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Buying a Mechanical Keyboard

Buying a loud clicky mechanical keyboard to use with an iPad.

I recently bought a mechanical keyboard, and it’s really nice. Typing is enjoyable again, and I think it’s faster and more accurate. They aren’t cheap things, though, so if you’re thinking it might sound appealing, be warned – if you continue reading, this could cost you £50 upwards.

Mechanical Keyboard?

Most modern keyboards consist of a big flat circuit board with contacts close together where each key goes. Over that is a rubber sheet, with little domes. Under the domes is conductive material that closes those contacts when the dome is pushed down. The keys sit over the domes, and when you push one down, the dome buckles and shorts the contacts. A little bit of electronics then sends the right signal up the USB cable, or to the rest of the laptop.

Mechanical keyboards are different. Each key (now called a ‘keycap’) sits on top of a switch. Those switches are connected to a big circuit board underneath. So every key is a separate little switch unit, with makes things more expensive. But you’re pushing a nicely designed little switch instead of buckling a bit of rubber. It feels better.

If you do a lot of typing, it can make quite a difference. Gamers tend to get excited about good keyboards, too.

What Was I using?

I almost exclusively use my iPad Pro now, very rarely picking up my MacBook, and I’d got the neat little folding ‘smart keyboard’ cover for it. It’s amazingly small and light, and very convenient to have with me everywhere. The keyboard is surprisingly good for its size, but not actually good. I also have an old Mac keyboard, from my old iMac, which uses Bluetooth, and is still fairly small and light. It’s a bit better to type on, but not by all that much.

Why Did I Want One?

Well, probably a combination of things, really. Now I’m spending a bit more time writing up the stories behind shoots, and doing other blog posts, a better keyboard seemed like it would be a big help. Typing on either of those other keyboards wasn’t a great experience, for a longer post.

In addition to that, though, once I started looking into keyboards, a bit of sad geeky excitement took over. These things were just beautiful, and there were so many details to obsess over that I had no idea about. I got drawn in, and spent far too much time watching video reviews and reading about types of keyswitch. Eventually it got to the point that the only way to get my free time back for actually writing things was to actually buy one so I could stop obsessing over the possibility of it.

What Did I Buy?

The Anne Pro 2, in white, with Gateron Blue switches.

What?

Well, the Anne Pro 2 is a 60% keyboard with Bluetooth and RGB, and the switches are tactile and clicky.

What?

Sorry, yes, it’s a wormhole of detail you can fall into.

  • Keyboards are broken down by size. A full size keyboard has just over 100 keys. Then there are Tenkeyless keyboards, or TKL. They remove the number pad to make the keyboard smaller. If you don’t often use the numpad, it’s a good thing – you can get the mouse closer to the keyboard if you’re using one, or just save the space. After that, they’re usually classed by percentage of a full keyboard. Lose a few more keys, and you get to 70% keyboards. Drop a few more and you have a 60%. That usually means you even lose the cursor keys, but clever little tricks make up for that. At the extreme end, there are even 40% keyboards, which remove the number keys entirely, so you use a function key to type a number. That seemed like a step too far for me, and anyway, I never saw one of those with Bluetooth, which would make it a lot easier to use with the iPad.
  • Bluetooth. Yes – the wireless standard used to connect things like keyboards to things like iPads, so I wouldn’t need a cable between the two. Not vital with the iPad Pro, but very useful.
  • RGB? Well, quite a few keyboards are backlit. LEDs hidden behind the keys, so they glow. RGB keyboards take that to an extent that still seems really strange to me. Every individual key has red green and blue LEDs behind that can output almost any colour. So it can glow in a rainbow pattern, or light up the letters in one colour and the other keys another colour. Or animate moving patterns while you type, or flash patterns around each key as you hit it. No, I’ve no idea why, but I kind of love it.
  • Switches are generally classed by brand and colour. The classic brand is Cherry, making their Cherry MX switches. Other brands include Gateron and Kailh, but they mostly follow the same colours. Blue is tactile and clicky. They take more pressure to start pushing, then as they activate, they need less pressure, and sort of drop away from your finger, so you feel the keypress working. And they click as they do it. Browns are tactile, but don’t click, so they’re a bit quieter. Reds are popular with gamers, and they’re linear – no tactile feedback.

So the result of all that is a small but surprisingly heavy keyboard that connects wirelessly to my iPad (and iPhone and MacBook), but can also connect with a USB cable and act like a normal wired keyboard. The keys feel great, which is really nice for typing. And it glows in silly and pointless rainbow patterns as I type.

I love it.

One Small Modification

When buying it from Banggood, one of the ‘also bought’ recommendations was a bag of 150 little silicone washers, the right size to fit over the stem inside the keycaps. They’re used to dampen down the noise a bit. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to use them or not, but they were a very cheap addition, at around £2, so I ordered them too. They arrived around a week after the keyboard. I tried keys with one washer and two washers in comparison to without, and promptly fitted two to every key.

They don’t change the actual keyclick part, but they dampen the bit where each key bottoms out agains the plastic, which is where most of the noise actually comes from. If anything, I think it feels and sounds even better this way. The only problem I’ve hit so far is that the shift keys had to have one washer taken back out, as they didn’t seem to work reliably with two, and the ‘R’ key seems to be very occasionally missing with them fitted – I can always take one off that key if it continues to be a problem, but it might just need to settle with a bit of use – and autocorrect fixes most typos that small without me even noticing.

Update: The ‘R’ key settled down after a bit of use, and it’s quite reliable now.

Would I Recommend It?

If it’s something you think you’d like, why not? It’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s a really nice little keyboard. Worked well enough out of the box, but to get the best out of it, you need to download software to modify it for how you want it to work. The lack of cursor keys would probably bother a lot of people.

I changed mine to a Mac layout, and edited the list of lighting effects, mainly so there weren’t so many to ‘scroll’ through when changing them. I modified the function key settings so Caps Lock becomes FN2, and with that, the old Vim keys become cursor keys (hjkl). Not how most people are likely to want it, but I have to use Vim often enough that at least keeping those keys connected to cursor movement in my mind is useful – but not quite often enough that it happens automatically.

It’s definitely more of a thing for the more geeky-minded.

And the cost. £50+ is a lot to spend on a keyboard for most people (myself included). Not too hard to justify if you do a lot of typing, and made easier if it’s the sort of thing you’ll actually get some enjoyment from having and using. But that price was by buying it direct from China, on a flash sale. They’re usually closer to £70 or £80, depending on the keyswitches and colour you want, and if you want to source one more locally, you might not find them under £100. That becomes a lot harder to justify.

How Deep is the Rabbit Hole?

It can get pretty deep. So far, I just have the keyboard, customised a bit with the manufacturer’s software, and swapped a few keycaps for the plain coloured ones they included in the box. But I’ve read enough to know it can draw people a lot further in. Some want Gateron Red switches for gaming and Cherry MX Browns for typing, so they have two keyboards. Some love the Anne Pro, but want a wooden base, so they buy custom casings to transfer the circuit boards and battery into. Some buy multiple sets of custom keycaps to build just the right colour combination for them.

There are even artisanal handmade keycaps, made in small batches for group buys. Some of these cost a few tens of pounds for just one keycap. And yes, that’s ridiculous. But I’ve seen keycaps with a tiny Bulbasaur diorama set in transparent resin that I’d pay good money for. So I can understand it.

There are even people who buy a circuit board, then a small-batch custom case to go with it, then buy the keys they want, and the keycaps, and build it all themselves, because the exact combination they want just doesn’t exist. I don’t think I’ll ever be going that far, but I can see the appeal. When you start getting to that level, you’re likely to be spending more on a keyboard than most people would spend on a laptop.

I think I’ll try not to go too much further down the hole, but I’m really enjoying typing a lot more than I did.

But Do You Type Faster?

I was pretty sure I was at least a bit faster, so I did a typing test to compare my typing with the Anne Pro 2 and the Smart Keyboard Cover. I’m not. The difference was minimal, but on a couple of tests, I was actually a tiny bit faster on the flat rubber thing that doubles up as a case for my iPad.

That’s a shame, but the enjoyment is more important, so I’m still happy with my little noisy keyboard. Writing these posts is what I do for fun, so the more enjoyable it is, the better.


Other Stuff

This isn’t my usual sort of post – I mainly post sets of photos from shoots with models, events and other things. If that sort of thing interests you, have a look at some of these recent posts while you’re here.

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