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.
Features and Design
Following are features that take a keyboard beyond the basics, as well as design options that can increase user productivity, comfort, and satisfaction.
- Integrated 10-key numeric pad. For CAD users, the keypad can be a lifeline to productivity versus using top-row numbers on a keyboard, and it turns your computer’s Calculator tool into an efficient digital adding machine. But must the keypad be integrated in your keyboard? That’s a matter of personal preference, desk space, and perhaps the number of USB ports you have available. A standalone USB keypad is a viable and inexpensive alternative.
- Programmable keys. Use programmable keys to shave seconds off frequently used actions that add up to saved minutes and hours over time. Other options are available for the same purpose, such as desktop automation (hotkey) software, but nothing beats a one-stroke shortcut that’s literally at your fingertips.
- Special-function keys. Full-size keyboards today typically include convenient and time-saving function keys for controlling volume and screen brightness, launching apps, and other common tasks. If your keyboard supports function key remapping, think about changing unused keys to frequently used actions.
- Illuminated keys. If a backlit keyboard seems frivolous, you probably haven’t tried one! If you work during early or late hours, in a dimly lit office, or even in the dark — or if you just want to reduce eye strain a bit — you’ll soon find you can’t live without a backlit keyboard. Try to find a model that lets you adjust brightness. On a related note, not all keyboards provide a visual cue (typically a small warning light) when Num Lock or Caps Lock is activated. Be sure your next keyboard offers this if it’s important to you.
- Quiet keys. Is your work environment noisy enough without the added clickety-clack of a keyboard? Do you frequently type notes during conference calls? Are you sensitive to noise? Consider a quiet keyboard. A few models are categorized as such, but in most cases you’ll want to test a keyboard’s noise output for yourself.
- Spill resistance. If you’ve ever spilled a cup of coffee at your desk, give this feature serious consideration. Spillproof and washable options exist as well.
Kensington’s Pro Fit USB Washable Keyboard ($30) offers a conventional layout with a bonus for dirty environments.
• Key placement and size. Are arrow keys and others located and sized right for your preferences?
Tips for Healthy Keyboard Use
For optimal ergonomic use of your keyboard, follow these guidelines, compiled from Stanford University Environmental Health & Safety and CU Ergo (Cornell University Ergonomics Web).
For more information, visit the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration's Computer Workstations eTool.
• Extra ports. Do you often find yourself with a dearth of USB ports? Some keyboards include convenient USB and/or audio ports.
• Footprint. A full-size keyboard with integrated 10-key pad can measure a foot-and-a-half wide. If your keyboard doesn’t leave enough space on your desktop for other critical tools and tasks, you’ll find yourself constantly struggling to be comfortable — which is not fun, and certainly not productive. You could get a bigger desk, or simply opt for a compact keyboard design.
For some users, traditional keyboard designs cause strain that can lead to discomfort, pain, or even repetitive-stress injuries (RSIs). If that’s true for you, an ergonomic keyboard could be the solution that keeps you healthy. Features such as split key layout, hinged design, and adjustable tilt can increase comfort and safety. Although many sources tout padded wrist rests as ergonomic aids, the latest research doesn’t support their use. (See sidebar, “Tips for Healthy Keyboard Use.”)
Trial use is critical when selecting an ergonomic keyboard, both to get accustomed to using an unconventional design and evaluate comfort over time. If you’re prone to user stress and strain, give an ergonomic keyboard serious consideration. For example: Logitech Wireless Wave Combo MK550 ($80, keyboard and mouse).
Gaming Keyboard? That’s Always the Question
Keyboards designed for video game players offer highly specialized control for specific styles of use and are built to high standards of performance and durability. Don’t those sound like optimal features for a demanding CAD user as well? That leads many a CAD user to wonder whether it makes sense to purchase a gaming keyboard. Gaming keyboards also often include software and extra keys for programming macro commands — typically providing much more programmability than a standard keyboard — as well as features such as high-end mechanical key switches, swappable keycaps, and sculpted or textured keys. Antighosting, which allows you to register multiple keystrokes simultaneously, is a common offering. Gaming keyboards often illuminate (in one or more colors) and can include a small LCD panel that, for CAD users, could be programmed to display information such as the dimensions of a selected object.
The Asura Programmable Gaming Keyboard from Redragon ($40) offers eight programmable keys, seven backlighting colors, and adjustable brightness.
Evaluate a gaming keyboard for CAD use just as you would any other type: Does it offer the design, features, comfort, and durability you desire at a price you can afford? If the answer is yes, there’s no need to second-guess your choice simply because it’s designed for gamers. For example: Logitech G710 Mechanical Gaming Keyboard ($130).
Instead of purchasing a new keyboard, some users opt to customize their current model via user hacks (for example, see this "Keyboard for AutoCAD" post) or even inexpensive, prefabricated stickers (for example, AutoCAD Keyboard Stickers); use hotkey software tools (options include AutoHook and AutoHotKey); or add a programmable gaming peripheral (such as the Logitech G13 Advanced Gameboard, $80).
Whichever option you pursue, your keyboard should deliver as much comfort and productivity as possible. You need not spend a small fortune to get what you need — basic models costing as little as $10 or $15 fit the bill for many users. But when you’re doing heavy-duty CAD work, extra features that improve your efficiency will pay off big in the long run.
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!