Sunday, March 31, 2024


 "Shift Happens" is a two-volume, 1200-page book about the keyboard. It's a tour de force of the history and significance of the keyboard over the past 150 years. The book is a work of art, with hundreds of beautiful pictures, drawings, old advertisements, font samples and illustrations in a high-quality print, presented in a sleeve with a third volume of background notes and commentary on the book itself.

There's an extensive history on the typewriter, with all the different early keyboard layouts; chapters on calculator and telephone keypads (and why they're different); on how (and why) the QWERTY layout was adapted to other languages. There's a whole chapter on the IBM model F and M (one of the best regarded keyboards of all time); and another on the Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum (one of the worst).

This is one of my favorite books of all time, and if they ever do a second print - a possibility, given how popular the first print was - I urge you to get a copy.

A HHKB keyboard and a book.

My Happy Hacking keyboard, and the second volume of Shift Happens, on the page discussing the Happy Hacking keyboard line.

But - keyboards? Why do I care? Why should you care?

Perhaps you don't care, and that's OK. We live in a world that's managed to make meditation into an equipment sport and a way to flaunt our taste or wealth. Caring about  keyboards, and spending sometimes quite serious money on them, seems like another self-indulgent hobby for the technology-obsessed.

But perhaps you should care. A keyboard is a device we interact with every day, like a monitor or a desk chair - or even like a mattress or pillow. It's a part of your working environment. How much your keyboard — or your chair — matters depends a lot on how much you use it.

If you're sitting on the subway tapping out a message on your phone then neither the seat, the overhead glare or the tiny non-tactile screen keyboard really matters at all. If you only occasionally work from home then your laptop and your kitchen chair is fine for a couple of hours at a time. A laptop is also fine for meetings or business trips.

But as you work for longer stretches, and do it more often, the ergonomics start to matter — for your chair and for your desk, for your monitor, and for your keyboard. When you're at your computer for 8-10 hours every day for years on end, your working environment is critical for your long-term well-being

And yet, we tend to forget our keyboards.

It's not unusual to see people insist on a Herman Miller office chair and a high-end color-balanced monitor, but still use a regular Apple or Dell keyboard that got thrown in for free when they bought their computer. Most people have probably never given their keyboard a second thought, and have no idea that their recurring back, shoulder or wrist problems could be due to the keyboard in front of them.

Mechanical keyboards are all the rage right now — that link goes to a pretty good explainer of the different keyboard types. They're "mechanical" in the sense that each key has its own mechanical switch built in. This tends to make them larger and more expensive (and sometimes more noisy) than a regular keyboard. But they allow for longer key travel; a softer touch; and better, more definitive feedback. Over time it makes for less finger strain and fewer typing errors.

But you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a decent keyboard. The one you got with the computer (even the cool-looking metal Apple one) or built in to your laptop really isn't very good; with really shallow key travel, unsteady keys and a hard, jarring bottom-out that hurts your fingertips.

You can go to a computer store and try a range of keyboards. Even fairly inexpensive ones in the 40-50$ range are probably already better than the one you have. There's no need to get some extreme gaming keyboard or anything.

My personal favourite is the Happy Hacking keyboards. At a research lab I worked at many years ago, they had a couple spare HHKB keyboards with Topre keyboard switches, and I got hooked. I soon bought one for home; it's now almost 15 years old, and still works as new. I still use it daily, now at work, while I got a new one for home (that's the one in the picture at the top). Yes, they're expensive, but they tend to last a long time.

If you are looking to get a new keyboard, a few tips:

  • You may not need the separate numeric pad on the far right of full-size keyboards. If you do a lot of numeric data entry it can be useful, but it takes up space and forces you to stretch to use the mouse. Even if you do find it useful, it may be better to instead get a separate USB numpad that you can put away when you're not using it. A "ten key-less" (TKL) keyboard is usually the better choice for most people.

    The Happy Hacking keyboard (and many other enthusiast ones) are even smaller, with even fewer keys (often called "60% keyboards"). They do that by moving more keys into key combinations. Some of them (Scroll Lock, Print Screen, Pause/Break) are rarely used, and even frequent ones, such as function keys, soon become second nature to press with a function key combination.

    I like these small keyboards and have no problems even playing control-heavy games. But it's very much a matter of taste, and you should maybe not make a 60% keyboard your first good keyboard.

  • Remember that you can always remap your keyboard. I'm in the weird situation where I'm used to Swedish keyboard layout, but I live in a country where getting a Swedish keyboard is difficult and expensive.

    So I've standardized on using Japanese keyboards, but remap the layout to Swedish, with a couple of tweaks. It works fine; my fingers know where the symbols are even if they don't match what it says on the keys.

  • Don't underestimate noise. Klicky keyboards can be very satisfying, but if you're working in an office with other people — or you like to work at night when family members are asleep — then you may be better off with low noise or silent keys. You can still get a clicky feel without the noise.

  • You probably don't need a wireless keyboard. It's most likely going to stay in the same spot on the same desk for months at a time. You may think it's useful for laptops, but you want to plug your laptop in to power anyhow, and as you're probably using USB-C for that these days, you can plug the keyboard into the same hub as the laptop.

    With that said, it can be useful in some circumstances. If you're using the same keyboard for 2-3 different machines, and they all have Bluetooth, then that is one possible solution to share the keyboard with them all.

  • Keyboards often have adjustable feet. In many cases you probably want to have the keyboard closer to flat rather than angled up. But it's again very much a matter of personal preference. Give yourself half a day to type in each position and find out which setting feels best over time.

If you are a heavy keyboard user, take a look at your current keyboard. How does it feel? How do you feel when using it? Are you getting strained and fatigued? Do your fingers and wrists kind of hurt after a couple of hours? A good keyboard will cost less than a night out on the town, and can have a much more positive effect on your life.