By Jason Snell
January 25, 2016 8:00 AM PT
Enter the clicky keyboard
A lot of my job is typing. Yes, these days I do a lot of podcasting, but I am a writer at heart. But while many of my friends and colleagues have always been obsessed with the tools of our trade—computer keyboards—it’s never been something I’ve spent a whole lot of time worrying about.
Yes, I have an old Apple Extended Keyboard II in my office, and I remember the years I spent typing on an Apple Standard Keyboard, but as I used laptops more and more, I got used to laptop keyboards and soldiered on.
It’s only in the past year, as I’ve settled into my home office with only the dog and cat for company most days, that I’ve started to think about whether I wanted to take the plunge and consider buying a mechanical keyboard. While I remember the old days of keyboards with clicky-clacky sound effects and big key travel with some nostalgia, whenever I’ve taken a test drive on someone else’s mechanical keyboard I’ve come away thinking that time has moved on and my fingers have adapted to the soft, low-travel feel of today’s laptop keyboards.
Apple’s keyboard moves in 2015 had a part to play in getting me thinking about keyboards, too. The new MacBook keyboard is the one feature of that product that I actively dislike, and it’s been a while since a keyboard has been the only thing standing between me and embracing a new bit of technology. Then Apple came out with the new Magic Keyboard, which was thankfully not as radical as the one in the new MacBook.
I started to ponder whether I wanted to really try using a mechanical keyboard when Joshua Topolsky, late of Bloomberg, posted this tweet:
Pair of cyberspace decks pic.twitter.com/SSy9OYZeWV— Joshua Topolsky (@joshuatopolsky) October 7, 2015
I loved the photos. These were tiny keyboards—no function key row, no numeric keypad—with colorful keyboard layouts. Topolsky was right to call them “cyberspace decks,” because they definitely put me in the mind of William Gibson’s 1984 classic Neuromancer, a book I own in paperback, HyperCard stack, and ePub editions. I prefer small keyboards and prefer to have my trackpad closer to my right hand, rather than pushed away by a number pad that I never use.
Topolsky’s decks were both Leopold FC660Ms—a product I had never heard of before, but then, I had never been to the Mechanical Keyboards subreddit, either. His tweet stuck with me. I shopped for the FC660M, which—after consulting various web sites with audio recordings of the clicky-clacky sound that mechanical keyboards make—I had decided I wanted with Cherry MX Blue keyswitches. As I mentioned on this week’s edition of Upgrade, I spent almost four months with a version of that keyboard in my shopping cart.
Finally, earlier this month, I bought one. (They’re available here and there, though I bought mine new on eBay from a seller in Korea.) I ended up with an all-black model, which I liked better than the all-white ones I had been seeing last fall. But as soon as I had ordered it, I started thinking about its included Windows and Alt keys, and pondering replacements. Topolsky seems to have picked up replacement keycaps on Massdrop and elsewhere. I ended up at WASD Keyboards, which sells numerous custom keycaps.
The keyboard and keycaps arrived the same day, and I’ve replaced most (but not all) of the original keys with custom orange keycaps from WASD. The Windows key is now properly labeled as a Command key, and the Alt key is now just a blank key (but I know it’s really Option). It’s not cyberpunk like Topolsky’s two keyboards, but it’s mine—and it makes me happy.
Of course, all the keyboard fashion in the world won’t matter a bit if you can’t get any typing done. I’m happy to report that I’ve really enjoyed my first week with the Leopold keyboard. Yes, it’s spectacularly loud and clicky, but that’s what I was looking for. When my family’s home, I can close the office door so that they don’t hear my clicking. When I’m focused and writing a whole lot of text, the sound and feel of the keyboard helps my writing flow. As I described it on Upgrade, it’s a bit like a horse starting to gallop—there’s a momentum that comes along with typing fast on the clicky keyboard that’s not just pleasant, but downright motivating.
Other times, though, it’s ridiculous. Editing a podcast or just clicking through email and Slack and Twitter is less suited to a keyboard like this—single loud keyboard clicks here and there just don’t have the same appeal. And since I do a lot of podcasts, I have to keep my old keyboard around—you’d hear this one if I was typing something during the middle of a show, while my old keyboard is mostly silent.
Adapting a keyboard designed for a PC to be used with a Mac was mostly uneventful. It’s a USB keyboard, and comes with a mini USB to regular USB cable, which I ran under my desk to the USB/Thunderbolt hub I’ve got velcroed to the back of the desk. Swapping modifier keys used to require extra software on the Mac, but it doesn’t anymore—within the Keyboard preference pane, there’s a Modifier Keys button that you can click to bring up a dialog box that lets you remap the Caps Lock, Control, Option, and Command keys on a per-keyboard basis.
That got me most of the way there, but this keyboard also lacks a dedicated backtick/tilde key, and typing Command-backtick to cycle through windows has become second nature to me. Also, I’d lost access to keyboard shortcuts to turn my Mac’s volume up and down or mute it entirely, which were previously mapped to function keys. So I installed Keyboard Maestro and set up a bunch of new shortcuts to restore my muscle memory, more or less.
Finally, I wondered if I would be able to attach this new keyboard to my iPad Pro via a USB-to-Lightning adapter, and if doing such a thing would be ridiculous. Yes to both of those—it absolutely worked, and it felt completely ridiculous to be clacking away in front of an iPad.
Should you consider a mechanical keyboard? I’d wager that the people who should already know who they are. For most people, just about any keyboard will do the job, and do it well. Even the MacBook keyboard, which is a bridge too far for me, seems to be just fine to most of the MacBook users I talk to. But there are definitely people out there who love their keyboards, and obsess over them, and value the tactile and audible feedback of old-school mechanical keyboards.
Apparently I may be one of them now? It’s certainly been a lot of fun to play with this stuff. But if you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got to go—my daughter just got home from school and I need to shut the door before she’s distracted by the sound of this keyboard.
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