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The world of keyboards

Mon Mar 05, 2012 00:58 (UTC -8)

I’ve used the Dvorak keyboard layout for a long time, but I never paid much attention to actual keyboard hardware until a few days ago, when I decided to make my next computer a desktop instead of a laptop.

Since I could choose any keyboard I wanted for my new computer, I figured, why not try to find an actual Dvorak keyboard? It would be a challenge: Dvorak typists are rare enough, and most who have a problem with old QWERTY staring them in the face seem to be content with rearranging or relabeling their keys. I’ve always just avoided looking at the mismatched letters—you’re supposed to watch the screen when you’re touch-typing anyway—but in doing so, I’ve felt like a second-class keyboard citizen.

The only company I was aware of that sold standard (non-ergonomic) keyboards with the Dvorak layout was Fentek. But several of their models aren’t hard-wired—deep down inside, and as far as your computer is concerned, they’re plain old QWERTY keyboards, with only the keycaps arranged (rearranged?) Dvorak-style. And Fentek declares some models, implicitly or otherwise, to be Mac-incompatible, which makes me doubt they’d work with Linux. (I asked Fentek in an e-mail, and they didn’t respond.)

Then I found out about Unicomp, the legal heir to IBM’s legendary Model M keyboard, the huge, heavy, archaic “clicky” keyboard that many people rave about and pine for to this day. Unicomp carries on the tradition of the Model M by turning out new ones in their Kentucky factory. They even let you customize your tank of a peripheral, offering an array of body styles, colors, and layouts—including Dvorak. You can also choose between the classic, clattering “buckling-spring” key switches and the mushy rubber-dome switches that are ubiquitous today.

I don’t have much experience with the clickiness of the Model M. My dad is the proud owner of one specimen that’s probably about as old as I am, and in my limited experience, I’ve found it frustrating to type on. I remember feeling like I had to fight the thing in order to get words out. But now, after squinting at the blinding light of a million shimmering reviews that assert that the Model M’s mechanics are supremely comfortable and make you type faster too, I’ve begun to wonder whether I’m just wrong and everyone else is right.

So on Friday, one of my co-workers let me borrow his clicky keyboard for half a day. It’s a Rosewill RK-9000—a model of recent vintage for today’s discriminating typist—and while it doesn’t require as much force to type on as the Model M, it’s pretty damn loud. The Model M and its ancient brethren were intended to be noisy, as people accustomed to typewriters would expect. But today’s clicky keyboard holdouts prize the physical and auditory feedback that such a design provides. And I guess they feel like they’re really doing something if they make a lot of sound while they’re doing it.

Though I got partially accustomed to the feel (if not the sound) of a clicky keyboard during my several hours with one, I’m still not sure whether I’d want a buckling-spring Dvorak keyboard from Unicomp, which was originally what this whole thing was about anyway. I have, however, found this obsessively detailed Mechanical Keyboard Guide that explains the different kinds of mechanical switches that are out there. (The Rosewill RK-9000, it seems, has Cherry MX Blue switches, which activate with 50-60 centinewtons of force, less than the 60-65 cN that Unicomp’s buckling springs require.)

I might have accidentally turned myself into a keyboard nerd since I can never think of keyboards the same way again. And I have no clue what I want. Yes, I’ve heard of the blank Das Keyboard—it’s been recommended to me several times over the years as possibly a good keyboard for a Dvorak user—and now I happen to know that it comes with your choice of Cherry Blues or quieter Cherry Browns.

I need some help here. Life was so much simpler before I wanted a new keyboard.

mental_floss asks: What’s the Difference Between Ketchup and Catsup? Nothing, it turns out, and you can find out way more than you ever wanted to know about ketchup.


2 comments

Interesting post! When I was little, we had a few Model M keyboards in the basement. My friends and I would hang out down there and bang furiously on the keys, producing that awesome clicking sound. We liked to pretend that we were business people in an office doing important businesspeople stuff, or maybe astronauts on a spaceship, doing important astronaut stuff. Yeah, we were cool.

#1 by Andy Rosenbaum: Tue Mar 06, 2012 21:19 (UTC -8)

Like you Jordon I am a Dvorak typist. I use a Das keyboard and love typing on it. The model that I have has the Cherry brown key switches, which makes typing somewhat quieter than the Cherry blue switches. My keyboard layout is the typical boring { qwerty } layout, but this has never bothered me too much. When I first learnt to type in the Dvorak Layout, I made my self a custom Dvorak keyboard by, buying a cheap rubber dome keyboard, and swapping all of the keys to the correct Dvorak location.
A product that I use to convert any qwerty keyboard to my preferred Dvorak layout is called QIDO. Some people out there in Dvorak land might already know of this USB adapter which attaches between a external USB wired keyboard and a USB port on my computer. The advantage with this little device is. If I need to use a computer at my local library, or at one of my friends houses. All I need to do is unplug the USB keyboard plug, and put my QIDO adapter in, and then plug in the keyboard cable into this device and then I can type in Dvorak. I know Jordon you have a strict policy of not allowing commercial links. So I will not break the rules and put a link to this product. But this does make your problem of finding a Dvorak keyboard easy. Because with this QIDO device, all USB keyboards can now become Dvorak. And to take it a step further, you just need to swap the keys around to the Dvorak location. ( Caveat ) Some keyboard donít like to have their keys swapped around. That is, on some keyboards, some keycaps are of a different height.

#2 by Steve Edmonds: Fri Mar 09, 2012 08:02 (UTC -8)

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