Review: The CODE Keyboard (With Cherry MX “Clear” switches)

In the last three months, a bunch of people have written to ask if I’ve tried any keyboards since 2011’s “Further thoughts on the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Space Saver, and Das Keyboards” (evidently Google has brought my keyboard articles to the top of its search rankings again). The short answer is yes, but only one, and I bought it: the 87-key CODE Keyboard with Cherry MX “Clear” switches. The switches are slightly quieter than the Kinesis Advantage’s Cherry MX “Brown” switches, while still retaining excellent tactile feel. If I were using a conventional keyboard, I’d very slightly prefer the Unicomp Ultra Classic to the CODE keyboard, but in real-world usage the difference is tiny. Anyone who is noise sensitive or works in the same room as other people should use the CODE Keyboard, however, which is substantially quieter at little cost to feeling.

87-key CODE keyboard

There isn’t much more to say about the CODE Keyboard: it has backlighting, which is nice if you care about that sort of thing (I don’t). It comes in a 87-key version, which is also nice because it’s smaller and because many of us don’t need extensive number pad use. It feels durable and in the two or so years I’ve had it I haven’t detected wear. The Unicomp Ultra Classic has a slight edge in the durability rankings because its predecessors—the IBM Model M—have been in service for decades. Unicomp and IBM keyboards are so good that Unicomp suffers because it sells a product that doesn’t need to be replaced. The CODE Keyboard is likely to be similarly durable, though it’s only been on the market for a couple years. If it has any weaknesses they’re not apparent to me. The profile is close to as slim as it can be without compromising function. I’ve never been a fan of Apple’s chiclet-style keyboards, though they’re obviously necessary for laptops.

I haven’t been posting about keyboards, though, because companies haven’t been sending them lately—I guess that since Anandtech and Ars Technica have begun reviewing keyboards, a site targeting writers and readers rather than hackers and gamers gets bumped to the bottom of the priority queue. Outlet proliferation is even greater: there’s an active Reddit subsection devoted to them, and Googling “mechanical keyboards” brings up more background than I have time or inclination to digest. Writers also tend to be less vocal about their love for gadgets than tech people.

I’m also much less interested in experimenting with different keyboards because I don’t perceive much room for improvement over the good keyboards we have now. Until neural implants get developed and keyboards become as weird a curiosity as Victorian-era telegraph machines are today, we’ve probably gotten to be around as good as we’re likely to get.

87-key CODE keyboardWhen I first bought a Unicomp Ultra Classic I was in college and a couple tiny companies made mechanical keyboards, including Unicomp and Matias (whose early products were so screwed up I never tried the later ones). Today web startups are common and people are used to buying things online; dozen companies or more are making mechanical keyboards, and it’s hard to pick a bad keyboard. Any of them will be much better than the keyboards that ship with most computers.

Plus, as said earlier, the good options have mostly driven out the bad, or forced the weak early keyboards to be improved. Matias’s more recent keyboards apparently don’t have the ghosting that made earlier versions useless. Companies like Vortex are producing physically small keyboards that have programmable keys, as is the obnoxiously named POK3R. Other companies have produced wireless Bluetooth versions and versions with extra USB ports, neither of which matter to me. A profusion of ultra minor variations is a hallmark of maturity. Most of the keyboards still have Darth Vader or computer nerd aesthetics, but that probably speaks to their target audience. Except, possibly, for the CODE Keyboard, none of the current mechanical keyboards seem like Apple made them.

87-key CODE keyboardBut the real news is no news: a bunch of keyboards exist and they’re all pretty good. The word “slight” appears three times in the first two paragraphs because there aren’t clear winners. If you type a lot and aren’t interested in the minutia, get a CODE Keyboard and put the rest out of your mind. If you want a more ergonomic experience and have the cash, get a Kinesis Advantage and learn how to use it (and be ready for weird looks from your friends when they see it). Options are beautiful but don’t let them drive you mad.

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