Help Me, LAPTOP: I Want a Notebook with a Classic-Style Keyboard

In the past few years, we've seen a huge movement toward island-style (aka chiclet) keyboards on laptops. While most users seem to either like or at least tolerate keyboards with a larger gap between keys, reader Mary is not one of them. In a comment, Mary writes:

I am literally going insane trying to find a 12″ – 14″ laptop with a traditional keyboard. I tested a chiclet keyboard in the store and it was uncomfortable and painful. My wrist and fingers hurt terribly within 2 to 3 minutes of constant typing. The keys were too far apart from one another, flat, and harder to press; which is an absolute nightmare for a touch typist. The manufacturers can’t even decide on single name for these horrible and recently widespread keyboards (chiclet, island style, premium raisied tile, isolated style keys).

The keyboard is one of the most important and under appreciated parts of any notebook. If you're comfortable typing, you can work more quickly, effectively speeding up the human part of the computer interface.

Mary is right to place a priority on typing accuracy. However, in our experience, island-style keyboards are not necessarily less comfortable than ones which have little or no space between the keys. For example, our favorite notebook keyboard of all-time is the island-style unit on the Lenovo ThinkPad X1, which provides the best tactile feedback in the business.

In most cases, island-style keyboards have the same 19 to 21mm of travel, which is defined as the space between the middle of each key and the key next to it. To keep travel the same and increase the space around the keys, manufacturers sometimes make each key a little smaller, but the shape of the keys usually matters more than their size. Keys with a concave surface are easier for touch typists to feel so that they avoid adjacent letter errors.

The palmrest is another important, but often-ignored part of the notebook typing experience. A nice soft-touch palmrest cradles your wrists and makes long typing sessions more comfortable, while a short palmrest that leaves your wrists hanging over the lip can put additional strain on your shoulders. 

Ultimately, the most important thing is that you are comfortable with your keyboard. If you are uncomfortable with island-style keyboards, a number of notebooks still come with classic-style keys. Budget notebooks like Toshiba's Satellite L755 and HP Pavilion G6 use traditional keys as do business notebooks like the Lenovo ThinkPad T420 and Dell Latitude E6420. We particularly like the ThinkPad T420's keyboard because it includes oversized delete and Esc keys that are easy to hit.

Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.