Why are Keyboards so Difficult?

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So, I have a laptop with an Apple butterfly keyboard (gen 2, IIRC). Aside from the lack of travel, some shit virtual reality escape button it’s ok. Except it’s now shedding keys, making it useless for exotic applications such as typing on it. I could get it repaired, but aside from a few keys, it’s glued to my computer, and I need that for computing. So external keyboard it is.

My requirements for a keyboard are not that complex:

  • IBM Model M
  • But quiet
  • Also dual-model Bluetooth + USB (preferably C)
  • And tiny.

Rather than doing any research, I did what any sensible person would do: checked out my attic and ordered keyboards at random from China. Surprisingly, this did not work very well! Here’s my findings:

1: Unicomp Spacesaver M / Mac OS X

The rights + expertise + some hardware for the original Model Ms went to Lexmark and then a company named Unicomp. They make real Model Ms, albeit the later versions without a hunk of iron at the bottom and with slight modernisations (USB and a slightly smaller version).

It’s a very good keyboard, but is not very quiet (it’s a Model M), nor is it small or supports bluetooth. All of that I’d have forgiven were it not for the fact that I dropped just a tiny bit of tea in the keyboard and now a bunch of the keys no longer work.

TBH, I’d have overlooked the deficiencies and just got a new one were it not for that fact they have no resellers in EU (that I could find) and shipping from the US is just silly expensive.

  • IBM Model M ✓
  • But quiet ✗
  • Also dual-model Bluetooth + USB (preferably C) ✗
  • And tiny ✗
  • And working ✗

2: Das Keyboard 5Q

It’s a mechanical keyboard, but a quiet model. It’s supposed to be smart internet and cloud connected, but the software is a steaming pile of shit, making it just a passable keyboard which is a bit on the large side.

I’m not a fan of Das. I bought this as part of a Kickstarter campaign, and they completely scammed backers during the campaign, so I’ll never buy another keyboard from them.

  • IBM Model M ✗
  • But quiet ✓
  • Also dual-model Bluetooth + USB (preferably C) ✗
  • And tiny ✗
  • Not from Das ✗

3: Motospeed K82

The first of the cheap Chinese options. It’s a fine keyboard. It comes with a choice of colors, connectivity, and switches. This one is pink, wired only (booh), and using Cherry MX blue switches. Wait, that doesn’t look pink to you? Yeah, the seller sent me a wrong version.

Blue switches are kind-of, but not exactly like Model M. They have a too crisp click for my taste, and are super loud without the right feel. Other than that it’s a “tenkeyless model,” which is acceptable; not exactly tiny, but still smaller than the previous options. My version is wired only.

It has all kinds of RGB effects, so you can be very productive, even without installing some dubious driver.

  • IBM Model M ✓/✗
  • But quiet ✓/✗
  • Also dual-model Bluetooth + USB (preferably C) ✗
  • And tiny ✓/✗

4: Ajazz AK33

This is a 75% model which also comes with various types of switches, colors and connectivity. I got it with black switches (not Cherry but some Chinese knock-off, they feel fine). It supposedly has Bluetooth, but I never deciphered from the Chinglish manual how to successfully enable that before I ragequit the keyboard.

The RGB effects are fine. The keyboard needs light effect in a dim room as the keys are otherwise invisible (it’s fine for touch typing, but not for hunt-and-pecking).

This one was my daily driver for a while until I just got fed up with the right shift key: it’s tiny, so I kept hitting the up arrow when I wanted to add some exclamation point after an especially eloquent point!!!!!!! On top of that, I’d already gotten used to the 60% variants below, so the layout of the F-keys, forward delete, and arrows didn’t agree with me.

  • IBM Model M ✓/✗
  • But quiet ✓
  • Also dual-model Bluetooth + USB (preferably C) ✗
  • And tiny ✓
  • Working shift key111 ✗

5: Skyloong SK61

Now we’re at the small 60% keyboards. This one uses Gateron brown switches, which I assume are just Chinese Cherry knock-offs. It’s perfectly fine. The keyboard suffers from not being adjustable, and being a bit on the flat side for my taste. It comes with/without Bluetooth, but mine is without (the Bluetooth model has a different model number).

The RGB effects are lacking; I could not get it to show a single color for pressed keys only. Supposedly, I should be able to do that using the driver, but the web-site is not what would fall under user-friendly unless you speak Chinese, and even with translation, I could not find the keyboard/driver on their site (it seems they have been taken over/renamed recently).

The keyboard has decent shortcuts for the missing keys, though I’m not using that because I have a personal remapping. The keyboard is my current daily driver (because of 6’s shortcomings, see below).

  • IBM Model M ✓/✗
  • But quiet ✓
  • Also dual-model Bluetooth + USB (preferably C) ✗
  • And tiny ✓
  • Pretty RGB effects ✗

6: Motospeed CK62

The same manufacturer as number 3, but this one actually pink and in 60% + dual mode Bluetooth/USB. For this one, I’ve got blue switches.

The big problem of this model is that the remapping of the missing keys is properly insane. You cannot just press function and Ctrl to get an arrow key; instead you have to press and hold one of the number keys for 3 seconds to switch to “function keys at bottom right are now arrows” mode. Then press and hold function and the number to switch to standard mode. F-keys live under another mode. This is properly insane and useless unless you have a way to manually remap the keys. I’ve used BetterTouchTool to remap Ctrl+number to F-keys, Ctrl-backspace to forward delete and Ctrl-H-L to the VIM navigation keys. It works perfectly fine, and there are also other options for remapping keys. Unfortunately, the repeat on arrow keys is a bit on the low side, and I’m missing things like Shift-arrow to expand selections. This is a big deal and almost a deal-breaker.

Other than the insane modes, the keyboard is largely pretty great. It’s small, adjustable, great RGB effects and pinker than the other pink keyboard. Unfortunately, the Bluetooth mode is not working. It’s dropping keys randomly. Were it not for this, I’d probably have gotten myself a brown switch version to use instead of 5. As it is, the advantages over the mostly functional 5 are not sufficient to get another keyboard.

  • IBM Model M ✓/✗
  • But quiet ✓/✗
  • Also dual-model Bluetooth + USB (preferably C) ✗
  • And tiny ✓

7: Keyboard for Blondes

Released as a joke half a decade ago (or more), I of course got this gem. They keyboard is terrible. It’s not mechanical and also broken. The pretty pink color has turned almost orange. It was not broken when I got it, but still bad, and I haven’t really done anything unreasonable to it, it’s probably just junk.

Since the keys feel like crap and don’t work anyway, I suppose one could meaningfully argue it would be possible to cut off the lead and it would not impede operation over the current functionality, allowing dual mode wired/wireless operation.

  • IBM Model M ✗
  • But quiet ✓
  • Also dual-model Bluetooth + USB (preferably C) ✓/✗
  • And tiny ✗

8: This Thing

When I started my quest for a working keyboard, I ordered 3 sizes with blue switches: number 6 (60%), number 3 (TKL), and this one (full size). As 3 and 6 arrived first, I’d already decided to go with a smaller model, so I’ve not plugged this one in. Everything about it looks a bit cheap (it was!), but the keys are ok and blue-switchy.

  • IBM Model M ✓/✗
  • But quiet ✗
  • Also dual-model Bluetooth + USB (preferably C) ✗
  • And tiny ✗

Conclusion

Apparently, there are only shit keyboards. I guess, I could buy some more expensive models, but it’s frankly a lottery, and while I’m fine throwing €30 at a keyboard only to not use it, I’m less inclined to do so with a €200 one.

Cheap Chinese keyboard feel quite good in the €20-40 range. None of the modern switches accurately reflect the feeling of a Model M. Black/Red/Brown are acceptable compromises between feel and sound. The silent versions are too squishy for me. The clicky versions, Blue/Green/White are too crisp and loud to compensate for the feeling. The others are not really for me.

Small keyboards sometimes have some insane mistakes (tiny shift key/crazy modes). They can typically be fixed using remapping, albeit with compromises.

There’s no winner. They all suck and I want a new keyboard. I’m using 5 right now and might consider trying a dual mode version of that (even if the RGB effects are disappointing). I’ve also got a BlitzWolf BW-KB1 and an ANNE Pro2 Mini keyboard in my cart at AliX, but I’m not shelling out €40-€60 when I got the others for €26-38 (excluding 1, 2, and 7, with 8 being cheapest and 6 being the most expensive one).

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