We here at dataviz crowd do a lot of coding. That means our main piece of hardware is keyboard. While it’s supposed to be a dumb piece of simplest equipment you barely are aware of, it’s a constant source of frustration.
Let’s start with what we have now, then move on what we’d love to have.
What’s wrong with the industry?
Back in the 1990s, when the fight not to get blind by staring at an interlaced CRT 14″ monitor 24/7 was very real, keyboard was just a $15 afterthought. You’d just grab new Chicony, or whatever else cheap-ass no-name, when your current one gave out and forget about it.
Now? Unless you’re still OK with the mechanical clickety-click chiconys (or if you’re fucking showoff type a daskeyboard or some similar overpriced crap), you’re in for a wild (and hugely expensive) ride choosing your next tap-fest gadget.
The problem is not that you can’t get a good keyboard cheap. The problem is that you can’t get it all!
$100, even $200 does not get you a perfect keyboard.
Here’s how my daily conversation with the industry goes:
Me: I need a good keyboard. In fact, I don’t give a shit about the price, give me my perfect device I can use without distractions. Here’s $500. C’mon!
Industry: Fuck you. For just $200 (!) we’ll give you a half-assed shiny slab of space-grade aluminium with laser-cut (and idiotically laid out) keys, and bunch of useless functionality. You in?
What’s out there?
“You stupid moron, did you try model X from company Y? It’s so cool and good!”You
The answer is: yes.
Yes, I did try it. And it sucked.
If you’re perfectly happy with it it just means one of the following:
- You haven’t tried it yourself. Everything looks cool when your experience is limited to whatever manufacturer’s marketing dept craps out.
- You’re not using it. I mean using using, not just typing an occasional email to your mom, and a bunch of abbreviated verbalicons in Insta comments.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at specific issues, even specific products, and ruin your keyboard for you.
Too small main keys
Keys like SHIFT and CTRL are the most important because you press them constantly when coding. Why then a lot of keyboard makers think it’s OK to make them so small?
Just look at this fascinating piece of crap. They fucking absolutely had to reduce the right SHIFT to a pin size to make room for a second (!) back-slash key? I mean even CAPS LOCK which is virtually useless and has been for decades is way bigger.
SPACE is another key which you press a lot, why not make it 1cm wide and push it to a side? No?
Overuse of Fn-X
I totally understand the need of Fn keys in a laptop keyboard. There’s simply no space to cram all the buttons, so it’s a reasonable trade off.
What limits desktop keyboard manufacturer? Like, do they make desks so narrow nowadays that they wouldn’t fit a full-size keyboard, so they absolutely have to put additional crap on regular keys, casually sprinkling the keyboard with Fn key infestation?
Nevermind the double functionality for buttons. The Fn-keys take up space as well. This means they take up size from the keys you actually use.
Yes yes, I absolutely use the shortcut for whatever the globe icon signifies on a SPACE. It totally needs two Fn-keys, cuz, ya know, one is absolutely not enough.
Messed up F-keys
Here’s how I imagine a typical hardware design meeting starts at a keyboard maker:
OK, so today’s agenda is the layout of our new line of keyboards geared for IT profesionals. In presence we have:
Moira from Design. Hi Moira.
Michael from Marketing. Yo Mike.
Rajesh from Engineering. Thanks for joining us!
And last but not least, Dominick – our in-house developer consultant. Hey Dom… uhhhh [slightly awkward silence]… did we forget to invite Dom again?
Fuck it, let’s begin…
The demise of the F-keys began long ago.
They got infested with additional functionality.
They got smaller.
They got narrower to make room for additional keys, like media control and whatnot.
The space between F-key-line and Number-key line was gradually reduced to the point of there being no extra space at all.
The space between groups of F-keys was reduced and in many cases obliterated altogether.
In some rare cases, like with geniuses from Apple, they even decided they don’t need F keys at all.
What Dominick would have told them, if he had been invited into design meetings, is that F-keys play hugely significant role for coders.
Your average Joe might think F-keys are just pressing F1 when I need help.
But your average coder uses those extensively. Have you tried multi-edit functionality in Sublime Edit? No? Try selecting something and pressing Alt-F3. Your life will never be the same again.
Or have you ever developed something browser-related? That involves refreshing page a couple of millions of times a day (F5). Try blindly hitting F5 right away when there’s no gap between F4 and F5.
Having no or too little space between F and num-key line, as well as between F-key groups (F1-4; F5-8; F9-12) makes it so much more difficult to us those power shortcuts.
Ahhhh, just look at this beauty! Your desk can finally breath easily, with all the vast space Apple and Microsoft has saved by eliminating gaps between keys.
More about key spacing
Have you noticed a little notches on F and J keys? Those have been on all the keyboards since forever. They help you blindly navigate yourself via keyboard.
Spacing serves exactly the same purpose – it saves you time by letting quickly feel your way around the keyboard without actually looking at it.
People who decide to remove this essential spacing deserve their GPS privileges revoked. Because, taste your own medicine, bitches!
Random dedicated keys
They don’t have space for all the keys they want to add so they have to do it via double-function buttons invoked via Fn-key, but still they sprinkle keyboards with a garden variety of dedicated keys, like mute your mic, invoke calculator, or lock Windows.
The latter is my favorite from MS keyboards, as it goes directly above the keypad Minus key (of course no margins) so 1 out of 3 times I try to hit minus, I lock up my Windows and have to log back in.
Yes. You use calculator so often. It has to have own button.
The button on the right is a real life-saver. It helped me save roughly 5 hours a day I used to spend locking my Windows machine. A time I can now spend with my family, reading books, going out for a run. I feel so much happier when MS keyboard came along.
Can you even tell what the other two dedicated buttons do? Me neither. Yet there’s an actual person, taking 6-figure salary, working at a most valuable corporation in the world, who came up with an idea to put those there.
So far we’ve looked at specific issues that plague all keyboards. However, some products out there are beyond pure explainable idiocy.
Trying to invent a new layout
OMG, just fucking look at this shit. This keyboard just took a carpet-bombing of keys. How cute arrow keys look crammed in-between SHIFT and PageDown. No space wasted. Good job!
– Hey yo Mike, where’s the PgDn key?
– Ummm… somewhere between Up-arrow and a keypad 1. You can’t miss it. Probably…
Logitech Craft Keyboard
This product deserves an honorable mention of its own.
It was the a) most expensive ($199); b) most frustrating; b) shortest experience I ever had with a computer keyboard.
This product is so bad, I could not bring myself to return or re-sell it. I just could not imagine myself bestowing this utter piece of shit of torturing device on a living soul. I had to throw it out.
That rotating knob they are touting sits so close to keys, and it’s also super sensitive with proximity tech and shit, so, whenever you reach for ESC, backtick key, or even somewhere close, you almost always trigger an action associated with the knob. Sometimes it’s just some on-screen indicator lighting up, but sometimes it’s something more, like tabs switching if you’re in a browser, or volume going up or down, or something else.
The battery on that thing lasts, like a day or so. If you’re getting it just to sit on your desk and look pretty, it might last longer. If you’re planning on doing actual work – prepare to charge the fucking thing every night.
It also lights up the keys seemingly at random. Even when there is no living soul near it. At night. With computer turned off.
That latter issue might or might not have been fixed after I used the damn thing, but the whole idea that Logitech could ship such a premium-priced yet so flawed a product, seems bewildering to me.
What would a perfect keyboard look like?
Having ranted so much about flaws, let’s look at what features would make a perfect keyboard for us – developers.
Proper F-key line
- Sufficient spacing between F-key groups.
- No compromising, trying to fit in additional useless keys in the F-line. It needs to start with an ESC and and F12 directly over the BACKSPACE.
- Sufficient spacing between F-key line and main keyboard area.
- F-keys need to be full size. No compromise there.
No bullshit and dual-purpose keys
- 5-7 user-programmable keys, in a place that not compromises keyboard layout is fine.
- No dedicated keys for seldom-used non-standard operations, like “mute mice”, “lock windows”, etc.
- No Fn-keys, which reduce available space for proper keys. See the first point about user-programmable keys.
- No duplicate keys, like Backslash/Colon.
Full-size main keys
- Keys that are used super often – SHIFT, CTRL, ENTER – should be as big as possible.
No omission of standard keys
- All standard keys, like INS, DEL, HOME, END, PGDN, PGUP needs to be there, in their proper places, above arrow keys.
- Spacing should not be a victim to miniaturization of keyboards. Ample of space should be around main keyboard area, directional, functional keys, as well as keypad.