Are there any laptops suitable for high-speed typists? – The Guardian

I work as a specialist electronic note-taker for deaf people, which means I type a comprehensive précis of all that is said in the room, using a laptop linked to a separate monitor for them to read in real time. Qualified electronic note-takers type at very high speeds, with no breaks, for up to an hour at a time (sometimes longer in settings where people clearly don’t consider us to be sentient beings). We are at real risk of RSI.

Like many fast touch-typists, I just cannot work well on the new Chiclet keyboards.

I’ve used Toshiba Tecra A9 laptops for about eight years — after a university I worked for insisted we used theirs – and they are great to type on. However, I’m now on my third, which I purchased refurbished last year. It’s incredibly tatty and it looks dated and unprofessional. I don’t mind spending a fair sum on a modern laptop that is very robust (it’s out and about constantly), has long battery life and, above all, a keyboard that works for a fast typist with a light touch. Having tried a lot in stores, I just can’t find anything that will do. I fear having to give up work once this one dies. Jane

Keyboards are partly a matter of taste: some people like springy, responsive ones while others prefer flat, Chiclet keyboards. The problem is that laptop manufacturers no longer cater for people who like springy, responsive ones … unless they are buying big, expensive gaming laptops where keyboard speed, accuracy and N-key rollover are a matter of (virtual) life and death.

You have three main choices: (1) find a new laptop with an old-fashioned keyboard; (2) buy an old-fashioned laptop; or (3) buy a tablet and use an external keyboard.

It would be nice have another choice, ie (4) get another Toshiba Tecra A9. But even if you could find one in mint condition, the A9 is quite thick (1.5in/38mm) and very heavy (6.3lbs/2.9kg) by today’s standards, and probably limited by its 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 processor and 2GB of memory. The charger adds another 15oz (425g). At best, this would probably just postpone the problem for another year or two.

Like you, I’ve been looking in vain for a light, modern laptop with a high-quality keyboard. Because I use a desktop PC most of the time, I can survive with the good isolated keyboards on (for example) some Apple, Asus and Sony laptops. But I can understand the challenge of continuous fast typing in time-constrained, high-pressure situations.

Golden oldies

IBM ThinkPads have been the corporate laptop standard-bearers since 1992 – and nothing looks more professional, so that’s one problem solved. ThinkPads also have some of the best laptop keyboards. They have declined along with everybody else’s, but we can pinpoint the shift: the ThinkPad X220 sported the last of the more traditional keyboard designs, while the X230 had the new flatter design. (See last year’s answer: Which ThinkPad laptops have the best keyboards?)

The ThinkPad X220 received good reviews in 2011, with Trusted Reviews concluding: “It might not be sleek and sexy, but [it] has it where it counts: a rugged chassis, amazing keyboard … and – the icing on the cake – amazing battery life. If you can live with its chunky dimensions … and can afford its asking price, the X220 is still one of the best small laptops available.”

Well, it might have seemed a bit chunky, but the X220 is light and sleek compared to a Tecra A9. It’s only about 35mm thick but tapered, the weight starts at around 1.25kg, and the charger only weighs 360g.

The ThinkPad X220 came in a range of models from about £800 to £1,600, but go for one with a Core-i5 or Core-i7 processor and 4GB or 8GB of memory. Even the low-end 2.5GHz Core i5-2520M is as fast as today’s Core i5-5200U. (The difference is that the Core i5-5200U runs at 15W instead of 35W. You need cooler-running, lower-power chips for thinner laptops.) Also aim for the version with an IPS screen, if possible.

Refurbished ThinkPad X220s cost around £200 to £400, depending on specification and grade, with a Grade A refurb being almost as good as new. Buy a new spare battery as well, so you can swap them over when the first one runs out, doubling your battery life. There’s also an optional 10-hour battery slice.

Amazon, Tier 1 and Morgan are possible sources for refurbs. Shyamtronics sells new old-fashioned IBM ThinkPads on Tottenham Court Road in London. If you can visit the shop, you can try the keyboards.

Take a tablet

You can solve the problem of bad laptop keyboards by using an external keyboard. Yes, you will have two keyboards taking up valuable desk space, but you can solve that problem by buying a tablet such as a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (or forthcoming Surface 3), Dell Venue Pro, or something similar. Then you’ll only have one keyboard.

With this solution, you can change the keyboard without changing the tablet, or vice versa. You can use any USB keyboard you like, from a big desktop model to a really small mobile keyboard, either wired or wireless (Bluetooth). You could even use an ergonomic split keyboard such as the Kinesis Freestyle 2 or Kin-FS2-01, though these might be a bit too noisy for your purposes.

The obvious drawback is that you will have to carry two items instead of one. However, tablets are light, so you should still save some weight. You will also gain robustness (laptop hinges break), and a lot more flexibility when positioning your keyboard and screen.

The good news is that you will have a huge range of keyboards to choose from. The bad news is that mobile keyboards have also moved to flat designs. I popped into Maplin’s to look at the 20 or so keyboards they had in stock (there were no Microsoft models), and didn’t find a mobile keyboard I could recommend for your purposes. Perhaps you will. If not, the Keyboard Company has more than 60 alternatives, including the Matias Mini Quiet Pro.

The Ergostars Saturnus must also be worth a look. I don’t think you’re going to find a laptop with a better keyboard, and at 318 x 214 x 34mm, it would fit in a laptop bag with a 0.8kg Surface Pro 3 (292 x 201 x 9mm) or similar tablet. A Truly Ergonomic “soft tactile” keyboard (325 x 170mm) would be a larger, luxury option.

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