Thursday, September 26, 2019

What I've Learned Part One

Trying to find the perfect keyboard typing experience is enormously complicated. This isn't really a bad thing, I think, but more a function of many good things mixed with some predictably pragmatic things. For instance, it is good that there are many different types of keyboard switches on the market. This suits the varying preferences of many different people (and everyone does have their own preference). It is pragmatic that when you buy a mechanical keyboard from a company like Logitech or Razer they will resort to the cheapest possible components which still deliver on their promises. It is good that there are many different groups which can manufacture keycaps customized to any particular interest. It is pragmatic that most people don't agree on the best keycap shape and legends, therefore the manufacture of sets which fit specific preferences is expensive and very limited. 

Some have suggested that we were all better off in the 1980s, when companies like IBM were invested in manufacturing exceptional and durable keyboards. It is tempting to argue that things were better when the quality was universally higher. However, it is also important to remember two overbearing downsides to that time period: 1) keyboards were incredibly expensive (to the tune of $500) and 2) if you didn't care for the few limited options of keyboards that existed, there was actually nothing you could do about it.

Today, it is theoretically possible to build a keyboard which suits any particular desire - for the right cost. Keyboards with extreme levels of customization can range into the several thousands of dollars expense territory. This sounds insane. It is very unobtainable for a person like myself who is living paycheck to paycheck. It can feel very discouraging to have a good idea of what you want, but no reasonable method of obtaining it.

I have been on a journey for well over a decade to find a great keyboard. At first, I began with a very vague idea of what I wanted and very little access to information about it. I used to walk through stores like Best Buy and Circuit City, fondling all of the keyboards on display and searching for something with a particular feel. I wanted a "clickiness" in my keyboard but I didn't know enough about keyboards, keyboard components, keyboard history or keyboard production to understand why I kept failing to find it.

One thing I knew with certainty: many keyboards felt just awful to me. Another thing began to happen: I was becoming the person who was spending too much money on computer accessories. In my early days of searching, I was far more invested in finding the perfect mouse than the perfect keyboard. Razer was the only company I could find which was building the kinds of mice I was most interested in (ambidexterous, comfortable, many programmable buttons) which naturally led to a high opinion of the company. 

Despite that, I had settled on a different aspect of keyboard design than the "clickiness" I would later determine I actually wanted. What I began lauding in keyboards (since I believed clicky keyboards no longer existed) was the low-profile switch and keycap combination. This brought me through several Apple keyboards. I also began to enjoy backlighting for the key legends. I know many people see this as a useless gimmick, but I have found great usefulness in being able to see the key legends in the dark. These preferences had eventually guided me to Logitech as my keyboard manufacturer of choice.

There were several interesting things about the Logitech keyboards I had purchased. One of them had extra distance between the keys (K360) while another had very low profile silent keys with subtle white backlighting (K740). Believing there was no option for a clicky switch, I thought these to be among the best keyboards in existence at the time. I have learned a lot about what makes typing comfortable and what kinds of preferences I actually have since.

This is partly due to the miracle of LAN parties. During such an event, I was helping my friends set up their systems and taking a moment to profess that I believed I had discovered the best keyboard I possibly could in the Logitech K740. It had loads of flaws, but given the options I thought were available, it hit the right high notes. Mid-sentence, one of my friends stopped me to point out his new "mechanical" keyboard. This was a term I had never really heard before, so I didn't understand the context of it. This video should help elucidate my initial confusion. However, I came to immediately understand his meaning in the label "mechanical" once I touched the keyboard he was using: a Razer BlackWidow. As esoteric as this definition might be, the keyboard itself had something that I had longed for for years, but never really knew how to define. It was clicky and tactile. I was jealous.

I didn't have to be jealous for long, as the very same friend purchased a Razer BlackWidow for me shortly thereafter. Very generous, I know. This gift started me on a new leg of a very long journey toward something I only recently began to attempt to define. So, what is it exactly that I am looking for and what have I discovered along the way?

After much reflection, it has occurred to me that the thing I am looking for is nostalgic in nature. I started writing on an Underwood typewriter, which I loved. However, as you might guess, typing speed goes straight out the window with something as sumptuously mechanical as an Underwood. In my youth, my mother purchased a word processor (there was a time when computers were too expensive for the average person to just purchase, so simplified machines like word processors were the stopgap measure to bring productivity into the home without highlighting how poor most people are). This had a nice key feel to it and it was worlds faster than the Underwood. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, my oldest brother acquired an Apple //c whilst away at college. I had the great pleasure of typing on this computer's integrated keyboard and I fell in love with it on a deep level that I've not really uncovered until very recently. 

But I owned a mechanical keyboard now, and a very expensive, premium one at that. What else truly needed to be discovered? This is a fair question in a lot of ways, particularly given the amount of money it would now take for me to explore the question of what I really wanted out of a keyboard. I don't have a good answer. I know that there are people for whom a keyboard is a keyboard and a pen is a pen. As long as both are utilitarian to the point that they accomplish their task reliably, then the ideal has been obtained. I am not that person. The Razer BlackWidow was unquestionably the best keyboard I had touched in the prior ten years. However, the click was soft, the feedback was weak, the color was monotone, the keys were too high, and the shape was uninspiring. So many complaints.

As I typed on my very nice keyboard, I couldn't help but think and think about the things that bothered me and the things that I truly wanted. Low profile switches and keycaps were still undeniably important to me. But why? Larger, full-travel keys were the thing which was giving me that elusive key feel I'd been chasing for years. Was there truly any middle ground? And, if so, what was the middle ground? I found that I had no tools to answer this question. I had no tools to even fully understand this question. Yet the question itself plagued me.

Reviewing my past loves in keyboards became quite useful in starting to understand this confounding query. This is where I started to understand how profoundly the keyboard of the //c had impacted me. This was a keyboard which had a very distinct click sound, a very sharp tactile feel, a low profile key cap and an interestingly compact shape. It had it all, and it was a revelation to me to realize this. Naturally, the next questions for me to ask were what switch did the //c use and is there anything like that switch which I can acquire today? The answers to both are not as easy as one might like to think.

So what have I learned?
> Tactile and clicky keyboards do exist
> I like low profile key caps
> I like sharp tactility
> I like distinctive clickiness
> My preferences come from my youthful experiences

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