MY CHECKERED KEYBOARD HISTORY
It all started when I was 13 or thereabouts; it was the late 1950s. My mother worked as a clerk typist, and I decided I needed to learn to type so I could write about my favorite subject at the time, flying saucers. So she agreed to rent one, and gave me quick guidance as to where to place my fingers. I tried to figure out the rest, but eventually bought a do-it-yourself typing manual to improve my speed.
Within a few years, I owned a brand new Smith-Corona electric typewriter, but it was constantly irritating my obsessive sensibilities, with bad misalignment of the key bars, thus resulting in a slightly uneven appearance. I soon learned that you could bend them slightly to improve alignment, which presaged a later career I had as a typesetter at several prepress agencies in New York City.
Some years later, I discovered machines that used little golf balls with the letters engraved on it, and I acquired a red IBM Selectric. This had to be around 1972 or thereabouts. No more bendable type bars, and near-perfect letter alignment.
The early computer keyboards, in contrast, were meant to be similar to a typewriter, but always felt clunky by comparison, at least the ones I used. Eventually I settled on the famous Apple Extended Keyboard II, smooth, loud, with long-lasting and replaceable mechanical keys. But I never considered it the best keyboard solution. That would still be the iBM Selectric, which was solid, smooth and improved my typing speed and accuracy more than any other keyboard I’ve used in over 60 years.
Now some of you just adore those vintage mechanical keyboards. The touch appears perfect, as is the telltale noise to indicate you’re actually doing something special. Indeed, this scheme forms the technology for the Matias Tactile Pro keyboard, a high-quality gadget that, according to its promotional material, “is built from the same premium keyswitch technology that Apple used in its original Apple Extended Keyboard, widely viewed as the best keyboard Apple ever made.”
The symbols are, according to Matias, laser-etched, meaning they can’t wear off. And it’s a Mac-friendly design, meaning the Command Key is the Command Key and so on and so forth.
If you can’t get past the noise, Matias used to offer the Quiet Pro, which was specially-designed mechanical key switches that are nearly as silent as regular Apple membrane-based keyboards. But with a feel close to that of its noisier sibling. However, it is no longer being built.
Now I can’t say I understand Apple’s marketing plans, but it must have felt that its customers no longer needed those old fashioned keyboards, which is good and bad. Good that they are supposedly cheaper to make, and that they feel identical to a notebook keyboard, so you don’t have to waste time getting accustomed to one or the other when you need to switch.
But Apple has run into keyboard trouble. Consider its $50 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit, which benefits customers who purchased a butterfly-equipped MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro between 2015 and 2019. That’s because of a reported rash of failures, and the need of customers to pay Apple or a third-party vendor for key or keyboard replacements.
Apple took the hint and ditched the design, and I haven’t heard of any problems with the current models.
Since I never owned one of those offending Macs, none of the brouhaha over butterfly switches has affected me. My son has a MacBook Air of that vintage, but hasn’t made any complaints. Not everyone reported a problem, but enough did to result in that settlement. Or perhaps Apple realized it would be poor optics to protest. It made more sense just to settle and move on, while reverting to an older design to avoid any further problems.
So where does that take me?
Well, my vintage Late 2014 5K iMac still purrs away, but I don’t use its original wireless keyboard. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad keyboard, but I’m accustomed to extended keyboard style designs with the numbers and full page up/page down features.
So where does that take me?
Well two of the keyboard companies, Logitech and Matias, offer really great keyboards with smooth, solid touch and backlights. Yes, just like a notebook.
The Matias version is named “Wireless Aluminum Keyboard with Backlight,” and sells for $139 from the manufacturer, and when I checked, $105 from Amazon. You can set brightness in 10% steps and you can pair up to four devices, including smartphones and tablets. It also has a second rechargeable battery just for the backlight, so if you don’t care about having one, you can work up to a year on the regular battery before it needs to be recharged.
From Logitech there’s the MX Keys for Mac. at $119.99 from Logitech, $118.50 from Amazon. It uses rounded key edges, spherically dished for greater comfort. It uses either Bluetooth or Logitech’s proprietary Unifying receiver, a tiny gadget that plugs into your computer’s USB port. If there’s any downside, it’s a USB-C to USB-C charging cable. It’s an awkward choice for my Mac, which lacks that connection scheme. So I ended up having to hook it up to a separate charger. In case you’re wondering, AppleInsider erroneously claims in its review that the cable is USB-C to USB-A. The Matias cable connects to a USB-A port.
Battery life for MX Keys is rated at 10 days with backlighting, or five months without it.
Now from a user standpoint, choosing between the two keyboards is difficult. They are both comfortable, smooth, and the slight upward tilt makes them more comfortable than Apple’s wireless designs. The Matias offers more than twice the battery life, and you can choose any of four colors, silver, gold, space gray and rose gold. My review sample came in silver which comes with black keys. In contrast, the Logitech is gray and black.
One concern on having a mid-priced keyboard is longevity, since repairs are not practical. Here my first MX Keys for Mac sample stopped working after a little under two years, but Logitech support appears to be willing to get you a discount if you must replace it when it’s beyond the one-year warranty period. Matias advertises a one-year limited warranty.
Amazon offers a three-year warranty on the either keyboard for $21.99; four years for $29.99. Since it’s cheaper at discount, I’d give the Matias the edge for both the price and its longer battery life. As to an extended warranty, I’d seriously consider the one for four years. Every keyboard I’ve ever used has a finite life cycle.
In the scheme of things, that should it it. Unless, of course, you have a newer Mac with support for Touch ID, which restricts you to Apple’s wireless keyboards, basically. This may not matter much to many of you; it doesn’t matter to me because I operate out of a home office, and there are other steps I take to secure my Mac without the need for such a keyboard.
Right now, I’m happy with my choices, though I am, at times, tempted to take another run at a Tactile Pro. It’s been quite a while since I last used one.
THE FINAL WORD
Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.
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