Monday, 19 October 2015

My Kingdom for a Keyboard

Apple announced updates to its iMac lineup this week, along with an overhaul of three of the brands most venerable pieces of hardware: the Magic Mouse, Trackpad and Keyboard.

These three peripherals have always represented Apple's myopic pursuit of design at the expense of usability. None of them (with the possible exception of the Magic Trackpad) is better than what other manufacturers have on offer.

The Magic Mouse, for example, eschewed buttons as we know them and instead employed a touch-sensitive surface designed to replace them old-fashioned button things. Great in theory, but in practice it sucked. Using Google Maps or a similar page in a web browser usually resulted in unwanted rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs as the mouse detected a scroll command that never was.

The Magic Trackpad goes okay in most regards, however it is very sensitive and, like the mouse, can often trigger gestures you did not intend. And, as a Photoshop user, a trackpad is no substitute for a mouse or tablet. That said, Apple's implementation of the trackpad is the best in the market and a pleasure to use most of the time.

But the worst (or best?) example of Apple's nearsighted pursuit of design for the sake of design is the Apple Keyboard — the worst-designed Apple peripheral since the infamous Apple USB Mouse (M4848), known derisively as the "Hockey Puck".

In an age of touch-enabled devices, the humble keyboard remains the most practical and important human interface device for computers. The vast majority of all computerised communication is carried via letters and numbers entered by fingers on keys, therefore the comfort and productivity of the typist should be of the utmost concern. Unfortunately, Apple — like almost all computer hardware manufacturers — have set themselves on a road to mediocrity with the design and usability of their keyboards.

Keyboards used to have bite. They used to announce their presence via the unmistakable clickety clack of mechanical switches. But this was not noise for the sake of noise, mechanical switches provide the best possible typing experience, with a good amount of travel (the distance a key must be pushed down before the keystroke is recognised) and a positive tactile response, that is to say the user knows when a key is hit and can move on to the next keystroke. These two properties, among many, make mechanical keyboards easier to touch-type on, which is why they are preferred by typists the world over.

Unfortunately, the mainstream computer world has largely abandoned mechanical keyboards in favour of rubber domes and other less tactile mechanisms. Apple's last mechanical keyboard, the Extended II (on which this post is being clickety-clacked) was discontinued in 1995 and now mechanical keyboards are largely the domain of gamers, usually tricked out with custom LEDs and a thousand-and-one programmable custom function buttons. "Features" which your average keyboard user doesn't need.

Yes, "design"
Apple's new "Magic" Keyboard utilises all-new scissor switches for its keys, similar to the previous Apple Keyboards and MacBook mechanisms, but with even less travel. At first type, this makes it quite difficult to touch-type on. It is important to note that this new keyboard does not use the butterfly mechanism of the new MacBook – a mechanism that provides so little travel and tactile response that one reviewer wanted "to cry a little", but it is not much better. While the size and design constraints of the ultra-thin MacBook make its keyboard a necessary evil, there is no such excuse with a desktop keyboard, other than the elevation of form over function. Sadly, using the new Magic Keyboard is not that different from the miserable experience of typing on a touch screen.

Happily, the Magic Keyboard does address a number of design issues from previous models. First, the keyboard is now a solid wedge shape, not a thin aluminium sloped casing with little support underneath (although Microsoft could be forgiven for being a little pissed at this). I have a collection of bent and battered aluminium Apple Keyboards, victims of close-run essays and reports.

The keyboard (along with the new trackpad and mouse) also contains an in-built rechargeable battery that can be charged via a Lightning cable (included). This is pretty neat, although it's another USB port that needs to be used on a computer where ports are already at a premium. At this point, I'd like to see an iMac with an integrated Lightning cable, but that in itself would offer its own design problems.

Apple's quick to claim the environmental high ground on its new peripherals with the use of batteries, rightly claiming it reduces use of alkaline batteries that would otherwise end up in landfill. But it also limits the life of the product with the integrated battery not replaceable by the user. Also, anyone who has owned and used the previous iterations of these products would be unlikely to persist with the Sisyphean task of using alkaline batteries – non-rechargable lithiums and rechargeable Ni-MH batteries were a mandatory part of every sale in my time in computer retail.

Still, with all these design goodies, the typing experience has been solely neglected, leaving touch typists to fend for themselves in a world of illuminated gaming keyboards that look more like offensive weapons and are named accordingly (Razer BlackWidow Ultimate, anyone?). This is why I persist with my Apple Extended Keyboards – arguably the best keyboards ever made – acquiring them in all conditions at all times, along with the USB adaptors required to operate them on modern machines.

Apple Extended Keyboard (front) and two Apple Extended Keyboard II
So what are the modern options? Sadly, unless you like your keyboards black and illuminated, there aren't too many options. For Mac users, the best alternative is one of the Matias Tactile series – they bill the Tactile Pro as the spiritual successor to the Apple Extended Keyboards. But good typing doesn't come cheap, a Tactile Pro will set you back over AUD$200 locally, so start saving your cents. You can still sometimes pick up a bargain on eBay by searching for vintage Mac equipment, although listings for Apple Extended Keyboards are both rare and usually expensive. It pays to search simply for vintage Macs that include a keyboard – often that "keyboard" is an Apple Extended Keyboard. Of course you will need an adaptor to get it up and running, but it's well worth it.

What I would really love to see is an Apple mechanical keyboard on the market again. A keyboard with all the nice design of current Mac hardware, but with the added benefit of being usable. A wireless mechanical keyboard with a similar footprint to the new "Magic" keyboard is not impossible. Perhaps call it the Apple Keyboard "Pro" or something. The problem is that as computer users, we have become habituated to mediocrity. We don't think of the keyboard interface as something that should be satisfying or even pleasurable, merely something that is just adequate. Most of us don't know there is something better out there – a keyboard that makes even the most arduous data-entry tasks strangely satisfying. A better keyboard makes us better typists and therefore better communicators. Would it be too much to suggest that a better keyboard makes us better people? Maybe. But you'll never know unless you try.


  1. I would also love to see apple make another mechanical keyboard. That said there are tons of high quality mechs available in all form factors. I have a v60 mini that I use with my mac. While it's not marketed as a Mac keyboard, there are dip switches to flip the modifiers so I have it configured as a Mac layout.

    1. Yes, happily there are plenty of mech keyboards available. I'd also love to see a compact Apple mech KB with all the mod cons (bluetooth or USB with ports etc). Alas I don't think we'll see that ever!