Keyboards come in a number of different sizes and layouts with each designed to fit a particular style of typing and use. Choosing the right size and layout will either help or hinder your typing (and gaming) enjoyment.
Choosing a keyboard is no longer as simple as choosing between large and small or between beige and black. Keyboards now come in many different sizes and can be grouped according to their width, measured as a percentage against a standard full size keyboard. As keyboards get smaller, the size reduction reduces the number of keys; however, as you will see with the smallest 40% keyboard, this does not necessarily mean a tradeoff in functionality.
The First Keyboard Designs
During the 1970s the first-ever computer keyboards were custom made to support the early mainframe computers.
In the middle of the decade, the first small personal computers came available, such as the Altair. There was not an included keyboard with these early computers, and instead, users had to buy a converted IBM electric typewriter, or else convert another kind of electric typewriter by themselves.
Early Keyboard Designs
IBM released its very first personal computer in the early ’80s and equipped it with their now-famous model M keyboard. This keyboard was hugely popular due to its incredibly over-engineered construction and typing experience. You can still buy the same keyboard today from Unicomp, made from the same original mouldings and using the same type of buckling spring mechanical key switch.
There was not much choice in colour during this period, with virtually all keyboards being either beige or grey. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that black coloured keyboards finally came out.
Early keyboards came in one size, the standard 104 key full size. The same layout is still used today, with only minor refinements such as the inclusion of the Windows and Menu keys on the bottom row or the dedicated media controls.
Modern Keyboard Designs
Modern keyboards come in a range of different sizes and layouts, some more practical than others.
Whilst most come with either 104 or 87 keys (full size and tenkeyless respectively), there is a wide range of other sizes and layouts available, many servicing niche use cases.
100% Full size 104 Key Keyboards
These have either 104 or 105 keys and could be regarded as the classic keyboard layout. They are functional and offer the full set of available keys. However, they are large and can fill up smaller desks. Many people love the inclusion of the dedicated number pad, others have never used it. For a very similar layout without the number pad, check out tenkeyless keyboards.
75% Keyboards - aka Tenkeyless Keyboards
These are becoming an increasingly popular compact keyboard layout, particularly with gamers and those looking to conserve desk space. A tenkeyless keyboard removes the number pad on the right and slightly compresses the layout for the cursor keys and the home, end and page up/down keys.
Anything smaller than a Tenkeyless keyboard would be regarded as compact. These are typically found on laptops, that may include the same keys but compressed further to fit within the limited space of a laptop.
I find a tenkeyless keyboard the sweet spot as I rarely use the number pad, whilst the smaller keyboard layouts can be too restrictive.
A 65% keyboard usually removes the function key row to achieve the smaller size; however, they still include the cursor keys and the page up/down keys.
A 60% keyboard has a similar layout to a 65% keyboard but removes the page up/down keys and usually with smaller keys and a more compact layout.
40% keyboards have a cult following and offer the simplest and most minimalist keyboard layout, only including the basic alpha keys whilst remaining fully functional. They offer a highly portable keyboard rather than resorting to complex hinges to achieve such a small size.
The Planck EZ pictured above only includes 47 keys and measures only 234mm x 82mm x 28mm. It looks to be missing so many keys that is hard to believe that you can use every key from a standard 104 or 87 key keyboard. To access other keys (such as numbers, function keys, etc.) you need to use modifier keys to change what each key represents (similar to how a Shift key is used as a modifier for uppercase letters.) Looking at the Planck EZ you can see two modifier keys, one each side of the space bar. These allow you to choose between the 3 individual keys that each physical key represents. This is represented in the diagram below, where the ‘E’ key can also be modified to produce either a ‘3’ or a ’#’ depending upon which modifier key is used.
40% keyboards are also designed to be modified, or ‘hacked’. The Planck EZ mechanical key switches can be changed out without requiring soldering or voiding the warranty, the various key modifiers can be programmed using the supplied configuration software, and it can even emulate a mouse for a truly portable experience. I recommend checking out the Planck EZ to see what other great features it provides.
Overall a 40% keyboard may not be for everyone; however, they are an interesting and fascinating product.
Choosing a keyboard is no longer as simple as choosing between large and small or between beige and black. We hope this glimpse into the available sizes will help you think about what size and layout would most suit your particular use.