Das Keyboard: The Keyboard for Professionals

There are not a lot of devices aimed strictly at professional users and not equipped with “bells and whistles” that are featured on products aimed at entertainment, performance enthusiast and video gaming markets. Today we take a look at Das Keyboard III Professional, the keyboard that is designed to provide the ultimate tactile experience for professionals.

by Anton Shilov
01/27/2009 | 10:56 AM

The market of computer keyboards and other computer peripherals is flooded with various devices primarily aimed at gamers or multimedia enthusiasts. As a result, many keyboards feature incredible amount of additional keys and functionality, but sometimes sacrifice the main qualities of the keyboard in order to install those supplement things. But do all the users need them? Hardly.

 

There are several reasons for installation of extra keys on modern keyboards: computers now perform much more tasks than decades ago, when the keyboard was first introduced and it is natural that many would like to control audio or something else from their keyboards instead of using additional devices; PC video games are getting more and more complex and extra programmable keys are much appreciated by gamers; numerous applications can take advantage of programmable keys

But the truth to be said, far not all need to control audio volume, launch email application, start complex macros or quickly reconfigure an in-game character. What the vast majority of journalists, typists, writers and many other users need from their keyboard is maximum comfort when typing and the best possible ergonomics. Unfortunately, many multimedia-oriented keyboards available these days sacrifice comfort of typing so to install additional functionality, whereas cheap office-oriented keyboards without multimedia buttons do not provide a lot of comfort either.

All-in-all, there are very few high-quality keyboards aimed at typists available on the market right now. One of them is definitely Das Keyboard from Metadot Corp. that not only has mechanical switch keys, but also promises incredible typing experience as well as increase of speed of typing.

Today we are going to have a look at the Das Keyboard III Professional and find out whether it is actually a very special device that can make life of a typist easier.

The History of Layouts, Keys and Keyboards

 QWERTY: The Slower You Going, the Longer Road You Will Endure

 The history of various input devices with keys lasts for hundreds of years (the first organ with keys was described in a work dated 1st century A.D.), but the first mechanical typewriter as we know it was invented back in the 1867 by Christopher Latham Sholes and partners. Back then, keys were located alphabetically. Just several years later typists quickly learned to type so fast that mechanical letters which hit the typewriter ribbon got broken/jammed too often and technicians, who had to repair the typewriters, as well as typists themselves asked manufacturer to somehow fix the issue.

Since it was hardly possible to avoid jamming of letter mechanisms, considering design of mechanical typewriters, the manufacturer of typewriters decided to slowdown typists’ speed of typing. As a consequence, the most frequently used letters in English language – E, T, A, S, O, R, N, I – were placed very inconveniently. As a result, the speed of typing decreased, the jamming was avoided and the QWERTY keyboard layout was born.


One of the world's first typewriters.
Image by About.com

The next leap in evolution of keyboards, which happened about fifty years after the invention of the typewriter, was the creation of electric typewriter in 1930s. Electric typewriters did not have any issues with jamming of letter mechanisms and there was no point to slowdown speed of typing on them, however, as typists were already used to QWERTY layout, manufacturers had to continue using it.

Another evolutionary step for keyboards was the emergence of personal computers in the 1970s and the appearance of the keyboard as we know it today. But despite of over a hundred years history and numerous failed attempts to improve the speed of typing by moving frequently used letters into the central places, the inefficient QWERTY standard layout is still here and it is unlikely that it will cease to exist soon.

As a result, all the efforts to improve speed of typing in the last 30 years on the PC were aimed at improving ergonomics and tactile feeling of QWERTY keyboards.

Modern Computer Keyboard Switching Technologies

Although all the keyboards look the same outside, they may be completely different inside. It is crucial that the keyboard has nice ergonomics, but it is no less crucial what is inside the unit, as comfort depends on tactile feelings, whereas reliability depends on switching technology.

Nowadays there are several types of switching technologies that are used inside desktop PC keyboards:

There are also other types of keyboard switching technologies, including scissor-switch and capacitive keyboards.

Nowadays the vast majority of desktop keyboards use dome switch technology, which makes it possible to keep them rather affordable and reliable against spills. By contrast, rather complex keyboards with mechanical switches are more vulnerable against liquid, crums, dust or physical hits.

But despite of price advantages and potentially higher reliability many believe that dome switch keyboards do not provide excellent tactile feedback and that mechanical and buckling-spring keyboards are much more preferable. While in general it is clear that mechanical switch should provide the best tactile feedback, many  of higher-class dome switch keyboards do provide pleasant enough tactile feedback to be chosen by typists.

We will share our experience about working on keyboards with different types of switching technology later in this article, but before, it is time to explain why tactile feedback is important for typists.

The Holy Grail for Keyboard Manufacturers: Keyboard Design, Shape of Keys, Ideal Tactile Feedback

As mentioned, since QWERTY has become a de-facto standard for keyboards, it is practically impossible to improve typing skills by re-locating keys as the whole world uses QWERTY and nothing else. As a result, in order to make typing more pleasant and faster, manufacturers have to somehow improve ergonomics as well as tactile feedback, or response from the keys.

Throughout the last two decades we have seen many keyboard designs that were a radical departure from classic typewriter/keyboard: Microsoft Natural and Logitech Wave are just two examples. The keyboards with fancy design place keys in a way that designer thinks is the most efficient for typing. However, apart from design, other factors are no less important.

The shape of keys is crucial for those, who type a lot: provided that the keys have concave surface, fingers do not slide while typing, which automatically reduces the amount of typos. Besides, the keys’ surface and gaps between keys should be large enough for fingers, otherwise it is almost inevitable that typos will occur because fingers will press several keys simultaneously. There are a lot of talks nowadays that completely flat keys are fine for typists and apologist of that theory bring modern keyboards by Apple as a proof for the point. However, a lot of end-users still believe that Apple Extended keyboard and its follower Matias Tactile Pro are by far the best Apple-specific keyboards ever released.

Apart from the shape of keys, it is important that it is neither easy nor hard to press a key, which can be called tactile feedback or resistance of keys. Nowadays there are loads of inexpensive keyboards which keys hardly have any resistance at all and it is pretty hard to type on them a lot, and fast, without mistakes. Another issue is the length of the keystroke: keyboards with short (notebook like) keystroke are harder to use for many than keyboards with longer stroke. Moreover, if the keys provide insufficient tactile feedback, in numerous cases a key can be touched, but since it cannot be felt tactically that it actually switched the signal, a typo will occur.

So, the ideal keyboard should have the following features:

Does the Das Keyboard feature all of the above? Let’s find out further in this review!

Closer Look at Das Keyboard Professional

The Das Keyboard III Professional by Metadot comes in a very unpretentious package made of cardboard and with a picture of the unit on the top. For a device that costs $129, this is a rather surprising package. But let’s get inside!

The keyboard comes with no additional drivers on optical discs since it does not require them and works right out of the box. Hence, there is nothing to be found inside the package apart from the keyboard itself, which is packaged into a bag made of polyethylene that protects the unit inside the cardboard box pretty well, a small piece of paper advising to visit the web-site www.daskeyboard.com for further information about the product as well as a tissue.

The first thing that impresses about the keyboard is the lack of any additional keys. There are now keys to control audio or launch applications and macroses. The Das Keyboard is an absolutely classic 104-key keyboard with a lug on the right upper side of the unit where an USB 2.0 hub is located.

The Das Keyboard is made of very high quality plastic, which does not bend and makes the device pretty heavy. Thanks to the weight and large rubber pads underneath the unit, the keyboard is pretty heavy and it is uneasy to slide it back and forth on the table, which is also good, if you type a lot and hate when you have to care about position of the keyboard. For some reasons, the manufacturer has not placed rubber pads on the holding feet of the keyboard, which is a peculiarity of many modern keyboards, by the way.

The upper side of the Das Keyboard is made of glossy black plastic, which leaves fingerprints on it all the time. This may not be exactly a good idea, however, considering the fact that under normal usage conditions the top of the keyboard is hardly touched, hence, there should not be a feeling of a dirty keyboard. Moreover, Metadot is kind :) enough to ship a piece of a tissue to clean the fingerprints off the glossy surface of the device.

A very noticeable aspect of the Das Keyboard is that it is fairly high. It is higher compared to many office keyboards that are in use nowadays. While this may not be a drawback for those, who use additional gel hand-rest pads to hold hands, many users of modern slim keyboards will not appreciate this design decision, which was, most likely conditioned by the usage of mechanical switches. On the other hand, the thick base gives the keyboard a very solid look of a rather exclusive and high-end product.

The font that is used to mark keys onto the top of keys should, according to Metadot, “convey the idea of precision” and we have to agree – it looks completely different compared to fonts used to mark other keyboards. For some, letters on top of the keys may seem small, nevertheless, considering the fact that the Das Keyboard Ultimate has no engravings at all, this should not be considered as a drawback. What should be kept in mind is that Metadot uses paint to mark keys and not molding or engraving, hence, users have to hope that the paint is quality enough and will not be wiped out over time, transforming Das Keyboard Professional into Das Keyboard Ultimate…

The shape and size of the keys on Das Keyboard III are beyond any compliments: they are rather large and concave, while the gap between keys is rather significant, which should ensure comfortable typing.

It should be noted that the Das Keyboard III allows up to 12 keys to be pressed simultaneously, which may be important for very fast typists as well as gamers. Additionally, it means that the keyboard will have no problems with various commands launched using different multi-key combinations (for instance, in order to type €, CTRL + ALT + E should be pressed simultaneously).

Metadot uses MX keymodule mechanical switches with springs made by Cherry Corp. that are capable of withstanding up to 50 million keystrokes, much higher compared to typical keyboards. Since the company does not recommend disassembling its Das Keyboard, we decided not to do it, since the mechanical switch-based keyboards are pretty complex and chances are that once disassembled, the keyboard will no longer work the way it should.

Using the Das Keyboard: Feelings and Impressions

Before I share my impressions about the Das Keyboard III, I have to disclose that I have been using Keytronic KT800/KT1000 dome switch keyboards for over ten years now. Before that, I used a mechanical switch keyboard for about eight years. As a result, I am not quite used to notebook-type or trendy keyboards of these days, but what I am used to is fairly high comfort while typing.

Considering the fact that Das Keyboard is positioned for professional typists, it should be compared against mainstream/entry range keyboards that are used in typical daily routine of someone whose job is dependent on the keyboard and not its style. As a result, we decided to compare Das Keyboard to Keytronic KT800/1000, HP K US 0133, Logitech Cordless EX110 and a cheap noname keyboard. Obviously, the Das Keyboard is much more expensive than the aforementioned units, but those products are the ones which are actually utilised by the vast majority of typists.

Since the Das Keyboard is all about tactile feelings and visual impression, this part of the review is extremely subjective.

The first thing that is noticed when the Das Keyboard is removed from its box is that it is heavy, which is actually a pleasant impression: you hold a high-quality item in your hands; not a cheap device, but a properly made product that is designed to work and help you make money.

Thanks to glossy surface as well as enlarged USB hub ledge, the Das Keyboard III Professional looks stylish. The Das Keyboard I and II were not glossy and their shape was not as stylishly simple and “straight” as that of the III. To further impress, the keyboard uses fashionable blue diodes on Num, Scroll and Caps Lock indicators. As predecessors, the new Das Keyboard has no additional keys “for consumers”, but just everything which is required for professional users.

While the “professional” version does look good, the Ultimate edition of the Das Keyboard looks amazingly well: with no marks at all, it attracts attention not only because of the stylish shape, but because of the apparent absurd: the keyboard without marks! The absence of marks obviously has its pros and cons, but we will talk about it a little later.

Typing on the Das Keyboard is much more comfortable compared to HP K US 0133, Logitech Cordless EX110 as well as cheap noname keyboards. In fact, the EX110 as well as noname keyboards have little resistance at all, thus, there is no tactile feeling of pressing and many typing mistakes occur because of that. The HP and Keytronic dome-switch-based keyboards have rather high resistance against pressing, which makes them pretty comfortable to use, but this resistance is a little different compared to that on the Das Keyboard. In fact, higher strength should be applied to start pressing a key of Das Keyboard at first, but then they key sinks down with very low resistance, a distinctive feature of several high-end keyboards by Logitech.

The official motto of the Das Keyboard is “the mechanical board that clicks”. For some, clicking is probably important as it also gives an indication that a key has been pressed, some will dislike this feature as it distracts others and also adds unnecessary sound. To tell you the truth, I rarely found the clicking of the Das Keyboard annoying, even while the music was playing.

The keys of the Das Keyboard are of the nearly ideal form: large and curved enough. In fact, I got used to it after 10 years of using Keytronic keyboards in 10 to 20 minutes. This is very impressive, as in about three months of using Logitech’s EX110 on the multimedia testbed I could not feel myself comfortable due to its small keys and the lack of almost any resistance during pressing.

Since I’ve never used any kind of multimedia keys on any keyboards, I am not used to them and did not feel any discomfort about their absence on the Das Keyboard. But many would disagree with me on this.

While the glossy surface of the Das Keyboard gives it a stylish look, this surface can be scratched just too easily: the first scratches on the unit emerged in just a couple of days and were caused either by the napkin bundled with the product or by a Motorola pad that is supplied with its phones to remove fingerprints and things like that.

Blank or Marked – That Is The Question

The Das Keyboard is available in two versions: the Professional (with each key marked) and the Ultimate (purely blank keyboard with no markings). All the keyboards have all their keys marked and it is somewhat an absurd to buy a keyboard without markings. However, there is a number of logical explanations why unmarked keyboard may be a benefit.

According to the official history of Das Keyboard, Daniel Guermeur, founder of Metadot Corporation, an open source software company, created Das Keyboard because he believed the only way to improve his typing skills was to stop looking at the keys. Having a blank keyboard with a great tactile feel would be the ultimate answer.

Well, perhaps, Mr. Guermeur is right: if a human who can’t swim is thrown into the water, there are high chances that he will swim out of the water somehow, possibly, in not a very efficient way. But doing practically the same in case of typing is a little bit strange.

All right, I can type without looking at the keyboard. But there are situations when I need to enter passwords in order to access my bank accounts. Would I risk entering the passwords blindly? No. Moreover, even when I do not enter mission critical information, I may need a combination of keys to get a symbol (CTRL + ALT + E = €) or a function (CTRL + F = Find function) and entering a combination will hardly be comfortable on a purely black keyboard.

One thing that the Das Keyboard Ultimate is ideal for is for impressing your friends of colleagues. The blank keyboard tells everyone around that you were nearly born with keyboard at hands. Moreover, clicking sound will attract further attention to the keyboard and you.

So, if you are a truly ultimate professional who is sure regarding typing skills, the Das Keyboard Ultimate is your choice. If you are not, or you are unsure your typing skills, you should consider the Das Keyboard Professional with markings.

Conclusion

The Das Keyboard III Professional brought a very good impression. Everyone who saw the keyboard and used it liked the design and the extraordinary feeling during typing. All in all, the Das Keyboard from Metadot Corp. is an ultimate device aimed primarily at professional typists and specialists like that.

Each of the key of the Das Keyboard III contains mechanical switch designed to withstand 50 million of strokes, which is higher compared to 10 – 20 million of typical keyboards.

The black Das Keyboard III Ultimate with no markings looks impressive and also feels great, however, considering the fact that many end-users need to enter combinations of keys and/or mission critical passwords, we believe that the pure black edition of the device is not exactly the best choice, unless someone wants to create impression of an ultimate computer geek among other people.

The Das Keyboard – in both of its incarnations – gives ultimate tactile feedback that is rarely found on today’s keyboards. In fact, the only thing I that I can compare that feeling with is the keyboard on IBM T42 laptop. Thanks to great tactile feedback as well as clicking sound, the Das Keyboard gives a pleasure of touching a high-end, or perhaps, luxurious device.

Apart from very high built quality and style, Das Keyboard III has another indisputable advantage: it has 2 meter USB cable as well as integrated USB 2.0 hub, a definitely useful device these days.

One of the issues about the Das Keyboard is that it is mechanical and thus it is more fragile compared to dome switch-based keyboards. More importantly, it is really hard to clean the Das Keyboard: even Metadot advices to use compressed air to remove dust or crums from the keyboard and prohibits removal of key caps. Another issue is scratchable glossy surface of the unit.

The Das Keyboard is definitely an item to try for a professional user who types a lot. But the Das Keyboards are not sold widely in the retail: they are available from Micro Center retail stores throughout the U.S. as well as at J&R Music and Computer World stores located in New York, NY. Besides, consumers may acquire them either directly from Metadot, or get them from GetDigital in Europe, Tek Gear in Canada or AusPC in Australia. Obviously, buying a $129 keyboard without trying is not the best option. On the other hand, Metadot offers 30 days money back guarantee without questions asked, hence, the situation seems to get a little easier here. 

So, let’s sum up the pros and cons of Das Keyboard III.

Advantages:

Disadvantages: