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A Meandering Review of the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard

Sat 17 January 2009

I haven't done a keyboard review in quite some time.  Partially this is because I've started getting only higher-quality keyboards, and so I've been getting them less frequently.  I can reliably destroy a cheap-o dome-switch keyboard in about 6 months, so now I only buy keyboards with mechanical or scissor switches.  (My rule of thumb is that if it doesn't tell me how many keystrokes the switches are rated for, I won't get it myself or put it on my wish list.  Typically the lowest number you'll get is "five million", which is a good deal higher than the two million that most dome switches can do.)

This Christmas, my grandmother kindly bought me a Logitech Illuminated Keyboard, which I've been using for the past few weeks.  I have to say I'm very happy with it.
http://www.logitech.com/repository/1170/jpg/9726.1.0.jpg

Tactile Response

First and foremost, of course, is the keyboard's feel.

I generally prefer aggressively clicky keyboards like the Das Keyboard or the venerable Unicomp EnduraPro (known in a previous life as the "Model M").  However, at home, these are not an option, as I have both limited vertical space underneath my monitor and a limited acoustic toleranceSome amount of "click" is a requirement though, or the lack of feedback causes my hands to tense up and hurt.  Just a few days ago, Cyril Kowalski of techreport.com described my experience almost exactly, in his review of the Das Keyboard.  I feel this is really worth repeating:
So, because dome-switch keyboards don't let you hear or feel exactly how much force you need to depress a key, you might find yourself pushing too hard or too softly. That can mean either more fatigue or more typos. Some users try to alleviate those shortcomings with split ergonomic keyboards, which place your hands in a more natural position, but those don't really solve the feedback problem — although they can feel comfy enough to type on.

I don't have any statistics handy, but I can throw some anecdotal evidence at you. (Take that however you please.) I've been typing 2,000 words a day five days a week for around three years on a 1989 Model M, and my fingers, hands, or wrists never get tired. When I was using a Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro and typing less each day, I suffered from finger pain and annoying wrist tingling on a regular basis. I actually type faster on the Model M, as well, even though my touch-typing technique hasn't changed.

While I've varied the keyboards I've used considerably more than Mr. Kowalski apparently has, my experience typing lots of hours on a mushy Microsoft Natural Keyboard, at Origin, was exactly the same.

So, does the Illuminated Keyboard stack up?  In a word, "yes".  But you all know that I wouldn't use one word where 500 will do.

With "illuminated" right in the name, one might think that this keyboard is a gimmicky one-trick pony.  I've defnitely seen a few other keyboards where some marketing genius duct-taped a couple of 2¢ LEDs to the back of a crummy keyboard, spray-painted the word "GAMING" on the box, and marked it up by $50.  Even Logitech's own prior entry into the "illuminated" arena, the G15, suffered from this overfocus on bling.  Here, I'll have to amend my own review: while I was impressed at first that the G15 had reasonable tactile feedback, especially for a dome-switch keyboard, it degraded over time, as any dome-switch keyboard will.  The marketing copy talks about illumination and LCDs, but doesn't mention what type of key switch is used.

(While I'm trashing on the old model, I should also note that the "G15" that Logitech is selling today has been visibly upgraded in a number of ways, and may use a new key system as well.  Given that the new G19 costs $200, contains a USB 2.0 hub, a 320x240 color LCD, and a computer that runs linux (I am not kidding), I am hoping that it doesn't ship with keys that will wear out after a few months.)

The Illuminated Keyboard, by contrast, dedicates half of its marketing copy to talking about the key switches.  Like the diNovo Edge (but at less than half the price) it uses the "PerfectStroke Key System".  Indeed, the keyboard's tactile response feels like an updated version of the Edge.

I also have an Edge, and I am quite happy with it too.  If anything, the keys on the Illuminated Keyboard are even better calibrated.  While scissor-switch keyboards are all fairly similar, I have managed to beat many of my own speed records with this keyboard, and a few brief experiments side-by-side with the Edge suggest that I can type as fast or slightly faster on the Illuminated Keyboard.  The keyboard I was most recently using on this computer was the Moshi Celesta (warning!  link contains obnoxiously huge animation, and plays music).  I can type at about the same raw speed on all the scissor keyboards I've tried (the Celesta, the IceKey, the Edge and this one).  However, I have a marginally, but consistently, lower average error rate with the "PerfectStroke"-based keyboards.

This tactile similarity gives me high hopes for the durability of the Illuminated Keyboard as well.  When I first got my Edge, I hammered on it as my primary keyboard for a good eight months.  This is more than enough time to kill lesser keyboards.  Then, we moved it to the media center, where Ying and I would still both use it daily.  As far as I know, it would have lasted another five years, but some part of the battery or the charger gave up the ghost and it would not recharge.  (No complaints there, though.  Logitech replaced the whole unit, free of charge, despite the fact that it was out of warranty.)

Illumination

So, it feels pretty good.  Now, on to the headline feature.  Is it illuminated?

Yes.  The illumination is fairly subtle even on its brightest setting.  It's white, not some neon flourescent color.  It's not nearly as bright as many "gaming" keyboards.  However, it's also very even.  I'm not sure if they use the same trick that Déck does and backlighting every key individually, but there are no dim spots.

Actually, a better answer would be "only if you want it to be".  Regardless of whether you like backlighting — in fact, even you find backlighting obnoxious — this is a pretty good keyboard.  It has a button which allows you to select a light level.  You can turn off the light as soon as your computer starts up, and leave it off.

Design

The form-factor and design of the keyboard are also satisfactory.  As you can see on logitech's site, it's very thin, flat, and it has an integrated wrist-wrest.  The texture of both the keys and the wrist-wrest is slightly rubberized, which keeps my wrists comfortably in place and prevents my fingers from slipping onto adjacent keys when typing quickly.

The {caps,num,scroll}lock keys are vanishingly unobtrusive, but unlike the the Edge's ill-considered "boop-BEEP" audio replacement for the LEDs, they are present and visible.

Of course, any keyboard review would be incomplete without a consideration of "special features".  Normally I find "multimedia keys" and unusual layout options a grating misfeature.  For example, on my Moshi Celesta, there is an "Eject" button immediately underneath "Page Down", which I would accidentally hit at least once a day.  To my surprise, the Illuminated Keyboard is the first one where I've really used the "multimedia" functions.  They are unobtrusive.  The only dedicated "special" keys are far to the right, where there are volume controls and the button used to adjust the keyboard's backlight.

Most of the multimedia keys are alternative meanings for F1-F12 and PrintScreen/Pause.  Much like on the Edge, an "FN" key replaces the right-windows key.  Holding FN while pressing a function key invokes its alternate meaning.  For example, there is a File:Media-skip-backward.svg "previous track" icon above F10, so if I press FN-F10, my media player skips back a track.  Despite a similar setup on the Edge, I never really used the multimedia keys there, because it's awkward to move my right hand so I can hit "FN" with my thumb, then reach over with my left hand to hit the appropriate function.  On the Illuminated Keyboard, the FN key is considerably wider, and the functions that I actually want to use (Previous Track, Play/Pause Music, Next Track) are located on the right hand side of the keyboard, which allows me to easily hit them by moving only one hand.

Of course it didn't hurt that I discovered the "multimedia keys" plugin for my music player at about the same time.

The layout is a tiny bit nonstandard, but in a very useful way.  The seldom-used "insert" key has migrated north to a less prominent position on the "function" row.  In its place, the "del" key has expanded to take up two spots.  Again, I don't like layout tweaks, as they often do more harm than good, but this prevents a common and irritating accident, hitting the "insert" key when I intended to hit "delete".  (I don't know why this never happens with "Home" and "End" or "Page Up" and "Page Down", but it is a real problem.)  Aside from that, this is a bog-standard PC 105-key layout.

Annoyances

Obviously I'm pretty happy with this keyboard, but I always find the most useful part of any review the "why not" section.  So, what's wrong with this keyboard?  With this one it's a pretty short list, but it's not empty.
  1. Very occasionally, the space bar squeaks slightly.  I've had this problem on a number of different keyboards, since the wider spacebar necessarily needs a different switching mechanism, usually propped up by a small metal bar.  This isn't a huge bother.
  2. The plastic of the keyboard is bowed slightly, such that the rubber foot in the middle of the keyboard doesn't quite touch my desk when it's laid flat.  This means that the keyboard warps a little bit if you rest any weight on it.  This might even be intentional (some kind of ergonomic consideration?) but the slight warp seems like a flaw in otherwise quality construction.
  3. What I think are the "Instant Messaging", "Switch Window", and "Run" function buttons don't seem to register on Ubuntu.  I don't know if this is a problem with the keyboard, GNOME, Linux, or what, but I wish I didn't have to know.  (I was impressed to note that all the other keys seem to do something useful out of the box.)
  4. The Alt keys are a tiny bit too narrow for my taste.  Of course, being an Emacs user I have a strong bias towards having an overlarge meta key, so YMMV.  Most people who use the "control" key in the wrong position would probably disagree, as the slightly narrower Alt keys are that way because the "Ctrl" keys are nice and wide.  That said, looking at the keyboard I thought this would bother me, but in practice it hasn't.

Conclusions

The most obvious conclusion we can draw here is that I think and write about keyboards way too much.  Beyond that, the Illuminated Keyboard would get very high marks, if I did numeric grading here.  I think it will replace the MacAlly IceKey for my default keyboard recommendation.  It's got all the same properties (quiet, small, low-profile) which made that keyboard a good recommendation.  However, the construction is apparently higher-quality, it has more function keys (despite the fact that they don't get in your way if you don't use them).  The illumination is a nice touch: even us touch-typists can't necessarily remember where the "eject" button is in the dark.

Thanks, Grandma!