of features to deal with, like add-on panels with gaming hotkeys and anti-ghosting features. Illuminated keys are also a popular feature for gamers, or just those that spend a lot of time in the dark. As with most hardware, the best thing you can do is shop around, and shop around in person. The more you can try out keyboards and get a "feel" for them, the more informed your decision will be. Don't just tap on the keyboards, though, go through the kinds of actions you'd go through in a normal day. I'll usually bang out a fake news article, pretend copy and paste some links with my remapped shortcuts, and move my hand between the mouse and keyboard to see if there are any annoyances that will drive me crazy after a few days of use. Plus, the more you shop around, the more you'll discover new features like illuminated keys, which could change your decision significantly.
What We Use
Again, we encourage you to check out different models for yourself, but if you're feeling a bit overwhelmed, here are some of our favorite keyboards:
- Alan and both Adams are fans of Apple's keyboards, for their low profiles and good key action. Despite what you think about Apple and their computers, their chiclet-style keyboards are actually pretty fantastic. The wired version even contains a USB port so they don't "waste" one in your machine.
- When gaming, Alan uses the Logitech G19, which has a ton of extra keys across the top that you can program to different actions in different games (or, again, actions on the desktop). It also has a handy little LCD that can display information in different games, which is super useful. Plus it lights up in different colors. How could you say no?
- Jason's a keyboard hoarder, but right now his favorite is the Microsoft Comfort Curve 3000, which he's written about before. If you're a sufferer of RSI, this is a great keyboard to check out. It's got a nice ergonomic "wave" design that doesn't feel awkward, but forces you to keep good keyboard posture.
- I've used a few keyboards over the years, but I can't pry myself away from Logitech's slim-profile keyboards. As a guy who sits in the dark a lot, I'm currently loving the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard, which has just enough function keys to keep me happy. Logitech's diNovo line is also great though, if you're willing to spend a bit more money for a bunch of other functionality.