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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | Detailed Considerations and Tips for Specifying Particular Components ]

Keyboards

Description: The keyboard is the primary input device for the PC, and the primary way in which textual information is entered into the PC. It has been around since the earliest days of the PC (when it was the only input device on most systems) and is not likely to go away any time soon. :^) Keyboards come in hundreds of shapes, sizes, colors and variations but in terms of general design and interface they have probably changed the least of any component type in the PC world.

Tip: For much additional information on keyboards, including more discussion of how they work, as well as many of the technical details, criteria and features mentioned below, see the Reference Guide section on keyboards.

Role and Subsystems: The keyboard is an input device and is part of the input subsystem. It connects to the motherboard through the keyboard port on the motherboard (though some models now connect using USB.)

Related Components: The motherboard to which it connects, primarily. PS/2 mice use the same interface so I suppose that technically makes them related, but they do not need to be specified simultaneously.

Key Compatibility Selection Criteria: There is only one real compatibility issue, the size of the connector. Many older PCs and keyboards used a larger, 5-pin keyboard connector that mated a large port on the back of the motherboard; newer ones use a smaller 6-pin connector. This is really not a big deal, however, as there are cheap mechanical adapters available, and the keyboards are electrically compatible.

Some keyboards are now available that use the USB port instead of the keyboard port; these of course require a working USB interface.

Performance and Capacity Selection Criteria: Not really applicable to keyboards.

Quality Selection Criteria: Keyboards range fairly widely in quality, but all but the cheapest will work for casual use. Since many people don't use them for typing extensively, they are typically given little attention, and for many people that's probably fine. However, for people like me who may make over 100,000 keystrokes in a single day (as I likely did the day I wrote this section), keyboard quality is very important. Thus, there are two basic approaches to keyboard quality: spend a fair amount and get something really good that will last for years, or just get something cheap and buy a new one if and when it breaks.

There are several different basic technologies used in making keyboards; some create keyboards that feel better than others or last longer, and these usually cost more. Generally speaking, most keyboards today are not as solidly-built as they were many years ago. (If you've ever used a real IBM keyboard from one of their 1980s models, you know what I mean). There's not much point in trying to explain keyboard technology. The proof is in the pudding, as they say--try out different keyboards and select one that feels good on your hands and fingers.

Remember also that keyboards are ergonomic components. If you do a lot of typing the keyboard will have an impact on your physical strain level and also the potential for repetitive stress injuries. See here for more.

Important Features: A basic, standard PC keyboard contains 101 keys, including the standard 12 function keys located along the top of the keyboard (very old PCs used an older design with only 10 function keys, on the left-hand side). Over the last few years, new keyboard designs have appeared that expand the capabilities of some models:

  • Extra Control Keys: Most newer keyboards include so-called "Windows keys" that automatically execute the key sequence needed to bring up the Windows start menu or context menu. These can be useful if you remember to use them, but if you aren't used to them, well, old habits can be hard to break. I never remember to use them myself!
  • Split Keyboards: These are keyboards that are split in half, with each half oriented at an angle meant to suit the normal angle of a typist's hands. Some allow you to adjust the angle. The best-known example of this design is the Microsoft Natural keyboard. If these designs work well for you, consider one. I can't use them, personally, but that's probably because I have the world's strangest way of typing. :^)
  • Programmability: There are keyboards that let you program some or all of their keys, changing functionality or the way the keyboard operates in some way. The old Northgate keyboards were of that sort, as are the keyboards Gateway has sold with their desktops for many years (I think they are still available, but only as an option.) I personally use these Gateway Anykey programmable keyboards exclusively on all of my PCs, because I can electronically rearrange the keys to any configuration I like. Any key can be swapped with any other key, and you can also assign keystroke sequences ("macros") to any key. I happen to vastly prefer having the Control key above the left shift key, where it belongs. :^) And I love the programmable macros for doing some types of repetitive work.
  • Extra Functionality: There are special keyboards that incorporate into them audio volume control, Web browser controls, even paper scanners! Well, to each his or her own I suppose. I would only point out that the more you integrate into your keyboard, the more you're going to pay, and the more you have to repair or replace if any of it fails.
  • Cordless Keyboards: If you really can't stand being tied to a wire, you can get a keyboard that uses radio waves to communicate to the PC instead of a cable.

"Magic Numbers" To Watch For: None.

Performance Impact: None.

Retail, OEM and Gray Market Issues: Not really relevant. Most keyboards come with systems or are sold retail; OEM keyboards are probably fine if you do run across them.

Importance of Manufacturer: Not very much. Keyboards are made by many different companies. This only matters if you are someone who wants a really good keyboard.

Typical Component Lifetime: Depends entirely on how much typing you do on the keyboard, of course! Good keyboards can last for years; cheap ones may start to get flaky after only a few months of heavy use.

Warranty Issues: None.

Driver Support Issues: May be required for USB models or funky designs with integrated audio controls and other special features.

Special Specification Considerations: I would make these suggestions:

  • If you buy a PC that comes with a keyboard that does not suit your needs, don't hesitate to test out and purchase one that you find to be comfortable. Even very good keyboards are not terribly expensive. If you do a lot of typing, get a keyboard you can use.
  • If you do get a new keyboard, keep the old one as a spare. Having a spare around is a good idea, as a PC is pretty hard to use without a keyboard. :^)
  • Inexpensive keyboard extension cables are available from most computer stores that will allow you more freedom to place the keyboard where it is most comfortable for you.
  • If you do a lot of typing in two places, say at home and at an office, consider getting two identical keyboards for those machines. This will save you having to re-orient your fingers to the geography of each keyboard when you switch from one machine to another.

Next: Mice and Other Pointing Devices


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