Guest blog: A translator’s conversion to a mechanical keyboard

As a translator, I spend many hours a day at my computer, yet for years I didn’t give my keyboard a second thought. I switched happily between a basic external keyboard – the sort that comes bundled with a desktop computer – and my laptop keyboard when I was out and about. After all, I thought, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Six months ago, I was asked to give a webinar on typing tips for translators (on touch typing, shortcuts and other time-saving solutions) and I exchanged a few emails on keyboards and layouts with The Keyboard Company experts, who casually mentioned that “mechanicals are like the old car advert… Once driven, forever smitten”. Fascinated to discover what I had been missing all these years, I bought a Filco Majestouch-2.

s-filco_majestouch_2_uk_large

Remember what it’s like when you buy a new kitchen knife? You suddenly realise how blunt your old knives are. I’d spent years typing on a mushy keyboard, not realising how much effort I had to make for each keypress. I wasn’t getting any aches or pains and I could type fairly fast on it (I average about 75 words per minute). Why splash out on a new keyboard if you’re getting on OK with your present one?

Well, a membrane keyboard gets harder to type on as time goes by because the rubber domes under each key get stiffer. It happens gradually so you’re not aware of the change. It’s a bit like putting on weight: you don’t notice until you get on the scales one day or try to squeeze into last year’s jeans.

Mechanical switches

Mechanical keyboards are completely different. From the very first test run, I was smiling. If you’ve ever tried mechanical switches, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The Cherry MX Brown switches are a joy to type on. They have a bright, crisp feeling, with a slight bump (tactile feedback) to tell you when the keypress has registered just half way through the key travel. That’s totally different from a membrane keyboard, where you have to press each key right down to the base (bottoming out, as the experts say). With a mechanical keyboard you can type more lightly. It was actually quite hard not to bottom out the keys on my Filco to begin with, but after a few days I’d learnt to exert just the right pressure. I don’t think I’m typing faster now, but I’m definitely typing more lightly.

5

Noise

What about the noisy reputation that mechanical keyboards have? Well, for a start, many freelance translators work from home and not in an office, so there’s not much of a chance of bothering coworkers (unless you count your cat). On the other hand, I was a bit concerned that the clicky keys might invade the peace of my silent home office. Fortunately it hasn’t bothered me at all. I know brown switches are quieter than others (blue being the noisiest), but I actually find the rhythmic clatter quite conducive to keeping up a good translating pace.

Layout

I wanted a keyboard with a Spanish layout. It’s easy to switch input language with Windows and I can key in an ñ or an é without looking down, but with an English layout I confuse curly brackets, asterisks and other rarely-used symbols. The Filco Majestouch-2 comes in a wide range of languages, so it was a perfect choice for me.

s-filco_majestouch_2_spanish_large_1

Cost

For professional translators who have a keyboard at their fingertips all day, the extra cost of a mechanical keyboard should be a minor consideration in their work set-up. We invest in the latest software and up-to-date hardware components; a good quality keyboard should go hand in hand with those investments. If you calculate the cost per year of keyboard life, the investment is actually minimal.

Reliability

The downside is that mechanical keyboards seem to have more teething problems than others, and I was unlucky that I had to return my first Filco due to occasional keystroke issues.

The upside is that a mechanical keyboard is an investment that will last. They have a longer lifespan than their membrane counterparts, which is good news for translators who crunch their way through 2-3 million keystrokes a year.

The acid test

After several months, I went back to my old Logitech membrane keyboard, just out of interest. It was stodgy and tiring to type on. After just half an hour, I could feel the finger fatigue. Honestly, I cannot believe I ever thought this was comfortable.

What keyboards do other translators use?

You’d think that most translators would be mechanical keyboard fans. Or that they’d go down another road and use ergonomic keyboards.

Well, you’ll be surprised to learn that just 3% use mechanical switches and only a small proportion, 17%, use ergonomic keyboards.*

Keyboard type_1

* Data from a survey carried out in January 2016 among 817 translators

Why so few?

I’d love to find out why so few translators use mechanical keyboards. Is it the expense? Is it because they’ve simply never tried one out?

s-Emma-GoldsmithPlease drop a comment below with your thoughts on this. Which keyboard do you use and why?

And if you’re not a translator, but would like to share your favourite keyboard and the reasons you chose it, I’d love to hear from you too!

Emma Goldsmith is a freelance Spanish to English medical translator who made a career switch from nursing some 25 years ago. She translates a wide range of texts, from cardiology research articles in medical journals to the leaflets that come in medicine boxes. Find out more about her at goldsmithtranslations.com.

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  • Danae Seemann

    More than just keyboards, I’d be interested in hearing if translators prefer a desktop PC or a large laptop with/without external keyboard. I am tempted to try an external keyboard as my Toshiba (less than 2 years old) Satellite has a terrible keyboard design, but I can’t afford to invest in a desktop right now.

    • Emma Goldsmith

      Hi Danae, I can’t really see the advantage of a large laptop, which is very heavy to lug around. I use a 14″ ThinkPad right now, with an external monitor and external keyboard, but am thinking of downsizing to a 12″ laptop (as mentioned in my reply to Juliet). A desktop has many advantages too – changing components and getting better specs for the price.
      If I were you I’d get an external keyboard right away, instead of using your Toshiba laptop keyboard. Not only will you get a much better typing experience, but you’ll also be able to move the laptop screen further away from you and raise it up, which would be good from an ergonomic perspective.

      • Danae Seemann

        You’re quite right, Emma. I have regretted my decision. However, it is nice to have such a large screen with great resolution. I’m thinking a keyboard and a raised screen is the way to go. Thanks! BTW, I greatly enjoy your blog posts!

    • SJ Marz

      It seems to be a truism among translators, that we work in coffee shops on our laptops. I have only done a handful of “serious” jobs on my laptop, and they were horrible. Everything is wrong: The screen is smaller than the two screens on my home desktop, the keyboard and mouse aren’t ergonomic.

      • Emma Goldsmith

        I quite agree. “Serious” jobs on laptops are a nightmare!
        (By the way, on FB you mentioned a long response here. Did you delete it?)

        • SJ Marz

          No, I didn’t. There are three responses from me, and I see them mentioned in the “Recent Comments” section. But I can’t find them now. They’re under my full name, Steven Marzuola

  • Da

    I had to look, but I’ve had that keyboard for … a while (a year or so). For me, the biggest thing is that I don’t notice the keyboard. To me that is a big win with lots of time on the keyboard each day. A lovely keyboard.
    Well worth that little bit extra if you’re past that hunt and peck stage of typing.

    • Emma Goldsmith

      I agree, Da, for people who type fast (over 80% of translators) a good keyboard is the best way to go!

  • Juliet Macan

    I agree with Emma about preferring a mechanical keyboard. For 30 years I have worked in the office using a desktop PC mechanical and when travelling my laptop. My first laptops were 15 ins screens and the keyboards fairly comfortable. But more recently, I have opted for 11-12 in screens, therefore with smaller keyboards, to have something easier to carry around. My first Asus was OK, although the fingerprint log-in did not work for me. This was followed by an Acer which was OK, but quickly overheated! Last year I invested in a Dell which had a lovely large screen in a 12 ins case, and solid state disk, ideal for moving around. But unfortunately it has a very nervous keyboard which keeps skipping around. So I plug in a mechanical keyboard whenever possible, to keep my sanity.

    • Emma Goldsmith

      30 years of mechanical keyboards, Juliet! Definitely preaching to the converted here!
      I’m also looking at a lightweight, small-size Dell right now, so your comment on the unreliable keyboard is interesting. I see the new 12″ Dell comes with full-size keys, which is good, but as you say, most of the time I’ll be plugging it into my Filco. Thanks for your comment!

  • Teresa Maria

    Dear Emma, I’ve been hearing about mechanical keyboards for about a year
    and a half. This is has been discussed in translator groups more extensively in the past months. Some translator colleagues have opted for one. However,
    price difference between a membrane and a mechanical keyboard is huge in
    my country. Therefore, the majority of Brazilian translators use membrane keyboards.

    Prior to the current one, which is a Microsoft wired 600, I had a Microsoft wired Curve
    3000. It took me a while to get used to the ergonomic shape of Cuve
    3000. Since it was more expensive and lasted for a little more than 1
    year, I decided to buy a
    cheaper one, and to tell the truth, I do not regret my decision. It
    costed about R$ 50,00
    (fifty Brazilian Reales). A mechanical keyboard on the same computer
    complex would cost no less than R$ 1,500,00!!!!

    • Emma Goldsmith

      That’s a big price difference, Teresa! Maybe it would be less expensive to get one shipped to Brazil? I’ve just looked up the BR currency rate, and R$1,500 is about €375. Mechanical keyboards come much cheaper than that (mine cost about a third of the price).
      Still, it sounds as if you made the right decision to go back to a cheap membrane keyboard. I’m not sure I can see the point of buying more expensive membrane ones.

      • Bruce Whiting

        We ship to Brazil. 🙂

        But there is 44% import tax.. :-((

  • Nora Díaz

    Hi Emma, a great post, as always! After watching your webinar, I borrowed my son’s mechanical keyboard for a couple of days… and I was sold. His keyboard has blue switches, however, and I found them too noisy, so I ordered a keyboard with brown switches for myself, not nearly as noisy, as you’ve pointed out. Now after reading your post I’m thinking I should have ordered a keyboard with a Spanish layout (mine is in English, I didn’t even think of looking for one in Spanish). All in all, I’ve been very happy with my new keyboard, so thanks for writing about this very important topic.

    • Emma Goldsmith

      So glad you’ve jumped on the mechanical bandwagon, Nora! I’m sure you’ll get used to the English layout, although you can buy blank keys if you find it too distracting, depending on the make. Which keyboard did you get?

      • Nora Díaz

        I have you to thank for it! I had read about mechanical keyboards before but wasn’t convinced I’d be happy with one, especially because my son’s keyboard is so loud that you can hear the click-clacking several rooms away.

        For the layout, I don’t think I’ve ever had a Spanish layout keyboard, so I’m quite used to the physical English keyboard with Windows Spanish layout combination. I got a Filco, which at first felt a bit too compact, considering that my previous keyboard had an additional programmable key bank on the left and across the top and a built-in wrist support, but it didn’t take long to get used to it.

        • Emma Goldsmith

          Yay, another Filco fan!
          It’s funny, you translate into ES and have an EN keyboard, and I do just the opposite. Maybe we should swap keyboards!

          • Nora Díaz

            That is funny! I guess it helps keep our brains active trying to remember where all those symbols and punctuation marks are. : )

  • William and Emma, thanks for the posting. I used to work with someone who used an older model mechanical keyboard from IBM, the Model M. It’s legendary for its comfort and durability, and the newer mechanical keyboards are based on it.

    However, I won’t be going that route. About 10-15 years ago, the topic of ergonomic keyboards came up on a translation-related group. One person remarked that she loved hers, and had bought one for her daughter. But the daughter didn’t use it because she had a laptop that she took everywhere and she didn’t want to lug the keyboard around as well. The mom was going to put it in a garage sale. I made an offer, and was hooked. It was the first Microsoft Natural keyboard. Yes, it had membrane-based keys but after about 30 minutes, it was the most comfortable thing I had ever used. Now, whenever I have to use a “flat” keyboard, not only are the keys in the wrong places! but my wrists start to get uncomfortable quickly.

    Eventually it died, as keyboards do, and since that time, I’ve used a succession of replacements from Microsoft. The Natural Elite. I bought a spare to take to work at customers’ offices, and still have one of them, but it wasn’t very durable. Those aren’t available new, so in 2014 I started using a Microsoft Natural 4000. It’s got membrane keys and they’re different from everyone else’s, but I like them.

    In fact, I just got a new 4000. I hadn’t realized it, but you’re right, the membrane keys had gotten harder. The new keys are very soft.

    The 4000 isn’t perfect. My biggest rant is about the “F-Lock” key, which was not Microsoft’s best idea. And the large size means that my right hand must move almost one foot to the right to use the mouse. But until my next keyboard will almost certainly be another 4000.

  • Another consideration: Acquaintances with Apples have gushed for years about their keyboards. They use membranes, but good ones. The advantage is supposed to be that the key travel is very short, even less than membrane or mechanical keys.

    That is undoubtedly part of the reasoning behind the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard (not to be confused with the Sculpt Comfort). A couple of colleagues have it, and strongly recommend it. In addition to the very short key travel, there is no numeric keypad, meaning that the mouse can be closer. Intriguing.

  • You mentioned a Spanish keyboard. A user with a US keyboard should not need a new keyboard to work in both English and Spanish, or most European languages.

    The Microsoft US-International layout is another of Microsoft’s good ideas. I leave it enabled all the time, because it doesn’t interfere with English [1].

    – It provides convenient and easy-to-remember access to non-English characters, almost always equivalent to using a native language keyboard. You don’t have to remember Alt-codes, or other arcane details.

    – All of the keys produce the characters printed on the key tops. You don’t have to remember which keyboard you’re using.

    – It’s free, works with every version of Windows since 3, and in every Windows program.

    [1] With one tiny exception. To obtain a ‘ or ” character, you need to press a key that doesn’t take an accent mark. Otherwise, you get unintentionally accented characters. But it’s very easy to get used to typing a space immediately afterwards.

  • malinder

    First: I agree with you wholeheartedly! I’ve always used mechanical keyboards; ergonomic ones for about 20 years. Whenever I have to use a laptop I feel crippled.

    Second: I was a bit confused by the terminology, so I looked it up. It seems there are several types of membrane keyboards, but the worst ones — where you actually tap the membrane itself — are never used for computers. However, laptop keyboards are not always of the membrane/rubber dome type; there is also the mechanical scissor switch type, which is probably better than the membrane type. But I have never tried a laptop keyboard which agrees with me: too cramped, and the keys never feel right (even if some are worse than others). So for me it’s really a question of laptop keyboard or not. And I choose not any day.

    Third: I don’t see the point of distinguishing between “mechanical” and “ergonomic”. As far as understand, “ergonomic” is a special kind of “mechanical”. So a bit of confusion there.

    BTW: This is Mats Linder writing. However I tried, I could not log in with that name…

    • Hi Mats,

      Thanks for sharing your impressions. Generally, while mechanical keyboards can be more comfortable and good for your health, we don’t call them ergonomic unless they use an alternative physical layout designed for minimising stress to the hands or wrists. For example, these alternative layouts might include a keyboard which is split into two halves, a keyboard that can sit at an unusual angle, a keyboard with easier to reach modifiers, or a keyboard that is built on a curved rather than flat surface.

      • malinder

        Looking at Emma’s original blog post and prying loose a key on my (ergonomic) keyboard, I now realise that it is in fact a membrane one! What had me fooled was the big difference in feeling between laptop keyboards and external ones (i.e. my Microsoft ergonomic one). I now realise that I may never have used a true mechanical keyboard (possibly my very first, white ergonomic one). It’s hard to tell just by looking at the outside. Still, mine emits a click for every keystroke. And I’m comfortable with it.

        • Emma Goldsmith

          William clarified the difference nicely between mechanical and ergonomic keyboards, which can be confusing. Also, like you, Mats, many translators think they use a mechanical keyboard simply because they have full travel keys.
          To see the difference between mechanical, membrane and scissor switches watch the first 10 minutes of this webinar: http://www.translationzone.com/video/typing-tips-for-translators/100547/
          Anyway, glad to hear you’re comfortable with your keyboard!

  • Shai Navé

    I’m currently using two: One Filco Majestouch with Brown MX Cherry switches, and a Filco Majoestouch Ninja with Blue MX Cherry switches. Sometime in the future I might get another one with Reds, because as of late I enjoy the experience of typing on a liner switch.

    As a translator who types a lot each day, a keyboard and a monitor are just as important tools as the hardware powering the computer. Actually, assuming a decent modern system, I’ll invest in a keyboard and a monitor over a little performance boost because these are the two tools I interact the most with every day.

    The term mechanical often steer the conversation to focus on the differences between the mechanisms, and this does a little injustice to the keyboard as a whole. Mechanical keyboard are often built better. Mechanical keyboards usually have a backplate. which provide a very solid and robust base that doesn’t start to give under pressure over time, creating a wobbly (and squeaky) feeling. The electronics are usually better (might seem not important, but it is if you consider the keyboard an investment), and some come with built-in logic, i.e. you can program their layout and other functions (remapping of keys) and those settings are saved on-board, making them a completely plug-and-play device as not need to make any adjustment in the operating system.
    They are also easier to clean. They are not just one-and-done type of device.

    I’ll be the first to admit that the typing experience is completely subject and preferential. Albeit my sample size is too small to have any scientific validity, from my experience most of those who appreciate a good typing experience and try Mechanical keyboards never look back. Which brings us to the issue of cost. In the past I looked into comparing costs. While mechanical keyboard definitely cost more upfront, with time (5-10 years) the cost balances out, with the added bonus being a more consistent typing experience over that period of time. From my unscientific research. most people tend to replace their membrane keyboard every 1-3 years. So after 5-6 year most have ran through at least 2 keyboards. Also, people don’t tend to buy the cheapest keyboard they can find. They usually go for name brands (MS, Logitech), and sometimes even invest a little more in gimmicky stuff like and off-the-shelf “ergonmic” design. Even if we assume that a membrane keyboard costs third of the price of a mechanical one, after 5-6 years many have spent roughly the same amount of money on their keyboards, yet the overall experience was less consistent.

    Again, those considerations are preferential, some see it like that and others don’t, but this is at least something to consider when talking about the price.

    The subject of ergonomics is tricky. It is never just one device/change in the work environment that could make a major change in isolation. While I personally don’t see anything inherently ergonomic in the mechanical switch design (although a lighter actuation force and a more controlled and consistent typing experience might contribute something), I do think they make one be more aware to ergonomics. Their mere height often requires the use of a dedicated wrist rest, and this gets people thinking. They are less forgiving for poor wrist placement, which the flatter rubber domes and to a degree laptop keyboards might lead one to think one is getting away with.

    • Emma Goldsmith

      You’re right about considering the whole picture with mechanical keyboards, Shai. Their sheer weight makes you feel you’ve got a good quality keyboard in your hands. Saving settings with DPI switches sounds a good idea, but carrying the keyboard around is quite impractical, so I prefer to have my re-mapped keys in a soft version, through AutoHotKey.

  • Emma Goldsmith

    Thanks for sharing your set-up, Renata. I’ve seen arm wrists around but never tried one out. Interesting to hear what a difference they made for you. Glad to hear you’ll be trying out a mechanical keyboard soon!

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  • Lukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz

    Translator here and typing on a tenkeyless Majestouch 1 with Cherry blues since 2010 or so. A truly extraordinary experience, this being *the* switch for typists (at least if you stick with Cherry, as there are other options, such as Alps or Matias, conveniently available from Keybardco in abundance), though I’ve been thinking about switching to either browns (for lighter actuation and hopefully faster typing speed) or reds (like browns but linear, i.e. without waiting for the tactile bump, so faster typing might be possible if you don’t bottom out). But I think I’ll probably go Topre — it’s a capacitive switch that combines some features of rubber dome with a spring-based mech switch, actuated at 45g, which is exactly the force Cherry browns and reds use, with blues at 50g. There’s also a version of Topre at 35g, but it’s harder to get. Perhaps one day.

    If you’re willing to spend some money, you might want to combine the benefits of a mech keyboard with the benefits of an ergonomic board, such as these two:

    http://www.keyboardco.com/keyboard/truly-ergonomic-227-mechanical-keyboard-printed-soft-tactile-action-86-key.asp

    http://www.keyboardco.com/keyboard/uk-ergo-pro-quiet-pc-ergonomic-keyboard.asp

    Unlike rubber-dome ergo boards, none of these two allows tenting, so the board is going to lie flat on the table, which is what twists your wrists into an unnatural position that causes pain and reduces typing speed, but they still help typing angle. One of them lets you split the halves apart, which is also very helpful. They’re quite a good buy because ergo/split boards are going to be expensive whether or not mechanical, and here you have a mech ergo board, which combines the typically alternative paths.

  • I recently bought Das Keyboard 4 Professional (Blue Switches). I AM in LOVE with the keyboard. For me, the tactile feedback and the clickiness are sheer consolation for the solitary life I lead as a translator. From usability standpoint, it’s much better than my laptop’s keyboard and my old membrane keyboard (which I never enjoyed using). Typing has turned into a more emotional experience. The analog feeling is hard to describe. What blew my mind when I first received it is the build quality; what an outstanding quality! The keyboard is sturdy and doesn’t slide around. You feel a certain heft to it. And it comes with a magnetic ruler. Super neat. It cost me 200 dollars but I must say this: WORTH EVERY PENNY!