Choose the Best Keyboard for CAD7 Jan, 2016 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson
The right design and features can boost comfort and productivity for heavy computer users.
Your keyboard: It just needs to make letters and numbers when you press on keys — right? For many users, that is indeed true. But for CAD users, keyboards can be so much more than a character-input device. The right keyboard can increase comfort and productivity; the wrong one can cause frustration, pain, and even injury. Yes, something as commonplace as a keyboard really can make a difference. If you spend most of your day using CAD, small improvements can add up to a much-improved work experience, and a few seconds of productivity gained in each working minute can add up to hours saved over time. Investing in the right keyboard is well worth the time and money for any heavy computer user.
But, you should know that there’s no such thing as a CAD-specific keyboard. Although you’ll find mice that are optimized for CAD use (such as RollerMouse Red and options from 3Dconnexion), such is not the case with keyboards. So you’ll have to evaluate each model on its own merits and determine how it lines up with your needs and budget. The information and advice to follow should help you make the right choice.
Keyboard Shopping Basics
Here are some general tips to consider when you set out to find the best keyboard for CAD.
- When possible, shop for your new keyboard in person to get a first-hand impression before you buy. Possibly more than any other device, keyboards call for hands-on evaluation to determine whether the product offers the right tactile experience and comfort for you personally.
- If you buy online, be sure the vendor has a suitable return policy and that you are aware of all return requirements (such as unopened packaging) and costs (such as return shipping and restocking fees) in case the product doesn’t work out.
- Check customer reviews on a variety of manufacturers’ web sites and retail outlets such as Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg, and the like. Be wary of reviews by unverified purchasers or those who received products in exchange for their reviews.
- Use your new keyboard for two weeks before deciding whether to keep it. Making the necessary adjustments to a new design can take at least that long.
Wired vs. Wireless
Wireless keyboards are everywhere, but that doesn’t mean they’re right for every user. Consider these primary advantages and drawbacks of wireless and wired options before you make a choice.
Wired keyboards draw power via the USB connection — no batteries required — and are typically less expensive than comparable wireless models. You’ll need a free USB port on your workstation to connect, and you’ll have a cord on your desk to manage (and plug/unplug if you connect/disconnect your full-size peripherals to a mobile workstation that you move frequently). An example in this category is the Microsoft Wired Keyboard 600 ($17). Editor’s note: Prices quoted in this article are approximate retail prices, were accurate at the time of publication, and are subject to change.
Wireless keyboards, whether radio frequency (RF)–based or Bluetooth, require batteries that you’ll have to replace occasionally or remember to charge. Pay attention to battery life when evaluating your options, and turn off the keyboard when not in use. RF keyboards communicate with the computer via a small receiver dongle inserted in a USB port. (Note that if you have more than one RF device of the same brand, such as a keyboard and mouse, they should function using a single receiver.) The price premium for wireless vs. wired models is generally around 20%. One option is the Logitech Wireless Illuminated Keyboard K800 ($100).
Bluetooth keyboards don't monopolize a USB port, and they allow you to type on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones in addition to your computer. However, they can consume more power than RF models, and some users complain that Bluetooth keyboards have issues with responsiveness and waking from sleep mode. All wireless keyboards are susceptible to interference, random key clicks, and occasional disconnects.
A key switch is the small mechanism inside each key that senses when you’ve pressed it. Information about key switches could fill a book, but what you really need to know is that the type of key switch affects a keyboard’s price and longevity — and greatly impacts your typing experience.
Key switches come in three primary types: silicone dome, scissor, and mechanical.
Silicone dome switches are common to the least-expensive keyboards and tend to wear out the fastest. As you type, rubbery membranes inside each key create a springy — some say mushy — feel. Keys must bottom out to produce a character, meaning tactile feedback and the overall typing experience can be substandard. For example: HP Classic Wired Keyboard ($12).
Scissor switches, common to the low-profile, "Chiclet-style" keyboards found on laptops, are increasingly available on full-size keyboards. This switch consists of a silicone dome plus a plastic, scissor-like mechanism that result in shorter key travel, which some users love and others find uncomfortable, especially after prolonged use. Scissor-switch keyboards are generally more durable and more expensive than silicone dome models. For example: i-rocks Aluminum X-Slim Keyboard for PC ($50).
Mechanical switches consist of sturdy mechanisms and springs that are more durable and easier to repair than other options. Keys are more resistant to touch, spring back faster, actuate when only partially depressed, and don’t wiggle — resulting in what users typically describe as excellent tactile feedback and a consistent, stable feel. Said to be ideal for heavy use, gaming, and touch typing, mechanical-switch keyboards are among the most expensive — and noisy — models. See Patrick Miller's “Mechanical Keyboard FAQ: Pick the Right Switch” for a great overview. Examples include: various Das Keyboard models ($109–$175) and the SteelSeries 6GV2 Gaming Keyboard ($100).
Designed for heavy, long-term use, Cooler Master's Quick Fire Rapid-i ($150) is a mechanical gaming keyboard without a 10-key pad that offers a variety of mechanical switch options.
How do you tell which keyboards have which switches? Mechanical keyboards are always described as such, and the same is usually true of scissor-switch keyboards. As you get into lower-end models, you’ll rarely find specification of switch type, but it’s safe to assume that unless stated otherwise, full-size keyboards are likely the silicone-dome variety. As you shop, it’s helpful to determine which type of key switch you prefer, but at the end of the day, you’ll want to base your choice on comfort, required features, and budget more than on a given switch type.
About the Author: Nancy Spurling Johnson
In her easy-to-follow, friendly style, long-time Cadalyst contributing editor and Autodesk Technical Evangelist Lynn Allen guides you through a new feature or time-saving trick in every episode of her popular AutoCAD video tips. Subscribe to the free Cadalyst Video Picks newsletter and we'll notify you every time a new video tip is published. All exclusively from Cadalyst!