In Praise of Island-Style Keyboards

In Praise of Island-Style Keyboards

Flat island/Chiclet-style keys may in fact be superior

Conventional wisdom has is that large, mechanical, spring-loaded PC keyboards are the way to go for those who truly care about the typing experience. But after 20 years of tapping away on far too many keyboard keys to count, I've come to a contrary conclusion: modern, island-style keyboards aren't just for looks or low profile form-factors. In fact, this design can provide the best experience.

As you might imagine, I spend a lot of time with my hands on keyboards. At home, in front of a large screen and backed by a powerful workstation, I prefer a full-sized ergonomic keyboard, and as I've mentioned before, this design has given me relief from the hand and wrist pain that briefly flared many years ago. On the road, I put up with the non-ergonomic designs of laptop and other portable keyboards, but have long praised Lenovo (and before that, IBM) for the amazing quality of its ThinkPad keyboards.

The island-style keyboards that are now common on Ultrabooks arose from a need for ever-thinner devices. Most people believe that Apple "invented" them, which they did not—Sony was using island-style keyboards for years before Apple ever appropriated them for itself—but it's fair to say that the MacBook popularized the design.

Apple MacBook Air keyboard

The conventional wisdom of the day was that the larger, more mechanical keyboards used by larger portable machines offered a superior typing experience, but at the expense of machine thickness: The travel of those large keys simply required more vertical space in which to do their work. And sure enough, I really enjoyed and preferred the keyboards in various ThinkPads, and often cited them as being better.

Low profile version of the "classic" ThinkPad keyboard (ThinkPad X300)

But in early 2010, Lenovo started a move to island-style keyboards in the ThinkPad lineup. It started with the first ThinkPad Edge, which, as its name suggested, was designed to be edgy and modern, and not, I thought at the time, at all unlike a MacBook. "I do have one concern I need to raise right away," I wrote of the first Edge. "It's the Chiclet-style keyboard, a first for any ThinkPad. Generally speaking, this kind of keyboard is horrible, assuming, of course, that what you want to do is actually type."

Lenovo was quite proud of what they had accomplished with this keyboard, however. They claimed to have replicated the classic ThinkPad keyboard "feel" in the new design, though I wasn't so sure about that at the time.

Over the ensuing years, Lenovo, like the rest of the PC makers, really embraced these new types of keyboards. You can still buy bigger and thicker ThinkPad devices with a thinner version of the classic ThinkPad keyboard, yes. But Lenovo along with the rest of the industry has clearly moved on.

It turns out, they may be on to something.

For the past few years, I've been using various Ultrabooks—and of course Microsoft's Surface devices—on the go. Modern Ultrabooks and PC devices almost universally provide thin, island/Chiclet-style keyboards because one of the design goals is to be as thin and light as possible. (Again, we can thank Apple for aggressively pushing this forward for everyone.) And I've often noted that I put up with these keyboards simply to enjoy the thinness and lightness of the devices that employ them.

My current daily-driver on the road, a 15-inch Samsung series Ultrabook that I purchased in August 2012, just before the Windows 8 launch, is such a machine. I've often hailed its large and clear screen, and it's thin and light form factor. But I've always issued that one caveat: If it wasn't for the flat keyboard, it would be perfect.

Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook keyboard

Last month, I reviewed the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop Review, which consists of the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard (and separate numeric keypad) and Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse. These devices were a bit of a stretch for me, for various reason, given that I've been using the excellent Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 and Microsoft Explorer Mouse (Blue Track) at home for at least a few years now and had been stockpiling backups. (That mouse, for example, is no longer made, and that keyboard's days must be numbered too.)

But the biggest issue, really, is that the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard uses island/Chiclet-style keys. This isn't a first for a desktop keyboard, though it may very well be for one with a superior ergonomic design. I wasn't sure that I'd ever want to use such a thing at home, every day. I wasn't sure such a thing made any sense at all.

Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard

But I've come to understand something over the past month. These new style keyboards, designed as they were to overcome the central size/weight/thickness issue that prevented portable devices from being truly portable, has other strengths. I believe that these keyboards can—they don't always, but can—provide a superior typing experience.

It all comes down to "throw," that distance that a key must travel when you strike it with a finger. Traditional, old-school keyboards typically have a long throw compared to these more modern designs. They require more work to type.

The best comparison here, maybe, is to car with a manual transmission. There are two places in such a vehicle where "throw" can make or break the experience: The clutch, which you press, like a key on a keyboard, with your foot in order to change gears, and the actual shifter, which you move between gears with your hand. These two items must work in synchronicity, and when they're paired properly, the result is driving nirvana. When they're not, even experienced drivers find themselves stalling the engine. Frustration ensues.

Add-on keyboard accessory for Acer W3

(My wife's car, a 2011 Volkswagen Sport Wagon TDI, has a stall-happy first gear, which takes some getting used to. Otherwise, it's a fantastic vehicle and a real driver's car, despite the station wagon form factor.)

Island/Chiclet-style keys typically have a shorter throw than traditional keyboard keys and the result is, I think, a better driving experience. Er, typing experience. And in adapting to the keys on the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, I've noticed that my transition to the flat keyboard on my Samsung is easier than it was in the past, when I was coming off the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. They're just more similar. But the short throw on each is, I think, an advantage.

This suggests that Lenovo's move to this type of keyboard across the board (again, for the most part, though you have to think that's the ultimate goal) is the right one. But I have a bit of proof of that as well. Thanks to my employment at Penton, I'm issued a corporate laptop that I never use (except for VPN, which I need for expense reports and some other HR-related silliness). And they've been upgrading everyone over the past year or so from our previous Dell corporate tanks to somewhat newer ThinkPad T430S laptops. I resisted the upgrade since I never really use the machine anyway, but they finally got to the end of the list, so I was upgraded regardless. The machine arrived here last week.

ThinkPad T430S keyboard

It had been a while since I'd used such a machine, and I was interested to see that it still utilizes an Edge-style keyboard but with longer key throws that are similar to those of the classic ThinkPad keyboard I'd so long venerated. But in setting up the machine, I found the keyboard to be loose and error-prone. I don't like it. I could never use this thing regularly.

And to be clear, this isn't an issue of familiarity. Remember, I had been using a traditional keyboard at home for years. Having now experienced both options on a full-sized desktop keyboard and on the keyboards used by portable computers, I really do prefer the more modern designs. The nice thing about the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard is that it pairs that type of key with a useful and desirable ergonomic design. So I still miss it when I'm on the road. But when it does come time to get a new portable machine, whatever that is, I'll be sure to closely examine the keyboards and seek out one with a truly excellent typing experience. Now I realize such a thing is possible.

Now if could just get an ergonomic keyboard on the go, I'd be all set.

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