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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Keyboard Wars!

Keyboard wars!  Yes, I know this has nothing to do with pipes, but one of the reasons I haven't been updating the pipe blog as much in recent times is because I've written just about everything I can think of to write.  I try to avoid rambling on about the same things over and over again so as a result, the blog has gotten quieter.  However, this may not last, as I'm contemplating opening the theme a bit (or more than a bit) to include, well… Whatever I feel like writing about at the time, be it current events, politics, computers, gadgets, or more.  

My love affair with the mechanical keyboard is a topic near and dear to my heart.  You have to be of a certain age to remember mechanical keyboards, and the fact that I'm compelled to explain them is indicative of how much they've fallen off the map in recent years in favor of the quiet, membrane-style keyboards that ship with modern computers.  These membrane keyboards work on rubber domes - Essentially, the key press squishes a quiet little rubber switch that's responsible for registering a key press.  Benefits of this are mainly confined to noise - Rubber membrane keyboards are nearly silent.  The downsides are several - The rubber domes wear, they don't have a distinct positive "click" for each press, they get squishy, and the typing output produced is less distinct and accurate.  *Sometimes* you get your letter, sometimes you don't. By contrast, old-style mechanical keyboards have an actual hardware switch under each key that clicks when pressed, providing an immediate clarification that you've typed what you wanted to.  

Now, I do a LOT of writing.  I write descriptive copy for my own website, I reply to business emails, I write two blogs, and I write a web comic… On top of maintaining and making interesting our business Facebook page, G+ page, and keeping active in the several online forums I frequent.  I've worn out keyboards by deforming popular keys through constant use - My old Enter key looked like a sway-backed horse in the middle where the plastic had warped.  It's in service to this writing passion, and heavy writing demand, that I started looking for a better keyboard option.

I missed REAL KEYS.  Large, heavy, blocky keys instead of the flat key styles popular with Apple these days, which I find terribly frustrating to use due to the number of key presses I miss with them.  This led me to investigate the mechanical keyboards available today, and for the Mac there are only two real options, the Matias keyboard and the Das Keyboard.  Both use mechanical switches, both are clacky and loud, both are heavy duty, and I decided it was well past time to upgrade to one of these things.  But which to choose?  I couldn't decide, and as this would be a very longterm business partner for me, I chose to order one of each and compare them directly, and return the loser.  

Here they are, freshly arrived.  Sexy, sexy keyboards:

The packaging is remarkably similar on each, and I'll not go into it here as I'm not a packaging fetishist - I'm interested in the meat, not the wrapping.  My first impressions were as follows:

The Matias Quiet Pro is just that, quiet.  The key feel is good, the keys are clearly labeled, it runs off a single USB plug yet offers extra USB ports for three more devices, and the keys are each labeled not just with their letter, but also with the special characters they can create - An extra handy wonder to me, as Mac shortcuts often leave me baffled when I see them in print (Seriously, who would ever immediately recognize something like ˆ¶–√ ?)  I'd have liked to have gotten the Matias Pro but it has white keys, and that doesn't work for people who spend most of their day in a dirty woodworking shop.  The Quiet Pro is still louder than my stock Apple keyboard but much quieter to type on than other mechanical keyboards.    

So… Black keys, great labeling, extra function keys, USB overload… What's not to like?  Well, the downsides for me are two - That selfsame keyboard labeling that puts all the extra symbols on the keys makes reading them at a glance to be a challenge.  I'm not a touch typist and I often need to glance down as I'm clicking away, and what I see when I do is a dizzying spread of tiny little white marks.  The other demerit, and it's a bigger one, is in "look and feel" - For a $160 keyboard, the Matias feels very $45 aftermarket Staples house brand.  The frame is a creaky, twisty piece of silver budget plastic and the whole thing looks a bit low rent… Not what you want after spending this much cash on something as esoteric as a keyboard.

The Das Kayboard, by contrast, is the black Mercedes of the pair - It looks every inch its $130 price tag.  The opaque black housing vanishes seamlessly into my black desktop and it's a glossy surface with some nice heft to it.  Despite the nicer appearance, I was biased against the Das initially due to several annoying factors.  The makers have elected, for inexplicable reasons, to make the key lettering lower case, so where the Matias presents one with a chaos of markings, the Das gives you a squinty, stylized lettering display that takes some getting used to.  Also, it demands two USB connections, one for itself and one for its two powered USB ports.  It's nice that the Das can actually charge USB devices that need powered connections, but who really charges their iPod from their keyboard?  Finally, and most annoying of all, the Das swaps the function of the media control keys such that one has to press FN to make them work.  This is small and yet insanely annoying for someone like myself who uses Apple's media shortcut keys a great deal, always pausing music or adjusting volume.  The Apple layout wasn't broken, and didn't need fixing.

So, with all those negatives, why do I find myself merely liking the Matias and actively lusting over the Das?  It's all in the feel - The Das's key switches click like precision instruments and every key touch is a joy.  It feels, in short, like a real typing machine; something I haven't had in at least 15+ years.  Sitting at the Das and listening to the singing clickety-clack of the keys is pure bliss.  One feels like a journalist, a real reporter, a writer… Like one should be cranking out blistering exposes of corruption in high places, or serious novels to tear at the heart.  It's romantic, pure and simple, and the Das has it in spades over the Matias.  The muted keys of the Quiet Pro just aren’t quite as exact in feel as those of the Das - There’s more wander to each touch and I have to make a point to type harder to be sure that I’m not skipping letters with soft taps.  It does beat the Das in one respect, however - Key squeak.  I’ve found that continuous typing on the Das tends to produce some aggravating key squeaking that resonates on a fingernail-vibrating level.  The Das Keyboard website includes a help video describing how to grease squeaky keys, but this did little for me - A day later and they were back to the same chirpy cries.

Is the Matias bad?  No, not at all.  It's an excellent tool, and when I finally have to choose between the two, I suspect I will pick it despite my Das lust.  The Matias chunks along happily, its key presses quiet and slightly hefty in feel in contrast to the Das's Singer sewing machine clicks.  They're both good products.  For practicality, features, layout and ease of use, buy the Matias.  For a love affair with an amazing machine that demands its own terms, buy the Das.  For my own part, the Matias gradually won me over throughout the week+ of this comparison despite an initially less favorable reaction.  I will, however, readily admit that one major factor of its appeal to me is pure nostalgia… It’s the most remarkable recreation I’ve tried of an original TRS-80 keyboard.  That will make a lot of readers laugh, but it cuddles my heart  like a warm blanket.  If only it came with two 5 ¼” disk drives…