At the weekend I decided to give in and get a USB keyboard. I went to Fry’s, hoping to find something suitable, but fearing that all they’d have would be Microsoft keyboards.

I know Microsoft’s hardware quality is better than their software quality, and their keyboards are definitely much better than the trash you typically get with a new PC. They are also to be commended for providing a reasonable ergonomic layout at an affordable price. However, I just don’t like the key mechanism; there’s too much resistance, and it feels cheap.

The keyboard isle at Fry’s had a pretty good selection, including exotic gaming keyboards, glowing l337 h4x0r keyboards, and the extremely overpriced Logitech diNovo Edge.

After some hands-on testing, I settled on a Kensington SlimType keyboard. It’s basically the same mechanism as an IBM ThinkPad laptop, but as an external keyboard. It also manages to provide a full keyboard, with number pad, in a lot less space than my IBM Model M. I was frankly gobstruck to note that it was only $30. I may end up getting the Mac version for the other half of my desk.

My Linux keyboard problems went away immediately with the new device. No more unexpected screenshots or X locking up. I even managed to get all the fancy extra keys working; I can type Euro characters with the Windows key, and accented letters with the menu key, thanks to KDE. Getting the multimedia keys working was a bit harder, and required a ~/.Xmodmap file:

keycode 174 = XF86AudioLowerVolume<br /> keycode 176 = XF86AudioRaiseVolume<br /> keycode 160 = XF86AudioMute<br /> keycode 162 = XF86AudioPlay<br /> keycode 153 = XF86AudioNext<br /> keycode 144 = XF86AudioPrev<br /> keycode 223 = F14<br /> keycode 161 = F13

These keycodes seem to be fairly standard for multimedia keyboards (they match what someone reports for a Dell keyboard), so they may be useful to other people. I made the moon key (161/F13) turn the laptop display on and off. The rightmost multimedia key is presumably supposed to be for firing up your MP3 player, as the icon looks like something rectangular with buttons. I decided to make it fire up Nonpareil, an HP calculator emulator, in HP-16C mode.

So far the new keyboard is working out well, apart from my hands having to get used to a new layout. So if you need a compact keyboard, the Kensington is recommended.