Pick A Mechanical Keyboard Layout / Size
Most users are interested in 104-key, condensed, and tenkeyless layouts. Those aren’t the only options, though. Mechanical keyboards come in every shape, size, and key configuration that you can imagine (including staggered and ortholinear variants). We’ll break things down into five primary size categories (full size, tenkeyless, condensed, ergonomic / split) and two primary layouts (ANSI, ISO). Each has distinct sub-classifications, so we’ll touch on those as well.
Staggered Vs. Ortholinear
Keyboards are available in offset (staggered) and grid (ortholinear) patterns. Staggered layouts were developed in typewriters due to mechanical limitations. QWERTY also accommodated typewriter designs, though it may have been influenced by Morse Code operators. Dvorak and other alternative layouts, which haven’t been widely adopted, were created later on to combat inefficiencies in QWERTY.
Ortholinear keyboards take a different tack, as modern keyboards don’t have the same mechanical constraints. They aren’t inherently better than staggered keyboards, but they are reasonable and usable. All mechanical keyboard enthusiasts should try one at some point -- if it’s more comfortable, consider switching.
Mechanical Keyboard Layouts / Sizes
Standard 104-key keyboards dominate the desktop market, as most office computers use the layout. Some gaming keyboards and alternate layouts (like the split space bar shown above) add a an extra key or two, which doesn’t cause a category change.
Tenkeyless And Compact Layouts
Keyboards without number pads are considered tenkeyless. Tenkeyless mechanical keyboards are great for typists who want to save space, but data entry may be difficult without a number pad. Different tenkeyless variants are assigned percentages that roughly reflect their size in relation to standard 104-key mechanical keyboards. Some keyboards are classified by key number if they don’t fit into the traditional percentage scheme (like the Kira). Note that most tenkeyless keyboards use function keys or layers to cover the same inputs as full size models. We’ll go over the most common percentage-based sizes below.
• Tenkeyless / 80% Mechanical Keyboards
80% keyboards, which are typically referred to as tenkeyless keyboards, delete the number pad.
• 75% Mechanical Keyboards
75% keyboards remove the number pad, but they keep a number of miscellaneous keys by deleting extra space between clusters.
• 60% / Compact Mechanical Keyboards
60% keyboards do away with the number pad, arrow keys, delete cluster, and function keys.
• 40% Mechanical Keyboards
40% keyboards only preserve the alpha cluster.
Condensed keyboards reduce their desk footprint by changing key sizes, removing keys with duplicate functionality, and moving keys to different locations. They retain most or all of the per-key functionality found in full size layouts. Mechanical keyboards tend to come in two condensed flavors. Rubber dome keyboards, particularly those used in 17” laptops, can be found with a variety of proprietary condensed layouts as well.
• G80-1800 Layout Mechanical Keyboards (and clones)
Cherry’s G80-1800 mechanical keyboards are known for their clever use of space. They cut down on width while retaining a full complement of 104 keys. The keyboard shown above is a nonstandard G80-1800 clone with extra keys above the main clusters.
• 96-Key Mechanical Keyboards
96-key layouts use every trick in the book to optimize space usage without losing number pad or per-key functionality. The Kira, which actually has 99 keys, falls into this subclass of condensed layouts.
Ergonomic And Split Layouts
Ergonomic mechanical keyboards come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Designs that reduce wrist and finger strain can look and feel quite odd. Many ergonomic keyboards, and some nearly-normal models, try to increase comfort with a split design. Separate cases, plates, and PCBs are necessary for such keyboards. We’ll list a few interesting ergonomic keyboards, which tend to showcase unique layouts.
• Lexmark / IBM M15 Ergonomic Mechanical Keyboard
The IBM M15, manufactured by Lexmark, is the grandfather of modern ergonomic mechanical keyboards. It rotates, changes elevation, and separates to provide a comfortable typing experience. It has not been in production since the mid-1990s.
• Infinity ErgoDox Split Mechanical Keyboard
The Infinity Ergodox is designed for people with different shoulder sizes. Its split design allows users to position the keyboard halves wherever they are most comfortable. Thumb buttons are also meant to improve typing performance. Its key pattern is considered “vertically staggered.” Similar split keyboards exist in a number of layouts, like the ortholinear “Let’s Split.”
• Pace VG-101 Ergonomic Mechanical Keyboard
The Pace VG-101 uses a single chassis with two “pods” that allow a wide range of angle adjustments. Keyboards like the Kinesis Advantage2, which uses rounded key depressions that purportedly improve ergonomics, operate on a similar (but less complex) principle.
Extended layouts add an arbitrary number of extra keys with any number of functions.
ANSI Vs. ISO
ANSI and ISO layouts are used in different areas of the world. JIS, a third major layout, is less common due to its near-exclusive use in Japan.
• ANSI Keyboard Layout
ANSI is commonly used in the United States. It can also be found in a number of other countries. A wide 1 unit tall (1u) enter key is its most notable feature, as it leaves room for the pipe / backslash key.
• ISO Keyboard Layout
ISO variants are used in widely in Europe and many countries around the world. ISO’s blocky 2u tall enter key and short left shift provide a different typing experience. Standard ISO layouts have 105 keys, which can be useful in languages that have a large number of modified characters. Note that the Displaywriter shown above has a nonstandard ISO layout, so it won't represent all ISO keyboards.