Every computer has some sort of keyboard, but it’s usually taken for granted – we explain the terminology and show you what to look for in this informative guide.
The keyboard and mouse are the primary sources of input for a modern computer, but the keyboard plays the larger role of the two. The quality and functionality of the keyboard drives productivity, especially if most of the work you do is text-oriented. Some years back, we wrote an article on how to be more productive by changing the way you use the keyboard. In this article, we’re going to discuss keyboards themselves, including the importance of the layout, and what to look for when deciding whether the keyboard is of good quality.
Key Features of Great Keyboards
We’ll break this section down into three areas that should get your full attention as you shop for your next notebook: keyboard layout, feel and quality, and miscellaneous.
If you followed the link in the Basics section, above, and read that article you’ll realize the importance of having a competent keyboard layout. Most every notebook keyboard gets the standard A-Z, 1-9 alphanumeric keys right, and most include other common keys in their expected positions including Ctrl, Alt, spacebar, and the F1-F12 function keys. However, each layout may have its own small nuances an nuisances which can be productivity killers. Here’s a checklist you can use to see how closely the keyboard you’re looking at compares to a standard desktop keyboard layout:
- Six rows of keys: That’s how many rows a normal PC keyboard will have from top to bottom. If not, the keyboard is probably compromised in a major way. A quick visual will confirm this.
- Dedicated Home and End keys: Many notebooks, especially smaller ones will make these keys secondary functions in the arrow key cluster, requiring you to press the Function (Fn) key in conjunction with an arrow key to move the cursor to “Home” or “End.” If you frequently type or edit text, these keys can be major time-savers. Notebook manufacturers have an unfortunate tendency to make these secondary keys, so double-check the notebook you’re looking at to ensure they exist as dedicated keys.
- Dedicated PgUp and PgDn keys: These are very handy for quickly going through PDFs, documents, and web pages; they’re much faster than scrolling with the mouse or touchpad. Like Home and End, these are commonly relegated to secondary functions in the arrow key cluster. Verify the notebook you’re looking at has them as dedicated keys.
- Left and right Ctrl and Alt keys: A true desktop-style keyboard has two sets of these keys – one Ctrl and one Shift key on either side of the space bar. It’s the rightmost pair that generally gets left out, which can put a dampener on your productivity if you typically use them.
- Dedicated Printscreen (Prt Sc) button: This key is another common casualty of keyboard layout compromises. Take special note to ensure the notebook you’re looking at has a dedicated printscreen key if you take a lot of screenshots.
- Function Row (F1-F12) keys: All modern PCs have these, but the trend in recent years has been to make the actual functions (F1-F12) secondary to other functions listed on the keys such as lowering and raising the volume, changing the screen brightness, and so on. This is particularly problematic if you’re accustomed to using keyboard shortcuts such as Alt + F4 to close a window. If the F1-F12 functionality is secondary on the notebook you’re looking at, see if there’s a BIOS setting you can enable to make F1-F12 primary. Some Lenovo ThinkPads have a ‘FnLk’ feature which allows you to toggle between having F1-F12 primary or not.
- Half-sized keys: This is mostly a concern on 13.3-inch and smaller notebooks, but we’ve seen undersized keys on a few larger notebooks as well. The most commonly undersized keys are the right-hand Shift and backslash, and we’ve seen the Backspace key undersized on several occasions as well. If a keyboard has multiple keys that are undersized then you will probably need to spend some time learning to adjust.
Feel and Quality
Commonly referred to as tactile feedback, the overall “feel” of the keyboard should be one of your most important concerns even if you’re only typing the occasional document. Unlike the layout we just described, a keyboard’s feel and quality can’t be derived from looking at a picture. Two similarly equipped notebooks might have keys that feel dramatically different under your fingertips. See the notebook in person and type on it yourself if at all possible. If you can’t find the notebook in a local store to test in person, thoroughly read reviews and user comments and find out what the general consensus is about the following areas:
- Keyboard deck flex: Press down a bit harder than usual on parts of the keyboard and see if it flexes or gives way. If it does, that’s a bad sign and translates to a less-than-optimal typing experience. Keyboards with lots of flex feel cheap, hollow, and can undermine your confidence in the notebook and your enthusiasm for typing. Severe flex can also translate into frequent typos or even broken keys over the lifetime of the notebook.
- Key travel and tactile feedback: Key travel is the distance the key travels between its resting and fully pressed positions. The amount of key travel has a linear relationship with tactile feedback. The keyboards on ultra-thin notebooks typically have less key travel and thus less feel than a keyboard with more key travel. Minimal or “shallow” key travel doesn’t necessitate poor feedback, but it does warrant concern; insufficient key travel not only promotes typos, but shallow feedback can make keys feel borderline static and uncomfortable.
- Key surface coating: The texture of a key’s surface not only varies from manufacturer to manufacturer but frequently varies between models as well. Keys with textured, non-glare surfaces tend to feel more “grippy” compared to shiny or polished keys. Shiny keys also have a tendency to attract fingerprints and feel greasy over time.
- Key surface shape: The surfaces of most notebook keyboard keys are flat, usually to minimize the height of the keyboard and maximize key travel, explained above. Keys that have a slightly concave surface are more comfortable to type on because the shape helps your fingertip easily find the center of the key, which is where they’re designed to be pressed down. This is reminiscent of vintage IBM keyboards from the 1980’s which had scooped F and J keys.
- Key cushioning: Some keyboards will feel softer than others when keys are pressed; this may be referred to as “rubbery” or “soft” in reviews. It’s better for a keyboard to be slightly soft than slightly hard, as a general rule, since a softer keyboard feel is more conducive to typing for extended periods of time. Ultimately, however, it’s personal preference.
- Rattles: To pinpoint potentially annoying keyboard rattle, first type as you normally would. Then, “hunt and peck” with your index finger across all different keys using more pressure than you normally would. You should hear a solid sound each time you press a key without any rattle. If possible, perform this test with the notebook sitting on both a hard surface and your lap.
These areas of concern don’t necessarily fit with the layout or feel of the keyboard, but these three keyboard features often prove to be frequently overlooked elements that can make or break your decision to buy a specific notebook.
- Keyboard style: the latest trend in the notebook industry is the “Chiclet” or island-style keyboard with extra spacing between the keys. These keyboards look sleeker from a design perspective but have no practical advantage or disadvantage over traditionally-styled keyboards. The keys on island-style keyboards typically have less surface area than traditional-style keyboards e.g. the keys are smaller, so you’ll want to try before you buy if you have large fingers.
- Backlighting: You’ll have a hard time finding a modern, premium notebook without LEDs hidden behind the keys to help you see them in dark environments. Backlit keyboards can be especially helpful if you need to type during a dimly lit plane flight or finish a term paper while your roommate sleeps, but check to see that there are at least two levels of brightness. Excessively bright backlighting is a potential cause of eyestrain in very low light environments.
- Numeric keypad: Most 15.6-inch and larger notebooks commonly include a separate numeric keypad to the right of the main keyboard. These are undeniably useful for rapid input of numbers and spreadsheet-based work. The keys on a laptop’s numeric keypad are almost always two-thirds to three-quarters the size of the standard keyboard keys, which takes some minor adjustment. Check the layout to confirm the numeric keypad has four columns per a traditional desktop keyboard.
The keyboard isn’t just something that separates laptops from tablets, it is the fundamental input device on a modern computer, predating the mouse or touchscreen. The nature of notebooks prevents their keyboards from being changed after purchase, so it’s one item you need to be happy about using unless you plan to buy another notebook or use an external keyboard.
We looked at three fundamental areas of interest when judging a keyboard, the first of which was the layout. If you’re an avid text editor, you’ll want to ensure the keyboard layout is as close to that of a desktop keyboard as possible. Next, we discussed a keyboard’s feel and quality. Many different characteristics determine whether or not a keyboard is comfortable; these include keyboard flex, the amount of key travel, and the surfaces of the keys. Last and certainly not least we brought up miscellaneous areas of concern, including the style of the keyboard and whether it has backlighting.
Arguably the best way to judge a keyboard is to personally type on it, which may involve taking a trip to a local store. In the absence of such a luxury, you can always look at pictures to figure out if the layout works for you, but you’ll want to thoroughly read reviews and user comments to determine if the tactile feedback is adequate or lacking.