Monday, May 10, 2010

Pointing Stick USB Keyboard Roundup Review

Samsung top, center; Lenovo on bottom; Unicomp up topTrackpoint, pointing stick, eraser head mouse, nipple mouse—whatever you call it, if you’re like me and you love it, you don’t want to use a computer without one.

After a chiropractor urged me to stop stooping to look down at my laptop display (which is giving me “military neck,” or a flattening of the curve in the neck), I decided to take my laptop ergonomics more seriously.

First up was raising the laptop display to an appropriate height. I chose the 3M Vertical Notebook Riser (LX550), as it seemed to get the display to the most appropriate height (most competing products raise the body of the laptop at a much shallower angle and/or don't have full freedom of adjustability). While it’s not the most travel-friendly (Logitech’s Notebook Riser wins that award), I chose function over form. Besides, a few reams of paper or a shoebox can serve as a laptop stand in a pinch.

The Keyboards

Now on to the good stuff: USB Keyboards with Pointing sticks. This is a very small product category, and you have to get rid of a lot of your wishes: a natural curve, wireless/bluetooth—none of those products exist with a pointing stick. I found three products meeting my requirements—quite simply, a USB keyboard with a pointing stick:

Samsung, Lenovo and Unicomp, top to bottom
The Samsung Q1: The Bad

Samsung and Lenovo A small and tidy keyboard that even comes with a travel pouch! I was the most excited about this keyboard, and the most disappointed. The keys feel flimsy, the back wasn’t perfectly flat so it wobbled when I typed, and worst of all, the pointing stick just isn’t very good. It has a weird acceleration thing going on, where the center is fairly numb but as you push harder and farther from center, it accelerates non-linearly. Thumbs down for the keyboard, thumbs way down for the mouse.

Other negatives: The WIN key is in the bottom-right, which I can live with. But Home and End require FN modifiers (FN + PgUp = Home), which is a big problem for someone who spends a lot of time in Visual Studio.

The redeeming graces? It’s teeny without feeling teeny. From the left of ‘A’ to the right of ‘;’ it measures 7 1/4”—just 1/4 inch shorter than a regular full-sized keyboard. That and they shave off some more size with narrower Caps Lock, Shift and Enter keys.

If you need an external keyboard occasionally and you need a small & portable model, this keyboard might be for you. But if you’re looking for a full-time keyboard, the Lenovo is still pretty tidy for travel and has a much better feel (plus it’s cheaper). Verdict: not recommended.

Lenovo ThinkVantage ThinkPad USB Keyboard with TrackPoint: The Best All-Around

Best keyboard layout of the group When I unplugged the Samsung and plugged in the Lenovo, I knew I was never going back. The feel of the keys are sturdy. Don’t let the “regular” laptop keyboard look fool you, it’s even better than the keyboard on my Toshiba, as well as my girlfriend’s modern Lenovo laptop. The keys have a buttery softness to them, a firm response, and they’re quiet.

Oh and the pointing stick. It’s perfect. Perfect. Sensitive and responsive, without a dead zone in the center like the Samsung, and it stops on a dime. Perfect.

A lot of reviewers on Amazon have complained that this keyboard suffers from a lag that leads to double-presses or delayed shift-releases. I can say with confidence that the model I got does not suffer from that. I type in the 70 to 90 WPM range, so I’m pretty confident that if the problem existed I’d see it.

If you install the drivers from Lenovo [see footnote 1], you’ll enable the center button+TrackPoint to scroll, plus media keys/volume controls that are very useable.

As for the layout, it’s full-sized (7 1/2” from left of ‘A’ to right of ‘;’), Home and End are actual keys, WIN is in the bottom-left. The only thing is FN is in the far bottom-left corner, where I prefer CTRL, but it’s a minor adjustment that’s well worth it.

Size: it’s slim and sleek. The wrist rest is nice, something I’m used to in a laptop keyboard. It slips into my laptop bag alongside the laptop without any trouble.

Great response, great feel, perfect mouse, acceptably portable, reasonable price: highly recommended—buy now.

Unicomp EnduraPro: The Best to Type On

Lenovo and Unicomp, with their feet extended First a bit of history on Unicomp. They make the only “real” clickety-clackety keyboards, having bought the “buckling spring” patent from IBM/Lexmark some years ago. (Here’s an interesting NPR piece on Unicomp.) Allegedly, buckling spring keyboards are faster than modern “blister” keyboards (referring to the switch underneath the key). These keyboards are supposed to be easier on your hands than modern keyboards, too: when you type on a blister keyboard (including the Lenovo), you don’t get tactile feedback until you push all the way through the key, which is to say, it’s as if you’re hammering away on a hard surface. With a buckling spring, you type until the spring buckles, but not when the movement stops, so it’s gentler. Make sense? And does it live up to the hype?

DSC_5765Without a doubt, it is the best keyboard to type on. The key action is crisp, fast, the keys snap back instantly, and it’s precise. After typing a couple of long-winded emails and much of this review on it, I quickly got over the learning curve of the different “throw” of this type of keyboard over the typical laptop keyboard I’m used to. As promised, the key press registers after about 2mm of pressing, but the bottom of the keywell isn’t for another 1 or 2 mm. Definitely a different and better typing experience than laptop keyboards I’ve grown used to over the past few years.

The pointing stick, however, is another matter. It is on a very long pole, and it’s moderately sensitive. The Lenovo’s pointing stick doesn’t really move, it just senses the pressure you apply to it. The Unicomp’s pointing stick is more like a joystick: you have to wiggle it around and move it in the direction you want. Couple its loose wiggling with a dead zone in the center and only 2 buttons that are hard to click, and it didn’t pass muster. Better than the Samsung, but not in the same league as the Lenovo.

Other notes: top-notch build quality (it weighs nearly 5lbs) and I enjoyed using a full-sized desktop layout, but missed the multimedia keys and volume controls that I quickly found to love in the Lenovo.

Side By Side Typing Speed

I ran through two iterations of this Aesop Fables typing test on each keyboard, in the opposite order the second time, taking the average.

  • (Model): (Min)/(Max) (Average)
  • Samsung: 76/88 82
  • Lenovo: 86/95 90.5
  • Unicomp: 90/95 92.5

While this isn’t a perfect science experiment, it does show that the Unicomp and the Lenovo are fast, topping out for me at 95 WPM. The low initial Lenovo score came because I was used to typing on the Unicomp and switched back to the short-throw laptop-style keyboard and my fingers just didn’t know what to do!

Conclusions and Recommendations

If this review were about keyboards, I’d give the best and fastest typing experience to the Unicomp. But since this review is about pointing stick keyboards, the award goes to the Lenovo. It is a great keyboard, and has a perfect pointing stick. Overall usability goes to the Lenovo, too: with its media keys, middle mouse button with scrolling, and forward & back buttons, it’s the best to use for everyday computing. Typing on it is very good, too, even though it has a traditional (but sturdy) laptop keypress mechanism. If I lived my life on a Bash or Powershell prompt and rarely reached for the pointing stick, I would keep the Unicomp in a heartbeat. Even though I write a lot of code and emails and would benefit from a great typing experience, I really need a great pointing stick to find my way around a modern OS and development tools like Visual Studio.

Maybe someday a perfect keyboard with the right tactile response and the perfect 3-button pointing stick will come to market. Maybe it will even have a gentle ergonomic curve and bluetooth and still be tidy enough to travel with. Maybe someday.

Buy the Lenovo keyboard here at Amazon.com

P.S. This page is full of associate links on Amazon. If you appreciate this review and decide to purchase one of these products from Amazon, please support this site by following the links when you add to your shopping cart.

[1] The drivers install a startup program called skd8855.exe in HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run that doesn’t seem to do anything. I left ltpPoint because it seems to be responsible for the extra features tab in the Mouse control panel.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

That Lenovo keyboard doesn't just look like a laptop keyboard; it is a laptop keyboard. That's a Thinkpad with the display removed and the computer sliced out from under it.

Anonymous said...

how loud is the unicomp? my problem with buckling spring keyboards has always been the noise -- anti-social in a quiet office. is this still the case?

Travis said...

It's as loud as you remember.

Anonymous said...

I have the Lenovo keyboard and you left out the cable stow. On the bottom side of the keyboard is a place for the cable to go, including the usb cord, which makes it travel well.

Anonymous said...

One nice thing about the Unicomp is that you can get it in a Linux-specific key layout. For those of us who prefer the control key to be placed where god intended it, this is a real blessing.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU!

I had an old adesso curved keyboard with a trackpoint built-in that I eventually abandoned due to the layer of grime that had built up. Now I wish I'd bought ten of them.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that the Lenovo keyboard is most likely a real Thinkpad keyboard. The Thinkpad I use at work is the deepest-throw keys I've ever seen on any laptop. Your Thinkpad may be different as there seem to be two or three different "styles" of Thinkpad keyboards.

Anonymous said...

Just a note about the (awesome) Lenovo keyboard: I think its keys are a little harder to press than those on the original Lenovo laptops (compared to a X200 or T*) but that vanishes over time.

Lance Schafhausen said...

I have a IBM/Lexmark clicky keyboard that came with a OLD 3151 terminal. I had one at home too ot one time, but I don't remember what happened to it now. I'd been looking for a replacement for years, THANK YOU!!! I had no idea someone still made them!

chx said...

You missed http://davidbau.com/archives/2005/05/21/worlds_best_computer_keyboard.html

has a proper layout and it's sturdy as hell.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why these aren't very popular. The pointer is a way better invention then the trackpad or a track ball. I have a thinkpad with both and I never use the trackpad because I'd have to move my hands from the keyboard which seems way too awkward after using the pointer for awhile. For those doubters out there, the key to really enjoying a pointer is getting a nib shape that suits you.. yes there are different ones. I prefer one with a depression in the middle and a raised outer edge and it makes a huge difference.

If there was a wireless one available I would buy it in an instant. I am disappointed that there isn't.

Travis said...

@chx, I only looked for models that are currently in production. That keyboard looks perfect.

Anonymous said...

Issue with the skd8855.exe program that "doesn't appear to do anything":

http://forums.lenovo.com/t5/Options-Accessories/USB-Trackpoint-Keyboard-Driver-Issues/td-p/167463

Don't know if this has been patched by now, though.

Anonymous said...

This may be an obvious question but; why not just buy a mouse?

Travis said...

@Why not a mouse?
Personal preference. When typing and mousing, my fingers never have to leave the home row, so it's faster. Plus I don't have to put strain on my wrist to reach over and grab the mouse.

Craig said...

I use one of the early problematic shift key Lenovo ThinkPad USB Keyboards with TrackPoint. I know Lenovo released an update after complaints to fix it. Still, my model's quirks are not as bad as most make it out to be.

The only issue I have with this keyboard has been moving from a full-sized arrow keyboard. I have big hands and find the smaller keys a little cramped. The support molding design inside the keyboard was also a little poor on the right-click button and it rattled initially until I fixed that.

Like you, I couldn't do without the TrackPoint and middle-click to scroll button mod on Linux.

To the commenter that asks why not just use a mouse? I use both. When I need real precision I jump to my mouse. For everything else I prefer to keep my hands on the keyboard.

Anonymous said...

i was a big fan of thinkpad laptop (back when it's IBM) since the quality is just awesome. after using that I just can't use any keyboard that doesn't have the navpoint.

it was a disappointment when I bought the Lenovo keyboard as the material is obviously much cheaper, especially at such a premium price for a usb keyboard. however it's still the only one on the market with the trackpoint that does a descent job. all in all it's still a relatively descent keyboard.

Anonymous said...

Another great thing about the Thinkpad keyboard is that the latest generation has enlarged Esc and Del keys...amazing what a difference that makes.

Unfortunately skd8855.exe seems to have a memory leak -- its RAM footprint sometimes grows to almost 1GB. Killing the process / disabling its startup seems to have no ill effect.

Anonymous said...

Anyone know if there is anywhere you can just get the pointy stick bit separate from the keyboard?

Joerg Baach said...

I am typing this on my thinkpad external keyboard - really great, but a bit fragile (a coupel of keys broke loose).

About the laptop stand - if you actually travel with your laptop, there are a couple of laptop stand alternatives, amongst them:

http://baach.de/Members/jhb/lapchop/

Cheers,

Joerg

Anonymous said...

Yay for the trackpoint. Personally I'd be happier without windows keys -- I'd really like the fn to move between ctrl and alt and have nice and big ctrl and alt keys. fn-alt can double for windows key or something. Make it programmable and some emacs nerd will figure out how to add a meta, a super, and a hyper too. But lenovo still hasn't that knack ibm used to have, but lost when it sold off to lenovo. Unicomp probably suffers from the larger size trackpoint to make up for the larger keys, and just maybe they should update the design.

To the guy wanting just the trackpoint without the keyboard, you might want to look into the "FSC Palm Mouse". Bought mine for five euros, haven't really gotten around to trying it.

Yannick Gingras said...

I have both the Lenovo UltraNav and the Unicomp Endurapro. I also happen to use a Thinkpad X61 when I'm not at my desk and I can assert that the Lenovo UltraNav feels a lot cheaper than the real Thinkpad keyboad. It wobbles a bit when you type, not too much but still, and some key, especially the F-keys and the arrows, are loose and shaky. That being said, I really like the layout of the three buttons with the inverted groove on the middle one that makes it easy to locate by touch only. As you mentioned, the touch stick is very precise and responsive, that's for sure.

The Unicomp on the other hand has only two buttons so you need a bit of tweaking to enable scrolling (look at Thinkwiki to enable it on GNU/Linux) and you need to adjust the sensitivity because the longer stick gives you quite a lever effect that makes it too responsive if you are used to work on a Thinkpad.

I used to leave one keyboard at home and to have the other at the office, switching the from time to time, but soon enough is was clear to me that the tactile keys of the Unicomp and the wide "standard" layout was much better then the cramped experience that I had with the UltraNav so I bought a second Unicomp and now I type exclusively on Unicomp keyboards when I'm at a desk.

I understand why one would prefer the UltraNav and I really wish that Unicomp would release a 3-button version with USB ports and multimedia keys but it's still the best keyboard that I got to use so far and I swear by it.

A coworker of mine also got one and it's quite noisy in the programmers' area when we are both hacking frantically. Yet, not matter the noise level, it's a stimulating sound, one that is inspiring and motivating; you feel that something is brewing and that the whole company is marching toward great success. I doubt that anyone would mind the noise unless you work in a library.

Thanks for the review; it's very detailed and informative.

Richard said...

A few points.

1. Lenovo also make these in full-size (i.e. with numeric keypad). I have one - it's excellent.

2. You can map the Caps-lock key to an additional Ctrl, for ease of use.

3. Personally, I find the Page-left and Page-right buttons a menace (it's too easy to get a web-browser fwd/back instead of scrolling down). I disable them by mechanically disabling the switch.

4. Trackpoints are generally at their best if you set the sensitivity to max, and get used to not resting your finger on it while not moving (so it can re-zero and eliminate drift).

5. The ultimate was actually the 2+1 mouse-button layout used on laptops such as the A22 thinkpad series. This placed a double-sized middle-button(2) below the left(1) and right(3) buttons.
As a result, you could emulate a middle button with the chord 1+3 (click in between them with just one thumb) to get middle-click and paste. By pressing the actual 2nd button, you could have horizontal and vertical scrolling.

5. I use my right thumb on all 3 buttons, but IBM apparently designed the buttons for left and right thumbs.

Eric said...

Don't trash old loved keyboard, wash it.
Use liquid dish washing soap, even if you do it in electric dishwasher as I do.
Rinse in distilled water at least twice. Let dry at least 3 days.

Barbara said...

I'm looking for a trackpoint keyboard that is waterproof (I have a habit of spilling diet coke on my T500 at rather frequent intervals, thereby sometimes frying the motherboard). Can you really wash the Lenovo keyboard in the dishwasher? Is it really that waterproof?!!!

Travis said...

@Barbara - I would not run it through the dishwasher. It has drain holes in the bottom to allow spills to not pool on the electronics, and maybe it could withstand a tapwater rinse. Beyond that...well...it's your fifty bucks :)

Barbara said...

Thanks a lot, Travis! I think I will give the Lenovo keyboard a try.

Anonymous said...

I have both and agree that the Lenovo trackpoint is better. But the Lenovo starts falling apart after about 12 months (I've gone through three of them). First the mouse buttons stop working, then a key here or there doesn't register every time... Made in China - what do you expect? I'm hoping the Unicomp will last a long time.