Sunday, February 15, 2015

My Mechanical Keyboard Experience

My Mechanical Keyboard Experience

I’ve enjoyed typing since I was in 6th grade and learned it in a 
class on one of those old fashioned mechanical manuals. As much as I enjoy the satisfaction of thumping away on my Hermes or Olympia vintage typewriter, there just isn’t any opportunity to use these in real life anymore.  In recent years, my work environment has moved over nearly 99% to data entry and eliminated handwriting nearly completely.  This is a sad state of affairs for fountainpen enthusiasts like me, but all good things must end. The opportunity for me to use a lot of my pens now is in journaling which is more enjoyable, but I’ve been looking to make my work experience better. So I’ve reluctantly been trying various species of mechanical keyboards over the past 4 years and I believe I’ve found the one worthy one. The Topre RealForce Hi-Pro from Tokyo Japan.

My understanding of the Mechanical Switches in Keyboards 

This is something like the keyboards from the seventies and eighties.  I spent 2 years doing data entry for a research lab when I was an Undergrad on one of those IBM model M buckling-spring keyboards - they are different from these Cherry MX switches in feel - they had heavier actuation weights, but probably felt cheaper in construction quality somewhat, but overall gave a confidence-inspiring feel to each keystroke, allowing precise data entry. You can still buy those model-M keyboards as they’re produced by Unicomp of Kentucky using the exact same technology in the switches. But the Cherry MX switches which come in 28 different types, and created by the Cherry company now based in Bavaria, Germany are probably the most famous mechanical keyboard switch makers in the world. I preferrred the brown, then the blue switches (turns out I’m conventional - these two, in that order, are the most popular by the general population also). At work I use a brown switch keyboard, but at home I enjoy the clickety clack of the blue switches and so does my wife. They have really precise entry and allows high speed entry.  Once you go mechanical switch, you can’t really go back. Or so I thought.

I’ve read of the Topre switches of Tokyo Japan and turned away at their $300 prices, but in the overall scheme of things, why not spend $300+ on a keyboard - the keyboard is in fact the direct point of contact with your computer system - like a good fountain pen, it’s thus one of the most important tangible features of your computer system. Also $300 really isn’t that much money when you’re getting premium quality goods. I researched Topre switch boards and was tempted at the new Cooler Master Novatouch boards since they use Topre switches but have the central cross connectors allowing keycap changeouts with those made for Cherry MX, but I figured I’m not going to look for other keycaps for decorative purposes anyway, and the Topre RealForce with Hi-Pro already has the best keycaps: PBT w/dye-sublimation printing on them. Though it takes a while to get used to, these spooned out keycaps give an extra special ergonomic feel to typing that is indescribably enjoyable after a while of getting accustomed to them.  I found that EliteKeyboards still sold them and grabbed one - I got a keyboard roof also to protect the keys from dust & liquid spills.  I’m now tempted to buy another just so I have one as a spare in case this one goes kaput and these are no longer available in the future.

My Rosewill Apollo (NewEgg LED backlit one) was not only too much bling, it wasno't made properly - the switches, the plug ins (USB ports x2, mic & headphone connections) just don’t work reliably - buggy piece of crap.  I like My wife’s plainJane Rosewill 9000 series keyboard better. For a decent cheap mechanical keyboard I’d suggest looking at these. The feel of the keys are essentially the same, and if you don’t care about cosmetics or backlighting, or various features, these cheaper ones are all you need. The higher priced ones from Deck, DAS, Vortex or Filco in Australia, or Ducky in China give you some feature choices for keyboard geeks that most people don’t know or care about like various lighting programming features, programmable keys, cord plug options, USB port options etc.  The construction on these are also higher quality, but none of these can beat the Topre or Happy Hacking keyboards’ build quality. Typing on the Topre realForce is like driving a premium car - solid nesting pleasure with everything designed for ergonomics and quality, with the quiet subdued feel of nonostentatious luxury.  

iOne XArmor U9W wireless mechanical keyboard with MX cherry brown switches

This was my first experience with mechanical keyboards. Around 2011 - I read various blogs by keyboard aficionados about the virtues of the mechanical key switches by Cherry. After perusing the feel and pros and cons of the blues, reds, and browns, I felt like the brown switches seemed most reasonable. I already had a couple failures with Logitech wireless keyboards - balky, connections blanking out etc - shorting or whatever was occurring and I decided to try one of these. They had a rubberized surface texture to the cases, the keyboard was beefy and heavy - a feeling of high quality. The wireless connection was bluetooth radio signals carried by a 2.4Ghz dongle - no software included - apparently self-connecting. I found it connected up perfectly from the start. But then troubles began, but more on this later.

The clicks definitely made typing on it more confidence-inspiring, more reassuring that the right buttons are pressed, but the speed wasn’t much better initially.  This one is the cherry BROWN keys that click, I thought I had gotten the quiet keys, but being used to cheap dome membrane keyboards by Logitech for several years, it seemed very loud comparatively.  The cherry BLUE keys were supposed to be better in feel, though even louder - I got a Rosewill 9000 board from newegg shortly to try that one out - it was stentorian - I gave it to my wife who loved it.  It continues to torture me to this day with its obnoxiously loud keys. I offered to put rubber bands under its keycaps for her, but she enjoyed the loud clicking, like the smacking of gum - enjoyable to the chewer, torture to those living around it.

Back to the XAmor U9W - I tried it with the wrist rest, and it’s not much better, so I removed it, as it took up enormous desktop real estate with the plastic wristrest.- it’s a standard, full-size layout with the arrow keys and the numberpad - useful at taxtime. No odd-sized, oddly-placed buttons like the previous Logitech M520.  I placed Lithium Energizer batteries in it.  Heavy and sturdy. Rubberized surface. Keycaps felt somewhat textured, but when pull out - they are ABS (cheaper Lego plastic) - no big deal. Can tell ABS from the better PBT plastic by floating the ABS in water - PBT tends to sink. Also acetone smears the ABS plastic. PBT is usually thicker, higher quality, withstands 323F temperatures compared to only 212F for ABS. PBT is denser, heavier, higher quality and would last longer, much more expensive plastic. Usually texturized and feels much better in quality. I dreamed of PBT keycaps.. someday you shall be mine. But this trivial bit of lechery was unnecessary.  

I used the XArmor U9W with pleasure for about 13 months, enough to use it past its warranty period. A great board. Then one day, it went out on me. A repeated glitchy disturbing error tone on my computer speakers - maddening and I couldn’t figure out what from, but I noticed the keyboard wouldn’t register. Having lost the instructions for the keyboard I frantically looked all around the house for it - finally searched online for the instructions and found some. (later I found the original instructions with the box in the attic). I went through the procedures, re-linking my keyboard to my computer and the dongle - seemed to work, then the signal was lost again. Again and again I tried to reconnect it in vain. Would work for a few lines, then bonk, gone. I opened up the keyboard, looked at the little controller deck on the upper left corner - no obvious fizzled connections.  I tried it on different computers, nothing. I tried to pry off the switches - nothing. I tried new batteries, different dongles, nothing. The keyboard was lost. That was it, forget wireless keyboards.

Rosewill Apollo RK-9100XB, with Cherry MX Blue switches

A year ago I went for a connected, grounded Rosewill Apollo RK-9100XB board from newegg - the king of the newegg mechanical heap. With USB ports, headphone, microphone ports, adjustable illuminated keys, braided cording, the whole works. Cherry Blue MX switches this time. We’ll see how my wife likes the maddening clickiness of blues.  This board was full of bling, but from the very beginning I noticed the letter “A” switch was off - it repeated randomly, it failed to capture occasionally, though half the time it all worked ok. I kept using it for almost a year, before being driven mad by this halting, balky “A” keyswitch. I opened up the keyboard, unfortunately noticed the switches were mounted on a steel plate rather directly on PCB board, making it difficult to remove the individual switch. I’d have to desolder the connectors to get the switch out.  I was tempted, but noticed I was still within the 1 year warranty period, just barely, so I emailed to see if I could get this thing repaired by newegg. I decided enough with the economy boards; I researched furiously and looked at Deck Hassium Pro keyboards, Cooler Masters & Corsairs,  Ducky Shines, Filco and Vortex ones from Australia, the ubiquitous DAS keyboards from Germany; I looked at the common keyswitches by Cherry - decided I preferred the browns to blues and reds, didn’t like the clears, blacks, greens or the rarer MXs. I looked back at the old loud buckling spring keyswitches of IBM/Lexmark and Unicomps, as well as the various ALPs keyswitches from the 1990s before deciding I’ll go to the top of the mountain - Topre switches and keyboards from Japan would be my next keyboards.  After looking at the compact but pricy Happy Hacking boards, I much preferred the full-size boards and especially appealing was the beautiful HiPro ergonomic RealForce 104UG. It had everything I wanted including the sleek understated look, the PBT keycaps, the total absence of useless bling. After looking for a few weeks for a deal on ebay and various auction sites for used ones, I decided to get a new one from the reliable  The price was steep but my lust was steeper.

Nearly all keyboards sold with computers use rubber domes under the keys.  This is the same technology used in cheap TVremotes.  With mechanical keyboards, you don’t have to bottom out the keys to the bottom of the rubber plate to register your strokes.  This saves a lot of energy, reduces fatigue in typing.  Mechanical key switches are designed so that they register before you bottom out the keystrokes, so you need only apply as much force as is necessary to actuate it, not wasting any energy in the process.  There are several types of mechanical keyswitches to pick from.  Once to you try mechanical keyswitches on typing keyboards, you can’t go back.

One of the disadvantages of the mechanical keyboards, especially with USB ports are that it typically supports only 6 key rollovers - beyond 6 keys pressed at once, the other entries are blocked.  This is rarely useful except for maybe certain gaming situations.  The Cherry MX switches have a 5ms debouncing time - each key is delayed by at least this much, but most non-superhumans could not type much faster than this anyway - we’re talking 300wpm speeds.

The average rubber dome keyboards require 55g-60g of force to actuate. 1g of weight applies about 1 Centinewtons of downward force.  That’s 55-60 cN-rated.
Cherry MX Black switches have a 40-80g (60g) actuation force - gives a smooth feel, good for gaming, but not so good for typing, not much of a tactile bump.  Cherry MX Brown switches have 45g actuation force, and a peak force of 55g. These are a middle-ground between gaming and typing switches.  They have a light tactile feel halfway through the keystroke - thus they give you an indication of when you can release.  The reset and actuation points are close enough together that you can “float” at that point enabling you to double tap faster.  The Cherry MX Blue switches have peak force of 50g, with 60g peak force.  These are the best for typing. The tactile bump is easily felt, and the resistance is similar to the average mechanical keyboard.  The release point is above the actuation point, so double-tapping for gaming might be more troublesome.  Other Cherry MX switches are the “clear” switches which are like stiffer browns, the “red” which is a lighter version of the black requiring less force (45g).  The top-of-the-line mechanical keyboards use the “Topre Key Switch” with the tactile capacitative switch of 30-55g actuation force.  They are quieter than the Cherry MX, or Alps, or Buckling Spring switches, with the smoothest force gradient.  
Topre RealForce High-Profile keycaps - RealForce 104UG HiPro, Model YK2100
the Topre switches are faster: 3x faster Debounce - the time it takes a keyboard to register a single switch digital signaal. (5-8msec vs 19-25msec for a cherry MX).  Steel backplate keeps board rigid and sturdy solid feel. Cooler Master came out with the NovaTouch which uses Topre switches, but with the Cherry MX compatible central cross allowing Cherry MX array of keycaps. Detachable cords (but microUSB plug, which could unplug easier than standard).
No LED, no USB, headphone, speaker plugs etc. (just bling anyway).

The XArmor U9w was outstanding on my old computer, but suddenly became useless - wouldn’t connect, wouldn’t type consistently, skips, skitters, repeats. Not sure what happened, but scared me away from wireless mechanical keyboards. But the shitty Rosewill Apollo was the worst experience of my life in keyboards.

I also went in on the $88 PLUM keyboard massdrop earlier - this one’ll arrive sometime in early March maybe - I plan to take this one to work perhaps.
After I Finally received the much awaited Topre RealForce Hi-profile keyboard - in unique dark grey board with lighter grey/beige PBT sculpted keys. scooped-out profiles overall, and scooped-out touch surface on most keys, but with a variance to it that is unique. For instance the ~ to + row including the 1-0 keys are angled forward in a unique way that makes reaching them easier than whatever so that 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, 11,12 13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20, etc. Perfection.

There’s no indexing rise on the F & J keytops like most keyboards. Rather, the scooping depth to the A, ; G & H keys are shallow like most other keys, while the sdf and jkl keys have the most pronounced scooping depth. This allows one to feel one’s way into position - thoujgh it takes some time to learn. One has to become loyal to this keyboard to learn this by feel, but with such a luxurious board, one can’t help but want to be one with this cup rubber as much as possible.

I get some hangups like others have said about this board such that my typing speed was not great - 109wpm on typeracer. I’ve hit 115 or higher regularly on my XArmor Cherry Brown couple years ago. I’m biased against the Cherry Blue, mainly because the Apollo Rosewill was such a piece of shit with the hanging A key - the plating making the replacement of this switch a pain the ass - I’d have to desolder it, resolder another switch for instance. But I think I can definitely get used to this keyboard. I’m getting lots of mishits, but I think the cherry blue apollo piece of shit has given me the yips. Will need to retrain myself.

The keyboard roof is truly nice piece of acrylic, clear 3.44mm thick piece - lies atop the keys only - protecting from dust, liquid spills etc. damage. Bonus - I can lay it on the board, put my journal on top of it at a slant and use it as a slantboard for writing more comfortably as well.  Is this roof worth $30 form elitekeyboards - it is for me now, but ask me again a few months later.

§  Clear acrylic Roof/Cover protects from dust and spills
§  Fits Leopold 104-key and Realforce 103-key Keyboards
Model: RF-EK    Stock: YES    Price: $30.00
 A bit of a pain as to where to store it.

On cardboard box:
Topre REalforce
Keyboard Specifications
Much better Operational Performance by
Electrostatic Capacitative System.
Superior endurance of 30 million key life cycle.
Good feeling of oneness with cup rubber.

On bottom of box:
Japanese lettering

On right-side end of box:
Topre Corporation
SKU bar: 456029934041417

Item                                                          Specifications
Switch System                                           Electrostatic Capacitive System
Stroke                                                       4.0 mm
Layout type                                                US Layout 104 keys (Black)
Press Attributes                                          45g Soft Tactile Feeling (+/-15g)
Interface                                                    USB Interface
Cable Length                                              Approx. 1.5m
External Dimensions                   456mm(W) x 169mm(D) x 39mm(H)
Weight                                                      Approx. 1.4kg
Not such a tactile feel as compared - can be silent - the bottoming out sound is more a pleasant click. When actuating without the bottom contact, it can almost be silent. aaabbbcccdddeeefffggghhhiiijjjkkklllmmmnnnooopppqqqrrrssstttuuuvvvwwwxxxyyzzz111222333444555666777888999000.

Typing on this board feels like nothing else - the rubber dome keys of membrane mid 1990s Dell boards feel similar in terms of the pressure gradient pop. The Cherry brown switches on a plate is the closest match in terms of sound, but the tactile feel is entirely different for both. Cherry MX switches feel very linear in resistance - You feel a pressure whether hard or soft throughout the stroke til the break. On a membrane board, you feel a bubble pop feel at the top of the stroke, but as it gives away, there is nothing - also there is a plasticky cheap chiclettiness to membrane boards that is very unsatisfying for extended typing sessions. A dull monotony. With the Topre switch, because the finger and keycap switch is floating atop a rubber dome, it feels like your finger is being pushed back as it pushes forward - a floating feeling. The majority of the resistance at each switch is therefore near the top of the press, then you feel the pressure clearly give away, a silent popping feel that is very addictive and pleasurable. I reminds one of that feeling you get pressing against a bubble in bubblewrap. If you can learn to not press the key all the way to the bottom point, you can type very quietly. But for those of us trained on mechanical typewriters, the fingers tend to press with more force than the Topre switches require, thus the bottoming out sound and low-pitch click with a woody pleasant timbre to it.  The scooped out profiles are more pronounced in the primary asdfghjkl; row, less pronounced in the rows above and below. In the numbers row above the alphabet keys, the keys are scooped but leans forward toward your fingers, allowing a more ergonomic reach to these numbers. Almost makes the numberpad unnecessary. The remainder of the keys including the function keys, numberpad, arrow array and the printscreen to pageup/down array have the intermediate scooped profile. The keys toward center of the board requires more force to actuate than the keys toward the outside of the central key array. 3 weights. This variable weighting creates a more even psychophysics of typing in the same way that the well-tempered keyboard demonstrated by Bach creates a more even tonal centering sound. Generally it all works well together to create a keyboard ergonomics unlike any other board; in fact accounting for features and feels that other keyboarding makers probably have never even remotely considered.
The keys are PBT(polybutylene terephthalate) , which is a premium I didn’t appreciate too much - but is clearly superior to ABS (lego plastic) - higher melting point, thicker plastic, longer lasting form.  (Spacebar is ABS). Long life dye-sublimated keycap labeling (Black)
Substantial feeling to each key, to the board itself, to every connection and switch. A surety of construction that gives one confidence that though one’s mind and fingers may falter, this machine will not. A sense that it will last one’s lifetime. That it may possibly pass down the generations even.
There’s a pleasant matte grain to the surface textures of the board itself, and to each keycap.
There’s a pleasant simplicity of design - a luxurious simplicity, like a vintage Mercedes Benz from the mid 1980s. Looks German in the design.

For this combination of luxurious, decadent design, build, and well-thought out subtleties, along with the sophisticated tactile popping feel of typing on this board, one must pay a premium. ~$300 shipped. I got an acrylic keyboard roof from elitekeyboards for an additional $30 to protect this investment. But since the majority of the time one spends in front of a computer screen is time spent interfacing with a keyboard -  this time is best spent in pleasure, flying across keycaps and switches built for pleasure and speed.