What Is a Keyboard?

A keyboard comes in different formats to house the letters, characters, and symbols that you use to input text into a computer or smartphone

Keyboards are used in almost every kind of computer device. Microsoft and Logitech are some of the most popular physical keyboard manufacturers, but many other hardware makers also produce them.

Keyboard Definition

The keyboard is the piece of computer hardware used to input text, characters, and other commands into a computer or similar device.

It's an external peripheral device in a desktop system (it sits outside the computer case), or is "virtual" in a tablet PC.

Typical Keyboard Description

Overhead shot of fingers using a physical keyboard

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Modern computer keyboards were modeled after, and are still very similar to, classic typewriter keyboards. Many keyboard layouts are available around the world (like Dvorak and JCUKEN) but most English language keyboards are of the QWERTY type. Other languages have different default formats, such as QWERTZ for German and AZERT for French.

Most keyboards have numbers, letters, symbols, arrow keys, etc., but some also have a separate numeric keypad, and additional functions like volume control, buttons to power down or sleep the device, or dedicated programmable shortcut keys.

Others have keys that light up when pressed, or even a built-in trackball mouse that's intended to provide an easy way to use both the keyboard and the mouse without having to lift your hand off the keyboard.

Physical Keyboard Connection Types

Many keyboards are wireless, communicating with the computer via Bluetooth or an RF receiver.

Wired keyboards connect to the motherboard via a USB cable, often the USB Type-A connector, but some instead use USB-C. Older keyboards connect via a PS/2 connection. Keyboards on laptops are of course integrated, but technically would be considered "wired" since that's how they are connected to the computer.

Both wireless and wired keyboards require a specific device driver in order to be used with the computer. Drivers for standard, non-advanced keyboards usually don't need to be downloaded because they're already included in the operating system.

Touch Screen Keyboards

Fingers using a lighted touchscreen keyboard.

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Tablets, phones, and other computers with touch interfaces often don't include physical keyboards. Instead, they offer keyboards that appear on the device's screen. However, most do have USB receptacles or wireless technologies which allow external keyboards to be attached.

Like tablets, virtually all modern smartphones have on-screen keyboards that pop up when you need them. These on-screen keyboards are also called touch keyboards or touch screen keyboards.

Laptops and netbooks have integrated keyboards but, like tablets, can have external keyboards attached via USB.

You can download all kinds of software-based keyboards to suit your device's style and operating system. Our Best Keyboards for Android list has some examples for that OS.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Although most of us use a keyboard nearly every day, there are many keys you probably don't use, or at least aren't sure why you use them. Below are some examples of keyboard buttons that can be used together to form a new function.

Modifier Keys

Some keys you should become familiar with are called modifier keys. You'll probably see some of these in the troubleshooting guides here on this website; the Control, Shift, and Alt keys are modifier keys. Mac keyboards use the Option and Command keys as modifier keys—see Windows Keyboard Equivalents for the Mac's Special Keys for more on that.

Unlike a normal key like a letter or a number, modifier keys modify the function of another key. The regular function of the 7 key, for example, is to input the number 7, but if you hold down the Shift and 7 keys simultaneously, the ampersand (&) sign is produced.

Some of the effects of a modifier key can be seen on the keyboard as keys that have two actions, like the 7 key. Keys like this have two functions, where the topmost action is activated with the Shift key.

Ctrl+C is a keyboard shortcut you're probably familiar with. It's used for copying something to the clipboard so that you can use the Ctrl+V combination to paste it.

Another example of a modifier key combination is Ctrl+Alt+Del which can be used to shut down, sign out, access Task Manager, restart a computer, and more. The function of these keys isn't as obvious because the instructions for using it aren't laid out on the keyboard like the 7 key is. This is a common example of how using modifier keys can produce an effect that none of the keys can perform on their own, independent of the others.

Alt+F4 is another keyboard shortcut. This one instantly closes down the window you're currently using. Whether you're in a web browser or browsing through pictures on your computer, this combination will instantly close the one you're focused on.

Windows Key

Although the common use for the Windows key (i.e., start key, flag key, logo key) is to open the Start menu, it can be used for many things.

Win+D is one example of using this key to quickly show/hide the desktop. Win+E is another useful one that quickly opens File Explorer. Win+X (Power User Menu) is our favorite.

Some keyboards have unique keys that don't work in the same way as a traditional keyboard. For example, the TeckNet Gryphon Pro gaming keyboard includes 10 keys that can record macros.

Changing Keyboard Options

In Windows, you can change some of your keyboard settings, like repeat delay, repeat rate, and blink rate, from the Control Panel.

You can make advanced changes to a keyboard using third-party software like SharpKeys. This is a free program that edits the Windows Registry to remap one key to another or disable one or more keys altogether.

SharpKeys is extremely useful if you're missing a keyboard key. For example, if you're without the Enter key, you can remap the Caps Lock key (or the F1 key, etc.) to the Enter function, essentially removing the former key's capabilities to regain use of the latter. It can also be used to map keys to web controls like Refresh, Back, etc.

The Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator is another free tool that lets you quickly change the layout of your keyboard. Little Tiny Fish has a good explanation for how to use the program.

You can also reassign keys on a Mac keyboard through System Preferences.

  • What is a mechanical keyboard?

    Mechanical keyboards have physical switches beneath the keys. When you press a key, you press its button, recreating the experience of typing on a typewriter. As a result, mechanical keyboards can help increase typing accuracy.

  • What is a membrane keyboard?

    Membrane keyboards have pressure pads instead of separate, moving keys. Membrane keyboards do not provide much tactile feedback, which makes them challenging to use as computer keyboards.

  • What is a backlit keyboard?

    Backlit keyboards have lights underneath the keys that illuminate the letters and symbols on the keys. This illumination makes the keys visible in low-light environments. The most common keys to turn on keyboard lights on Windows computers are F5, F9, and F11.

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