Keyboards

What Is A Computer Keyboard: A Full Overview

We all use keyboards in our daily lives. However, do we know everything there is to know about this device? Here is a complete guide.

The keyboard is an input device that was invented back in 1868. Christopher Latham Sholes and his colleagues made the first keyboard with 28 keys. It was a kind of a typewriter but with keys shaped like piano keys. It was used for transcribing telegraph messages.

From the rudimentary QWERTY keyboard of the 1860s, the keyboard has come a long way. It was later during the 20th century, that modern keyboard compatible with computers were patented and manufactured. Today, we cannot do without this critical input device. From our phones to the most advanced computers, the keyboard in every form is an integral part. Let us know more about keyboards.

Photo by merri on Flickr.
Photo by merri on Flickr.

History of Keyboards

Photo by Butrous Foundation on Flickr.
Photo by Butrous Foundation on Flickr.

Even though the first keyboard was invented in 1868, it has a long and interesting history from then to now. Let us take a walk down history lane and look at the evolution of keyboards.

1868: The first modern, practical typewriter was invented. In 1877, the Remington Company began marketing the typewriters for the masses. It went through a series of improvements over the years.

1870s: In the 1870s, the keyboards were used to type and transmit stock market text data directly to telegraph lines.

1878: The QWERTY keyboard was first made in 1878.

A Teleprinter. Photo by Timitrius on Flickr.
A Teleprinter. Photo by Timitrius on Flickr.

1907 to 1910: The teleprinters gained popularity. It was like a typewriter with a printing mechanism. The incoming telegraph messages could be printed using this device.

1930s: New keyboard models were invented. They combined the the technology of the teleprinters with the communications technology of the telegraph. Punch-card systems were also developed to complement the typewriters. Thus, the ‘keypunch’ system was invented.

1946: The keypunch system was developed to make keyboards as peripheral devices Eniac computers. The punch card reader was an input as well as output device.

1948: An electro-mechanically operated keyboard was used for Binac computers.

1970s and 1980s: Electronic keyboards started being used with VDT (Video Display Terminals).

Types of Keyboards

Keyboards have evolved a lot since their inception. And today, it is no longer a standard device used to punch in text and numbers. There are a wide array of keyboard types to choose from. There is a keyboard for every use case and every budget. Below are the types of keyboards available.

  • Membrane Keyboard
  • Island-Style Keyboard or Chiclet Keyboard
  • Mechanical Keyboard
  • Flexible or Roll-up Keyboard
  • Wireless Keyboard
  • Ergonomic Keyboard
  • Gaming Keyboard
  • Ortholinear Keyboard
  • Vertical Keyboard
  • Left-Handed Keyboard
  • Mini Keyboard
  • Foldable Keyboard
  • Projection Keyboard
  • Multimedia Keyboard
  • One-handed Keyboard

Different Layouts of Keyboards

Keyboard. Photo by Eric Fischer on Flickr.
Keyboard. Photo by Eric Fischer on Flickr.

A keyboard layout is a specific arrangement of the different keys. There are three distinct layout types:

Physical Layout

The physical layout is the physical position of the keys on a keyboard. Standards such as ISO and ANSI define the physical layout of the keyboard. It also tells how many keys the keyboard has and their placement on the keyboard. The size of the keys is also a factor in the physical layout.

The physical layout does not determine what will appear on the screen when you press a key. For example, if you press ‘A’ on a typical QWERTY keyboard, what the computer understands from the physical layout is that the second key from the left in the fourth row is pressed.

Visual Layout

The visual layout refers to the markings on the keys that tell one key apart from the other. It identifies the letters and symbols. Keyboards in different languages will have different visual layouts. The legends marked on the keyboard will differ in different languages and styles. For example, an ISO keyboard used throughout Europe will be different from the keyboard used in France or Germany.

Some users mark the keyboard with their own markings. This is done when the basic keyboard is used to operate in a foreign language. It can also be used as a learning aid for keyboard shortcuts.

Functional Layout

The functional layout is the underlying keyboard mapping. It tells what will happen on the computer when each key is pressed. The layout is a bridge between the physical layout and the visual layout. It ensures that the desired result is obtained when a key is pressed.

However, the functional layout can be overridden using software. For example, it is possible to switch languages and thus change the functional layout using the appropriate software in the operating system.

Types of Keys on a Keyboard

Photo on Wikimedia Commons
Photo on Wikimedia Commons

The keys that you use on the keyboard have different names. The types of keys on a keyboard can be categorized as below. This is for QWERTY keyboards that are most popular.

  • Character Keys or Typing Keys: These are the alphanumeric keys that are used for typing text. They include letters, numbers, and symbol keys.
  • Modifier Keys: These are the keys that cannot do anything on their own. However, when used with another key, they modify the function of that key. For example, Shift can capitalize a letter. Ctrl and Alt keys are used to perform specific functions when used with specific keys.
  • Lock Keys: Dead keys are modifier keys. However, they don’t need to be pressed simultaneously with another key to get the modification. For example, the Caps Lock key. Once you press it, it alters the capitalization of the character keys.
  • Enter and Editing Keys: These keys can edit the format of the text being typed. Enter, Insert, Delete, Backspace are examples of these keys.
  • System Keys: The Windows Logo key on a Windows computer, the Esc key are examples of system keys.
  • Function Keys: The Function keys are used to perform specific functions on a computer. They are labeled as F1, F2, F3, and so on. The function these keys perform will depend on the program being used.
  • Navigation Keys: These are the keys that are typically used to move the cursor or arrow pointer around on the computer screen. They are also used to scroll up or down or to go to a certain point. These keys include Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, Delete, Insert, and arrow keys.
  • Numeric Keyboards: Some keyboards feature a dedicated numeric keypad. It looks somewhat like a calculator and is usually is in a grid format.

Ports for a Keyboard

A keyboard connects with the computer through the ‘port‘. So the keyboard port acts as an interface between the computer and the keyboard. The port is part of the computer hardware. It connects the computer with different peripheral devices. In this section, we will see ports that can be used with a computer keyboard.

USB Port

USB port. Photo by alexshumaker on Flickr.
USB port. Photo by alexshumaker on Flickr.

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus. This is the most common port for connecting a keyboard with the computer. It is a standard interface for both Windows or Mac OS. There are two types of USB ports – USB 1.1 and USB 2.0. Both ports look identical. USB 2.0 is the faster port.

Generally, your system will advise you if a device plugged into one port might perform better than in the other port. A keyboard can safely be plugged into both the USB ports. To connect the keyboard, the USB plug on it needs to be inserted into the USB port on the computer.

PS/2 Port

PS/2 port with a PS/2 plug. Photo by rachelmorse on Flickr.
PS/2 port with a PS/2 plug. Photo by rachelmorse on Flickr.

PS/2 ports were the standard interface ports before USB became popular. The PS/2 plugs were created in line with the computers in 1987. Even though the computer designs continued to change, the port design became somewhat standard. It has a round shape. The PS/2 plug is also known as a Mini-DIN 6 plug.

Nowadays, computers don’t come with a PS/2 port. However, some still have it. If you need more than one PS/2 port (for a mouse, for instance), a PS/2 splitter or a KVM switch can be used. It helps to connect more than one device compatible with the PS/2 port. The older Mac computers used the DIN ports.

Serial Ports

A DB9 plug. Photo by Rontech usa on Flickr.
A DB9 plug. Photo by Rontech usa on Flickr.

Serial ports come in different sizes. Usually, they refer to a DB9 connector. They are not very popular compared to the USB ports. However, they were used in the past for interfacing a keyboard. They have a trapezoidal design.

An important point, however, is the current trend towards preferring wireless keyboards. But which one should you use – wired or wireless keyboards?

Keyboard Materials

Keyboards are made from different types of materials. The quality of the material is a major factor in deciding the cost of the keyboard. Below are the popular keyboard materials.

Plastic: This is the most common material used in keyboards. It is used to make the keys as well as the body/frame of the keyboard. However, they come in a variety of price ranges. Thermoplastic polymers or PBT are used to make cheaper keyboards. High-quality ABS plastic is used to make keyboards that are more costly. In mechanical keyboards that use switches under keycaps, high-quality plastic is used for the switch mechanism.

Rubber: Rubber is used for keys in chiclet keyboards or membrane keyboards. These are low-cost keyboards. Rubber is also used in foldable keyboards.

Metal: Metal is used in keyboard parts, especially in the mechanical switches under keycaps in mechanical keyboards. For the more expensive keyboards, gold-plated metal contacts are used.

Aluminum: For the sturdy mechanical keyboards, aluminum is used as a choice of metal for the housing. Aluminum case keyboards are expensive. They are also heavy. However, they provide a rugged finish.

Steel: Sometimes, steel is also used for the external casing of the keyboard. Steel, too, provides a sturdy build.

Apart from the above material commonly used in keyboards, below are the slightly keyboards made from slightly non-conventional materials.

Wooden Keyboards

A wooden keyboard. Photo by lalit.burma on Flickr.
A wooden keyboard. Photo by lalit.burma on Flickr.

Wooden keyboards look great. They are also ecofriendly. Bamboo is generally used to make these keyboards. Wireless wooden keyboards make for a great computer accessory. The wood is coated with a stain-resistant finish. Hence, it is more durable than you would think. The typing experience is quite comfortable and the keys are surprisingly quiet.

A wooden keyboard unboxing video

Glass Keyboards


Believe it or not, but glass keyboards do exist. They are made from tempered glass. The typing experience is quite like typing on an iPad due to finish. It is futuristic and looks great. However, there is no tactile feedback. Glass keyboards are usually transparent and they look very classy. They light up when you start typing.

A glass keyboard unboxing video

Most of these keyboards are completely waterproof and dust resistant. The high ingress protection makes them durable. That is if you don’t drop them on the floor!

Ceramic Keyboards

A ceramic keyboard. Photo by Anthony Kling on Flickr.
A ceramic keyboard. Photo by Anthony Kling on Flickr.

Ceramic keyboards use ceramic keycaps. They offer an interesting texture to the keys. Don’t let the name fool you into thinking they are delicate keyboards, though. The ceramic used is not the cheap one that is prone to breakage. Engineered ceramic is used. It can easily withstand the daily wear and tear and the impact of usage.

Usually, these keycaps are made from zirconia. However, ceramic is a dense material. Hence, the quality of the switch mechanism under the keycap is an important consideration. It should be sturdy enough to withstand the ceramic keycaps.

Gold-Plated Keyboards

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Forget gold-plated metal contacts in switches. Gold-plated keyboards are a thing! Admittedly, not many would go for these super expensive keyboards, the fact is they are commercially available. Of course, they cost thousands of dollars. Under the shiny gold plating, is the actual keyboard. Silver or gold-plated contacts are used for the switches under the keys. If gold is too blingy for you, silver keyboards are also a thing!

Why are Keyboards Indispensable?

The keyboard is no longer the only input device. A computer mouse, pens, styluses, and even voice input is now possible. However, keyboards have stood the test of time. Here are the uses of keyboards:

  1. The primary use, of course, is to give text input. You can type documents, messages, computer programs, etc. all using a keyboard.
  2. Keyboards can also help you search and navigate on a computer. That is to say, you can navigate without using a mouse, too. Keyboard shortcuts make this navigation quite easy.
  3. A keyboard can be used for playing games on a computer.
  4. Important applications on a computer can be accessed using keyboard shortcuts.
  5. Different functions can be performed on the computer such as changing the volume.

While most of the above functions can be carried out using other input devices, too, the convenience of keyboard cannot be disputed. Typing is so much more comfortable with a keyboard. Also, when it comes to accuracy in typing, the keyboard wins compared to, say, voice inputs. Keyboards are quite inexpensive, too. All this makes them indispensable in our everyday lives.

Fun Fact: How Did the QWERTY Keyboard Layout Become Popular?

Photo by Gotham Tommy on Flickr
Photo by Gotham Tommy on Flickr

Many people wonder why the QWERTY keyboards were invented. Most of us have warmed up to this type and can type efficiently. However, we still wonder if it wouldn’t have been simpler to have keys in alphabetical order.

There is a theory that earlier, the typewriters had keys in alphabetical order. However, the working of early typewriters was such that after pressing a key, it would cause a metal hammer to rise in an arc before coming back to its initial position.

With keys in alphabetical order, users tended to type fast. This would cause jamming in the mechanical operation of the keys. To prevent this, the common pairs of letters were separated. And thus, the QWERTY typewriters were born. And the modern keyboards were modeled on these typewriters. This remains one of the most popular formats even today.

Conclusion

Keyboards are definitely indispensable. Also, they are bound to evolve even more. We can hope to find even more futuristic designs and more comfortable keyboards in the times to come. If you want to enhance your current user experience, consider investing in a good keyboard wrist pad.

Eli Civil

A software engineer, entrepreneur, and keyboards enthusiast. I spend my time click-clacking on keyboards. About Eli Civil

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