A keyboard is a desktop accessory often overlooked, but one that can have a big effect on long-term comfort and productivity, for typists, programmers and gamers alike. Since the mid-1990s, the trend in the keyboard world was towards cost reduction, which led the transition from mostly mechanical switch designs to rubber-dome technologies. In the past decade in a half, the trend is somewhat reversed, with mechanical keyboards growing in popularity, establishing avid followers, and stirring endless discussions on their virtues compared to rubber-domes, as well as to each other. With inherently more costly components, the base price for a mechanical keyboard is higher, and with extra features added, the sky is the limit; therefore, rubber-dome is going nowhere, as there is still a demand for low-price keyboards. Nowadays, the market is saturated with hundreds of keyboard models in every price range, and almost everyone can find something that’s right for them.
What this article is NOT:
- An explanation of mechanical versus rubber-dome technologies
- An indepth review of any particular model
- A balanced round-up of candidates from every market segment
What this article IS:
- A brief discussion of each of the keyboards I had opportunity to work with (essentially a random selection)
- Pointing out things I liked and disliked in each (inherently subjective)
- General observations I have on keyboard technologies
Before the analysis
Despite being aware of modern-day mechanical keyboards, and their merits, for several years now, I never owned on, and until recently never tried using one on a regular basis. Strange, considering that I type a lot, and appreciate a good typing experience very much. Sounds like I should be very excited about mechanical keyboards, but in practice I observed the following: as far as typing experience goes (tactile feedback, auditory feedback, key response) – the good rubber-domes (NOT the rock-bottom garbage ones) are 100% satisfactory, and mechanical keyboards provide no genuine advantage. You may feel different, if you have some specific preferences like very soft (or very deep) keys; with mechanical keyboards the different switch types allow you to select one that is more suited to those preferences, while rubber-domes do not give you much control.
The main undisputed advantage of mechanical keyboards are support for N-key rollover (virtually unlimited number of keys that can be recognized at the same time) – this can be very important for gaming, but not really for typing. Other theoretical advantages are longevity of the switches (they are rated for an order of magnitude more keypresses than rubber-domes) and generally higher construction quality. In practice, again, the quality rubber-domes will usually survive for over a decade with no issues, provided that you keep them clean, and don’t let the grime and grease kill the keys.
Before the recent ‘mechanical keyboard boom’, I already had settled to some of my favorite rubber-dome keyboards (which will be discussed below), and found them adequate for my needs. My most used keyboards are now more than a decade old and behave as new. So I found no need to replace them still.
Nonetheless, recently I have had the ability to use a couple of different mechanical keyboards regularly for a couple of weeks, courtesy of a friend, which gave me the opportunity to revise my impressions. Did I? Read on, or scroll to the end.
Microsoft 200 (USB, wired, rubber dome)
IBM KB-7953 (PS/2, wired, rubber dome)
Lenovo Enhanced Performance (USB, wired, rubber dome)
Logitech K320 (USB, wireless, rubber dome)
Roccat Suora (USB, wired, mechanical)
Das Keyboard 4 Professional (USB 3.0, wired, mechanical)
Microsoft Wired Keyboard 200
One of Microsoft’s entry-level keyboards, this one offers good key travel and feedback, unlike the flat and soft Microsoft 600. It does not come with a palm rest, but is sufficiently low-profile, that it will not matter in most cases. It has retractable feet, so it can be flat or raised.
What I liked
- Good key travel and tactile feedback
- Pretty quiet
What I did not like
- Absolutely no extra functions (such as multimedia keys)
Probably the cheapest kind of keyboard that can provide a ‘satisfactory’ typing experience, although I cannot attest to durability, as I did not use it much. Sold between $10-$15 or equivalent when new, it is now mostly end-of-life, but is still available in certain markets. Might be a good solution for a low-cost office setup, where one just types and does not do much else.
This is a very old keyboard, the only one in this survey that has a PS/2 connector. It was originally available in white or black, with a detachable palmrest. I don’t remember where I got my unit – probably from some scrap bin; it’s black and has no palmrest. It was pretty dirty when I got it, but all the keys worked flawlessly, none of them is was sticky or prone to jamming (and that is on a keyboard that was manufactured in 1998 by the sticker on the bottom). It ended up quite nice to use after some cleaning.
The keys are pretty clicky and give a very strong, pleasant feedback. The KB-7953, and the similar KB-8923, are often mistaken for mechanical keyboards because of the tactile response, even though they are rubber-domes. They are not really quiet, nor very loud either. A nice little touch by IBM is the trench along the bottom of the keyboard, where part of the cable can be channeled for a cleaner desk.
What I liked
- Awesome travel and key feedback; feels closest to a mechanical among all rubber-domes I’ve owned
- Great solid build (keyboard is heavy!)
- Optional palm rest
What I did not like
- Absolutely no extra functions (such as multimedia keys)
This keyboard is a joy to type on, but being PS/2, and without any extra functions, it loses in versatility to most modern keyboards; it would be a great addition to a retro-themed desktop build, and you can get it in white or black to match the rest of the design.
Lenovo Enhanced Performance USB Keyboard (SK-8815)
Among all the keyboards in this round-up, this is the one with which I have had by far the most experience (so this part of the review is much longer). When first introduced to one more than a decade ago, I liked it so much that I got several , and stayed with them ever since.
The keyboard was manufactured first under the IBM brand, and later under Lenovo. It had been actively sold for more than a decade and a half (a testament to quality and popularity) until it was eventually phased out by the “Lenovo Enhanced Performance USB Keyboard Gen II” some time in 2019. I haven’t tried the new one, but I suspect it should be similar in performance.
The retail price fluctuates between $30 and $50, which is upper-mid-range for rubber-dome keyboards. This gets you all the standard features of an IBM office keyboard – traditional key shape and layout, good feedback, comfortable detachable palmrest, adjustable feet and a cable-guide trench at the bottom, which allows the cable to be guided to either side of the keyboard, depending on where the computer sits relative to it. You get a lot of extras too – media control buttons, internet back/forward buttons, and 7 programmable buttons, with the default functions of Lock Desktop, My Documents, Word Processor, Spreadsheet, Calculator, E-mail and Internet (clearly positioning the keyboard as office-oriented). All these work out of the box without any driver/software (at least in Windows), but if you install the Lenovo Keyboard software, you can program the buttons to launch arbitrary applications/scripts. It seems, though, that there is no built-in way to use them as macro buttons for games (remember – it is an office keyboard after all). The software also allows you to control of the on-screen display indicators when special buttons are pressed and to print a little piece of paper with the custom designations of the programmable buttons (to replace the default one the keyboard comes with).
The keyboard also has a 2-port USB hub, however it is of very-limited use. It is USB 2.0, but unpowered, which means that most devices cannot work off it, and those that do are limited to USB 1.1 speeds, which is useless for modern flash drives. Effectively, it’s good for plugging a mouse into the keyboard, and not much else.
What I liked
- The response and feedback of the keys; it is a bit softer than most other IBM keyboards I tried, like the KB-7953 above. Some may find it too mushy, but for me it is just perfect and not too hard on my fingertips even I hammer on it hard and fast. The force required to press the keys also feels right to me – not too hard, but not too soft to trigger them accidentally.
- It’s durable. I have been using them for over 10 years, and each one of them probably had been hit with a fist in frustration once or twice; not a single key broke or stopped working as designed.
- The multimedia and programmable buttons can be quite useful.
What I didn’t like
- The USB hub is useless and advertising it as 2.0 is totally misleading. The Gen II version replaced it with a USB 3.0 hub – much better!
- It gets quite loud (especially for a rubber-dome) if you type hard/fast.
- The volume up/down buttons are of lesser quality than the rest, and sometimes get sticky and respond poorly (may vary from unit to unit); it’s a pity, since these are the most often used of the multimedia buttons. Again, looks like something they improved in Gen II.
- When I first started using this keyboard, I would sometimes miss capitalized letters; it was as if the Shift key did not respond well enough. I do not know if it is a matter of pressing it long enough or hard enough, but it definitely bothered me at first, and you can notice quite a few reviewers of this keyboard that complained about the same. Eventually I think I adjusted naturally to pressing it harder and now I don’t have this problem anymore, but it is something to be aware of.
- There are two pairs of adjustable feet, so the keyboard can sit at three different angles, but even at the lowest angle (when both pairs are folded down) it is a little raised at the back. If you like a completely flat keyboard, this may be a problem for you; for me it is OK the way it is, and I find that I never want to raise the keyboard more than that.
Among all the rubber-dome keyboards I had the chance to use, this one remains my all-around favorite, due to a combination of typing experience and extra features. If you mostly use a keyboard for work and not for games, this is exactly what I have in mind when I say that good rubber-domes are sufficient, and you don’t need mechanicals. For games it is also far from being inadequate – most reasonable key combinations that one would use in a single-player game are registered without any ghosting, but for more “expert” kind of gaming, if you need things like programmable macro keys, or 6+ key rollover (e.g., for two-player fighting/racing games), you will probably want something else.
This is the only wireless keyboard in this round-up. I actually got it as part of the ‘Pro 2800 Cordless Desktop’, which is basically a K320 keyboard + MX620 mouse using a single 2.4 GHz receiver. As far as I know, it looks and feels exactly the same as the individual products (with the exception of one difference mentioned below).
The K320 is another office-oriented keyboard, similar in many ways to the Lenovo Enhanced USB in terms of the design choice, and the extra keys, but with different choices regarding the placement and selection of the extra buttons. It has the standard set of multimedia + web navigation keys, and a few extras for calculator, find, etc. The Logitech SetPoint software will allow these to be customized, just like the Lenovo software, except there is no option to print a custom label.
The main keys are pretty standard, except the top row (Esc + function keys + extra) are a bit shorter, and the bottom row (Ctrl, Alt, Spacebar, etc.) a bit taller and curved. A bit of a strange design choice, but not entirely unusual, and one that does not have much effect on the usability.
What I liked
- Overall good key layout and typing experience
- The extra buttons are nice, placement is good, and their quality actually feels higher than on the Lenovo SK-8815 (especially multimedia buttons).
- Four extra keys above the numpad for =, ( ) and backspace – great utilization of extra space for when you use the pad as a calculator!
- Some of the letters have their common Ctrl-combinations printed on the front (e.g., Z=undo, X=cut, V=paste, P=print). This is a small touch that can be useful for inexperienced PC users learning their way around. It seems that this was only added on the Pro 2800, not on the original K320.
What I didn’t like
- The feel of the keys when you type is just a bit harder and shallower than the Lenovo Enhanced USB, but that little bit is enough to make long typing sessions more pleasant on the Lenovo.
- Also on the loud side
- After a few years, I find that I experience occasional delays / drops of pressed keys, even on fresh batteries. I don’t know if it is due to wireless interference, or something got worn out / damaged inside, but it is something to be wary of.
A fairly good keyboard for typing, and being wireless is a bonus if you don’t mind having to change batteries every once in a while (it takes two AA batteries); I haven’t tested this aspect of it much myself, but others claim it has quite good range. The extra keys are useful, but the typing experience falls a bit short of IBM/Lenovo. The wireless performance drop after some years in service is a cause of concern.
The Suora is positioned by Roccat as a keyboard for gamers with a minimalist look. It is not as expensive as some mechanical keyboards, although at a MSRP of $100 it is far from being “entry-level”. The main concept is the “frameless design” with the entire keyboard surface area dedicated to the keys. As such it has the smallest possible footprint for a full-size keyboard (with a numpad). Despite this, Roccat managed to squeeze four extra keys (in the area above the numpad) – volume up/down, mute and ‘Game Mode’ key which disables the Windows key on a hardware level, so that you cannot switch out of your game by hitting it accidentally while playing. Other useful functions (multimedia keys, common app shortcuts and backlight control) are achieved via the special ‘Fn’ key, which replaces the right Windows key.
The backlight can operate at one of 11 (!) different levels (10 + off), with a rather nice blue light. The Suora FX version has colored RGB backlights, with every section of the keyboard lit with a different color, which IMO is overkill. Finally, there are 6 programmable macro keys, but considering the minimalist design and small footprint, these take over the Ins/Del/Home/PgUp/PgDn block.
The keyboard uses Cherry MX Brown switches, which are on the quiet side as far as Cherry MX switches go; however, when bottomed out, they hit the keyboard back plate make a distinct metallic “bang” which I found rather unpleasant. It is true that you don’t need to bottom the switch out to register, so if you type with a light touch, the keyboard will be quieter; however, I found that typing with a light touch is not very comfortable and actually causes more strain on the fingers and palms.
What I liked
- Pleasant typing experience
- Backlight is nice
- ‘Game mode’ button which disables the Windows key is awesome; I wish all keyboards had it
What I didn’t like
- Frameless design is a nice gimmick, but makes the keyboard look a bit ‘raw’; also there is a higher risk of things (dirt, loose cables) getting jammed under your keys.
- Despite using quiet switches, the keyboard itself is far from quiet, when the keys bottom out and bang against the backplate. I feel this may be a design flaw of this model.
- No palmrest, and as the keys are quite tall, I felt that I had to hold my hands at an uncomfortable level while typing, although I did get somewhat used to it after a while.
- 10 different backlight levels is way overkill as you need 11 keypresses (including ‘off’) to cycle through them all; 2-3 levels would be plenty.
- Macro keys and Ins/Del/Home/End/Pgup/Pgdn block are mutually exclusive.
A nice mechanical keyboard, offering a very good set of useful features at an affordable price point, but nothing truly special. Its minimalist and frameless design is either a selling point or a flaw, depending on your style preferences. The keyboard is louder than I would expect, too, although not as loud as some of the ‘clicky’ type Cherry MX keyboards.
Das Keyboard 4 Professional
The last keyboard in this round-up, and the most expensive one, retailing at $170 (although sometimes on sale for ~$150). Along with the classic, professional-looking, no-frills design of Das keyboards, and a great typing experience (in Cherry MX Blue or Brown variants), it comes with a standard set of extra features: multimedia keys, a volume control wheel, a ruler which can double as a keyboard-propping device, and the most impressive one – a powered USB 3.0 hub (which could provide full USB 3.0 speed to my thumb drives). The high overall quality of everything in the keyboard, including the packaging, is immediately evident; overall, this is exactly what you would expect from Das keyboards, and for many it easily justifies their premium price.
What I liked
- The typing experience is second to none, better than any keyboard in this roundup
- Great finish on everything – from the ruler to every single key and extra button
- The volume control wheel is very nice and responsive – more comfortable to use than buttons
- The keyboard appears to be very durable; you feel like you are using a quality device.
- A powered USB 3.0 hub is a nice bonus.
What I did not like
Not sure I can find anything to be honest. It’s clearly on the loud side, but with blue switches, it is kind of the point. The brown switches should cater to those who want a softer, quieter keyboard. Update: I got myself one with brown switches, and it is still as pleasant to type on, while being noticeably quieter (but still louder than the Lenovo Enhanced Performance when typing hard/fast).
Some may see the lack of a palmrest as a negative, but in practice, I did not need it for a comfortable experience. I guess this leaves the price as the only “downside”, but it is a premium item, after all.
The best keyboard I’ve ever typed on, and probably one of the best ones you can get. Hardcore gamers may miss special gamer-oriented features, like programmable macro buttons, or disabling the Windows key on the hardware level, but in other ways it is fully adequate for every use, including multiplayer “hot seat” gaming, as it supports n-key rollover.
Testing all the keyboards in this round-up, I felt they were all adequate and usable for prolonged typing. While I could appreciate the more pleasant feel of the mechanical ones, I would not say that it was a night and day difference. With that said, there do exist some cheap rubber-domes that I personally find unusable – those with very shallow travel or mushy/jamming keys. None of those I would even bother to review.
Even among the rubber-domes there were some differences, and some I feel more comfortable using long-term than others. With a rubber-dome, you cannot really know until you try; if you are willing to pay extra, a mechanical keyboard based on known and tested switch technologies would be a safer bet.
One thing I did not really test here is: suitability for gaming of the rubber-domes. The variance of key-rollover support can be great, and this affects how many keys, and which ones, can be registered simultaneously. I found the Lenovo Enhanced Performance keyboard perfectly suitable for single playing scenarios, but I have not tested two players on a single keyboard; I have not tested the other keyboards. Again, the n-key rollover support in the mechanical keyboards makes them a safer bet for keyboard-based gaming.