A design engineer spends countless hours working on CAD software. How great would it be if those countless hours were spent on tools that can help you become more productive?
The right set of peripherals is deemed critical for any power user or engineer seeking to improve their efficiency.
In this article, I will talk about the best keyboards for engineers, particularly for those who use CAD software, and in general talk about what to look for in a CAD keyboard.
As far as the dedicated keyboards for CAD go, there is literally only ONE keyboard that is designed SPECIFICALLY for CAD users in mind and that is the 3D Connexion Keyboard Pro.
I will talk about this keyboard below, but essentially, unlike gaming keyboards, there isn’t a separate category for engineering keyboards.
So, in case this singular CAD keyboard does NOT interest you, then you should look into specific characteristics that a keyboard should have to help you with your engineering design, the most important of which is having programmable buttons.
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3D Connexion Keyboard Pro – The Bespoke Keyboard for CAD Users
As far as your choices for engineering keyboards go, there aren’t many. In fact, there is only one popular keyboard out there that caters specifically to the engineering community: the 3D Connexion Keyboard Pro.
The hallmark feature of this keyboard for engineers is that it has a set of 16 (12 on the keyboard, 4 on the numpad) CAD-specific buttons on top. These are adaptable keys, meaning they change their functions depending on the software you use.
Low Profile | Chiclet/Scissor | Dished Keys
Wired Keyboard | Wireless/Wired Numpad
Choosing the Best Keyboards for Engineers with Programmable Keys
Essentially, any keyboard with the right set of programmable buttons can be made to function as an engineering/CAD keyboard.
Basically programmable keys allow you to assign functions or commands to them. So you can assign simple functions such as copy function, and you can even assign tools and filters.
For instance, you can assign the line tool to one of the programmable keys, material, mass properties, explode, etc. function to other keys.
Programmable keys are indispensable for CAD power users. If you spend countless hours working on CAD software, then the macros or the commands that you assign to the programmable keys can prove to be a huge time saver.
If programmable keys are what you are after, then you can take two routes:
- Go for a Keyboard with a few programmable keys
- Go for a separate HOTKEY keypad (with all programmable buttons.
The majority of the keyboards with programmable keys also have built-in memory for different profiles. Hence you can change the profiles on the go for different software.
Full QWERTY keyboards have fewer programmable buttons as compared to dedicated hotkey pads with programmable buttons.
Mechanical Keyboard | Cherry MX Speed Switches | 6 Dedicated Macro Keys
Operating force = 42 gf (Very Light)
Pre/Total travel = 1.1 – 3.4 mm (Short / Responsive)
Onboard Memory – For setting different profiles
It has a rating of 9.6/10 overall on Rtings.com
Note: actuation force and travel distance specs taken from Rtings.com.
Low Actuation Force and Low Actuation Distance for Comfort
For comfort and ease of use for CAD work over an extended period of time, the two most important factors are the Low Actuation Distance and Low Actuation Force of the switches.
- Actuation Distance is the distance at which the key press is registered. This can range from ~1.2mm all the way to more than 4.0 mm
- Actuation Force is the amount of force needed to press the keyboard switch.
According to Rtings.com:
- < 45 gf – Very Light key presses
- 45 to 65 gf – Light key presses
- > 65 gf – Heavy key presses
For longer CAD sessions, you should aim for a very light key as the primary factor if comfort is what you are after.
Since speed is not really as important a factor for CAD users as it is for writers or transcriptionists, you can sacrifice the travel distance a bit – but not too much.
In many cases, keyboards with a light action force often have reasonably longer travel distances to balance the accuracy factor.
Should You Go For Split Design Keyboards?
Split-design keyboards, such as the Logitech Ergo K860, are excellent keyboards in their own right.
HOWEVER, while many propound the ergonomic design of a keyboard as the main deciding factor for overall comfort, that is hardly the fact, the split-design form factor is only ONE of the factors.
In other words, it would still be tiring if you have an ergonomic keyboard with a split design, but one that has very heavy key switches with long distances.
Logitech Ergo K860 – arguably the most popular split-design keyboard, has an actuation force of a whopping 69 gf!
While its keys have a fairly short travel distance of 1.5-2.2mm, the heavy keys can cause fatigue rather quickly.
Part of this has to do with the fact that almost all ergonomic split-design keyboards are MEMBRANE-based keyboards.
This brings us to the next points:
Membrane vs Mechanical Keyboards
Mechanical keyboards use, well, mechanical switches which have a superior typing experience particularly owing to the fact that you can literally choose the type of switch you need.
I recommend going for switches with a low actuation force as is with the Corsair RGB K100 above.
Mechanical keyboards, however, are costlier but they are an experience to behold.
Membrane-based keyboards, on the other hand, have the heaviest keys. These are often affordable keyboards, but you can find them on premium models as well.
Apple Keyboard, Logitech Ergo K860, 3D Connexion Keyboard Pro, and keyboards on laptops all use membrane keys.
There are two types of switches for membrane keyboards:
- Rubber Dome switches
- Scissor switches
Scissor switches are also known as chiclet switches and these are the most popular due to their low profile (and low actuation distance).
Programmable keys can be found on both mechanical and membrane-based keyboards (with them being more common on mechanical keyboards).
For instance, the Corsair RGB K55 is the cheaper variant of the K100 with membrane switches but with the same 6 programmable buttons.
The Corsair K55, however, has keys with an actuation force of 74 gf (as compared to merely 42 gf on the mechanical Corsair K100)
Is Logitech Craft Good for Engineers?
Many articles out there make mention of Logitech Craft as being the best keyboard for engineers.
However, while this is an excellent keyboard for designers, it DOES NOT YET have any support for the standard CAD software including AutoCAD, Microstation, SolidWords, Revit, etc.
Currently, it offers support for Microsoft Office Suite and Adobe Suit.
Logitech HAS provided an SDK for developers to add functionality for different software to the dial, however, currently, there are non-available for the common CAD software.
In the future, if functionality for engineering software is added, this may well become a good option, however, at the moment, we advise caution when buying this.
Keyboards come in different variants concerning their form factor. The one that we recommend for you as an engineer is the full-sized keyboard with 104 keys.
This form factor includes a function row, arrow keys, and a number pad. These are also the most common keyboards with dedicated programmable/macro buttons.
Ten Key Less (TKL)
Ten keyless are popular among engineers and CAD users who want to buy a separate numpad or a separate programmable hotkey pad for themselves so that they can manually position it as per their preference.
You will also find some users who prefer the small 60% keyboards. These are basically mini keyboards that have 60% of the keys a normal keyboard does.
These keyboards ditch the function keys and even arrow keys. They are often intended for gamers.
They are certainly not recommended for CAD users.
Engineering can involve challenging tasks which can keep you up all day working on your PC.
To ensure productivity, ease of use, and comfort over extended work hours, it’s important that you invest in the right keyboard preferably with several hotkeys for your most used functions and tools.
While there is literally only a single keyboard designed with engineers and CAD users in mind (3D Connexion Keyboard Pro), we hope that the general guidelines above would help you choose the best keyboard for CAD.
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