Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Ultimate Programmers' Keyboard

A professional in any craft needs quality tools, and for a computer programmer, the primary interface between the human and the computer is the keyboard. End users of mass market software may be convinced that touch screen devices are the way forward, but for a programmer, nothing looks to be a serious threat to keyboards in the near to mid future.

A quick google for 'best programmer keyboard' turns up the prime candidates: the Microsoft Ergonomic 4000; das keyboard; the IBM Model M; and the uniquely shaped keyboards from Kinesis.

The Logitech G15 seems to be popular among high-end users, but it's primarily a gaming keyboard, so I'm not including it here.

My requirements are pretty simple:

  1. it must be durable and sturdy

  2. it must be amenable to team-based working

  3. and—most importantly—it must have a standard UK layout, with absolutely no dicking around with the positions of keys that are important to programmers, including the hash key (#, to the left of the large Enter key, shared with ~), the back-quote (‘, top-left key on the main key cluster) and the pipe (|, shared with the backslash, between left-shift and the Z key)

Anything from Apple is right out. Even on their 'UK' keyboards, the double-quote (") is where the @ should be, and vice-versa.

I immediately ruled out anything with the Dvorak layout. Yes, I'm familiar with the statistics about how it's a superior layout for computers, but it's simply not widespread enough for point 2. I have a colleague on my current contract who has a typematrix Dvorak keyboard, and he's very happy with it, but when it comes to a paired session or showing how to do something, it's a total pain. The fastest way to get anything done is leave all the typing to him.

Partly for point 2, I also ruled out anything with an extreme ergonomic layout (basically anything from Kinesis). Also, while less-deformed ergonomic keyboards are good for a single user typing for a long time, paired programming is often about quickly shoving the keyboard over to a partner or grabbing it briefly to type a few lines, and ergonomic keyboards are obviously designed for someone sitting directly in front of them. It's like you have to re-align yourself at the beginning of every switchover, which I find interrupts the flow.

So, from my original list, I'm left with the Model M and Das Keyboard, both distinctly traditional in their non-ergonomics. But then, from a front-page review endorsement on their own website, "Das Keyboard compares to the legendary IBM Model M." So, which to go for? The imitation or the original?

Unsurprisingly, I'm typing this blog entry on my Model M. The sticker on the bottom dates it from 1991, made in Greenock, Scotland—about a half-hour's drive from where I live. It's got all its key caps, has that satisfying two-stage click for each key press, and is solid enough to be used as a not-insignificant weapon if anyone breaks into my house.

I simply can't find a better keyboard anywhere, and I'm beginning to think that there isn't one.