It’s been a while since I first heard about mechanical keyboards, which purportedly offer better typing comfort than the more common membrane or scissor ones. Being a translator, it was only natural for me to be interested in them, since typing is what I do on my computer most of the time and I’m not completely comfortable using speech-recognition software, especially when working with chemistry or pharmacology texts, which notoriously feature very long words that speech-recognition software simply doesn’t support out-of-the-box. Before I bought my Das Keyboard, however, I decided to do some research first, gathering information from reviews and user forums. The first thing I noticed when reading those, it’s the huge amount of snake oil present there. Especially on forums, you may run across a few bold yet unsubstantiated claims, ranging from “mechanical keyboards improve your typing speed”, to the more otherworldly “bottoming out may cause micro-fractures to your finger bones” and “tenkeyless keyboards are better for you, because your arms are in a more natural position when using a mouse”. Both those remarks made me raise an eyebrow when I first came across them, so I decided to delve a bit deeper to see if I could find any substantiation for them.
A research on PubMed yields… Very little results, actually. One of the results is a fairly recent meta-analysis that suggests that “There are no studies regarding the use of computers and some neck, shoulder, and upper-limb diseases”. Similarly, I was able to find only one study that evaluated the difference in typing speed between virtual keyboards and conventional keyboards. It should be noted that the authors of that paper use the term “mechanical” a bit liberally, including laptop-like scissor keyboard in that group. However, mechanical switches, at least in my experience, never have scissor keys. It might be safe to assume that the keyboard with a 4 mm travel they used was a rubber-dome keyboard as well, but I can’t be 100% sure. However, a 2011 study found that typists typically use a lot more force than needed and I can’t exclude that this may cause health problems. I’m no medical doctor, but I still don’t buy the whole “micro-fracture” thing, mainly because logic wants that if a part of your hand gets damaged while typing, that would be the joint, not the bone itself.
A quick look at the keyboard
With that out of the way, let’s have a look at the subject at hand. The Das Keyboard is a mechanical keyboard that uses Cherry MX switches in two flavours: blue and brown. The difference between those lies in the presence or absence of auditory feedback. Essentially, blue switches are almost identical to browns, except that they’re a bit more clicky. A comparison between the two can be found on Metadot’s website.
I bought mine a few months back on eBay from a reseller that auctioned the last specimen he had in stock. I was able to get it for 85 € plus shipping, which is a pretty good deal when you take into account that this product used to retail for 169 € plus shipping. I was led to believe that mine came with blue switches, but unfortunately they were brown, as shown in the sticker at the bottom of the product. Oh well, I’m not complaining. The switches are rather loud as they are, and I can only imagine how annoying louder switches could get after a while.
The packaging is rather unremarkable. You get exactly what you expect from a keyboard packaging, starting from a picture of the product itself on the front and some marketing blurb on the bottom. Inside it, you will find the usual manual and warranty information sheet, the keyboard itself and a male PS/2 to female USB adaptor. More on that later.
Coming from Germany, this keyboard has a QWERTZ layout, the most common in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I touch type, so this isn’t a big deal for me, but many people find issue with this. Just have a look at how customers are pissed at Amazon.it when they find out that they’ve gotten a laptop with a German keyboard layout. I just had to set the Italian layout in Windows and I was ready to go. Plus, umlauts are rather metal, and I wholeheartedly approve.
The casing is in plastic, that despite not being exactly a premium material, it feels solid enough, except in the top right corner of the keyboard, above the LEDs, where the Das Keyboard logo is. Pushing your thumb against it, the plastic squeaks a bit. It’s not a huge deal, because I can’t think of any situation where you’re required to do so, but I felt it might be worth noting. What is a big deal, however, is that the top of the casing is glossy. Sure, it looks good, but it attracts dust and fingerprints, so you better be ready to clean it almost daily.
Having a look at Metadot’s marketing materials, could lead you to believe that the Num, Caps and Scroll Lock LEDs are very bright. This isn’t really the case: under normal condition, they’re actually pretty dim unless you stand exactly over the keyboard (not likely to happen during typing sessions) and the glossy surface of the keyboard can make it a bit hard to see them properly. Again, not a huge deal, but a brighter LED wouldn’t have hurt.
The units feels rather heavy at 1.36 kg and the rubber feet beneath it ensure that you won’t be accidentally push it forward while typing, which is a common problem in cheaper, lighter products. By comparison, the Trust keyboard I had previously weighted 500 grams, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to push it forward when typing.
One thing that may strike you is the presence of an Fn key, usually found on laptops. Back in the day, before the inclusion of widescreen displays in notebooks allowed the use of full-width keyboards, an Fn key was used to switch the behaviour of some keys to allow them to be used as a numeric keypad replacement. It wasn’t very comfortably to use, but it was better than nothing. Nowadays, they’re still used on Function keys as a replacement for multimedia keys and other quick setting adjustments. The Das Keyboard is no different in that regard: The combinations Fn+F1-3 allow to mute, lower and raise audio volume, Fn+F5-8 act as multimedia keys and Fn+F12 puts the computer to sleep. They’re a nice inclusion and they’re handy if, say, you use your monitor speakers and want to adjust the volume while you’re playing a game (although not every full screen program supports that) or like to listen to music when you’re working and want to switch quickly between tracks. It’s a nice feature to have, but unfortunately it only works if you connect it to the computer using the USB cable. That’s right, the Fn key doesn’t work at all if you use the PS/2 adapter, forcing you to choose between the availability of multimedia keys and N-key rollover. This is really strange, because the first keyboard I got back in 2001 was a cheap USB keyboard bundled with the computer that had programmable multimedia keys. I usually don’t need to press more than 6 keys at once (the maximum allowed by the USB connection), so it’s not really a trade-off for me, but if you need both features, then you’re out of luck. Also worth mentioning is that the two USB cords are very short, potentially forcing you to do some acrobatics if you want to plug the keyboard in the PS/2 port. A consequence of the presence of the Fn key is that the Windows keys are smaller than usual. In other keyboards, they usually are the same width of the Ctrl and Alt keys, but in this case they’re actually the same size as the letter keys. It takes a while to get used to, especially if you use them extensively to toggle between screens or open the command prompt, but if you’re somewhat used to Apple keyboards you should feel right at home.
Speaking of the USB hub, this simple USB 2.0 low-power hub allows you to connect up to two peripherals. Some would point out that the presence of the hub nets you a free USB port, but this argument doesn’t make much sense: in my humble opinion, the USB ports in the rear of the PC are meant for peripheral the user will likely not need to plug in and remove constantly, whereas front ports and hubs are meant for quick access to plug in the occasional USB stick and whatnot. Imagine the cable clutter you’d get if you plugged two corded devices into the keyboard. Not really an elegant solution. And again, this hub is low-power, so while it can provide enough power to charge a mobile phone or a Kindle and give enough juice to drive a pair of speakers, you can’t use it to connect a portable hard drive.
On to the keyboard itself, the brown switches provide a nice tactile feedback when typing. When the switch hits the activation point, the key becomes slightly heavier to press. This can be useful if you’re the kind of typist that doesn’t bottom out. Even if you aren’t, the keys feel very good under the fingertips ben you press them and larger keys, like backspace or Enter, make an oddly satisfactory chaff when you press them. Being a mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX switches, the keys are full-travel, meaning they bottom out at 4 mm. This is on par with other keyboards, both mechanical and rubber-dome, and to me it feels more comfortable to type on than most chiclet keyboards found on laptops.
Despite the build quality being generally excellent, the keycap letters are pad printed. This is a very common method to put labels on keycaps, mostly because it’s inexpensive. I know that on a dark keyboard, they can’t use fancier, more expensive methods such as laser etching or dye sublimation, but on such an expensive item, I expected them to use injection moulding, which, although a lot more expensive than simple pad printing, doesn’t ever wear out. This might seem like nit picking, but come on, we’re talking about a keyboard that almost reaches the 200 € price point. My guess is that letter labels were added as an afterthought. After all, the first Das Keyboard was a blank rubber-dome keyboard designed to teach people to touch type, so it makes sense that they try to push the whole thing as a selling point to their niche customer base. However, I expect that the keys I use the most will start to wear out in a year or a year and a half, giving it a very ugly look. Fortunately, mechanical keyboards have the advantage of giving the user the possibility to replace the keycaps rather easily. Problem is, that of custom/replacement keycaps is a rather niche market and they’re quite expensive. A quick googling finds that they average 50 $, excluding shipping and taxes. Chances are getting one shipped to Italy will total around 100 €. I guess I’ll have to deal with it as it comes, or stick to faded keycaps and call it a day.
Will it really help me type faster?
But what about the claim that a mechanical keyboard will improve your typing speed? I decided to compare my typing speed on a Das Keyboard with that on a laptop (HP Pavilion x360), a Bluetooth tablet keyboard, and a Trust Wireless Keyboard with mouse. To perform this test, I’ll be using a freeware software called TIPP10. I devised a small test, 1933 characters long that is made up of sentences taken from the CLIPS corpus, specifically in the LFp1A01M.txt file. I took the liberty of deleting the tags that indicate pause and inspirations, because they’re not needed for our purposes. The file can be viewed here. I ran the test five times per device in order to ensure a greater accuracy. It should be noted that the software only gives the results as characters (or keystrokes) per minute. However, I’ll be using words per minute, each word consisting on average of 5 characters. I know that that is a value valid for English, not Italian, but most typing testing programs that I’m aware of assume 5 as the average word length.
Here are the results:
In all honesty, I was rather surprised by these results, especially those for the Trust Keyboard. This is a set that usually retails for 24 € (although I bought it for 19) and a corded version is bundled with some Dell desktop towers. Or at least it was a while ago. I already knew it was a very good keyboard for the price, but actually beating the Das Keyboard in a typing competition? That’s definitely something I didn’t expect.
This is not to say that the Das Keyboard is a bad product. It’s clearly not: it’s solidly made, it’s comfortable to type on, it gives a pleasant auditory and tactile feedback when using it, something that rubber-dome keyboards simply can’t provide. But these considerations can’t overshadow the fact that this is a product that retails for 169 € + shipping. That’s a lot of money for most people. Heck, it is a lot of money for me and, quite frankly, I don’t think I would buy this keyboard for the price it usually retails for.
Should you buy it? Well, I’m not so sure about it. If you’re in the market for a new keyboard and can find a very good bargain, like I did, then sure, go ahead. It’s probably going to satisfy you, if you’re looking for a sturdy product. However, I don’t think that buying it at full price is worth it. Not with all these cut corners. After all, keyboards are pieces of hardware that you better try out before you buy and, unfortunately, these aren’t usually found in retail chains. Purchasing this item was, to me, a huge gamble. I could’ve not liked it at all and, as a result, had shelved out 85 € for nothing. My advice is to go to a store, try out a few and pick the one you find the most comfortable.