It may not be the best kept secret, but you don’t have to use Apple-branded keyboards with your Mac. You have a wide range of keyboards to choose from, including most of the keyboards made for use with Windows.
I’ll let you in on a little secret; the last Apple-made keyboard I used routinely was the Apple Keyboard (A1048). This was the last keyboard Apple made that included the Apple logo alongside the cloverleaf image on the Command key. I didn’t give up on Apple keyboards because of the missing logo; it was actually because the next generation of Apple keyboards went to the low-profile key design that is still in use today. I like a keyboard with a bit more key travel, thus I made the move to Windows-based keyboards; I’m currently using a Microsoft Digital Media Pro model.
Of course, there are a lot of other reasons to use a Windows keyboard. You may be coming to the Mac from a Windows environment and already have a favorite keyboard. Or you may like some of the more advanced Windows keyboards that offer more ergonomic choices, such as the Matias Tactile Pro, specialized keys, or unique keyboard layouts.
No matter the reason, you can use most Window keyboards with your Mac.
Making the Change to Windows Keyboards
Actually making the switch to Windows-based keyboards is surprisingly easy. Apple has supported USB-based keyboards since it abandoned the ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) interface as the primary means of connecting keyboards and mice. Once the USB interface had rolled out to all of the Mac models, users were free to pick just about any USB-based keyboard and use it with their Macs. No special drivers or software were required, although some keyboard manufacturers did make special software for assigning keys to specific Mac functions (more on that a bit later).
Mac Compatible Keyboards
A few Windows keyboard manufacturers started churning out “Mac compatible” versions of their more popular keyboards. Making a USB-based Windows keyboard compatible was a pretty simple process; they already were, at least electrically. You could plug in the Windows keyboard and it would, for the most part work, fine with your Mac. The only real issues were the names given to special keys, and where they were physically located on the keyboard layout.
Some keyboard makers changed the images on the special keys to match the ones Apple used, while others provided a software-based solution that would remap the special Window modifier keys, such as Start, Alt, and Menu/Applications to their corresponding Mac versions. Some keyboard software became pretty sophisticated, able to remap keys globally as well as on a per application basis, which is very handy for remapping game controller settings on your favorite keyboard.
Wireless Compatible Keyboards
Apple offered a Bluetooth-based wireless keyboard in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2008 that every Mac model had Bluetooth built in. With Bluetooth supported across the entire Mac lineup, Bluetooth wireless keyboards worked quite nicely with Macs; no special Bluetooth dongle was needed.
But while Bluetooth wireless keyboards worked with a Mac, they had the same keyboard mapping issue; some special keys were named differently or weren’t in the expected locations. Once again this issue was solved either through the manufacturers providing software to remap the keys, or by producing special Mac compatible versions of their keyboards.
We’ve covered USB and Bluetooth keyboards, noting that for the most part any USB or Bluetooth keyboard will work with your Mac. The same isn’t quite as true with RF-based keyboards. This style of keyboard uses a radio transmitter in the keyboard to talk to a receiver, usually located in a dongle that plugs into a USB port.
Some RF keyboards will work with Macs and others will not. The problem is in the RF dongle and whether the manufacturer has built the dongle to emulate a standard USB keyboard connection; if so, it should work fine with the Mac. If the dongle uses special driver software, you’ll need a Mac version of the driver software.
Unless you have a specific need for an RF-based keyboard, I recommend using a standard USB or Bluetooth keyboard. If you must use an RF keyboard, track down the manufacturer and make sure they have a Mac version of the driver software.
Special Key Differences
Generally, there are at least five special keys on a Windows keyboard that have a different name or location than their Mac counterparts.
(Win) Ctrl (Mac) Control
(Win) Alt (Mac) Option
(Win) Windows (Mac) Command (four-leaf clover)
(Win) Backspace (Mac) Delete
(Win) Enter (Mac) Return
And there are some keys, such as the Windows Menu/Applications key, that have no Mac equivalent, and are usually ignored by the Mac.
Remapping Modifier Keys
The Mac OS offers a built-in method for remapping the four most often used modifier keys. This simple remapping lets you correct one of the most common issues associated with using a Windows keyboard with a Mac, and that is the physical location of the Alt and Windows keys. As noted above, the Alt key is the same as the Option key on the Mac, while the Windows key is the same as the Command key. The problem is that on a Windows keyboard, these two keys are swapped in respect to their normal placement on the Mac keyboard.
Since their functions are identical, you could just get used to their locations on the Windows keyboard. But if you’re a long-time Mac user, you may find the location difference constantly trips you up. Luckily, you can swap the locations using the Keyboard preference pane.
Launch System Preferences, and then select the Keyboard preference pane.
Make sure the Keyboard tab is selected, and then click the Modifier Keys button.
Remapping the modifier keys is on a keyboard-by-keyboard basis. In other words, if you have a MacBook Pro, with its built-in keyboard, as well as a separate Windows keyboard you use when sitting at your desk, you can choose to only modify the Windows keyboard, while leaving the built-in keyboard untouched.
If you have more than one keyboard connected to your Mac, use the dropdown menu to select the keyboard you wish to have the modifier keys remapped on.
If you have a single keyboard connected to your Mac, there will be no dropdown menu for selecting a keyboard. Any changes will apply to the keyboard that’s currently connected.
You’ll see four modifier keys you can remap; the Caps Lock Key, Control Key, Option Key, and Command Key. You’re remapping the key as named on the specific keyboard to the new function you wish that key to have. We’re going to swap the Option and Command key pairs, so they match up to how a normal Mac keyboard is laid out.
Use the dropdown menu next to Option (⌥) Key: to select ⌘ Command.
Use the dropdown menu next to Command (⌘) Key: to select ⌥ Option.
Click the OK button.
Close System Preferences.
Alternate Remapping Apps
While the Mac’s Keyboard preference pane can handle basic modifier key remapping, some Windows keyboards come with their own keyboard drivers that perform this same function, and usually quite a bit more. Most third-party keyboard re-mappers will let you reassign the usual modifier keys, as well as some specialty keys that may be included in the keyboard, such as multimedia keys and all the function keys.
The downside of third-party keyboard drivers is that as Apple updates the Mac OS, there may come a time when a keyboard driver is no longer supported. If that happens, you can revert to using the Mac’s basic ability to remap modifier keys, but you’ll likely lose any special capabilities you enjoyed with your keyboard.
So, which keyboard do you use? Let us know in the comments.