Apple Doesn’t Get Keyboards

November 4th, 2015

This column is very personal. The keyboards I use and find best for my needs are very much apt to disappoint many of you. In fact, I’m sure of it, but I hope you’ll look at the big picture.

Once upon a time, my favorite keyboard was the Apple Extended Keyboard II. Introduced in 1990, it was big, strong, and heavy. Did I say noisy? But it had its charms, one of which was a solid feel courtesy of its Alps mechanical switches, and a Caps Lock key that actually locked down when activated. You didn’t have to look for the tiny green light to confirm your choice.

While it came free with your new Mac, it was expensive if you bought it separately. The Wikipedia entry on the subject says $163, an odd figure. That would be $262.51 in today’s dollars. In contrast, a modern equivalent, the Matias Quiet Pro, is $149.95. The layout is similar to the Apple keyboard, and its laser-etched keys the lettering is resistant (but not immune) to fading. The custom Alps switches are designed to run quiet. As a side effect for the relative silence, the feel is a tad less crisp, but still more solid than anything Apple offers in the 21st century.

To Apple, it’s about thin and light, and the rest follows. Their note-book keyboards are good, better than most I’ve tried, but mediocre compared to a traditional desktop computer keyboard. But that hasn’t stopped Apple from embedding the same basic feel in its accessory keyboards. In recent years, there have been two versions. One is more or less traditionally designed with the numeric keypad, connected to your Mac with a standard USB cable. The other was the now-discontinued Wireless Keyboard without the numeric keypad.

I suppose the basic advantage is that you can move from MacBook to Mac with Apple’s keyboards and not have to adapt. That’s a good thing for folks in a hurry, and you’re apt to make fewer errors, at least during the first few minutes of heavy typing. At least that’s been my experience, but I’m still not nuts about typing and using the trackpad on my aging 2010 MacBook Pro. Yes, I realize today’s trackpads, with Force Touch, are supposed to be better.

In the old days, I would actually bring along a regular keyboard and mouse in my note-book case, but that can become ungainly, so I ended up just putting up with it.

But it wasn’t my ideal solution. A Matias keyboard was still placed in front of my iMac, and since I don’t travel near as much as I used to, I venture to say that over 95% of the time spent before a personal computer involves working on the iMac.

Since a computer keyboard is definitely not a one-size-fits-all product — and the same can be said for a mouse or trackpad — I wonder why Apple isn’t recognizing those differences. Sure I can see the design considerations for the new MacBook’s keyboard. It has to be as thin and light as possible, so designing a keyboard with limited travel switches that offered most of the feel of the regular Apple keyboards makes sense.

Less so the recently released Magic Keyboard. It’s slimmer in ways that do not make practical sense. Not having it elevated in the rear reminds you of a note-book keyboard, but I just plain didn’t like it. Maybe I’ve become too accustomed to big and wide, but the few days I spent on one didn’t in any way convince me to switch, even if I felt it was worth the money. Fortunately, I was using a review unit from Apple, so all I needed to do was pack it up and send it back and forget about it, along with the Magic Mouse 2 and the Magic Trackpad 2.

Now as much as Apple has clearly invested in new input devices, which is usually more than other PC  companies do, and as much as they clearly have a point of view, I would hope they would consider customers who prefer the more traditional keyboard for their desktop computers. Sure, you have plenty of choices out there, but if you’re expecting to use the free input devices that come with a brand new iMac, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have a choice? Well, of course not, never with Apple. It’s not their way.

So I do not expect Apple to expand its keyboard choices. Desktop computers are a small minority of sales. Only the iMac is supplied with a pair of input devices. The Mac mini and Mac Pro make do without. Apple’s online store offers a small selection of third-party alternatives from such companies as Logitech. It would be nice to see Matias among the offerings, but that’s just me, for the choices offered by Apple are very much in the slim and light mode, on the surface not that much different from their own products. Sure, I’d have to try a few to know for sure, but why?

Of course, a computer keyboard is yesterday’s news. In addition to touchscreens, there’s always voice, and typing is destined eventually became passé. As Scotty said in a certain “Star Trek” movie from the 1980s, when confronted with a physical keyboard — connected to a Mac no less — “how quaint.”

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3 Responses to “Apple Doesn’t Get Keyboards”

  1. David says:

    I still have an Extended Keyboard II collecting dust on my top shelf, but I’ve become used to short travel keys for the limited amount of typing I do. A full size keyboard offers a long list of advantages over the standard MacBook or Magic ones.

    The numeric keypad is great and even though numbers aren’t a big part of my work I’ve learned to touch type on the keypad.
    Large inverted T arrows separated from other keys so you don’t accidentally hit the wrong thing.
    page up and page down keys aren’t as important as they were in the scroll bar arrows era, but still very handy along with home and end.
    Forward delete key. No silly key combination necessary for this important editing tool.
    For someone who likes keyboard shortcuts having a control key at both ends of the keyboard is essential.
    When Exposé came out I immediately assigned the unused function keys. When I had to work away from my desk I always missed not having those keys on the MBP keyboard.

    If you have proper ergonomic (or at least somewhat ergonomic) working conditions you have room for a full size keyboard. Using the one built into a notebook is punishment you shouldn’t have to endure.

  2. Sanford Lung says:

    I also miss the ‘old’ Apple extended keyboard and had the Matias w/the vaunted Alps scissors switches which did not live up to its nor Matias’ reputation. Matias support suggested ‘cleaning’ the wild repeating or non-responsive keys, despite being told their product was condomed from day one. No response since. I’m using an Apple Extended (A-1243) and living with its lousy feedback. Sometimes Apple’s form over function design philosophy sucks.

  3. dfs says:

    I couldn’t agree more that Apple’s aluminum keyboards are the pits, and I only wish that Gene had extended his remarks to their aluminum mice as well. Somebody at Apple got the bright idea that the keyboarding/pointing experience on a Mac should be made to resemble that of a laptop as much as possible. Maybe so the user can pass back and forth between a desktop Mac and a laptop as seamlessly as possible. Which may be a desirable feature for some users, but it’s a typically Apple one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that a lot of us find nonexistent (that these aluminum peripherals must be very cheap to produce is of course an added bonus for the company).

    I’ve had a couple of Matias keyboards. The first one was designed almost deliberately to be a dirt trap and had a transparent top so it became a little museum where my crud was on public view. Eventually it got so dirty that it ceased to work, and when I sent it back to Matias they refused to accept any responsibility for its condition although I protested that this was the result of a flawed design. Never heard back from them (in my dealings with him I got the impression that Mr. Matias may not be the world’s nicest guy), although not long thereafter they changed to a much more sensible design. They must have received a number of similar complaints, but their alleged warrantee turned out to be of zero value. Later I had one of their new models, it worked fine except the letters and symbols are just silkscreened on the keys and eventually wore off. If they would have engraved keys it would be a near-perfect keyboard. As it is, I’ve had just enough bad luck with that company that I’m using a Das Keyboard keyboard (also with switches). I’ve had it a couple of years and so far it’s been problem-free.

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