Best Input Devices 2019, Part 1: Keyboards for CAD17 Apr, 2019 By: Cadalyst Staff
For your comfort and productivity, it's worth taking a little time to find the right keyboard for your design workflow.
You can look at (and sometimes edit) drawings or models on smartphones or tablets, but few designers do their day-in/day-out work on anything less than a desktop workstation. CAD users obsess about the amount of RAM or the size of their screen(s), but few rave about their input devices. Yet the mouse (or trackball), the keyboard, and other devices such as a pressure tablet are essential to the process.
Gamers and designers are also power users, but their computer needs are not identical. The same can be said about input peripherals. The problem is, few input peripherals are designed specifically for CAD, so it is necessary to search out products from the broader market.
The best devices can improve productivity and prevent repetitive stress injuries — and both should be taken into consideration. This is an overview on what's available in 2019, with an eye to both efficiency and comfort. Any specific products mentioned here are not recommendations, but mentioned as examples that meet the need of CAD users.
Most input devices today come in both wired and wireless versions. The one you select depends on both personal preference and office standards. Some businesses don't allow wireless peripherals because of signal mix-up between computers.
This is part one of a two-part series on input devices for CAD. This article covers keyboards; the next one will cover mice and other input devices.
Butterflies, Scissors, and Domes
While there is no keyboard on the market sold as a CAD keyboard, but there are significant differences between an okay keyboard and a great keyboard. For CAD users, the fundamentals are programmable function keys, a numeric keypad, and ergonomics. The first two are objective criteria, the third is a bit more subjective.
A keyboard's tactile response is due to internal key switch mechanics. Almost every keyboard on the market uses one of three switches: silicone dome, scissor, and mechanical. Domes are the least expensive, used on millions of keyboards. They require a full-pressure response, and tend to wear out before the other two types. Few people who move from domes to scissors or mechanical keys want to go back.
Scissor switches provide stability and a low profile. Most laptops use scissor switches. They don't require a full-pressure response, which some people like and others don't. They are considered more durable than domes.
Mechanical switches are considered the most durable. They are the easiest to repair if a key goes bad. Keyboard manufacturers use one of three types, identified by color for simplicity. Red offers a low-noise response, and work best with a linear keypress. Brown are also low-noise and offer a tactile "bump" response for instant feedback on a successful keystroke. Blue mechanical switches offer a "clicky" sound and firm tactile response. Not every vendor discloses which type they use, so you may have to dig deeper if you have a preference.
When IBM sold personal computers, it was legendary for its mechanical keyboards, based on technology refined by two generations of typewriter manufacturing. Mechanical keyboards are generally built with a sturdier chassis than the other two types, and are at the high end of the market.
Keyboard pressure is an important ergonomic consideration, but not the only one. In addition to standard rectangular keyboards, there are also curved or split keyboards, designed for comfort in long keyboard sessions.
Three Options for CAD
The Logitech Wireless Keyboard K350 is a leading example of a power user keyboard with all the best options. The "Comfort Wave" design provides a palm rest and a more ergonomic positioning of the arms. The keys are mechanical. In addition to the standard F1–F12 programmable keys, there are specific function keys to open programs, folders, web pages, and music.
The Logitech Wireless Keyboard K350 runs $35–$50 and is a good example of a power user keyboard that has all the bells and whistles a CAD user would use. Image source: logitech.com.
Another keyboard popular with CAD users is the Das Keyboard Model S Professional Keyboard. It is available with either Brown (for quiet typing) or Blue ("clicky" tactile feedback) mechanical keys. The switches are gold-plated and offer full N-key rollover — each key is scanned independently by the keyboard hardware. Each keypress in N-key rollover is correctly detected regardless of how many times other keys are being pressed or held down at the same time. This attention to detail makes the Das Model S on the high side of the price curve.
DasKeyboard Model S Professional ($115–$150) is available with quiet or "clicky" typing sound, plus full N-key rollover. Image source: DasKeyboard.
We introduced this article mentioning workstations, but there is increased use of mobile CAD software from the companies such as of Autodesk (AutoCAD Mobile App), Siemens (Solid Edge Mobile Viewer), and Graebert (Ares Touch). Some are viewers, and some are used for drawing and editing. A professional keyboard for mobile devices can provide a significant productivity experience. One steady performer in the marketplace is the Microsoft Universal Foldable Bluetooth Keyboard. It is easy to pack and deploy, and is rated to last three months in average use before needing a recharge. Bluetooth 4.0 offers a fast and reliable signal. (We don't recommend using devices that follow older Bluetooth standards.)
Microsoft Universal Foldable Bluetooth Keyboard ($79–$99) is easy to pack and is
rated to last three months before needing to be recharged. Image source: Microsoft.
Here are a few general tips for shopping for a new keyboard:
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 does not work for you.
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.
Don't Miss More Input Device Advice
Click here to read "Best Input Devices 2019, Part 2: Mice & Trackballs for CAD."