Review of a first mechanical keyboard experience for a heavy typist.
As this is my first mechanical keyboard, I won’t be reviewing the product itself, more what it’s like to ‘go mechanical’ for the first time as someone who types up to 50,000 words a month. That’s for a living, btw, not for fun. I’ll point you to a thorough review of this particular keyboard at the end of the post if you’re more interested in the model.
As such, I was curious to know how a mechanical keyboard would affect the techniques learned over the years to deal with the ever-present threat of RSI. Or how it would affect my typing speed, which hovers around 70-80wpm depending on the text. In reality words are put down much more slowly as I think and translate/write. But would I be faster? Would I still need to continue to explore voice recognition as a typing alternative?
For years I’ve been hearing about the growing trend of reverting to the 80s style buckling spring or linear actuation keyboard switch. I also have been slowly recognising that I need tools to match my workflow and workload. Most of which involves heavy keyboard use.
The rapturous reviews and feedback of first software developers, then fellow writers and translators, pushed me in this direction for a good while. Then when I changed from working mainly on a laptop to a desktop, the only keyboard I had to hand was an old basic MS keyboard that creaked and rattled as it failed to register click after click. This was the final straw.
I expected to pay more than I’d ever paid for a keyboard. But not more than a tool I’ve used for various other jobs around the house or in the garden. Jobs that I don’t make a living from. So I was prepared to pay a decent amount, but to cap the budget at a sensible level.
I was also hoping for increased comfort, speed and maybe even a little bit of pleasure from the clacking and smooth keyboard action. So I took the plunge. I spent £120 on a KBP v80 TKL. It’s black, with a very smart design, a respectable font choice (some gaming keyboards look like they are chanelling 80s sci-fi) and backlighting for night-use. Previous keyboards tended to disappear at night… It uses the Cherry MX Browns. These are known for being slightly indistinct, but also quieter than their clicky, high-pitched Blue counterparts, making them more bearable for extended typing sessions. They give a sort of muted thwack.
I know I could have gone full-obssessive and tested every model under the sun, but the reviews for this keyboard were good. It was the exact same design as the un-backlit Filco I was also considering, for less money, and I figured it would get me from 50% satisfaction with a keyboard as a work tool to 95%. The last 5% I’m not going to lose any sleep over. Yes, I do want to try the Matias quiet switches. I do want to try o-ring damping and I find many of the custom keyboard layouts very aesthetically pleasing. But at the end of the day it’s just a keyboard and I have a job to do.
We’re two months in now, and aside from a quite lengthy learning curve that involved tripping over letters when typing (entering ‘siad’ for ‘said’ etc.) and not bottoming-out the keys, learning the more ‘floaty’ typing style, there was no difference in speed. I took tests to prove it, which put me just marginally faster, at around 80wpm instead of 79 previously (101wpm in another test). Presumably this new keyboard will let me type faster once I get more used to it, given how it handles multiple-keypresses and doesn’t require full key presses.
What I did notice a difference in, however, was how much more I enjoyed typing with this keyboard. Seriously. It’s hard to put into words, but 2 months in and I don’t think it’s the novelty still speaking. I used to get frustrated with other keyboards. This is the opposite, as in it still feels ahead of me and waiting for me to do better. The rythmic clacking sound definitely does drive you on when typing, as many others have said, and the feel under-finger is oddly pleasing. Those little clacks, the soft-matte feel of the keys and even the stability of the base (it’s reassuringly heavy) all add up to a feeling that you’re working with a thing of quality.
There is no hint of RSI-aches after working through some 50,000 words since receiving the keyboard. Not sure that would have been the case on the old plastic beauty.
The lighting is a nice added bonus. I often work in low-light and sometimes prefer not to switch on room lighting. Depends on the situation. This keyboard offers blue or red lighting, and dozens of combinations thereof. At varying intensity levels. This means I can set it to a dull red and keep it visible in the evening, without burning holes in my eyes due to energy-drink-gamer-levels of brightness that so many peripherals seem to come with nowadays.
It can save your top 3 lighting preferences, a nice touch for frequent switching (day/night, changing colour preferences). It also has keys for volume and media control which were simple to assign in i3 to the Pulse Volume Controller pavucontrol and to cmus command-line options. I’d imagine these would ‘just work’ under Windows or Mac.
Even the little touches, such as the way the braided USB cable can be run to the right, left or top of the underside in pre-cut channels, points to a quality product. No single feature being worth the buying price, but all together makes for a very enjoyable experience.
You feel like you’re using a tool that won’t hold you back in your work, one that can even give you more pride in what you do and help you to hone your ability to create. That kind of added value is priceless.
Opt for a TKL (ten key less) model if you can live without the numpad. I used numpads extensively in previous jobs and in my accounting, etc. but am much happier to have the deskspace back nowadays, keeping the keyboard central, rather than shifted to the left. I rarely need to enter huge strings of numbers anyway, and external numpads aren’t exactly expensive if that ever changes.
Switch to keyboard shortcuts for everything, if you can. I use them in the browser (both the standard ones for opening, closing tabs, and also Vim-style shortcuts for choosing links to open and jumping to input boxes). It will save you and your arms much effort when researching or general browsing.
Use autohotkey or your OS settings to swap Capslock for Ctrl. It’ll save you contorting so much when selecting words or lines in Windows, or when saving and cutting/pasting in translation tools.
I type most of my prose in Vim nowadays, using its inbuilt autocomplete to save me hammering out the longer words over and over. It uses all of my previous writing as a dictionary. You can tell it to use a certain directory. This makes pressing tab to complete a word much quicker than typing out the equivalent, particularly for words you use all the time. Like particularly.
As mentioned above, try not to bottom out the keys on your mechanical keyboard. It’s not necessary. It is satisfying though. I still enjoy using my thinkpad’s keyboard, which is designed for the keys to be bottomed out, but this is a different experience when you start to float and tap rather than hammer each one. Your fingers will probably thank you too.
That pretty much concludes my 2-month review of my first mechanical keyboard. For posterity, I’ll now leave here the first lines I typed on it, and the complete novelty-overload that playing with a new toy brings. I left any typos in there to give a sense of what it’s like to hammer away on it for the first time:
This is the mechanical keyboard and it flies. and it feels like silky smooth to the touch on the key faces themselves, but also when the buttons press down. It’s a very strange sensation when coming from a plastic creaking mess of a keyboard to this. I really grew to like the lenovo chiclet style, but curved, thinkpad keyboard, but this is like something else altogether. Just testing the lights too and they are perfect for night typing.
I wanted red backlighting because the wavelength of red has great night vision properties over blue, which is also an option on this keyboard. There’s a strange fading mode which seems rather pointless, but is fun all the same. Maybe has some hypnotic or meditative aspect to it! you can mix the blues and reds together in different amounts, which is also fun. Doubt I’ll use it, but fun!
Just adjusting to the new home/end, enter locations… shouldn’t take long. It’s tenkeyless so I’ll probably sometimes miss the numpad for quick number entry, but the feel and ease of typing on this is going to more than make up for it. I feel faster already. The soft clunking almost drives you on to type more too!
And since I’ve been trying to be 90% keyboard driven on the PC nowadays anyway, this is going to up my operation speed I’d imagine.
Oh, and I have desk space back!
I have the colours set up how I like them now, having saved a pink/blue setup for daylight, the brightest. Then there’s a bright red and pink for daylight or dusk, with the lowest red setting for use in the dark. Good for not losing night vision. Am slowly getting used to the layout.
I’ve been told the Cherry Browns are ‘crap’ by a purist already, despite all writers/translators recommending them… He was soon shot down by others in the discussion though. And folks have mentioned Gaterons, a Cherry clone with apparently better quality, but that would need to be on a new board. Also suggested were the Matias Quiet Clicks, which when listening to a video didn’t sound that much quieter than these browns.
These are just about right. So much better than what I’ve had before, plus quite pleasant to listen to and use. Can imagine many long hours of typing on these, especially when coupled with vim, as they are now, and its autocomplete setup. All in plenty of comfort, it seems. I like how the keys don’t need bottoming out to activate them.
Mechanically speaking, there is a rubberised feel to the keys and housing, giving it a nice quality feel. The board weighs a good deal, plenty to hold it in place and I can’t get it to shift by force of typing at all. Feels very solid.
I’ve set up the Fn keys in i3wm, so that prev, next and play control CMUS (play set to pause as a more useful key to toggle playback) as well as the vol keys playing nicely with PulseAudio via pactl. Had to use xev to find the names of the keys, then bindsym to assign them in the i3 config.
But as a first time mech keyber, I’m certainly taken by it. Should have done it years ago. I can highly recommend them.
I definitely keep tripping over my keys when typing, often making this kind of error: cieling or siad, as my muscle memory seems to be ahead of my fingers. Perhaps I’m not triggering the keys quick enough, given the extra travel. Tis coming from short travel or chiclet keys. The other thing I’m doing is hitting adjacent keys too easily or not being centered so the word is offset to the left. It’s frustrating but mitigated by the fasct that I have autocomplete on in Vim adn… I’ve written this sentence without editing it and will do a few more, to give you an idea of the nature of the typios I’m nmaking. as yhou can wsee I’m actually quite fat fingered. the longer words are usually handled by the autocomplete so they are error free, but nmy shorter words are stumbling all over the polace. It’s adjacent keys that are the problem. The problem does actually go away oif I look down at the keybaor dlike now, but actually no it doesn’t so foreget that. They are tttttriggered really close to the surfacee, so I think I just have to get used to the timings. This was me typing fast anad just hammering out what I’m thinking. When I’m nmiore considered it goes bnetter. I won’t edit the next sentence buyt will take it slower.
Here is a more considered sentence, it’s quite straightforward and isn’t giving me any hassle to just slow it down and plan my finger moves a bit better. But hammering out a sentence such as this one is a bit more of a challenge. I need to get used to floating my fingers over the keys rather than bottoming them out, as I’ve read others have had to learn to do. A bit of an art!
Need to consider a wrist rest for comfort on the keyboard.
In Oct 2017 I got a wpm of 79 on the old MS keyboard. In Dec 2017, I said:
Just tested on 10fast fingers and got 76wpm, top 8%, with 2 wrong words, 73 correct. 94% accuracy. I was panicking a bit so lost it. Another go might see that exceed 80wpm I think. But not far off full typing speed at this point I take it. Second time, will stop here so as not to chery pick: 79wpm, 1 wrong word. So not faster. A whole lot more comfortable and as I get more used to it, I’d imagine I can squeeze out a few more wpm. Also need to check typing test… think it was a diff one. Not just words, but sentences. Fast-fast typists are 110-120 avg. 170-ish in fast bursts. on phrases they’ve learned.
Just tried a text test at 10fastfingers adn got 101wpm. Short text. Avg worldwide is 86. Best is 255. On Typingtest.com it reckons Pro is 80-100. Avg touch typist gets 58. Avg typist gets 36. So basically I’m fast enough. Voice recognition still faster anyway! Although for that you need to know what you’ve got to say in advance, which is rarely the case. So true output is probably similar on an hourly rate.
Recommended brands are Filco, Ducky, Matias, WASD. From what I see on the forums, you won’t go wrong with these.