Monday, July 23, 2018

My Keyboard Endgame

I mentioned this in an earlier post about dice, wherein I found a set that feels like my personal "endgame"—the set of dice that I want to continue using for as long as I play tabletop games.  I had mentioned that the use of "endgame" in this context is a bit of slang that comes from the mechanical keyboard enthusiasm hobby.  In past years, I've posted quite a bit about my fondness for retro computers and game consoles and my efforts to collect them; but I don't think I've discussed keyboards very much, because my interest in the subject is relatively new.

Naturally, in collecting old IBM machines, I've come across my fair share of Model M boards with their legendary buckling spring key switch mechanisms: loud, stiff, and just a joy and a pleasure to type on.  At the moment, I only have one Model M, plugged into a Pentium IV machine that I have running Windows 98:

As much as I love typing on this board, though, I don't use it much with modern computers, because I tend to make copious use of the window key for all the handy shortcuts.

I started using modern mechanical keyboards with Cherry MX style switches when, on one of those rare occasions when I had a bit of extra money and found myself in the mood to splurge on something, I decided to get myself a gaming keyboard.  I wound up getting a Razer Blackwidow Chroma, a tenkeyless board:

This baby has RGB back-lighting, so that the colors under the keys can shift to any color (I keep it in "breathing mode," which causes it to cycle through the rainbow; it reminds me of Christmas lights); and Razer green switches, which are a clone of Cherry MX blue switches—moderately stiff, with a tactile bump and an audible click accompanying each key-press.  Since I got that board, I've also collected a Razer Deathadder mouse and an Orbweaver keypad, and it's the pad I actually use when playing FPS games; the software that installs with each peripheral syncs up the RGB lighting, so that everything stays the same color (which is super groovy).

For the longest time, this was by far the nicest board I owned.  The next several that I collected were all cheaper, Chinese-made keyboards.

Using the Razer board more or less hooked me on mechanicals completely, which is no problem as far as my home desktop is concerned.  But I also do a lot of writing on the go, and I very quickly found that I could no longer stand using a mushy laptop keyboard for any length of time.  Thus began a quest to find the perfect portable board.

When it came time to replace my laptop, I didn't; I went with a tablet instead, figuring that I could pair it with a mechanical keyboard easily enough.  My first attempt was a Redragon, an inexpensive and fairly compact tenkeyless board that I bought off of Amazon:

It's small and lightweight, but the Outemu blue switches (Outemu switches are a relatively cheap clone of Cherry MX) have a loud, very high-pitched click and kind of a scratchy feel.  The lights under the keys aren't full RGB: each row has LEDs of a different color.  The main reason I didn't use this board for very long is the attached cable, which makes it difficult to transport.

Shortly thereafter, I found a very similar board, a Motospeed, at a Goodwill for ten bucks; so I figured, why the heck not:

Apart from my Model M, this is the only full size mechanical keyboard that I own.  Like the Redragon, it's got colored LED lights under each key row.  The switches are blue, but they're an off-brand, serviceable to type on, but not great.  Kind of loose-feeling, and some keys have some chattering issues.  I only use this board at work.

To use with my tablet, for writing in libraries and coffee shops and such, I decided that I had to find a Bluetooth enabled mechanical keyboard, for maximum portability.  At the time I was looking, though, there weren't very many choices out there.  (That's changed quite a bit in the last year so.)  I eventually settled on the Drevo Calibur, known as the KeyCool 71 in China:

This is a strange board, tenkeyless minus the function row, but it keeps the full arrow cluster and Ins/Del/Home/End/PU/PD on the right-hand side, where 60% compact keyboards usually cut those off.  It does have full RGB, for what that's worth in a battery-powered keyboard that you're expected to use via Bluetooth most of the time.  The switches are (yet again) Outemu blues, but the aluminum base makes the board feel quite a bit sturdier than the Redragon.

At first, I liked this board so much that I hunted down a second one, this time in black, as a backup:

And much to my delight, this one came with Gateron blue switches, which are a nicer Cherry MX clone, much closer than most to genuine Cherry switches in sound and feel.

Eventually, though, I discovered that the Bluetooth connection on these boards wasn't perfect.  They tend to drop letters if you type any faster than 60 WPM.  And trying to keep yourself under 60 WPM is like having to drive 55 on the interstate: painfully slow if you're really in the zone.  So I knew that I would eventually have to find a new board with either a more reliable Bluetooth connection (which sounded like a rather risky proposition), or go back to a wired board, but this time find something more compact and portable, ideally with a detachable USB cable.

Also, I had gotten pretty sick of not having a function row—I use the F keys quite a bit, often in combination with Ctrl or Alt, and having to reach for Alt + Fn + a number key is quite the pain.  On top of that, the Calibur boards completely lack the Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break keys.  And while the Calibur works all right as a wired keyboard when plugged into a desktop computer, if you plug it into a laptop or a tablet it will just drain the computer's battery as it tries to charge up its own.

There are lots of tenkeyless boards out there with detachable cables, even quite a number of them with proper Cherry switches, although they tend to be on the pricey side.  I'm still not so deep into this hobby that I want to drop a lot of money on some really high-end board or custom-build kit.  But after some false starts and a lot of research, I did just recently (finally) settle on a new board to serve as my portable "daily driver."  I actually wound up going with another gaming keyboard, which just arrived in the mail today, a Kingston Hyper-X Alloy:

It only has red lights under the keys, but since I'll have it plugged into a tablet, I'm going to have the lights turned off anyways to conserve battery power.  This board has real Cherry MX blues under the keys, and they frankly put even my nice Razer greens to shame.  They're not as loud as any of the other blue switch boards I've used, and the feel gives even the Model M buckling springs a run for their money.  Frankly, typing with this baby today makes me sit back and wonder why I ever bothered with Bluetooth boards in the first place.  Yeah, they're convenient, but they just aren't reliable.

That said, this badass board sits on a two pound steel base, which makes it quite a weight to schlep around.  But the frame is so compact—no wasted space beyond the edge of the board—that I don't really mind the extra heft at all.  It feels more solidly constructed than the Razer Blackwidow, and it was significantly less expensive.  (I guess that RGB lighting really adds to the cost, eh?)  Very nice keycaps, too, with that smooth but grippy feeling you have on the nicer gaming boards, kind of a "satin sharkskin" finish on the tops of the keys.

Here's what the full setup looks like:

This is basically my new laptop.  And I'm presently using it to draft the text of Retro Phaze VI, which has wound up getting a little more ambitious than I'd originally intended.  Most of the rules still aren't actually changing very much, but I am re-writing the rules text from scratch and designing a brand-new layout with color sprite art for illustrations.  Hopefully, when all is said and done, I'll have a game that I'm slightly less embarrassed by.  (And, hopefully, cleaner math at the higher experience levels.)


  1. I have a couple of old IBM keyboards around the house, and I might grab a PS/2 to USB adapter to use them with whatever desktop I end up getting. Of course, I have also thought about using only my Dreamcast (for which I already have the keyboard and web browser) for Internet purposes, but that might have to wait until I can move to a really hip place. ;D

    1. Funny enough, I just got a keyboard for my Dreamcast like two weeks ago (fount it for 5 bucks at the Goodwill)! :D

      I should warn ya, tho, a passive PS/2 to USB adapter won't work with an IBM Model M or Model F keyboard, if that's what you have — they draw something like twenty times the current that later keyboards do.