This section discusses several common keyboard form factors, including full size, tenkeyless, 60%, and 75%. Subsequently it discusses keyboard layout, including the definition of a standard layout.
Make sure you understand the difference between form factor and layout before going on. Form factor is the overall shape and size of the keyboard as a whole, e.g., full size, tenkeyless, 60%, or 75%. In contrast, layout is the placement of the keys within the constraints of the form factor. A form factor can have different layouts, such as winkey or winkeyless, ANSI or ISO. There is also a second meaning of “layout” which I call the “logical layout” — meaning QWERTY, Dvorak, QWERTZ, etc.
A form factor can come with different layouts, and layouts can be configured for different logical layouts. Got it? 🙂
The most common keyboard form factor is “full size.” If you’re using a PC keyboard now, it probably looks a lot like this:
The key features of a full size keyboard are:
- A main alphanumeric cluster
- Function Keys + Print Screen/Scroll Lock/Pause above alphanumerics
- Standard navigation cluster with arrow keys + PgUp/PgDn etc.
- Numpad to the right of nav cluster
Most modern full size keyboards, including the Filco pictured above, have a standard layout, with a rectangular alphanumeric cluster, 6.25x spacebar and 1.25x bottom-row winkey modifiers (Ctrl, Alt, Win, Menu), and placement/size of keys exactly as depicted above. However, as I noted above, a keyboard does not have to have a standard layout to be considered full size (or any other form factor, for that matter). In general, it only has to meet the bulleted requirements listed above.
In fact, prior to about 1995, most full size keyboards were 101-key rather than 104, because Windows and menu keys had not yet become a standard. In 1995, 101-key keyboards would have been said to have a standard layout. Today, that’s no longer the case.
The full-size form factor is a classic because it’s highly functional. However, by no means it is the only form factor available — something you might not have realized if you haven’t had past exposure to mechanical keyboards. Unlike rubber dome keyboards, mechanical keyboards are readily available in other form factors such as tenkeyless, 60%, 75%, and more. Read on for the details.
Tenkeyless keyboards are full-size keyboards minus the numpad. (“Tenkey” = 0 through 9.)
There are many potential advantages to the tenkeyless design:
- Occupies less space on your desk
- Allows you to better center your keyboard relative to your body
- Allows you to place your mouse closer to your body, which many people find more comfortable
- Is more portable
- Appeals more to the minimalist aesthetic
- Retains normal function key row
If you don’t regularly use the numpad on your keyboard, you may find that the benefits of a tenkeyless keyboard are very compelling.
60% keyboards* are even more minimalistic than tenkeyless keyboards:
*The term 60 percent refers to the number of keys. Most keyboards with this form factor have approximately 60 keys, or 60% of a full-size keyboard.
60% keyboards offer significant space and weight savings — they’re easy to carry back and forth to the office, or in conjunction with a proper carrying case, to carry in a backpack. You can center them relative to your body even better than tenkeyless keyboards. You can even place them directly over your laptop keyboard 🙂
Of course, using a 60% keyboard necessarily involves some compromises. Unlike a tenkeyless keyboard, which is the same as a full-size keyboard minus the numpad, 60% keyboards have no arrow keys, nav cluster, or function keys. Instead, they rely heavily on secondary key layers — to access missing keys, you have to hold down a modifier key in combination with another key. For example, on the Poker II pictured above, the arrow keys are accessed with Fn + WASD. You can see that the Fn layer legends are printed on the front of the keys.
75% keyboards are much less popular than 60% keyboards, but are an interesting compromise between 60% and tenkeyless:
They add dedicated arrow keys, a function row, and a few extra keys that can be mapped as a navigation cluster (PgUp/PgDn etc.) in the rightmost column. Thus, they mitigate some of the greatest potential weaknesses of a 60% keyboard while saving more space than a tenkeyless keyboard. If you want a board more compact than a tenkeyless, but you need dedicated arrow keys or function keys, for typing or gaming, check out 75%… but keep in mind there are very few models readily available.
Unlike tenkeyless and 60% boards, which often come with a standard layout (including those pictured above), no 75% boards have a standard layout. The 75% form factor, due to placement of the arrow keys and the rightmost column, is inherently incompatible with a standard layout.
Other Form Factors
The above form factors are not the only ones in existence, but they are the major ones. There are variations, such as the Leopold FC660C/M’s 66% design, the Quickfire TK’s unique navclusterless design, and the Happy Hacking Keyboard’s signature design with a short right shift and pinky-activated Fn key.
Chances are, your perfect form factor exists somewhere out there.
As I mentioned earlier, layout is the placement of the keys within the constraints of a form factor. There are a few important things to know about layouts:
- ANSI vs. ISO: Modern keyboards with an American English layout use what’s called the ANSI standard. In contrast, European language keyboards use the ISO layout, which features a different shaped enter, additional keys, a short left shift, and some other minor differences. The image below shows a full-size ISO keyboard. Compare to the Filco at the top of this page, which is a full-size ANSI keyboard.
- Winkey vs. Winkeyless: Almost all keyboards manufactured after 1995 feature a “winkey” layout, which has a 6.25x spacebar, three 1.25x modifiers to the left of the spacebar, and four 1.25x modifiers to the right of the spacebar. (Where 1x is the width of a regular alphanumeric key, and “modifier” refers to Ctrl, Alt, Win, and Menu keys.) The ISO keyboard pictured above has a winkey layout. In contrast, winkeyless layouts, which are typically only found on vintage or custom keyboards, have a 7x spacebar and two 1.5x modifiers on each side — Ctrl and Alt. See below for an example. Winkeyless layouts add the functionality of Windows and Menu keys at the expense of simplicity and symmetry. You will probably never encounter a winkeyless keyboard for sale unless you are buying a vintage keyboard, as winkey layouts are almost ubiquitous today. Winkey vs. winkeyless is also a concern when buying replacement keycap sets. Note that only winkey keyboards are said to have standard layouts. Winkeyless was standard prior to about 1995, but today’s standard is winkey.
- Standard Layout: Drawing on the concepts we have discussed, we can now fully define a standard layout (sometimes also called a “Filco” or “OEM” layout). A keyboard is said to have a “standard” layout if it has a normal, winkey ANSI layout. The Filco pictured above is a 100% standard full size keyboard — use it as a visual reference. A standard full-size board has 104 keys; a standard TKL board has 87 keys; and a standard 60% board has 61 keys. As mentioned, because of the way the 75% form factor lumps arrow keys on, 75% boards are fundamentally incompatible with the standard layout.
- Logical Layout: Keyboards can also have varying logical layouts, meaning QWERTY, Dvorak, Colemak, etc. With the right keycaps, it is generally possible to configure a keyboard for any logical layout, regardless of its form factor and layout.
- Unusual Key Placement: Some mechanical keyboards have standard layouts and basically normal logical layouts, but nevertheless swap around a few keys. Most commonly, Caps Lock and left Control are swapped. When shopping for keyboards, keep your eyes open for nonstandard key placement. For example, the Happy Hacking Keyboard, in addition to a home-row Ctrl, has Del/Backspace where the \| key normally is located. Make sure you carefully examine the layout of any keyboard before you purchase it — it can be easy to gloss over unusual key placement if you’re not expecting it.
Read this post for more information on determining keycap compatibility: HOW TO: Easily tell if a keycap set will fit your Cherry MX mechanical keyboard
PCB vs. Plate-Mounted
Here’s something else you should know: Mechanical keyboards with individual switches are either PCB-mounted or plate-mounted. In a PCB-mounted mechanical keyboard, the switches are soldered directly to the circuit board (PCB) with nothing in between. In a plate-mounted mechanical keyboard, there is a metal plate sandwiched between the switches and PCB. The plate is effectively “locked” between the switches and PCB, and cannot be removed unless every single switch is desoldered first. Plate mounted keyboards tend to be sturdier and have a firmer typing feel. Read more here: PCB vs. plate mounted keyboards: What’s the difference?