Laptop Keyboards Explained: Best & Worst Keyboard Tech

by Reads (40,671)

You might have heard the terms “Chiclet” or “mechanical” when describing laptop keyboards, but what does it really mean to the end user? We visit notebook keyboard tech in this article.

The 101’s of Laptop Keyboards

The topics covered in this article will be focused on the style of keyboards included on different notebooks. We’ll explain the ups and downs of each one to help you pick out which style is likely to suit you best.

If you’re interested in what to look for in terms of keyboard feel, layout, and so on, take a look at our guide on how to pick a notebook with a good keyboard.

And if you’re not yet handy with keyboard shortcuts, we have two articles that are right up your alley. The first is our Windows PC optimization guide, which goes through the basics. The second details how to create keyboard shortcuts in Windows 10.

With all that behind us, we’ll now take a look at the different styles of keyboards you’ll find on modern notebook computers.

Traditional Keyboards

ThinkPad T420 traditional keyboard design

ThinkPad T420 traditional keyboard design

A traditional style keyboard has keys with edges that slope off, and have only about a millimeter of space separating the keys. This keyboard style has become something of a rarity on today’s notebooks, having been almost completely replaced by Chiclet or Island keyboards (detailed next).

The Lenovo ThinkPad T420 we reviewed in 2011 has perhaps the best example of a traditional keyboard. 

The main benefit of a traditional keyboard is their familiarity. This style keyboard should look and feel most familiar if you’re coming from an older notebook. Another benefit is the ability to replace the keyboard. Traditional keyboards reside in a tray, which can be fully removed from most notebooks and replaced as a single piece.

One final benefit is generally increased key travel over Chiclet keyboards. The keys on traditional keyboards need to be a bit taller to accommodate their sloping edges. This forces the designers to build in a little more up-and-down movement. Keyboards with more key travel tend to have more engaging tactile feedback.

On the downside, traditional keyboards are usually difficult to clean, as there’s really no way to get in between the keys without removing the keys themselves.

Pros:

  • Familiar look and feel, especially if you’re coming from an older notebook
  • Potentially more key travel vs. Chiclet/Island style for better tactile feedback
  • Usually straightforward to replace

Cons:

  • Tough to clean and replace
  • Hard to find in today’s notebook market, having largely been replaced by Chiclet/Island keyboards
Gigabyte P55W keyboard

Gigabyte P55W keyboard

Chiclet or Island Style

This style of keyboard, most commonly called a Chiclet keyboard, is characterized by flat tops and extra spacing between the keys. The one shown here belongs to the Gigabyte P55W gaming notebook, but they’re found on notebooks of all shapes and sizes. You can think of these keyboards like the just-described traditionally styled keyboards, except without the sloping edges on the keys.

The look of one of these keyboards can be a little disorienting if you’re coming from a traditional style. However, the actual positions where you place your fingers is no different than it is on a traditional keyboard. If you know how to touch type on a traditional keyboard, doing so on a Chiclet keyboard should be a transition you can make without much trouble.

From a designer’s standpoint, Chiclet keyboards are viewed as more modern looking than traditional style. They’re also easier to use in ultra-thin designs, due to the fact this key style can be implemented with less up-and-down movement.

AppleMacBook2016_KeyboardIt’s still possible for dust and dirt to get under the keycaps themselves, depending on the keycap design, but Chiclet keyboards are otherwise easier to clean than traditional keyboards.

The tactile feedback of Chiclet keyboards varies widely, even within brands. Ultra-thin notebooks have it the worst, as the keyboards on those notebooks tend to have the least amount of key travel. When we reviewed the 2016 Apple MacBook, we found its very limited key travel hurt its usability, making it worse off in that regard than the outgoing model.

At the opposite end of the thickness spectrum, the Acer Predator 17X gaming notebook had one of the best-feeling keyboards we’ve reviewed on a notebook, Chiclet or not.

AcerPredator 17X keyboard

AcerPredator 17X keyboard

These two examples go to show that Chiclet style doesn’t automatically mean good or bad tactile feedback. This is true with any style of keyboard.

Pros:

  • Design works better with ultra-thin notebooks
  • Easier to keep clean than traditional style keyboards

Cons:

  • Models with less key travel may have a less engaging tactile experience

Mechanical Switch

MSI GT80 mechanical switch keyboard

MSI GT80 mechanical switch keyboard

Mechanical keyboards have generally been isolated to the desktop world, but that all changed when MSI introduced its gigantic GT80 Titan series notebooks. Without getting too far into the technical details, mechanical keyboards literally use a mechanical switch underneath the keycaps, which audibly clicks when the key is pressed. Membrane keyboards, which generally all notebooks use, don’t have a mechanical action.

The other notebook available with a mechanical keyboard at the time we wrote this is the Lenovo IdeaPad Y900. Unlike the MSI GT80, which essentially took a desktop keyboard and put it in a notebook, the Y900’s keyboard has Chiclet notebook-style keys. They have more travel than is typical for a Chiclet keyboard, in all likelihood due to the need to fit the mechanical switch under the keycap.

The reason these keyboards are attractive is because of their generally excellent tactile experience. The mechanical action of the keys also has a long lifespan, measured in the millions of clicks. A good mechanical keyboard can last a lifetime.

The full-size mechanical keyboards, as on the MSI GT80, tend to make quite a bit of clicking and clacking noise when the keys are pressed. Therefore, using a mechanical keyboard where quietness is valued is probably not the best idea.

Lenovo IdeaPad Y900 keyboard

Lenovo IdeaPad Y900 keyboard

The Lenovo IdeaPad Y900 is an exception to that, as its Chiclet-style mechanical keyboard isn’t much louder than the typical Chiclet keyboard. Then again, it doesn’t offer as good of tactile feedback as a full-size mechanical keyboard, either.

The other main downside to this style of keyboard, at least in the notebook world, is its rarity and expense. The two notebooks we just detailed are all you’ll find at the moment with a mechanical keyboard. It’s also unlikely this style of keyboard will be crammed into an ultra-thin design anytime soon.

Pros:

  • Provides a generally excellent tactile experience
  • Durable and long-lasting mechanical action

Cons:

  • Very hard to find in a notebook in general, let alone ultra-thin designs

Lenovo710-11Touch and Haptic Feedback

A keyboard of this nature has no physical action, with each “key” being activated by a touch or press only. In essence, you’re touching or pressing a surface that won’t respond to you with physical movement. If the keyboard has haptic feedback, it will make a slight vibration or buzz to let you know you’ve activated a key.

These kinds of keyboards generally aren’t the primary form of input on a notebook. If you have a 2-in-1 hybrid like the Lenovo Yoga 710-11, which can transform into a tablet, you’ll be using the on-screen keyboard in tablet mode to type. (When the screen is folded over, the physical keyboard is automatically disabled to prevent accidental keypresses.)

Dell XPS 11

Dell XPS 11

The lack of tactile feedback is what prevents touch or haptic keyboards from becoming practical on a notebook. The Dell XPS 11 from 2013 was discontinued just six months after it was introduced. It had the outline of a traditional keyboard, but the keys were activated by touch only.

The Lenovo Yoga Book is another take on the touch keyboard. Despite all the technology available in 2016, it still doesn’t cut it when it comes to feedback. To quote our review:

“While it looks amazing it feels like a poor substitute for the real thing. Typing on it is slow and clumsy. Without physical keys, you’re left tapping blindly where you think the key should be. That’s good enough to accurately type letters with some practice and concentration, but awkward with the smaller punctuation keys and Shift-key combos. Touch typing is impossible, and pecking away with index fingers is only slightly better than the on-screen alternative.”

LenovoYogaBook_KeyboardPros:

  • Convenient when using a tablet device (or equivalent)

Cons:

  • Near complete lack of physical feedback greatly inhibits usability

Hybrid Notebook Considerations

If you’re in the market for a convertible or 2-in-1 notebook that transforms into a tablet, pay special attention to the style of keyboard. Most convertibles leave their keyboard exposed when the screen is flipped around. The keyboard will be inactivated, but that doesn’t prevent the keys from being pressed.

Lenovo710-11_RearThe problem with exposed keys, besides the fact they feel unnatural, is that they’re susceptible to damage. For example, if you accidentally hit the keyboard on a corner or other hard object and it catches a key, the key can snap off. It’s unlikely, but possible.

The ideal way to avoid this situation is to buy a notebook that doesn’t leave exposed keys, but then you’d be excluding the majority of convertible notebooks from your shopping list, like the Lenovo Yoga 710-14.

The VAIO Z Flip is a pricey hybrid notebook that doesn’t leave exposed keys in tablet mode, because its display flips on top of the keyboard itself.

VAIOZFlipThe Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga is another notebook that gets creative in this regard. The keyboard tray surrounding the Chiclet-style keys raises up in tablet mode to create a flat surface with the keycaps, thus making it all but impossible for the keys to get caught on anything.

Final Thoughts

The odds are that almost every notebook you look at on today’s market will have a Chiclet style keyboard. They have almost fully replaced traditional style keyboards over the last several years. Mechanical keyboards have appeared on a few MSI and Lenovo gaming notebooks, but have otherwise yet to gain any real popularity in notebooks. Touch or haptic feedback keyboards may be on tablets, but generally aren’t used as primary input devices on notebooks.

Chiclet style keyboards in general haven’t been a good or bad thing for the notebook industry. Our experience with notebook keyboards for well over a decade has been that whether it provides a good or bad typing experience isn’t dependent on a single factor. Two keyboards of the same style can have a completely different feel.

To that end, our best advice is to thoroughly try out a new notebook and its keyboard prior to buying if at all possible. It’s unwise to assume one keyboard will feel like another, even within a notebook brand’s own lineup. Remember to take a look at our guide to picking a good keyboard before making your final decision.

Finally, you can always join our extensive community forum to get thoughts from our members, many of whom will likely own or be interested in the notebooks on your short list.

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