A computer programmers most important tool (besides our glorious minds, of course) is the keyboard. A keyboard is vessel in which you turn the solutions to problems into code, and thus it’s vitally important that every developer has a keyboard they feel awesome with.
But a keyboard is just a keyboard, right? No way! Keyboards come in a wide array of different styles, layouts, and build quality. That crappy Dell keyboard that came with your workstation is hurting you more than you know.
We’ve rounded up our favorite keyboards for computer programmers which you can see in the table below. The keyboards are in no particular order as each keyboard could be perfect for you depending on your needs.
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Now we can dive into each keyboard and what makes it great, then afterwards if you want to learn more of the intricacies of these mechanical keyboards you can keep on reading.
Das Keyboard 4 for Programmers
When it comes to all the “bells and whistles”, the Das Keyboard 4 has everything you could want from a keyboard. High quality switches, two USB 3.0 ports, a super-smooth volume knob and media control hotkeys for those that love to code to some music.
Das Keyboard also makes some of the best keyboard chassis you’ll find. The anodized aluminum top panel is engineered excellence that looks and feels professional-grade. If you’re looking for the ultimate all-around keyboard for programming, look no further. This has been my daily driver for years and I’ve never had an issue.
Best Cheap Option for Programmers – Rosewill
If you’re looking for more of a “budget” option (relatively speaking), then this Rosewill mechanical keyboard is what you’re after. It’s pretty plain looking which might be what you’re after for an office environment anyways.
You can typically find this keyboard for around $90, yet it still uses the best mechanical switches that other high-end keyboards use.
Vortex Poker 3 – For the Digital Nomad
If you’re living a digital nomad lifestyle of constant travel, you don’t want to be weighed down by lugging around a large keyboard. That doesn’t change the fact that laptop keyboards just plain suck, though.
Enter the Vortex Poker 3 (also called “Pok3r”). This 60% keyboard layout is the ultimate solution for frequent travelers that also want an amazing typing experience on the go.
If you’ve never seen such a tiny keyboard before (more on the 60% keyboard layout below), you might think it’s impossible to do certain tasks with so few keys, but you’d be wrong! By utilizing a Function key and multiple layers to the keyboard, you can quickly access anything you need. It will take you some time to master all of these hotkeys, but once you have it down you might be faster than someone using a full keyboard.
You can check out the PDF here if you want to read more about how this keyboard works in terms of functionality. It can take some getting used to, but less time than you imagine.
Tenkeyless Keyboard for Programmers
CoolerMaster makes the best tenkeyless keyboards (keyboards without a numpad – how often do you ever use it anyways?) which is why we recommend the MasterKeys Pro S.
This compact layout is great for saving space on your desk and is also great for ergonomics by allowing you to place your mouse closer to the center of your body.
The RGB backlighting you might not care for. You can turn the backlighting off completely when needed or customize it so it only displays a specific color if you wish.
Without a doubt the most important part of any keyboard is the switches it uses. Every key on a keyboard has a switch underneath it that activates when it’s pressed, which in turn sends the signal to the computer to register that keystroke. The type of switch in your keyboard will determine how it feels to type, as well as how reliable and durable your keyboard will be over the long haul.
Today there are two main types of keyboard switches –
Membrane switches use a plastic/rubber membrane usually in a shape of a dome. It squishes down when you press on the key, then pops back up when released. This is the cheapest way to make a keyboard switch, and thus the most popular/widely used for most consumer keyboards.
Feels: Squishy, unresponsive
Cons: Feel terrible to type on
There’s really no reason to use such a cheap keyboard if you’re a computer programmer. If you have a career as a programmer (or really any career that has you behind a keyboard for your workday) it’s insane to not invest $80-160 on a keyboard that will last you a decade or more of 40 hours a week. Here’s Jeff Atwood on the importance of typing for programmers. We will NOT be recommending any cheap keyboards using membrane switches.
Now let’s move on to the hero of our story-
Mechanical switches are actually quite old, but they have been making a resurgence as typists crave a better typing experience over the past decade or so. What used to be only for the hardcore nerds (though enthusiasts like those at GeekHack will always be around), mechanical switches have become more and more mainstream. One big reason is PC gamers prefer the reliable switches for gaming when they’re mashing keys and looking for responsiveness from their hardware.
One legendary mechanical keyboard actually dates back to the mid 1980’s – the IBM Model M. Though the most popular mechanical switches today use a different kind of design, most mechanical switches share the following characteristics.
- A sliding “plunger” device that a keycap is attached to.
- A metal spring (of varying stiffness) which compressed when the key is pressed, then returns the key to it’s regular position.
- A specific activation point at which the keystroke is registered.
It sounds pretty simple, and they are. However, mechanical switches leave a ton of room for customization to suite your preferences. Deskthority lists over 450 different keyboards switches – yikes! We’re going to stick with what’s most popular and let you get deep into switches if you feel like it on your own.
Mechanical Switch Manufacturers
There are many different companies that make mechanical switches today, and most are based off the same exact design which was first created by the German company, Cherry. Their “Cherry MX” line of switches are the gold standard for keyboards and come in many different styles (which we will get into shortly). Since Cherry MX are the “original” and often thought to be the high quality, they are definitely the most sough after.
Others say that Chinese manufacturers make perfectly good Cherry MX clones. These manufacturers include Greetech, Kailh, and many others. Razer has recently teamed up with a factory in China to create their own line of mechanical switches as have some other companies in the industry.
We’re going to stick with Cherry MX switches in our recommendations, but if you’re looking to save money don’t be afraid to get a mechanical keyboard with other switches.
Here’s a list of some characteristics of a mechanical switch that set themselves apart from each other.
This can also be called “operating force”, but it’s basically the amount of weight a switch needs in order to be depressed. This is measured in grams and typically ranges anywhere from 45g for a light switch to 80g for a stiff, heavy switch. We recommend staying around the 45-55g point especially as a starter since heavier switches can be more fatiguing on fingers.
This is the distance a key needs to travel for the keystroke to be registered. Most switches will pick up a keystroke before the plunger is 100% pressed, which can allow some people to type lighter and faster compared to having to mash the keys with all their might. Most actuation points range from 2 to 2.4mm.
This is a big one. Switches come in tactile and non-tactile varieties.
If a switch is tactile, that means when you press it down, at its actuation point (when the stroke is registered), you will feel a slight bump. This is tactile feedback to your fingers that says “Keystroke confirmed, you can release now”.
The graphic below shows what exactly causes this tactile feedback. On the switch, there’s a brown protruding bump that rubs against the red, metal clip when the key is pressed. In the second frame, you can see how these two push against each other, giving some resistance which you feel in your fingers.
Non-tactile switches do not have that bump on the switch, so you won’t feel anything when you slide the key down until it bottoms out and won’t move any further.
Finally, tactile switches can be divided into two further categories – clicky or non clicky. These categories are exactly what they sound like; some tactile switches make a clicking sound when pressed whereas others don’t. The clicking sound comes from clear piece of plastic inside the switch that slides around during your key press as seen below.
Some people love the clicky sound of a keyboard, others hate them. We would advise against bringing a clicky keyboard into your cubicle as you might bother those around you!
To hear the difference, check out the video below which shows you what non-clicky, tactile Brown switches sound like, and then what clicky, tactile Blue switches sound like.
The below chart shows the most popular Cherry MX switches. The specific style simply matches the color you see on the stem – Red, Brown, Blue, Black, Clear, Green.
Blue and Brown are the most popular, followed by Red which is favored by gamers.
Keyboard Form Factor
Something else you might not be aware of is keyboards come in several different form factors. The most popular keyboard layout is the “full” layout which typically has ~104 keys. The bottom row (between Ctrl and Alt) may differ somewhat.
Most everyone is familiar with this layout.
The next layout is more compact and ideal for many programmers. It’s called “tenkeyless“, and it’s similar to the full layout but without the numpad.
The main advantage of getting rid of the numpad is it allows your hands to be in a more ergonomic position when you’re using your mouse. You no longer need to extend your arm out as far, so moving your hand between mouse and keyboard is faster and more comfortable.
Also, as programmers most of us don’t use the numpad that often anyways, so not much is lost. These keyboards can also be easier to transport if you need to take it with you often.
The final form factor we will get into is the 60% layout. These are extremely compact and have only 60% of the keys as a full keyboard.
These keyboards have no arrow keys or function keys – instead, you’ll be using a “Function” key in combination with other keys in order to access full keyboard functions. Most of these keyboards will allow you to program custom macros as well that you can run by pressing your designated hotkey.
Most people who use these keyboards do such for the portability they offer. If you’re a digital nomad, you’ll appreciate being able to have a mechanical keyboard that’s so small and lightweight.
Some other features you’ll want to consider on your keyboard are useful “extras” that might make life easier for you. This can include things like –
- Backlit keys
- A built-in USB hub
- Easy volume controls
- Headphone/mic passthrough ports