November 21, 2012
Any Mac user tends to get very used to the standard keyboard layout that you get with the included aluminum dealie you get with your new iMac or can buy with a Pro or Mini. While it does work for a lot of people, I found the layout to be a bit too compressed over time. The lack of a number-pad and dedicated home, insert, delete, and other keys become quite annoying to boot. So, I went on the lookout for other keyboards I could use instead, and ran into a problem.
I prefer ergonomic keyboards, but the few available specifically for Mac were outrageously overpriced. Now, I chose that word purposely. I’m not against shelling out a reasonable amount of money for an expensive, but great, keyboard that doesn’t forget the fact that I’m going to be banging away on it for hours every day. This means that I’ll probably have to replace the thing about once per year as I wear the text off the keytops and possibly jam one or more of them over time. Asking me to pay well over two hundred bucks for any keyboard – no matter how ergonomically designed – is just price gouging.
This left me with two choices, a non-ergonomic Mac-specific keyboard, or an ergonomic wonder that’s not designed for OSX, but rather built for Windows or even Linux. I tried out both, and they have their plusses and minuses.
First, the ergonomic boards for non-OSX machines. I looked through about a dozen choices available on major shopping sites and in stores, and settled on the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, as I had been very happy with it when I was still on a Windows desktop, and the vendor (Microsoft) claims Mac compatibility. While they were not lying, there were some problems to be found in this approach. First, there’s no dedicated Command key (⌘). When you plug in or connect any new keyboard that isn’t made by Apple, OSX first asks you to identify which keys are to the left of the Z key and spacebar, and then figures out what your layout looks like. This maps the Command function to the key immediately to the left and right of the spacebar. Typically this means the Windows key gets remapped to Command, leaving Alt (Option on Mac keyboards) and Control unchanged. You can alter all these mappings in your keyboard options if that doesn’t work for you, but the defaults are pretty workable.
All in all, it was an acceptable and workable solution, but there were definitely problems with long-term use of a non-Mac-focused keyboard. First, there’s no native media keys. This may sound like a fiddly little thing, but when you get used to instant media and volume controls, and suddenly have none, it’s annoying as all get-up. Microsoft has their Intellitype software package that can make the media keys on their keyboards work for iTunes, but not for any third party applications. As a regular user of Muse and Musicality, it got even more annoying to hit pause, and find it left the Muse application playing and started playing iTunes on top of it. The same goes with the loss of one-click access to Spaces and the Dashboard, which I use quite often for a variety of reasons and apps. Once again here, Microsoft’s software can compensate for some of these keys, but not all of them (though, see below for a way to overcome the Spaces issue).
Next, I went looking for a non-ergonomic keyboard built for Mac. There’s are honestly not a lot of choices out there. Logitech has a couple, but most manufacturers either make Windows keyboards or generics. After quite a search, I found that Das makes a couple of them. They are most definitely not cheap, but they are about half the price of some of the competition and are very highly respected by the tech community. For those who’ve never heard of them, Das makes keyboards that have the distinctive key-click and overall layout found on older IBM keyboards from the dawn of the modern computing era. The tactile feedback of the key clicks and spacing of the keys makes them very finger-friendly for those of us who type a lot and want to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome; the theory being that the click causes your fingers to ease up on the pressure and not slam into the hard stop at the bottom of the key.
The Professional for Mac was the one I went with myself. The Mac-specific key layout and full media key support was exactly what I was looking for, and I have indeed found that typing stress is reduced when using the clicky keys. It also helps that they keyboard is wired – which is a major thing for me. I find no reason to use a wireless keyboard, as the travel distance of the keyboard on my desk is so small that any cord can easily accommodate me. So I don’t want to have to swap out batteries every week when the keyboard isn’t mobile in the first place on my desk.
This isn’t to say that they keyboard is without fault. There’s still no Dashboard or Spaces keys, but I can use Control + Right and Left arrow keys to flip between Spaces, including the Dashboard. The keyboard itself is also incredibly noisy, and can be heard when I’m on my telephone handset or headset as I clack away taking notes on the call.
I suppose, unless you’re ok with the native keyboard that came with your system from Apple, there will always be some trade-offs. The choice is between ergonomics at the cost of full hotkey functions; hotkeys but no ergonomic layout; or spending a ton of cash on a keyboard that isn’t really any better than the lower-cost alternatives in terms of build quality.
Experiment, ask for recommendations online and from friends, and if at all possible; try out a few in a store before you buy. See which combination of look, feel and functions you think will work best on your desktop. Remember, you’re going to be typing on this thing – a lot – for quite a while, so it’s best to find one that works for you instead of the other way around.