I recently got rid of my standard keyboard in favor of something that would make me faster. Research and testing consumed me for nearly a week so I figured I’d do an Excel Keyboard Review based on my findings.
When using Excel, I generally like having my right hand on the mouse, and rarely use the number pad on the right side of the keyboard. So it makes sense for me, on the right hand side of the keyboard, to do away with the number pad and lay out the remaining useful keys (the navigation cluster) more efficiently than the standard layout which has lots of extra space. This would allow me to have a smaller keyboard and position my mouse in the liberated desktop space. Doing this puts my right hand (while on the mouse) closer to the keyboard, which enables faster switching between mouse and keyboard when necessary. If you use your hands differently you may have a different perspective on the keyboards I review below.
The Excel Keyboard I Dumped
Below is the keyboard I had — the Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard 5000. The curved layout and the wrist pad are ergonomic pluses, and did have the very useful Menu key which effectively allows you to right click on the mouse by typing a key (which is useful when your right hand is on the keyboard to, e.g., use the navigation keys). But the right side layout was a big negative. As noted above, I can do without the number pad. And while the navigation keys are useful, they could be arrayed more efficiently. Finally, the numerous keys on the top row were useless to me (though they didn’t create any usability issues). Basically, the keyboard felt bulky and forced me to position it semi-diagonally (rising from the left to the right) so I could make some room for my mouse. So I decided to dump it.
To find my replacement, I researched over 50 keyboards and purchased seven. Along the way I had several ideas that didn’t work out:
Replacement Excel Keyboard Idea #1
My first ingenious idea was to use a left-handed keyboard. These keyboards move the stuff that’s on the right (or at least some of it) over to the left. As a result, (1) the space on the right is liberated; and (2) the left hand gains additional capaiblities — e.g., the ability to Enter, Delete, navigate and enter basic formulas (using the operator signs and a “+” in lieu of an “=” to begin formulas). The model below — the Evoluent Left Handed Keyboard — seemed great in principle, but revealed some deficiencies after several days’ worth of use.
First, and most importantly, the Ctrl key is so close to the number pad that my left pinky was constantly getting lost when executing Ctrl+ shortcuts, stumbling onto the Enter key, forcing me to look at the keyboard and lose precious time. A better design would put more space in between — or maybe even some barrier or “lighthouse” that would enable the pinky to get oriented quickly (rather than the small tactile ridge on the Ctrl key itself). Alternatively, the Ctrl key could be given a special texture to make it instantly recognizable by touch. Along those lines, I purchased Bump Dots (small adhesive circles that you can stick on your keys), but haven’t used them yet. I want to be able to return the keyboard unmolested, plus solving this deficiency would not have been enough for me to keep the keyboard (see below for other flaws). Finally, the Ctrl key could have been enlarged to the size of two keys (potentially by removing the Delete key, since there are three of them on the keyboard).
Second, the keyboard is missing a Menu key — a critical omission for me, though it can be overcome (see brief discussion below regarding keyboard remapping).
Third, there were a number of surplus keys on the bottom (prime real estate). Some are duplicates and could be removed altogether (such as the Ctrl and Alt keys), while the right Ins key is basically useless altogether and could have been placed somewhere on the top with low lifes such as Pause, Break, Scroll Lock, Scroll Lock and SysRq. Removing some of the useless keys would allow the remaining bigger keys to be larger (and thus easier to find). (One drastic measure some people take to “remodel” their keyboard is to remove (pry loose) the F1 key, since (by some) it’s rarely used and often is mis-keyed instead of ESC, causing a slowdown).
Fourth, the placement of two Delete keys on the bottom (actually three — if you include the one in the number pad), while theoretically convenient, in reality was disorienting and could too easily lead to inadvertent deletions by being so close to higher frequency keys. While I appreciated the convenience, I ended up hankering for the Delete key being farther off to the right.
Finally, as an aside, the left Insert key came loose after only a few days of use. I don’t know if this was a fluke or not.
On the positive side, the keyboard had a nice firm touch to it. And the navigation cluster is retained on the right, but in a more efficient layout. The many duplicate keys, plus the extra bar of dedicated keys on the top, weren’t necessarily bad. Why? Because of keyboard remapping. I installed a free utility — Sharp Keys — that allows you to reprogram virtually any key on your keyboard (I cannot vouch for the total quality or security of it). I started on this remapping project by converting the right Insert key into a Meny key (it worked perfectly), but then stopped once I decided to stop using the keyboard due to the Ctrl key issue. My ambitious preliminary plan was to remap Caps Lock to Backspace, left Delete to Ctrl (for easier navigation shortcuts), the * to Delete (I want the Delete more than the * key), the middle Delete to Alt (to facilitate more left-handed Alt shortcuts, primarily those on the QAT), the left Alt to Ctrl (to make it easier for the pinky to find a Ctrl key), the Windows key perhaps to yet another Ctrl, and then some modifications to the Alt-Ctrl-Del-Ins keys on the right. Along the way, I found a few articles on keyboard remapping if you’re interested: The Ultimate Guide To Keyboard Remapping and The Best Key Remapper For Windows. You can apparently also remap keys by directly editing the registry. I think keyboard remapping for Excel has some serious potential, and if/when I revisit it in the future I will add another post. If you’ve done it yourself, please share your experience.
While I fell in love with the Evoluent for a few hours, I ultimately had to break up with it for the reasons above — first and foremost due to the Ctrl key issue (too easy to fat finger it and hit Enter instead).
Replacement Excel Keyboard Idea #2
I also purchased two other left-handed keyboards that had a little more separation between the Ctrl key and the other keys to the left.
First was the DSI Left-Handed Keyboard ($89). I’ll keep this brief. There are three deal killers:
- Unlike with the Evoluent keyboard, the navigation cluster is entirely gone from the right hand side of the keyboard. Since navigation can be such a time sink, I prefer having the flexibility to use either hand.
- Unlike the Evoluent keyboard, it feels and sounds cheap — wiggly keys with a loud plastic-sounding click. But apparently they’re high quality mechanical keys (Cherry mechanical).
- Like the Evoluent keyboard, the Ctrl key is too close to the keys to the left of it (though a little farther away).
As you can see above, this keyboard moves both the number pad and a separate navigation cluster to the left. Left-handed navigation is easier than the Evoluent since the navigation cluster keys are easier to read (they don’t have numbers on them). But the number pad becomes a bit of a stretch. The right side has a Menu key (unlike the Evoluent) — no remapping requried. But the right side also has a duplicate Windows key — why, I have no idea — but not nearly as much duplication as the Evoluent.
Replacement Excel Keyboard Idea #3
My third left-handed keyboard was the Ergoguys Left-Handed Keyboard ($27). This keyboard is great until you use it. Here are the deal killers:
- it suffers from Ctrl key syndrome — my pinky was frequently landing on the Del key (of all keys) by mistake.
- the keys felt cheap (and were loud) like the DSI
In addition, though not a deal-killer, the number pad layout is slightly inverted in that it has the Enter, + and – keys to the left (vs. to the right, where the other two left-handed keyboards have them).
On the positive side, it has an efficient layout:
- a full navigation cluster on the right that doesn’t eat up much space
- the lowest number of duplicate keys of the left-handed keyboards I sampled
- an ergonomic layout that actually seems to save space with some smaller keys
Replacement Excel Keyboard Idea #4 — The Winner So Far
Frustrated by the limited selection of left-handed keyboards that all had mortal flaws, I pulled myself together and regrouped. My inner genius came alive and said, “why don’t you just get a compact/mini keyboard and then position a separate number pad to the left?” The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, ““Genius is what a man invents when he is looking for a way out.” We all become geniuses in times of desperation.
So I researched dozens of compact keyboards and bought six (see below), using the following criteria — must:
- be compact in size — due to the reduction in keys, and NOT due to a reduction in key size or reduction in space between keys
- have a Menu key
- have full navigation on the right, with dedicated navigation keys (that don’t require Alt or Fn)
- have minimal key duplication on the bottom row
- have Ctrl key on bottom left
- have good feel
- not be loud
- have cool name like “SIIG”
After research and testing I settled on settled on the SIIG USB 1.1 Mini Multimedia Keyboard (JK-US0312-S1). It’s compact, has a great touch, isn’t too loud, and the layout is excellent. And it was only $21.99 (at least when I bought it). It is USB (not wireless), but that’s not a big deal for me. My only real usability issue has been the remote location of the Delete key in the upper right.
I then added a number pad that I position to the left of the keyboard. The main problem with the number pad is that it slides around. I may find some way to attach it. Other than that, I love the SIIG keyboard and the number pad has some serious potential for empowering my left hand to do some light navigation and formula work. For the heavy duty navigation and formula work I’ll probably just use my right hand.
I also tried out the following compact/mini keyboards and have indicated the main reason for ultimately returning them to Amazon (along with the left-handed keyboards):
- Adesso EasyTouch Mini Keyboard — feels cheap
- Perixx PERIBOARD-407B, Mini Keyboard — feels cheap
- Genius LuxeMate i200 Compact Stylish Keyboard — feels cheap
- Verbatim Mini Wireless Slim Keyboard — feels cheap
- Microsoft Wedge Mobile Keyboard — way too small (I overlooked the dimensions in the description)
Replacement Excel Keyboard Idea #5-7
I did consider three other unique keyboards — they’re compact two-piece keyboards for extra ergonomic benefit, and they all appear to be well-built (especially the Matias) and omit the row of junk keys at the top. However, for now I’ve passed on them due to the price (especially the Matias) and the fact that they all lack a Menu key on the right side (though this could be fixed with keyboard remapping). I may come back to these later and if so I will do a review.
Matias Ergo Pro for Win — $249!!! (but currently $200 on Matias’ website). Lots of great features that I point out below (including fat Ctrl and Space keys and a clever navigation cluster layout), plus it has a wrist pad and is supposedly quiet. There’s a Menu key on the right side but unfortunately it’s a secondary function of the key (requiring the Fn key). Matias appears to use the highest quality components. They have many other keyboards including one keyboard called The Optimizer which they claim allows for 22% faster spreadsheet work (though it doesn’t appeal to me). It’s worth visiting their website.
Kinesis Freestyle Solo Ergonomic USB Keyboard — $89. A less expensive split-keyboard option, but also with no Menu key.
Goldtouch GTU-0088 V2 Adjustable Comfort Keyboard — $96. Another split keyboard with no menu key.
I also looked at some gaming keyboards since the customers are interested in speed and there are some interesting layouts — but I didn’t find anything worthy.
In sum, no one has created an Excel keyboard that is perfect for me — maybe there’s one for you. Some are closer than others and I just had to pick the best affordable option. When I feel like spending some money I may actually try out the Kinesis Freestyle2 and the Matias Ergo Pro and customize them with some keyboard remapping. Or, if I’m really ambitious, I’ll build my own keyboard.
What do you think?