Wednesday, August 4, 2010

. . . MPCU -- Keyboards

Modular PC Upgrade Series Part 2
(from the Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column)

A Brief Foreword on this Series

This post is part of a multi-part series on the subject of Modular PC Ownership.

The system of Modular PC Ownership espoused in this series follows a green conservation approach to technology that is intended to reduce your individual carbon footprint, save you money, improve your computing satisfaction, and increase the value in many respects that you receive from your personal computer. Each posting on this blog has been created to support and enhance a related column published in the newspaper.

Today's posting supports the column: Computer upgrades: The right keyboard is... Key, which is the April 13th, 2010 Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column.

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Table of Contents

Part 1: Speaking of MPCU -- Introduction
01: Preface
02: Introduction
03: The Economics of Modular Upgrading
04: Introduction Conclusion

Part 2: Speaking of MPCU - Keyboards
05: Introduction
06: Connectivity Options
07: Keyboards Conclusion

Part 3: Speaking of MPCU - Controllers & Sound
08: Introduction
09: Controllers
10: PC Sound
11: Controllers & Sound Conclusions

Part 4: Speaking of MPCU - Computer Cases
12: Introduction
13: What a Case Should Do
14: How to Begin Building your Foundation

Part 5: Speaking of MPCU - Power Supply Units (PSU's)
15: Introduction
16: Selecting a Power Supply
17: Quality vs. Cost

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05: Introduction

This posting covers and expands upon Part I of the multi-part column series on the modular upgrades approach to personal computer ownership, "Computer Upgrades: The right keyboard is . . . key" in the Digital Grind Column (13 April 2010, Business & Technology Section, The Cape Cod Times) which covers keyboard upgrades.

The computer keyboard is the most frequently-used input device connected to the modern computer, and not surprisingly comes in a variety of forms of varying quality based upon factors such as cost, appearance, and special use. Most name-brand computers come with a higher than average quality keyboard, while discount and bare-bones systems tend to include inexpensive keyboards that lack any sort of brand identity.

Considering how important the keyboard is to using your computer, it is perhaps the most logical component to begin with when considering an upgrade that improves both your computing experience and the abilities of your PC. In the early days of personal computing the keyboard was little more than the PC-equivalent of the standard typewriter keyboard -- it was used to enter data, write, and to a limited extent, access the menus for computer programs prior to the dominance of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) that is a standard feature for the modern PC.

Today keyboards have the potential to offer much more in terms of functionality, convenience, and ease-of-use for the PC, though these capabilities are still commonly overlooked not just by PC makers, but by the vast majority of users! In this article we will examine the current tech level for keyboards, and the different features that can improve your computing experience.

The reason that most discount (bare bones) PC's and all but the higher-end name-brand PC's come with a basic keyboard is partially due to cost, and partially to expectation. When a consumer purchases a high-end gaming system they expect that computer to be feature-rich, including the functions associated with the keyboard, because PC games tend to support that sort of interface.

Consumers purchasing a computer for general use expect that it will have certain basic features -- for example, the standard 104-keys that are required for the Microsoft Windows Operating System, and the 12 Function Keys that are routinely used by most business and productivity programs as short-cuts and to access their internal menus combined with the ALT and the CONTROL keys.

For gaming systems the widespread use of macros has generated a different set of expectations, and while function keys can be used for the assignment of macro commands, most gamers expect to use extra keys -- often designated as "Game" or "Macro" keys -- that can be assigned to replace commands or combinations of commands. This type of keyboard has some built-in memory and processing capabilities, and can record keystrokes or load pre-set definitions for macros and command combinations that are provided by the game makers.

On the higher-end of that spectrum are keyboards with small built-in display screens that allow the user to specify additional information or to monitor parts of the games they play, such as their inventory or ammunition supply, features that may provide something of an extra edge for the gamer and, no surprise, represent an edge that they are willing to pay for.

In the realm of general-use computing an increasing percentage of the computing public has a desire for convenience features such as wireless connectivity, programmable macro keys, and tactile positive feedback from the keys themselves, spawning an entire set of subtypes in keyboard tech. These subsets often include a further division of lines to service notebook and laptop owners with similar functionality and capability that is equal to the lines created for the desktop PC.

Notebook and laptop computers are increasingly being used as a replacement for the traditional desktop PC, allowing the users mobility while at the same time providing the convenience and capability of a desktop through the use of a docking station or a full-sized keyboard, a mouse, and full-sized monitor on the desktop for home or business use. While this approach demands the same sort of tech used for traditional desktop PC's these same consumers increasingly require portable versions that match this capability, or would choose such tech if it were available.

Because of all this a wide variety of hardware solutions have been created and exist on the market -- a market that is historically targeted at the power users and mobile computing road warriors that make up much of the business computing market, and is only just now being discovered by the average PC user, consumers who, empowered by the World Wide Web, are increasingly becoming more aware of the potential in convenience and capability expansion these tech sections can provide. This new focus has served to elevate the keyboard to status as a computing device rather than as a simple input peripheral, and the expansion of awareness in the typical consumer has broadened both the availability of these devices but also helped to lower their costs.

This section of the series will focus upon the different lines of keyboard tech, and how they can be used to improve your computing experience and expand the capability of both the system that you already own, and present expanded capability for your PC as you upgrade it in the future by adopting a modular approach to computer ownership.

As you venture into this new point-of-view on owning and upgrading your PC and contemplate the Keyboard as a device worthy of consideration in that respect, bear in mind that there is a direct correlation between capability, extra function, and cost.

It helps to remember that the extra costs associated with these products should not be considered as a cost specific to your present computer, but rather should be factored as the cost of a device that you will retain in the process of future upgrades, so that its actual cost is spread over many years rather than the much shorter lifespan of your current hardware configuration. Viewed this way, the cost of an upgraded keyboard is actually less when it is spread throughout the life of your system.

06: Connectivity Options

Modern keyboards can be divided into two categories -- wired and wireless -- but despite these simple connectivity methods there is still a great deal of difference and variety in terms of quality, capabilities, and special use. With that in mind we should examine the two types of connectivity from their most basic forms before expanding our examination to encompass the added features and tech that differentiates the unit within those two subsets.

For desktop PC's and to a lesser extent for portable computing when a basic upgrade keyboard is sought the consumer is likely to find that wired keyboards are far more popular on the shelves of bricks-and-mortar stores than wireless keyboards, with most retail stores having a much wider selection in quality and features than they do for wireless models. This is partially due to the fact that there are far more manufacturers for wired keyboards in the market today than for wireless, and partially due to the fact that the profit margin for wired keyboards is higher than that of wireless due to their simpler technology.

Regardless of whether you are looking for a keyboard for a desktop PC or a portable PC that you intend to use as the replacement for a desktop PC, there are certain factors that weigh in heavily in any choice. These begin with size -- a full-sized keyboard is easier to type on and tends to have more extra keys for higher-end units than smaller keyboards have -- and materials quality.

  • The Average Wired Keyboard
A flimsy keyboard made mostly of plastic with a basic set of features can be purchased for an average of $20 at most retailers, but as with most computer tech you get what you pay for. These keyboards represent the lower end of the spectrum, they are cheap, and they are functional, and they take advantage of the current interface preference for Universal Serial Bus (USB), but that is where their similarities to better quality keyboards end.

As the price of a keyboard increases, so do its capabilities, with moderately-prices models such as those made under the Microsoft brand featuring built-in USB 2.0 hubs, programmable function keys, and ergonomic forms that offer a more relaxed typing position for the hands that can reduce the repetitious stress associated with prolonged use of the keyboard. The closer you get to the $30 and $40 range, the better the material, an aspect that you can feel when you pick up these keyboards.

Once you reach the $50 range keyboards tend to include special features like extra gaming keys, built-in USB-based pointers or pads that can replace your mouse, and a full set of media keys that allow you to adjust settings on your PC via these special controls on the keyboard. Media controls generally include volume, a mute key, and special keys to launch various types of media players as well as your email app, web browser, and even the File Manager / Windows Explorer function.

  • High-end Wired Keyboards
It used to be that when the label "High-end" was applied to keyboards it was simply code for "Gaming Keyboard" but that is not the case any longer, with many keyboard manufacturers including general-use keyboards in that level of their tech. What does that mean in terms of features?

For general-use keyboards the basic set of features includes a set of media controls and extra function keys for email, web, and DVD, as well as programmable macro features that take advantage of the function keys and may or may not include special macro selection buttons, and you should expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $80 for these basic features in a higher quality form.

On the high-end for general-use keyboards are units like the iConnect, for Mac owners, which features touch-sensitive media keys, dual USB 2.0 hubs, and a docking port for your iPod or iPhone, which will set you back a cool $129. A PC version of the iConnect offers the same features but at a lower price, which averages around $129.

A no-nonsense all-metal keyboard with positive force feedback click keys and a durable design probably means you are looking at one of the variety of wired keyboards made by Keytronics, a line of tech that is based upon the original IBM PC keyboards. Back in the day these were widely considered to be the best keyboards available regardless of price, though today that is only true of materials and performance rather than a wide range of additional features are the criteria you use. Ranging in proce from $60 to $200 depending upon connection type, size, language, and features, these represent a better quality of keyboard with a very long life potential.

For gaming keyboards the price range you should expect to pay starts at $60 and can easily climb to several hundred dollars depending upon the features, but if you are building or upgrading a gaming rig, spending that kind of money on a keyboard actually makes sense, because once you reach this level what you are paying for are the features as well as the quality!

At the $80 level there is the Logitech G-15 Keyboard, which features a small balck-and-white LCD panel on which a wide variety of information can be displayed while you play games or run programs, displaying game stats, inventory, and system information, and serving as the display for information updates depending upon the game being played and what features the game maker has included in the configuration profile that is provided with the game. This model includes a number of programmable macro (or game) keys in addition to the function keys, and is widely viewed as the entry-level keyboard by many gamers.

At the upper end of the scale for gaming keyboards is the Logitech G-19, which has all of the basic features of the G-15 but includes a larger full-color display, extra game keys, and permits the user to customize the key colors to help differentiate between the current settings when using alternate control toggles. A full set of media controls, and a Windows Key disable button adds to the functionality, but all of those features come at a cost -- in the case of the G-19 that cost is a whopping $179. That may seem like a lot, but many of the features for this keyboard equate to well-defined benefits in gaming, and provide a noticeable edge, which is something that most gamers are willing to pay to achieve.

  • Wireless Choices
Cheaper wireless keyboards tend to feature a USB-based interface that is plugged into the PC and then positioned to function as what it is -- an antenna -- and often come with a wireless mouse, with prices ranging from $18 to $35, but with these economy models you get what you pay for, which includes a higher than average susceptibility to interference from other devices, and the need to replace batteries on a frequent basis.

Entry-level models for an upgrade wireless keyboard consistent with the modular upgrade philosophy would start at around $80 and up, and feature either Bluetooth or 2.4GHz connectivity, and boast at a minimum a full set of multimedia controls, programmable function and macro keys, and the ability to automatically change frequencies if interference is detected.

For an improved wireless multimedia keyboard, the Logitech diNovo Edge represents the top-end of the scale, and it is priced accordingly at $199. That price tag gets you a keyboard that is billed by its maker as "The World's Most Advanced Keyboard" and it may well be just that! Among its many features are its Li-Ion powered blutooth interface (it also includes a USB Bluethooth nub for systems that lack built-in Blutehooth connectivity such as desktop PC's) and boasts a charging cradle so that you do not have to concern yourself with replacing batteries ever. Its editing and navigation keyset, audio volume slider, and touchdisk controls combined with discrete backlighting for the keys and high quality materials helped it earn the CES Innovation Award, and place it among the most feature-rich wireless keyboards available today.

07: Keyboards Conclusion

Often the choices that we make with respect to keyboards has little to do with capability and everything to do with convenience. The keyboard that came with the computer tends to be the first choice, largely under the assumption that it is also the best choice, because that is what the manufacturer included with the computer. That may be simple logic, but in the world of keyboards it is really a starting point.

Determining what keyboard to use as the upgrade choice for you as an individual does not require a great deal of research or effort, because the process really comes down to three simple factors: the type of computer, your primary use mode, and budget.

The first choice -- the type of computer -- has the most weight in your choice. For a desktop system a wired keyboard that is feature-rich is the obvious choice, especially if your system is used for gaming. For a portable computer the obvious choice is for a wireless keyboard, with the most weight coming down on the Bluetooth side, because if we ignore the fact that it is the more expensive of the two main standards for wireless communication and concentrate on the fact that it is the most reliable, the decision is much easier.

Even the higher-end 2.4 GHz keyboards are susceptible to signal interference, which can (and often does) cause the dropping of a keystroke here and there. That may not be a big deal if all that you use the system for is casual word processing and web surfing, but if you use your keyboard a lot not having the odd character fail to appear is more important, and the wireless format means that you can easily take the keyboard with you if you change locations.

The second factor in selecting a keyboard is how you use your computer -- if you listen to music and watch videos and DVD's a lot, you are going to want a multimedia keyboard, whereas if you use a lot of business and productivity apps, you are going to want a wider set of macro features and programmable keys. Ideally whatever your use patterns are, your new keyboard is going to improve that experience.

The final factor is price -- but there is good news here. Today there are enough manufacturers in the filed that you can usually find a keyboard that meets your needs throughout the range of prices, with the biggest difference being in the materials used in the construction of the board and its components. More metal means more money, but the downside is that the less you spend, the less durability is built in, and ideally what you are looking for is a keyboard that you will not be replacing for a very long time -- and that means spending a little more than you might otherwise want to so that you get the highest quality keyboard that you can afford!

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CM Boots-Faubert is a freelance writer, author, and columnist. He writes the Digital Grind Column for the Cape Cod Times, and the Game On: Cape Cod Gaming Blog at the paper. He writes extensively on video games and gaming, both as a freelance journalist and as a walkthrough writer, reviewer, and previewer. His books include the soon to be published title Games Journalism 101, that discusses how to establish a career writing on video games, and his title in the Hand's On Series, Hand's On: Home Networking which is a complete guide targeted at the average PC user on how to design and build a home computer Ethernet network.

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