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Commentary Laptops

One writer's long overdue adventure with mechanical keyboards

Commentary: Time spent with loud, clicky keyboards from Das and Lofree had CNET editor Roger Cheng's fingers flying and keys singing with joy.

lofreescreenshot

Lofree offers a compact wireless keyboard with retro vibes.

Lofree

I like to write.

If you take a gander at my CNET profile page, you'll know that's a bit of an understatement. 

I've spent the bulk of my career as a journalist banging out millions of words on standard keyboards or, when at home, using a PC laptop or Apple keyboard with my iMac. For more than a decade, I didn't really think about what I was typing on. As long as it worked, I was content.

That is, until my wife spilled a cup of soda over my Apple keyboard.

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All of a sudden, my backspace key didn't work and a handful of keys barely registered after a keystroke. My eyes twitched when in mid-type the usual response from pushing down on the key failed.

I was annoyed, yes, but I was also secretly thrilled with the opportunity to look for a replacement keyboard.

That's when I started looking into mechanical keyboards. And boy, did my eyes open.

Unlike typical keyboards, which have softer membrane switches, mechanical keyboards offer individual keys and mechanical switches -- which govern the level of feedback, pressure required and sound they make. They've long been popular with gamers and, increasingly, writers, because of the tactile feedback, customization options and special features such as backlighting and advanced media controls. Also important: The good ones don't come cheap.

After further research and consultation with friends, I discovered two things: First, there are a mind-boggling variety of options, from shapes and switches to the level of feedback required; and second, mechanical keyboard fans are passionate about their choices.

A tale of two keyboards

While I was intrigued by the tactile feedback of a mechanical keyboard, I coveted some of the key benefits of the Apple keyboard: its compact size and wireless Bluetooth connection.

It turns out, that's a pretty tall order. Most mechanical keyboards eschew Bluetooth in favor of a physical USB cable because gaming relies on a steady connection. The candidate that fit most of my requirements -- and featured a snazzy retro look to boot -- was the Lofree Four Seasons keyboard

A colleague, CNET editor Xiomara Bianco, warned that the original Lofree mechanical keyboard's unique design made for an awkward typing experience. But Lofree claimed its second version, which made a few minor tweaks like enlarging a few keys, made for a smoother transition. (The switches remained the same.)

To fully immerse myself in the mechanical keyboard world, I dug up an older keyboard from Das, one of the most well-known and respected names in gaming keyboards, and turned it into my primary driver at work.

Actuation force

My first impression: The keys are loud!

But a close second reaction was the tactile sensation -- and satisfaction -- of slamming down on the keys. Having spent years on traditional shallow keyboards, it felt like extra work to push mechanical keys all the way down (a term known as actuation force). But after just a few minutes, my fingers were flying and the keys were singing.

Both offered a nice nostalgia trip, bringing me back to my junior high school days when I fooled around with the bulky keyboard connected to my first computer.  

There was a wide gap between the experience with the Lofree keyboard and the Das. The Lofree's compact design meant some tweaks to the sizes of traditional keys like the right shift button, which went from a rectangle to a circle. Other minor tweaks like the size of the keys resulted in me constantly having to look down to make sure I was hitting the right keys.

As Xiomara warned, this keyboard forced me to go through some growing pains, and even the company admitted it takes time to adjust.

The transition would've likely been easier had I forced myself to spend the entire time with that single keyboard. But I spent a good chunk of my work hours on the Das keyboard, which has a more traditional layout. (It's also larger and requires a wired USB connection.) While my typing accuracy suffered for a while, it still felt great banging on those keys. 

The critical part of a mechanical keyboard is the switch, the mechanism underneath the keys that governs how fast they fall and how responsive they are. The Das keyboard employs high-end Cherry switches, while the Lofree keyboard uses less expensive Gateron switches. I'm sure enthusiasts will notice the difference, but I couldn't tell.

Raising the volume

It's that first impression of the audible click -- how loud they were when I banged on the mechanical keys -- that was cause for concern.

When I work from home, I share office space with my wife, who regularly jumps on conference calls. I found myself slowing my typing or minimizing how much time I spent on the keyboard for fear of disturbing her call. She said it didn't bother her, but that didn't stop me from fretting.

das-keyboard.jpg

Das makes some of the best mechanical keyboards out there. 

Das Keyboard

That same issue cropped up when I was on my own conference calls or phone interviews. I was worried that my clacking distracted the person on the other side. The noise occasionally obscured the other person's words, and I found myself going on mute a lot more frequently.

But you know what? It's totally worth it. The tactile sensation of pressing down on the mechanical keys, and feeling the switches work is supremely satisfying. There's a noticeable drop in energy and enthusiasm when I have to go back to my MacBook Air keyboard.

As for Das and Lofree, the Das is a solid choice and easy transition for someone getting into the mechanical keyboard world for the first time, while the Lofree is a looker that takes more getting used to.

One thing's for sure, I'm not going back to that Apple keyboard. 

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