While there's plenty of choice at the cheaper end of the keyboard market, high-end gear can be hard to find. We go hands-on with one of the most expensive keyboards around, the Maltron 90 series, to see if it lives up to its incredible pricetag.
Maltron, for those unfamiliar with the company and its offerings, is a UK specialist in ergonomic keyboards. Its range boasts models designed for users with musculoskeletal disorders, a single hand, or even no hands at all.
Designed for suffers of repetitive strain injury and carpal tunnel syndrome, the Maltron 90 series takes the concept of a split key layout and runs with it. The keyboard is split into three sections: half the letter keys are given to the right hand, half to the left, and the number pad resides in the middle for use by either hand.
Some keys are shifted completely from their traditional locations: the thumbs are given their own little areas containing the arrow keys, tab, space bars - there are two - and the return key. Having to hit backspace with your thumb when you make mistakes certainly takes some getting used to, and you're definitely going to be making mistakes.
The strange layout serves an important purpose: traditional keyboards encourage an unnatural posture, with the elbows pushed inwards and the shoulders hunched. Combined with the repetitive motions used in typing, this can often lead to painful conditions of the wrist, arm, shoulders, and back. The knuckles too can suffer from the minuscule contortions required to hit a particular key. In severe cases, surgery can be requred to correct conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome. The 90 series, Maltron claims, addresses all of these when used properly.
Maltron recommends that those switching to the 90 series use the keyboard for a month, during which time no other type of keyboard should be used. It's good advice, as the layout is strange indeed. When we put a sneak preview of the board on Twitter, reactions ranged from the amused - "is this the new Salvador Dali signature range of keyboards," we were asked - to the horrified - "Kill it! Kill it! Kill it with fire! IT IS MISSHAPEN AND UNUSUAL!"
It's certainly an understandable reaction to have: the keyboard is so different to a traditional layout that we found our typing speed and accuracy decimated. As we used the Maltron more, however, it became clear that accuracy issues were the result of years of bad habits becoming ingrained in muscle memory. In particular, the habit of allowing fingers to drift away from the 'home' position results in the wrong fingers firing for a particular letter. If you see any words with 'V' swapped for 'C,' 'S' for 'A' or 'O' for 'P,' now you know why.
It seems unfair to judge the keyboard harshly for this, though. More well-behaved typists who adhere to the rules of touch-typing more stringently will likely have an easier time of things, but everyone will require a long period of adjustment. For those who like a real challenge, Maltron has even developed its own eponymous key layout which swaps QWERTY for QPYCB, ostensibly to reduce the amount of travel the fingertips need to make on average.
This extreme layout, plus the option of switching between PC and Mac modes, is selectable via a switch on the base of the keyboard. It's there that we find our first true complaint: the switches are mounted on the PCB, with a hole cut in the keyboard's sizeable plastic casing.
It's not exactly pretty, and although it's hidden away during use it doesn't contribute to the feeling of a 'luxury' keyboard. There's also little in the way of extras: the bulky yet light casing doesn't include a USB hub, a card reader, or a display. Some of the keycaps are also slightly misaligned, especially in the central portion.
That is, of course, the key point here: at £450, the Maltron 90 series is one of the most expensive keyboards on the planet. For the cost of this keyboard, you could buy an entire reasonably-specced laptop. Is it worth the money. It's hard to say. If it delivers on the company's promise of preventing or curing RSI symptoms and reducing the risk of carpal tunnel damage, then for many it would be a bargain at twice the price.
Be warned, though: you'll have to be prepared to put some serious effort into fighting your muscle memory if you want to make the switch, but this is half the point.
The Maltron 90 series is available from PCD Maltron, priced at £450. A rental option is available for those who want to try it out, priced at £10 per week with the balance deducted from the cost if you go on to buy it.