/posts/ 2021/is-a-keyboard-a-productivity-tool

Is an expensive keyboard a 'productivity tool'?

Mar 14, 2021

#tools #keyboards 

Sometime around 2015 I purchased an MX Master mouse, and I had a gift certificate for PC World (an electronics shop in the UK) which reduced the price to about £40. At the time, it felt like a frivolous purchase, but I had to buy a new mouse as my ageing Microsoft Explorer mouse had finally died after around ten years of service.

“Buy it for Life” is the idea that you purchase practical, durable, and quality-made products that could potentially last a lifetime. You can’t ‘buy for life’ with electronics, but a quality item will readily give you ten years of life. I justified my expensive mouse purchase in terms of value for money. My Explorer had lasted ten years, and if the MX Master lasted another ten then that’ll spread the cost to around £9/year.

Keyboards have always been this practical item, a tool to be used, abused, and disposed of when broke. From a £10 PS2 keyboard I got with a new PC, to a Dell Slim 104-key USB keyboard I picked up from eBay as it was the same as the keyboard I was using at work, I never really took any time to think about my primary input device.

Mechanical keyboards have taken off in a big way in the last ten years, driven by what I think is people’s desire for something better. I was exposed quite early, around 1998, to an IBM M mechanical keyboard that was hidden away with an IBM PS2 in a family cupboard. At the time I thought it was far too loud to use daily, and I stuck with my terrible domed keyboard. Rolling on ten years later and what is old is new again, people are demanding more from their keyboard, the rise in popularity of the ‘Das Keyboard’ showed that people still wanted old clicky mechanism.

I didn’t investigate mechanical keyboards until 2016 when popularity was surging, and many pre-built keyboards were available for the average user. Even then, the choice of switches and price drove me away from the idea. Then in early 2020, when COVID-19 pushed most into the home office, I came to the realization I didn’t have a home office desk that I could call my own; the equipment I needed just wasn’t there. Like everyone else, I quickly ordered bits online; monitor, desk, headsets, my company provided the bulk of what I needed, but I was still missing a few key elements. When browsing for a keyboard on Amazon I was dissatisfied with the choices, and I couldn’t find my favorite Dell keyboard on eBay. Only then did I think back to 2015 and my selection of mice; the MX Master is still chugging on without issues, a bit worn, but still working. I thought it’d be nice if I had a keyboard like that.

My initial mech keyboard of choice was an Akko 3068, a 68% keyboard that covered the base keys in a small form-factor, pre-built, and available from China on a reasonable timescale. It was my main workhorse for most of the lockdown, bar the US layout, the loud Cherry MX Brown switches, and the echoing internals, it served me well. Six months later, I had already decided I needed an upgrade. Around that time, Caps Unlocked was running a group buy (essentially, a pre-order) for their new CU65 keyboard. It has a milled aluminum case, with a hot-swappable PCB so you can change your switches without getting the soldering iron out, and a USB-C interface. Perfect for my new home working desk setup.

March 2021, and I’ve finally received my CU65. Like a child with a new toy, I had to get it open, built, and working. It took only 3-4 hours, which I think is good for my first ever build, and I’m seriously impressed with the results.

In total, it came to £213.94, which is an eye-watering amount for a keyboard. A well-constructed and repairable keyboard could potentially last ten years. Mechanical switches are rated for upwards of 50 million key presses and cost in the range of 50p to £1 each, so replacing broken switches won’t blow the budget.

Let’s get back on topic; why would an expensive keyboard be a productivity tool?

First big point is comfort. Custom keyboards come in all shapes and sizes, from full-size to 65%, to Dactyl, so depending on your usage style, you can find a keyboard that suits you. You have to remember that your keyboard is your primary interface to your computer, most modern knowledge work is done in front of a computer, so much like investing in a good chair, a good keyboard is a must.

Most custom keyboards are configurable to some degree. QMK is a custom firmware that allows you to configure and remap keys exactly how you want. It allows you to select the features that you want rather than the choices being made by someone who will never meet you. For example, as a developer, I use certain keys and features on the keyboard; Page Up, Page Down, Insert, and Delete are required within easy reach. While they do come on standard on my 65% keyboard, I could easily remap them to a new location. You can modify the keyboard layout to suit you and keep you productive.

Finally, with a longer life-span it means you will not be replacing this keyboard anytime soon, so familiarity will help a lot. People get used to how they use a keyboard, and it was why I previously bought one of those Dell Slim keyboards as I was using it daily at work. Once you are familiar with your new device and layout, you’ll find that your typing speed will increase, shaving time off any tasks. Ali Abdaal did a video purely on his mechanical keyboard, and how he can type fast, so I’m not alone in thinking this.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ve written this post only to justify my purchase in some way. I’ll be able to give a longer review of my CU65 in the near future. *clack clack clack*