Model: Keytronic E03601 (USB)
Switch Type: Membrane/Rubber dome
I was turned on to Keytronic boards by a co-worker who had one at his desk at work. Looking at their website, it appears they make all types of keyboards with different kinds of switches (some rated for 30 million cycles, others for less). I decided to pick one from their “ergonomic” series, though there is actually nothing special about the layout of this keyboard.
The reason they claim this keyboard is ergonomically friendly has to do with how they fine tune the weight of the keys based on their position, and the finger you’re most likely to type the key with. This means keys toward the outside are the lightest (for the pink and ring finger), and keys toward the inside seem to be heavier (thumb, index finger).
I tried this keyboard for a week at work, and I ended up with mixed feeling about this feature. On the one hand, it does seem to make typing more comfortable and requiring less effort. Especially the weaker fingers don’t strain as much to push keys down. On the other hand, an annoying effect is created: perhaps I’ve been using uniform-weighted keys for too long, but it seems difficult for my fingers _not_ to expect that all keys will have roughly the same resistance. In practice, what this meant was that, to my hands, after typing a few of the lighter keys, the heavier keys would feel noticeably heavier. So much so, that often I would not press the heavier key strongly enough to actually register a typed character. I found myself thinking, “but that other key was so much lighter..” Because I’m used to uniform key weight, the existence of some lighter keys make my hands expect all the other keys to be light as well.
Once I realized this, a different kind of mind set developed. Maybe I didn’t type on it for long enough, but it seemed difficult to learn which keys were actually lighter than the others. So instead, I started typing all the keys very strongly, and some of them would just go in easier than others. This was not only physically more tiring, but mentally draining as well.
In the end, I felt that this feature was more of an annoyance than a benefit. For my hands, uniformly lighter keys are better than selectively lighter keys.
h3. Key Feel
When it comes down to it, the feel of the keys are closer to a typical rubber dome switch than a mechanical switch. Keytronic didn’t perform any magic to make their domes feel radically different from a standard one. However, that being said, the way that the dome gives — when a threshold pressure is reached — is indeed unique. The resisting pressure almost completely gives away once the peak pressure is reached, and your finger almost feels like it’s getting sucked into the board. The corollary to this that these domes don’t give you much help picking your fingers back up when releasing the key.
In the end, it’s hard to rate this feel with objectivity. I definitely prefer it to a standard rubber dome switch, but I don’t prefer it to scissor switches (like the IceKey), and I don’t prefer it enough that I would take it over an effective ergonomic layout.
Looks and Layout
The layout of this keyboard is a very standard IBM 104 key layout. So much so, that sometimes I glance over and mistake it for my black IBM model M keyboard. I got the black color, which looks O.K., but not particularly classy or distinctive. Overall there’s not much special about the appearance of the layout of this keyboard. That’s par for the course at $30 though.
As with other lower-end keyboards, the N-key rollover support on this keyboard is non-existent. It uses standard anti-ghosting techniques that sometimes don’t let you press more than 3 keys at the same time and have their keystrokes all register. There was no ghosting as far as I could tell, so unless you type extremely quickly, this shouldn’t be a problem.
On my PowerBook, as well as my Intel Mac Mini at work, this keyboard exhibited an unusual behavior. It seemed that keystrokes would be communicated to the foreground application in bunches of 2 or 3 characters. There was certainly an intermittent delay between keystrokes and letters appearing on the screen, but it did not seem to be consistent. I didn’t investigate it enough to narrow down the problem. For all I know, it could be a some weird timing interaction between OSX and the keyboard controller on this board, or it could be something to do with just the keyboard itself. In any case, other usb keyboards on both machines don’t show this problem, so potential buyers should be aware. This phenomenon didn’t cause any input to be lost however, so at most it’s a minor annoyance.
You can only have a certain level of expectation for a $30 keyboard. Given that, I don’t think this board dissapoints in any way, but it didn’t also wow me to the extent that I would consider it an extremely good deal. At home, I still prefer to use the IceKey, and even at $50, I think the IceKey is more worth it for the money. On the other hand, this is one of the few keyboards that have a pretty good feel but are inexpensive, and so for those looking to experiment, it’s something that you can try without making a huge investment.