2008-07-30

Review: Apple aluminum keyboard

I realize keyboards are a personal thing, but I've liked Apple desktop keyboards for years. I liked the one that came with my PowerMac G4, and I loved the different one that came with my PowerMac G5 so much that I bought a bunch of those keyboards for home and work. At the same time, I've never liked Apple laptop keyboards. I didn't like the Titanium PowerBook G4 keyboard, and I don't like the MacBook Pro keyboard (even if the backlighting is kind of cool).

I did like the current MacBook keyboard, though. But it was still a laptop keyboard, and I was a bit dubious when Apple switched their desktop keyboards to be the same. I was mildly disappointed that there's no option to have a keyboard with the editing keypad but without the numeric keypad. (Gosh-darn accountants ruling the world!) And I was especially disappointed by the false dichotomy between wireless/small and wired/large.

The enticing feature, though, was that the new design reversed the fatal flaw of the old one. Gone was the clear plastic well designed to collect crumbs and hair and whatever other detritus your personal desk is most plagued with. In its place: nothing. Keys so low-profile against the metallic base that there's hardly any key there. Given that I've proven unable to stop the missus eating at the computer, and key switches don't work too well when gummed up with chocolate, as my thankfully rarely-used f1 key will attest, I really liked the sound of a keyboard that would stay clean.

Plus it looks cool.

But it also looks like, well, a pretty crap keyboard. I know I praised the MacBook style of keyboard, but I praised it as a laptop keyboard. And we all know that "laptop" is the fancy word for "computer where every component is both crappier and more expensive than its desktop counterpart".

So I was skeptical.

At first, I hated it. And I hated myself for buying it. And I hated Ubuntu for having a kernel that can't cope with it (see Beware Ubuntu 8.04, which I still don't particularly recommend). A guy at work showed me I could disable the eject key (the trick being that it's System > Preferences > Keyboard Shortcuts, and not System > Preferences > Keyboard; did I mention that I hate Ubuntu's crappy preferences/administration recently?). That was an important step because I was regularly hitting the eject key instead of delete. My fingers were still assuming, I think, that the keys had some height to them, which makes it easy to overshoot and hit the next key along, in whatever direction your finger is traveling.

Funnily enough, I don't make that particular mistake any more. I know this because I've since set eject to open a new terminal as a test, which would be annoying, but not as annoying as opening my DVD drive tray, and it just hasn't been a problem at all.

The keyboard takes slightly less space on the desk, but the gosh-darn vestigial numeric keypad still gets in the way of where the mouse ought to be. If they insist on keeping that particular spare prick around, they could at least put it on the left, where only lefties like that Hitler fellow would be inconvenienced by it. The volume-control and eject keys have moved to be over the main part of the keyboard, though, so I still hold out some hope that next time Apple will find their stones and bury it out back, like they did the floppy drive before it, and the parallel printer port before that. But right now, you're gaining very little free space. About a key's width off your old keyboard. If you've got space problems, you'll continue to have them, I'm afraid. (Unless you go for the small keyboard, but then you lose the editing pad and the USB cable. I'm not putting batteries in a device that has no reason to ever move, and I still don't much like editing on a laptop, even if it is a MacBook.)

The feel is okay, but I don't really think it's as good as the keyboard it replaced. Appearance-wise, it's great, and it's holding up well against cruft, though the bare bits of aluminum are getting tarnished. I like the back, play/pause, and forward buttons. They're handy. More useful to me than f7, f8, and f9 ever were. The expose and dashboard buttons and brightness buttons are useless detractions, though, like the corresponding functionality.

Keyboard feel, though, as I said at the beginning, is such a personal thing that I can't usefully comment on it. You're not me, so you'll have to try one yourself. If you like the MacBook keyboard, you'll probably like this. If you don't, you probably won't. It does feel better after a while than it does initially, but I'm told the same is true of hammering nails into your dick, so I won't laugh at you if you go with your initial "this keyboard is kind of crappy and the keys have no travel" reaction. In terms of resistance to dirt, this keyboard is way ahead of its predecessor. I just wish they hadn't changed everything else too.

The real question is what I'll do if I ever stumble across the perfect keyboard. Good feel, easy to keep clean, good-looking, all the useful keys and none of the useless ones... Stockpile, I guess. If only someone could mate the Apple aluminum keyboard with the Happy Hacking Lite2!