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Living With: Apple Keyboards
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Nov 11, 2015, 01:51 PM
The results are in. After thirty years of Apple keyboards, we now definitively know exactly when you have to replace them with new ones -- when Apple updates the design. It's only since the latest Magic Keyboard was released –– and since we tried one in an Apple Store –– that our old keyboards have begun to show problems.

Take a look at any keyboard we've ever owned and you'll see that the S key wears out long before the rest because we save and save and save all day but this week it's been getting worse. For some reason that we haven't entirely figured out, we have two of the slightly old-style Apple chiclet ones and both have begun to let us down. The T and H keys are sporadic on one and this morning A and E both sprang into life adding accented versions of themselves.

If the keyboards were new, we'd be complaining but as best we can remember, one must be getting on for three years and the other possibly as much as eight. Between these and the now very poorly keyboard on one of our MacBooks –– the Q and W keys will never fly again –– we've written ten books on them. We also learned to type on manual typewriters so it's not like we're light typists in any sense.

Yet we're sticking to this notion that it is the release of new keyboards that have made our old ones go wrong and you can't tell us otherwise. Not since throughout recorded history we have used this same excuse to move to the new designs and only once been disappointed and only one other time actually regretting it.

Come back to the start of Apple keyboards

No, wait, that's too much. Let us try that again.

Come back to a few good keyboards and some bad ones

That's better. We have used the keyboard on an original Mac and it's interesting how it lacks cursor keys specifically because Steve Jobs insisted they be removed. He wanted people to be forced to use the then-new mouse and that makes sense, but it's as if it set a precedent as Apple regularly leaves things off its keyboards ever since. You try getting a Magic Keyboard or a Wireless one that includes a numeric keypad, for instance.

The keyboard we started with was on a Mac SE and it was a light device that seemed great at the time, even next to the IBM PC AT which was becoming a standard layout and design. It was only because we were drawn to the Apple Adjustable Keyboard which in the early 1990s was the company's ergonomic design.

We look at that image and we can feel the keys under our fingers. We can more feel how often we used to slide the two sides apart and back again for no reason whatsoever. It probably did make typing easier but we think we used to slap the sides back into alignment whenever we had a deadline on. This is the keyboard that we regretted in our lives and that's chiefly because of the unit you can see at the top: the separate numeric keyboard.

Imagine that next to your Apple Adjustable Keyboard and think of how you'd have to shove it further away when you opened that out. So any advantage we got from changing out typing angle was possibly undone by how we had to fumble for the keypad.

The one we were just disappointed in was the iMac one. It's not as bad as the hockey puck mouse that shipped at the same time and caused us muscle cramps but it just got the job done. It wasn't special.

Special keyboards

The Apple Keyboard introduced in 2003 was special. It was a truly full-travel keyboard, a right thumping clicker of one and for those of us raised on typewriters and the SE, it was what keyboards should always be. Strong and hard-wearing, we actually still have one that we could swap back to it rather than buy a new one but we're not listening to you.

We adored that Apple Keyboard until 2007 when the chiclet style came out. Now practically every keyboard is done this way but as ever it's because Apple popularised it and the style came in for some criticism at first. We know this because we looked at it and were critical. It's a very, very thin keyboard which means the keys have almost no travel compared to our previous model. Look at the difference: 2003 on the left, 2007 on the right.

The new 2007 model was unquestionably going to be a sub-par typing experience, it was Apple getting things wrong, it was Apple not understanding us and it was –– oh, hang on, that's rather good. We tried it and were instantly smitten. More than smitten, we abandoned our 2003 keyboards like we were walking out on our families in a midlife crisis. We've often had to go back to the old style on other people's Macs and each time it's been like typing through treacle.

It definitely helped that the chiclet style of iMac keyboard is at least very similar to the keyboards we were becoming used to on MacBooks. Then when we caved and bought keyboards for our iPads then every one we tried was this same or similar design. That's not a surprise since the first was an Apple Wireless keyboard of exactly the same type the company used to ship as standard with new Macs. It continued to Logitech, Microsoft and Belkin keyboards though.

In retrospect, 2007 seems a very long time ago: until this year, Apple had not done a significant keyboard redesign during the entire lifetime of the iPhone so far. Earlier this year, the company abandoned chiclet for butterfly in the new MacBook and critics were just like we were last time. They complained about the lack of travel, about the odd shortened feeling of the keys.

We tried one and weren't exactly smitten but were definitely lusting after it. Standing there in the Apple Store, we knew we were sunk: if Apple releases this for the iMac, we realised, nothing will delay us one picosecond. Consequently we were actually disappointed when news broke that Apple has brought out a new iMac keyboard that isn't like the MacBook one.

Until we tried it. If we're going to be as OCD anorak-like about keyboards as we already are, then we'd say the MacBook one is nicer. Those ones are nicer enough that we didn't instantaneously buy the Magic Keyboard for our iMacs.

No, we waited until our chiclet keyboards both decided to break down in order to help twist our arms. The one thing we're not sure now is where to recycle old keyboards. Maybe we could mount them on the wall like trophies.

-William Gallagher (@WGallagher)
( Last edited by NewsPoster; Nov 11, 2015 at 01:51 PM. )
Steve Wilkinson
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Nov 11, 2015, 05:14 PM
My old favorite was Apple's Extended II, but it would probably be too noisy these days and I'm sure that as I've gotten used to the short travel, it probably wouldn't be as nice as I remember.

The next best one, IMO, was on the Macbook Pros, maybe early to mid-2000s? (I had a number of work-supplied ones over those years.) The MBP I bought in 2007 wasn't quite as nice anymore, which I suppose helped me transition to the the wireless one I now use with my iMac, iPad, etc. It's nice to only use one keyboard, as switching always throws me a bit. ex: I don't enjoy typing as much on my Macbook Air when I'm on the road.

I'm anxious to try the new one. I'm guessing I'll probably like it.
Steve Wilkinson
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Nov 11, 2015, 08:21 PM
I had to give up on the Apple keyboards and have been using Tactile Pros for quite a while now. While not quite as well built as the old Apple Extended Keyboard II, it feels nearly identical and they should since they use the same Alps key switches.
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Nov 12, 2015, 01:30 PM
did not like that 2003 "Pro" keyboard... the angle wasn't adjustable. Also having come from electronic typewriters not full manual, key travel isn't important to me... the less key travel, the faster I can type. Going from the ~2000 iMac keyboard, to the chicklet style increased my typing speed by about 10%.
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Nov 12, 2015, 03:09 PM
Being very a very tactile-based person (yes, I *do* like the rotating scroll-wheel of the original iPod better than the electronic non-rotating ones on later models), I've never found any keyboard I can type on as well as the all-time-great: http://www.theverge.com/2014/10/7/6882427/king-of-keys . The ample space between keys makes it easier to hit the key you wish and less likely to hit two keys at the same time. The concave tops tell you (through feel) if your fingers are properly centered on the keys. The tactile and audio feedback tells you immeditely if you have actually gotten a keypress (perfect apropos example: I typed "immediately" there, every key, but didn't quite press one hard enough. Because the keyboard I'm using doesn't relate that to me in any physical way, either tactile or audible, I only know it through one sense (vision) rather than through 3 senses simultaneously. But I'm that way about everything - the more senses that work in any given situation the more information I am getting and the better something works for me. My iPhone vibrates with every keypress (KeyboardVibrate8 - Cydia); I choose cars with considerably driver feedback (steering wheel and chassis communication) so that I know what the heck is going on with grip, understeer, oversteer, weight transfer, etc., and with controls I can distinguish and use completely by touch; I love the feel of real camera-controls instead of tiny little touch-screens and a bunch of nearly-identical buttons. The upshot of this is that except in my MBP (what I'm using now), I've never use the keyboard or mouse that came with *any* computer, let alone from Apple. When I need a new device I go to stores and try out keyboards or mice until I find one that is as tactile as possible. (My current favorite mouse? - http://www.logitech.com/en-us/product/performance-mouse-mx?crid=7 . Those things are amazing.)
Steve Wilkinson
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Nov 25, 2015, 01:25 AM
@ panjandrum - I'm pretty much tracking with you on all your examples, except the keyboard. I think it's mostly the noise factor though... I just don't want that much typing noise. I also have that mouse, but while it's my favorite so far, there is still something kind of ergonomically 'off' about it.
Steve Wilkinson
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cgWerks | TilledSoil.org
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