10 minute review: Thinkpad USB keyboard

The problem

I have spent an absurdly large amount of my time searching for the perfect keyboard.

Once I decided the numberpad was useless (not being an old-school accountant, I found it faster to type numbers using the keys above the alphabetic keys, and would much rather have the mousing space available instead), it was a matter of narrowing it down to something that was of excellent build quality, comfortable to type on, didn’t rely on silly Fn keys for critical functionality, and had functional media-related keys on it.

Unfortunately, this strict set of criteria appeared to narrow my choices down to… nothing. My ideal input device simply didn’t exist.

I followed lots of potential ideas to their ends. Custom keyboards are fairly expensive in limited runs, and generally limited to niche commercial or industrial applications, or for disabled users. Actually designing and making a new keyboard utterly from scratch is cost-prohibitive for mere hobbyists, and after a few questioning forays into that idea, my contacts in the industry got bored and stopped responding to me.

There’s all manner of “compact” keyboards out there – most of them compromise usability for the sake of shaving mere centimetres off their dimensions, lots of them hide frequently-used keys behind laptop-like Fn-key combos that slow you down, and nearly all of them are flimsy rubbish.

Then there are the almost-rans. The Deck Ice keyboard is pretty cool, but difficult to find now, and has an odd layout anyway. The Happy Hacking Keyboard is far too minimal. IBM’s original Space Saver keyboards are all but vaporware now. The Microsoft Sidewinder X6 came pretty close, but I didn’t like the feel of it when I found one I could try in the shop.

In the end, I gave up the search and bought a full-size Razer Lycosa, because it was pretty and blue and had funky touch buttons. It lasted a year and a half on my desk at home before I became utterly fed up with the unwieldiness of it and frustrated by its weird touch controls.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago – I’ve moved to Sydney, got a sweet job in a place that uses Thinkpads, and fallen more or less in love with my T400. My personal laptop at the time was a Dell Latitude E4300, and over time I’d come to realise how well the pointing stick worked. If the Latitude’s trackpoint was pretty good, the Thinkpad’s was excellent; my work laptop’s touchpad serves mainly as a platform for collecting dust.

This is the thing – before actually using a trackpoint for the length of time it took me to learn to appreciate them, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to try a keyboard with one of them integrated into it. While I had replaced the mouse that came with my work setup, I quite liked my laptop’s keyboard, and so my ideal home keyboard soon presented itself. I give you…

The solution

This is the Thinkpad USB keyboard with Trackpoint, Lenovo part number 55Y9003.

It’s got everything I need – a perfectly standard typing layout, a near-complete lack of numberpad (although the right half of the keyboard will become one, by holding Fn or toggling it with Fn+Scroll Lock to activate Numlock), proper arrow keys, a proper Home/End text-editing pad, quite reasonable volume controls, and a pretty agreeable price tag for such a specialised bit of kit (I spent nearly $90 to get mine, before discovering Lenovo themselves sell it for $75 delivered).

Features

The volume buttons, while small, are perfectly usable, and I’ve grown quite accustomed to them in the time I’ve spent using this keyboard. The speaker mute key glows orange, as would the microphone mute button if I had a microphone that needed muting.

The keyboard also ships with a CD that contains PDF user manuals in many languages, and the driver provides an extra set of Control Panel mouse settings to deal with the integrated trackpoint. The three mouse buttons don’t seem to be configurable separately, but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest – left, middle and right-click are all pretty standard. Middle click works fine to open new tabs in browsers, and having that relative-scrolling action and occasional mousing device available without having to move my hands off the keyboard is quite nice.

Function keys

Some of the function key shortcuts work, too, with varying degrees of usefulness. Fn+F2 does the same thing as Windows+L, F3 (battery information) and F5 (wireless settings) are quite irrelevant for a desktop PC, Fn+F4 is similarly irrelevant to me but does actually put my computer to sleep, F6 does nothing, F7 brings up multi-monitor display settings, F8 brings up the Mouse Properties window above, and F12 would probably hibernate the computer but I think I’ve turned that off elsewhere.

Fn plus the arrow keys perform various Windows Media Player functions (back, next, play, pause and stop). Fn plus Home or End would adjust screen brightness on a Thinkpad, but of course has no effect on a desktop computer.

There’s also a handy ThinkVantage button. It does… a thing… when I press it.

One other function worth noting – as mentioned above, the right side of the keyboard will act as a pseudo numberpad when Numlock is turned on, but unlike the Capslock button, there’s no indicator light to tell you this is happening. This is worth being aware of, because if your computer’s BIOS has Numlock turned on at boot, you might end up at the Windows login screen with no idea why your password doesn’t work anymore, until you figure it out.

Not that I did that or anything. I certainly didn’t panic and use a live CD to reset my Windows password because of this. Shut up.

Other uses

One other huge advantage of this keyboard – which will matter much more to some users, and not at all to others – is that it is a perfectly good keyboard and mouse wrapped into one portable package, and attached to a computer using a single USB port. This makes it ideal as a spare input device for computers that don’t generally have a full keyboard and mouse plugged into them – TV/media PCs, headless Linux boxes, and car computers, to name three glaring examples.

Conclusion

$75 honestly isn’t much to spend, when it comes to good quality keyboards. You can pick up a perfectly usable Logitech or Microsoft keyboard from anywhere for $20-30, and that’ll probably do for anybody who doesn’t type all day. It pays to fork out a bit more if you’re, say, a programmer, or do data entry from home, or send a lot of emails – a brand new, high quality “clicky” keyboard will still set you back about AU$200 at the moment, if such things interest you.

They don’t interest me, however. All I want is a good typing board without a numberpad, a weird layout, or other crippling problems. I found my perfect keyboard in the current Thinkpad USB; some serious thought has gone into this thing, and as far as I’m concerned they got everything right.

If you’ve worked for any length with a Thinkpad laptop, you probably already use a trackpoint at least some of the time – you can probably appreciate the idea of having that feature handy. If so, I can heartily recommend this keyboard to you.

If you’re of the persuasion that trackpoints are the spawn of the devil, and that the humble touchpad is the One True Way, you’re dearly missing out, but I’m not going to convince you otherwise. Go buy an X6 instead, you probably won’t be disappointed.

3 Responses to “10 minute review: Thinkpad USB keyboard”

  1. Tom says:

    I like Thinkpads, they are solidly built and have a nice feel to them. Though the one I have now is a bit outdated.

  2. bse says:

    There’s definitely not “everything right” with this keyboard, but it’s still one of the best – I’m writing on it right now :)
    One of the things that aren’t perfect is the num-lock behaviour. When num-lock is enabled, which often is the default after booting, the keyboard is unusable, and when entering your login password you don’t notice it because it doesn’t havea num-lock indicator LED. The build quality is also far from perfect. I had to apply some hot glue inside the keyboard in order to reduce flex to an acceptable level.
    Last but not least (but not surprising) there wasn’t proper Linux support, so I had to write the drivers / tools myself. If you’re using this keyboard with Linux and you want to change the sensitivity or enable any features present in the Windows driver, you should check out https://github.com/bseibold/tpkbdctl

  3. lex says:

    This is worth being aware of, because if your computer’s BIOS has Numlock turned on at boot, you might end up at the Windows login screen with no idea why your password doesn’t work anymore, until you figure it out.

    Not that I did that or anything. I certainly didn’t panic and use a live CD to reset my Windows password because of this. Shut up.

    hahahaha… can;t stop laughing… sorry

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