HTG Reviews the CODE Keyboard: Old School Construction Meets Modern Amenities

Posted by Jason Fitzpatrick on How to geek See other posts from How to geek or by Jason Fitzpatrick
Published on Mon, 11 Nov 2013 17:34:24 GMT Indexed on 2013/11/11 21:58 UTC
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There’s nothing quite as satisfying as the smooth and crisp action of a well built keyboard. If you’re tired of  mushy keys and cheap feeling keyboards, a well-constructed mechanical keyboard is a welcome respite from the $10 keyboard that came with your computer. Read on as we put the CODE mechanical keyboard through the paces.

What is the CODE Keyboard?

The CODE keyboard is a collaboration between manufacturer WASD Keyboards and Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror (the guy behind the Stack Exchange network and Discourse forum software). Atwood’s focus was incorporating the best of traditional mechanical keyboards and the best of modern keyboard usability improvements. In his own words:

The world is awash in terrible, crappy, no name how-cheap-can-we-make-it keyboards. There are a few dozen better mechanical keyboard options out there. I’ve owned and used at least six different expensive mechanical keyboards, but I wasn’t satisfied with any of them, either: they didn’t have backlighting, were ugly, had terrible design, or were missing basic functions like media keys.

That’s why I originally contacted Weyman Kwong of WASD Keyboards way back in early 2012. I told him that the state of keyboards was unacceptable to me as a geek, and I proposed a partnership wherein I was willing to work with him to do whatever it takes to produce a truly great mechanical keyboard.

Even the ardent skeptic who questions whether Atwood has indeed created a truly great mechanical keyboard certainly can’t argue with the position he starts from: there are so many agonizingly crappy keyboards out there. Even worse, in our opinion, is that unless you’re a typist of a certain vintage there’s a good chance you’ve never actually typed on a really nice keyboard. Those that didn’t start using computers until the mid-to-late 1990s most likely have always typed on modern mushy-key keyboards and never known the joy of typing on a really responsive and crisp mechanical keyboard. Is our preference for and love of mechanical keyboards shining through here? Good. We’re not even going to try and hide it.

So where does the CODE keyboard stack up in pantheon of keyboards? Read on as we walk you through the simple setup and our experience using the CODE.

Setting Up the CODE Keyboard

Although the setup of the CODE keyboard is essentially plug and play, there are two distinct setup steps that you likely haven’t had to perform on a previous keyboard. Both highlight the degree of care put into the keyboard and the amount of customization available.

Inside the box you’ll find the keyboard, a micro USB cable, a USB-to-PS2 adapter, and a tool which you may be unfamiliar with: a key puller. We’ll return to the key puller in a moment.

Unlike the majority of keyboards on the market, the cord isn’t permanently affixed to the keyboard. What does this mean for you? Aside from the obvious need to plug it in yourself, it makes it dead simple to repair your own keyboard cord if it gets attacked by a pet, mangled in a mechanism on your desk, or otherwise damaged. It also makes it easy to take advantage of the cable routing channels in on the underside of the keyboard to  route your cable exactly where you want it.

While we’re staring at the underside of the keyboard, check out those beefy rubber feet. By peripherals standards they’re huge (and there is six instead of the usual four). Once you plunk the keyboard down where you want it, it might as well be glued down the rubber feet work so well.

After you’ve secured the cable and adjusted it to your liking, there is one more task  before plug the keyboard into the computer. On the bottom left-hand side of the keyboard, you’ll find a small recess in the plastic with some dip switches inside:

The dip switches are there to switch hardware functions for various operating systems, keyboard layouts, and to enable/disable function keys. By toggling the dip switches you can change the keyboard from QWERTY mode to Dvorak mode and Colemak mode, the two most popular alternative keyboard configurations. You can also use the switches to enable Mac-functionality (for Command/Option keys). One of our favorite little toggles is the SW3 dip switch: you can disable the Caps Lock key; goodbye accidentally pressing Caps when you mean to press Shift. You can review the entire dip switch configuration chart here.

The quick-start for Windows users is simple: double check that all the switches are in the off position (as seen in the photo above) and then simply toggle SW6 on to enable the media and backlighting function keys (this turns the menu key on the keyboard into a function key as typically found on laptop keyboards).

After adjusting the dip switches to your liking, plug the keyboard into an open USB port on your computer (or into your PS/2 port using the included adapter).

Design, Layout, and Backlighting

The CODE keyboard comes in two flavors, a traditional 87-key layout (no number pad) and a traditional 104-key layout (number pad on the right hand side). We identify the layout as traditional because, despite some modern trapping and sneaky shortcuts, the actual form factor of the keyboard from the shape of the keys to the spacing and position is as classic as it comes. You won’t have to learn a new keyboard layout and spend weeks conditioning yourself to a smaller than normal backspace key or a PgUp/PgDn pair in an unconventional location.

Just because the keyboard is very conventional in layout, however, doesn’t mean you’ll be missing modern amenities like media-control keys. The following additional functions are hidden in the F11, F12, Pause button, and the 2×6 grid formed by the Insert and Delete rows: keyboard illumination brightness, keyboard illumination on/off, mute, and then the typical play/pause, forward/backward, stop, and volume +/- in Insert and Delete rows, respectively.

While we weren’t sure what we’d think of the function-key system at first (especially after retiring a Microsoft Sidewinder keyboard with a huge and easily accessible volume knob on it), it took less than a day for us to adapt to using the Fn key, located next to the right Ctrl key, to adjust our media playback on the fly.

Keyboard backlighting is a largely hit-or-miss undertaking but the CODE keyboard nails it. Not only does it have pleasant and easily adjustable through-the-keys lighting but the key switches the keys themselves are attached to are mounted to a steel plate with white paint. Enough of the light reflects off the interior cavity of the keys and then diffuses across the white plate to provide nice even illumination in between the keys.

Highlighting the steel plate beneath the keys brings us to the actual construction of the keyboard. It’s rock solid. The 87-key model, the one we tested, is 2.0 pounds. The 104-key is nearly a half pound heavier at 2.42 pounds. Between the steel plate, the extra-thick PCB board beneath the steel plate, and the thick ABS plastic housing, the keyboard has very solid feel to it. Combine that heft with the previously mentioned thick rubber feet and you have a tank-like keyboard that won’t budge a millimeter during normal use.

Examining The Keys

This is the section of the review the hardcore typists and keyboard ninjas have been waiting for. We’ve looked at the layout of the keyboard, we’ve looked at the general construction of it, but what about the actual keys?

There are a wide variety of keyboard construction techniques but the vast majority of modern keyboards use a rubber-dome construction. The key is floated in a plastic frame over a rubber membrane that has a little rubber dome for each key. The press of the physical key compresses the rubber dome downwards and a little bit of conductive material on the inside of the dome’s apex connects with the circuit board. Despite the near ubiquity of the design, many people dislike it.

The principal complaint is that dome keyboards require a complete compression to register a keystroke; keyboard designers and enthusiasts refer to this as “bottoming out”. In other words, the register the “b” key, you need to completely press that key down. As such it slows you down and requires additional pressure and movement that, over the course of tens of thousands of keystrokes, adds up to a whole lot of wasted time and fatigue.

The CODE keyboard features key switches manufactured by Cherry, a company that has manufactured key switches since the 1960s. Specifically the CODE features Cherry MX Clear switches. These switches feature the same classic design of the other Cherry switches (such as the MX Blue and Brown switch lineups) but they are significantly quieter (yes this is a mechanical keyboard, but no, your neighbors won’t think you’re firing off a machine gun) as they lack the audible click found in most Cherry switches. This isn’t to say that they keyboard doesn’t have a nice audible key press sound when the key is fully depressed, but that the key mechanism isn’t doesn’t create a loud click sound when triggered.

One of the great features of the Cherry MX clear is a tactile “bump” that indicates the key has been compressed enough to register the stroke. For touch typists the very subtle tactile feedback is a great indicator that you can move on to the next stroke and provides a welcome speed boost. Even if you’re not trying to break any word-per-minute records, that little bump when pressing the key is satisfying.

The Cherry key switches, in addition to providing a much more pleasant typing experience, are also significantly more durable than dome-style key switch. Rubber dome switch membrane keyboards are typically rated for 5-10 million contacts whereas the Cherry mechanical switches are rated for 50 million contacts.

You’d have to write the next War and Peace  and follow that up with A Tale of Two Cities: Zombie Edition, and then turn around and transcribe them both into a dozen different languages to even begin putting a tiny dent in the lifecycle of this keyboard.

So what do the switches look like under the classicly styled keys? You can take a look yourself with the included key puller. Slide the loop between the keys and then gently beneath the key you wish to remove:

Wiggle the key puller gently back and forth while exerting a gentle upward pressure to pop the key off; You can repeat the process for every key, if you ever find yourself needing to extract piles of cat hair, Cheeto dust, or other foreign objects from your keyboard.

There it is, the naked switch, the source of that wonderful crisp action with the tactile bump on each keystroke.

The last feature worthy of a mention is the N-key rollover functionality of the keyboard. This is a feature you simply won’t find on non-mechanical keyboards and even gaming keyboards typically only have any sort of key roller on the high-frequency keys like WASD. So what is N-key rollover and why do you care? On a typical mass-produced rubber-dome keyboard you cannot simultaneously press more than two keys as the third one doesn’t register. PS/2 keyboards allow for unlimited rollover (in other words you can’t out type the keyboard as all of your keystrokes, no matter how fast, will register); if you use the CODE keyboard with the PS/2 adapter you gain this ability.

If you don’t use the PS/2 adapter and use the native USB, you still get 6-key rollover (and the CTRL, ALT, and SHIFT don’t count towards the 6) so realistically you still won’t be able to out type the computer as even the more finger twisting keyboard combos and high speed typing will still fall well within the 6-key rollover.

The rollover absolutely doesn’t matter if you’re a slow hunt-and-peck typist, but if you’ve read this far into a keyboard review there’s a good chance that you’re a serious typist and that kind of quality construction and high-number key rollover is a fantastic feature.

 The Good, The Bad, and the Verdict

We’ve put the CODE keyboard through the paces, we’ve played games with it, typed articles with it, left lengthy comments on Reddit, and otherwise used and abused it like we would any other keyboard.

The Good:

  • The construction is rock solid. In an emergency, we’re confident we could use the keyboard as a blunt weapon (and then resume using it later in the day with no ill effect on the keyboard).
  • The Cherry switches are an absolute pleasure to type on; the Clear variety found in the CODE keyboard offer a really nice middle-ground between the gun-shot clack of a louder mechanical switch and the quietness of a lesser-quality dome keyboard without sacrificing quality. Touch typists will love the subtle tactile bump feedback.
  • Dip switch system makes it very easy for users on different systems and with different keyboard layout needs to switch between operating system and keyboard layouts. If you’re investing a chunk of change in a keyboard it’s nice to know you can take it with you to a different operating system or “upgrade” it to a new layout if you decide to take up Dvorak-style typing.
  • The backlighting is perfect. You can adjust it from a barely-visible glow to a blazing light-up-the-room brightness. Whatever your intesity preference, the white-coated steel backplate does a great job diffusing the light between the keys.
  • You can easily remove the keys for cleaning (or to rearrange the letters to support a new keyboard layout).
  • The weight of the unit combined with the extra thick rubber feet keep it planted exactly where you place it on the desk.

The Bad:

  • While you’re getting your money’s worth, the $150 price tag is a shock when compared to the $20-60 price tags you find on lower-end keyboards.
  • People used to large dedicated media keys independent of the traditional key layout (such as the large buttons and volume controls found on many modern keyboards) might be off put by the Fn-key style media controls on the CODE.

The Verdict: The keyboard is clearly and heavily influenced by the needs of serious typists. Whether you’re a programmer, transcriptionist, or just somebody that wants to leave the lengthiest article comments the Internet has ever seen, the CODE keyboard offers a rock solid typing experience. Yes, $150 isn’t pocket change, but the quality of the CODE keyboard is so high and the typing experience is so enjoyable, you’re easily getting ten times the value you’d get out of purchasing a lesser keyboard.

Even compared to other mechanical keyboards on the market, like the Das Keyboard, you’re still getting more for your money as other mechanical keyboards don’t come with the lovely-to-type-on Cherry MX Clear switches, back lighting, and hardware-based operating system keyboard layout switching.

If it’s in your budget to upgrade your keyboard (especially if you’ve been slogging along with a low-end rubber-dome keyboard) there’s no good reason to not pickup a CODE keyboard.

Key animation courtesy of user Lethal Squirrel.



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