Keyboard Hardware Thoughts

Background

As a heavy computer user and an especially heavy keyboard user, I have tried to get a good one since a long time ago. This document tries to tell the story of the different types of keyboards I have used and am using.

It serves as a personal note to consult in case of defects. Additionally, it may be interesting to consult by other people with similar problems/use cases/etc.

The Beginnings

My first keyboard ever was “cordless”. It required two AA-type batteries to run and connected wirelessly to an USB receiver. Obviously, the batteries needed frequent replacement. When I got a scrap PS2 keyboard from a relative, I immediately switched to it. Both of them were cheap rubber-dome keyboards that “did the job” without being particularly comfortable.

Microsoft Sidewinder X4 (2009–2020)

Heavily used: 2009–2017, half a year in 2019 and in the beginning of 2020. Moderately used: 2017 till first half of 2019. Total Lifetime: ~11 a.

Story

That time, I liked playing Descent 3 (an old game from 1996!) a lot. It could be due to the fact that it was the first 3D computer game I ever played but there might have been other reasons, too. Already then, I preferred the keyboard over the mouse and thus wanted to navigate the six degrees of freedom (6DoF) by keyboard alone. It was a recipe for being slower than most of the other players’ setups: Keyboard + joystick was commononly considered the best, but keyboard + mouse was not rare, either… Especially for keyboard-only setups, it turned out N-key-rollover was beneficial. The ability to press at least 7 keys at once was required to control forward, speed, upwards, leftwards, turn, 2xfire simultaneously. Hence I asked a classmate (who knew about gaming hardware) for what keyboard he would recommend. He recommended the Microsoft Sidewinder X4.

Although I considered it almost too expensive back then (60 €), I liked the improvement in mechanics (better rubber-dome keys here) and of course: N-key-rollover was there – validated by pressed_keys(32) to be working.

The macro keys could not be used on Linux-only setups, which did not matter, as most of the time only the letter and number keys were used anyways. The half-height buttons for the row of [ESC] and [F1]..[F12] keys were not an issue at the beginning either. As the use of the VIM editor increased, the small [ESC] key was not optimal, but being used to it, did not cause any larger problems.

Thus, I was quite satisfied with the Microsoft Sidewinder X4 until someone told me there was a thing called mechanical keyboards. I had already heard about that before by stumbling across the fan sites about the IBM Model M, but the price tags were all way above budget – prices were substantially higher than 100 € and that was not going to be an offer to accept solely from the hearing that mechanical keyboards would be superior.

Finally, there came an offer I could not resist: At an electronics store, I found a Kingston Hyper X Alloy FPS for exactly 100 €. In the meantime, financial resources had grown and being able to test my first mechanical keyboard in store, I bought it after a day of consideration.

As a working student, I finally had the opportunity to replace my workplace’s generic keyboard with something more personal and brought the newly unused Microsoft Sidewinder X4 to work.

Failure

After a flawless performance during the first eight years of heavy use and the moderate use at work, the keyboard finally failed from the heavy use on a semester abroad. The plastic nose holding in place the often heavily-hitted [ENTER] key broke and the key remained only softly attached to the keyboard. At any press, it could jump out of the keyboard and needed to be carefully re-attached. A hack using a paperclip and a remapping of a rarely used key to [ENTER] kept the keyboard alive during the first months of 2020 until I returned from my semester abroad. It is noteworthy that the rubber-dome technology cannot be blamed for the failure and material stain failures like the one seen here may appear with any kind of technolgy.

Review Opinion

Pros

Cons

Here are some links to other people’s reviews:

Despite being based on often-scolded rubber dome technology, this keybard remains in very good memory.

Kingston Hyper X Alloy FPS with Cherry MX Blue (2017)

Heavily Used: 2017 and 2018. Total Lifetime: Less than 1 year per unit.

Story

After a first-hand experience with Cherry MX red, brown and blue switches at the electronics store, I decided to go with the Cherrx MX Blue despite the fact that they are known to be “loud”.

The Kingston Hyper X Alloy FPS was among the “cheapest” mechanical keyboards at the store. Yet, it is by no means a cheap design: The upper part of the chassis is metal, the lower part is robust plastic. From packaging to keypress it exhibits solid manufacturing quality and attention to many details as one expects from a “premium” product. The lower price compared to other mechanical keyboards seems to stem from a certain minimalism with respect to extra features: More expensive alternatives often offer macro keys, volume knobs, USB hubs, RBG lighting, or other even more obscure advantages. From my point of view, the minimalism was a clear plus!

Although the hype around Descent 3 had largely subsided, buying an expensive keyboard, I expected it to have N-key-rollover as a standard feature. Surprisingly; the Kingston Hyper X Alloy FPS supports it, but does not enable it by default. The online manual at https://media.kingston.com/support/downloads/HyperX%20Alloy%20FPS%20keyboard%20user%20manual.pdf explains that you need to press [FN]-[ESC] once to enable it. As far as I remember, that setting persists power-off condition and is thus really a one-time thing.

Design-wise the Kingston Hyper X Alloy FPS follows the modern trend to have the keys freely standing out of the board rather than being surrounded by chassis. I like this design for its minimalism and the possibility of easier cleaning. On the downside, this design is (in general) more vulnerable to sideways forces that may occur during transportation.

Failure

The mechanical switches clearly offer a superior “typing experience“ while writing. After a little less than one year, however, I experienced key chatter.

Key chatter is an issue that can occur from dust inside the mechanical keys and causes double key presses to be registered when only one key press was actually performed. Although some users question the existence of this phenomenon (cf. https://unix.stackexchange.com/questions/70916/fix-keyboard-chattering-bouncing-on-the-software-side), there are also a lot of other people having this kind of issue with mechanical keyboards. It is not a construction fault of a single keyboard, which I have confirmed first-hand by returning my first Kingston Hyper X Alloy FPS for a new one while still under warranty. It lasted another 8 months or so and then showed the same behaviour. The problematic keys were not identical each time, although it were always the often-used keys (space, h, j, k, l).

There are some claims that key chatter can be fixed on the software side, but this is only true as long as the rate of key presses under normal use is not similar to the excess key presses generated by key chatter. As I am typing rather quickly, I found that the software-side corrections were dropping some actual inputs from my side while only reducing but not eliminating the key chatter. Finally, I decided to give up on Cherry MX switches.

Review Opinion

There are quite some extensive reviews with many gorgeous pictures out there. In case you are interested, I found the following ones to be interesting:

Here are some additional notes:

The Kingston Hyper X Alloy FPS is a solid piece of hardware. It is a pleasure to write on it and the price is competitive. The keyboard does, however, suffer from the inherent faults of mechanical switches. In environments with less dust, it might serve much better than here.

UNICOMP Model M (Buckling Spring Keyboard Modern, 2019)

Used: Temporary in the early 2019. Total Lifetime: Unknown.

Story

Having felt the advanced speed and precision of mechanical keyboards, I did not want to revert to the Microsoft Sidewinder X4 for heavy use despite the fact that it was still working nicely after the Kingston Hyper X Alloy FPS had failed twice already. Instead, I surveyed the market for alternatives to Cherry MX switches in the hope that other switches would be more reliable and without key chatter. Reminded that the IBM Model M seemed to be the all-time best mechanical keyboard, I got myself the modern remake – an UNICOMP Model M. For the price of 140 € there is no lighting or N-key-rollover included. Yet the reminiscence to the “all-time best” mechanical keyboard seemed worth the price.

Having received the keyboard, it offered an excellent typing experience in the beginning.

Failure

After a few days already, I noticed a key chatter in the 7 key. Most notably visible when entering paths like /fs/e01/normal which would appear as /fs/e01/7n (the third slash had a chatter on the 7 such that /7 was printed and the autocomplete for n would not resolve to normal anymore…).

I searched online and learned that key chatter can happen with buckling spring keyboards, too. There is a possibility of cleaning the affected key, but despite some attempt to carefully do this, I could not get the key chatter to subside. Hence, I returned the keyboard to the vendor and advanced the search towards something “non-mechanical”.

Review Opinion

I do not give a detailed review here, because I possessed this keyboard too short to report anything beyond the first impressions:

Here are some reviews in case you want to see pictures and have more detailed reports about the keyboard:

The Search for high-quality non-mechanical Keyboards

After an extensive online search for the alternatives to “regular” mechanical keyboards, I ended up with the following set of technologies:

Hall-Effect based Keyboards

Hall-Effect based keyboards are operated by means of a magnet in the key and a magnet sensor (so-called hall-effect sensor) in the keyboard. This design allows completely sealed-off constructions which is why this technology used to be prevalent in certain industrial-grade keyboards that could even be used under explosive atmospheres.

Although the designs that one has a chance to get by as a regular customer do not make use of this advanced robustness, they still share with their industrial counterparts that they are hard to get by.

I actually only found one hall-effect based keyboard – the Steelseries APEX PRO is available at around 230 €. Far down the page it is listed to have OmniPoint Adjustable Mechanical Switch (Analog Hall Effect Magnetic Sensor). According to http://xahlee.info/kbd/steelseries_apex_pro_keyboard.html, not all of the keyboard’s keys are using the hall-effect switch.

Here are some entry points for further research:

Opto-Mechanical Keyboards

Opto-mechanical keyboards register keypresses by making the key interrupt a light beam. From the non-mechanical yet high-quality designs, this seems to be the most common one.

Back when I had to get a new keyboard, there were only few models available. The only ones I had found in my initial search were the Gigabyte Aorus K9 Optical and Razer Huntsman. In the meantime, some more manufacturers have made opto-mechanical keyboards. This way, nowdays, there is a small variety to chose from.

Example models:

It seems that new models are constantly being developed. It is thus quite likely that the list above is already outdated.

Topre Keyboards

Topre switches technically function similar to rubber-dome ones, but are produced at much higher quality and for heavy use. Topre Realforce keyboards using these switches seem to be well-known in Asia but very uncommon here in Europe.

Their prices are quite steep and the variants available in Europe are not gaming keyboards but highly expensive – a full-sized Topre Realforce keyboard seems to be in range 240–300 €.

Relevant links:

Razer Huntsman (2019 onwards)

Heavily Used: early 2019 till now. Total Lifetime: TBD.

Story

Having decided to try an opto-mechanical keyboard, the Razer Huntsman series was the only keyboard that I could actually obtain locally and hence it was chosen as a consequence of the preceding search.

Design-wise it is very similar to the Kingston Hyper X Alloy FPS. The build quality is excellent. For a price of 131 €, it includes a lot of customization wrt. lighting and some of it can be accessed under Linux by means of a third-party project, too. See https://github.com/z3ntu/razer_test/issues/9.

It is being used very heavily. I have already written more than 1000 pages of text. Additionally, there was code, commandline use, keyboard shortcuts and occasional gaming. The end of the current high-usage scenario is not close yet and there are no signs of failure from this keyboard.

Review Opinion

Pros

Cons

Ambivalent

Other reviews for pictures and further reading

As a few of the other reviewers seem to note: The Razer Huntsman does not boast visibly, yet it has all the essentials combined into a high-quality build. From my point of view, it is the first to actually challenge the reliability of the Microsoft Sidewinder X4 :)

Other Resources


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Created: 2020/10/27 21:02:55 | Revised: 2020/10/30 18:28:05 | Tags: keyboard, hardware, review, blog | Version: 1.0.1 | SRC (Pandoc MD) | GPL

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