I had this feeling that some old computers feel much more responsive than modern machines. For example, an iMac G4 running macOS 9 or an Apple 2 both feel quicker than my 4.2 GHz Kaby Lake system. I never trust feelings like this because there’s decades of research showing that users often have feelings that are the literal opposite of reality, so got a high-speed camera and started measuring actual keypress-to-screen-update latency as well as mouse-move-to-screen-update latency. It turns out the machines that feel quick are actually quick, much quicker than my modern computer -- computers from the 70s and 80s commonly have keypress-to-screen-update latencies in the 30ms to 50ms range out of the box, whereas modern computers are often in the 100ms to 200ms range when you press a key in a terminal. It’s possible to get down to the 50ms range in well optimized games with a fancy gaming setup, and there’s one extraordinary consumer device that can easily get below 50ms, but the default experience is much slower. Modern computers have much better throughput, but their latency isn’t so great.
Anyway, at the time I did these measurements, my 4.2 GHz kaby lake had the fastest single-threaded performance of any machine you could buy but had worse latency than a quick machine from the 70s (roughly 6x worse than an Apple 2), which seems a bit curious. To figure out where the latency comes from, I started measuring keyboard latency because that’s the first part of the pipeline. My plan was to look at the end-to-end pipeline and start at the beginning, ruling out keyboard latency as a real source of latency. But it turns out keyboard latency is significant! I was surprised to find that the median keyboard I tested has more latency than the entire end-to-end pipeline of the Apple 2. If this doesn’t immedately strike you as absurd, consider that an Apple 2 has 3500 transistors running at 1MHz and an Atmel employee estimates that the core used in a number of high-end keyboards today has 80k transistors running at 16MHz. That's 20x the transistors running at 16x the clock speed -- keyboards are often more powerful than entire computers from the 70s and 80s! And yet, the median keyboard today adds as much latency as the entire end-to-end pipeline as a fast machine from the 70s.
Let’s look at the measured keypress-to-USB latency on some keyboards:
|apple magic (usb)||15||USB FS|
|hhkb lite 2||20||USB FS|
|MS natural 4000||20||USB|
|unicomp model M||30||USB FS|
|pok3r vortex||30||USB FS|
|kinesis freestyle 2||30||USB FS|
|chinfai silicone||35||USB FS|
|razer ornata chroma||35||USB FS||Yes|
|olkb planck rev 4||40||USB FS|
|MS comfort 5000||40||wireless|
|easterntimes i500||50||USB FS||Yes|
|kinesis advantage||50||USB FS|
|genius luxemate i200||55||USB|
|topre type heaven||55||USB FS|
The latency measurements are the time from when the key starts moving to the time when the USB packet associated with the key makes it out onto the USB bus. Numbers are rounded to the nearest
5 ms in order to avoid giving a false sense of precision. The
easterntimes i500 is also sold as the
The connection column indicates the connection used.
USB FS stands for the
usb full speed protocol, which allows up to 1000Hz polling, a feature commonly advertised by high-end keyboards.
USB is the
usb low speed protocol, which is the protocol most keyboards use. The ‘gaming’ column indicates whether or not the keyboard is branded as a gaming keyboard.
wireless indicates some kind of keyboard-specific dongle and
unifying is logitech's wireless device standard.
We can see that, even with the limited set of keyboards tested, there can be as much as a 45ms difference in latency between keyboards. Moreover, a modern computer with one of the slower keyboards attached can’t possibly be as responsive as a quick machine from the 70s or 80s because the keyboard alone is slower than the entire response pipeline of some older computers.
That establishes the fact that modern keyboards contribute to the latency bloat we’ve seen over the past forty years. The other half of the question is, does the latency added by a modern keyboard actually make a difference to users? From looking at the table, we can see that among the keyboard tested, we can get up to a 40ms difference in average latency. Is 40ms of latency noticeable? Let’s take a look at some latency measurements for keyboards and then look at the empirical research on how much latency users notice.
There’s a fair amount of empirical evidence on this and we can see that, for very simple tasks, people can perceive latencies down to 2ms or less. Moreover, increasing latency is not only noticeable to users, it causes users to execute simple tasks less accurately. If you want a visual demonstration of what latency looks like and you don’t have a super-fast old computer lying around, check out this MSR demo on touchscreen latency.
I’d really like to test more keyboards before making a strong claim, but from the preliminary tests here, it appears that gaming keyboards aren’t generally faster than non-gaming keyboards.
Gaming keyboards often claim to have features that reduce latency, like connecting over USB FS and using 1000Hz polling. The USB low speed spec states that the minimum time between packets is
10ms, or 100 Hz. However, it’s common to see USB devices round this down to the nearest power of two and run at
8ms, or 125Hz. With
8ms polling, the average latency added from having to wait until the next polling interval is
1ms polling, the average latency from USB polling is
0.5ms, giving us a
3.5ms delta. While that might be a significant contribution to latency for a quick keyboard like the Apple magic keyboard, it’s clear that other factors dominate keyboard latency for most keyboards and that the gaming keyboards tested here are so slow that shaving off
3.5ms won’t save them.
Most keyboards add enough latency to make the user experience noticeably worse, and keyboards that advertise speed aren’t necessarily faster. The two gaming keyboards we measured weren’t faster than non-gaming keyboards, and the fastest keyboard measured was a minimalist keyboard from Apple that’s marketed more on design than speed.
Previously, we've seen that terminals can add significant latency, up 100ms in mildly pessimistic conditions if you choose the "right" terminal. In a future post, we'll look at the entire end-to-end pipeline to see other places latency has crept in and we'll also look at how some modern devices keep latency down.
A major source of latency is key travel time. It’s not a coincidence that the quickest keyboard measured also has the shortest key travel distance by a large margin. The video setup I’m using to measure end-to-end latency is a 240 fps camera, which means that frames are 4ms apart. When videoing “normal" keypresses and typing, it takes 4-8 frames for a key to become fully depressed. Most switches will start firing before the key is fully depressed, but the key travel time is still significant and can easily add
10ms of delay (or more, depending on the switch mechanism). Contrast this to the Apple "magic" keyboard measured, where the key travel is so short that it can’t be captured with a 240 fps camera, indicating that the key travel time is < 4ms.
Note that, unlike the other measurement I was able to find online, this measurement was from the start of the keypress instead of the switch activation. This is because, as a human, you don't activate the switch, you press the key. A measurement that starts from switch activiation time misses this large component to latency. If, for example, you're playing a game and you switch from moving forward to moving backwards when you see something happen, you have pay the cost of the key movement, which is different for different keyboards. A common response to this is that "real" gamers will preload keys so that they don't have to pay the key travel cost, but if you go around with a high speed camera and look at how people actually use their keyboards, the fraction of keypresses that are significantly preloaded is basically zero even when you look at gamers. It's possible you'd see something different if you look at high-level competitive gamers, but even then, just for example, people who use a standard wasd or esdf layout will typically not preload a key when going from back to forward. Also, the idea that it's fine that keys have a bunch of useless travel because you can pre-depress the key before really pressing the key is just absurd. That's like saying latency on modern computers is fine because some people build gaming boxes that, when run with unusually well optimzed software, get 50ms response time. Normal, non-hardcore-gaming users simply aren't going to do this. Since that's the vast majority of the market, even if all "serious" gamers did this, that would stll be a round error.
The other large sources of latency are scaning the keyboard matrix and debouncing. Neither of these delays are inherent -- keyboards use a matrix that has to be scanned instead of having a wire per-key because it saves a few bucks, and most keyboards scan the matrix at such a slow rate that it induces human noticable delays because that saves a few bucks, but a manufacturer willing to spend a bit more on manufacturing a keyboard could make the delay from that far below the threshold of human perception. See below for debouncing delay.
Although we didn't discuss throughput in this, when I measure my typing speed, I find that I can type faster with the low-travel Apple keyboard than with any of the other keyboards. There's no way to do a blinded experiment for this, but Gary Bernhardt and others have also observed the same thing. Some people claim that key travel doesn't matter for typing speed because they use the minimum amount of travel necessary and that this therefore can't matter, but as with the above claims on keypresses, if you walk around with a high speed camera and observe what actually happens when people type, it's very hard to find someone who actually does this.
When I ran these experiments, it didn't seem that anyone was testing latency across multiple keyboards. I found the results I got so unintuitive that I tried to find anyone else's keyboard latency measurements and all I could find was a forum post from someone who tried to measure their keyboard (just one) and got results in the same range, but using a setup that wasn't fast enough to really measure the latency properly. I also video'd my test as well as non-test keypresses with a high-speed camera to see how much time it took to depress keys, and the results weren't obviously inconsistent with the results I got now.
Starting a year or two after I wrote the post, I witnessed some discussions from some gaming mouse and keyboard makers on how to make lower latency devices and they started releasing devices that actually have lower latency, as opposed to the devices they had, which basically had gaming skins and would often light up.
If you want a low-latency keyboard that isn't the Apple keyboard (quite a few people I've talked to report finger pain after using the Apple keyboard for an extended period of time), the SteelSeries Apex Pro is fairly low latency; for a mouse, the Corsair Sabre is also pretty quick.
Another change since then is that more people understand that debouncing doesn't have to add noticeable latency. When I wrote the original post, I had multiple keyboard makers explain to me that the post is wrong and it's impossible to not add latency when debouncing. I found that very odd since I'd expect a freshman EE or, for that matter, a high school kid who plays with electronics, to understand why that's not the case but, for whatever reason, multiple people who made keyboards for a living didn't understand this. Now, how to debounce without adding latency has become common knowledge and, when I see discussions where someone says debouncing must add a lot of latency, they usually get corrected. This knowledge has spread to most keyboard makers and reduced keyboard latency for some new keyboards, although I know there's still at least one keyboard maker that doesn't believe that you can debounce with low latency and they still add quite a bit of latency from their new keyboards as a result.
Before writing this up, I read what I could find about latency and it was hard to find non-specialist articles or comment sections that didn’t have at least one of the arguments listed below:
The most common response to questions about latency is that input latency is basically zero, or so close to zero that it’s a rounding error. For example, two of the top comments on this slashdot post asking about keyboard latency are that keyboards are so fast that keyboard speed doesn’t matter. One person even says
There is not a single modern keyboard that has 50ms latency. You (humans) have that sort of latency.
As far as response times, all you need to do is increase the poll time on the USB stack
As we’ve seen, some devices do have latencies in the 50ms range. This quote as well as other comments in the thread illustrate another common fallacy -- that input devices are limited by the speed of the USB polling. While that’s technically possible, most devices are nowhere near being fast enough to be limited by USB polling latency.
Unfortunately, most online explanations of input latency assume that the USB bus is the limiting factor.
Here’s a “cognitive neuroscientist who studies visual perception and cognition" who refers to the fact that human reaction time is roughly 200ms, and then throws in a bunch more scientific mumbo jumbo to say that no one could really notice latencies below 100ms. This is a little unusual in that the commenter claims some kind of special authority and uses a lot of terminology, but it’s common to hear people claim that you can’t notice 50ms or 100ms of latency because human reaction time is 200ms. This doesn’t actually make sense because there are independent quantities. This line of argument is like saying that you wouldn’t notice a flight being delayed by an hour because the duration of the flight is six hours.
Another problem with this line of reasoning is that the full pipeline from keypress to screen update is quite long and if you say that it’s always fine to add 10ms here and 10ms there, you end up with a much larger amount of bloat through the entire pipeline, which is how we got where we are today, where can buy a system with the CPU that gives you the fastest single-threaded performance money can buy and get 6x the latency of a machine from the 70s.
This is fundamentally the same fallacy as above. If you have a delay that’s half the duration a clock period, there’s a 50% chance the delay will push the event into the next processing step. That’s better than a 100% chance, but it’s not clear to me why people think that you’d need a delay as long as the the clock period for the delay to matter. And for reference, the
45ms delta between the slowest and fastest keyboard measured here corresponds to 2.7 frames at 60fps.
Even without going through contortions to optimize the switch mechanism, if you’re willing to put hysteresis into the system, there’s no reason that the keyboard can’t assume a keypress (or release) is happening the moment it sees an edge. This is commonly done for other types of systems and AFAICT there’s no reason keyboards couldn’t do the same thing (and perhaps some do). The debounce time might limit the repeat rate of the key, but there’s no inherent reason that it has to affect the latency. And if we're looking at the repeat rate, imagine we have a 5ms limit on the rate of change of the key state due to introducing hysteresis. That gives us one full keypress cycle (press and release) every 10ms, or 100 keypresses per second per key, which is well beyond the capacity of any human. You might argue that this introduces a kind of imprecision, which might matter in some applications (music, rythym games), but that's limited by the switch mechanism. Using a debouncing mechanism with hysteresis doesn't make us any worse off than we were before.
An additional problem with debounce delay is that most keyboard manufacturers seem to have confounded scan rate and debounce delay. It's common to see keyboards with scan rates in the 100 Hz to 200 Hz range. This is justified by statements like "there's no point in scanning faster because the debounce delay is 5ms", which combines two fallacies mentioned above. If you pull out the schematics for the Apple 2e, you can see that the scan rate is roughly 50 kHz. Its debounce time is roughly 6ms, which corresponds to a frequency of 167 Hz. Why scan so quickly? The fast scan allows the keyboard controller to start the clock on the debounce time almost immediately (after at most 20 microseconds), as opposed a modern keyboard that scans at 167 Hz, which might not start the clock on debouncing for 6ms, or after 300x as much time.
Apologies for not explaining terminology here, but I think that anyone making this objection should understand the explanation :-).
The USB measurement setup was a USB cable. Cutting open the cable damages the signal integrity and I found that, with a very long cable, some keyboards that weakly drive the data lines didn't drive them strongly enough to get a good signal with the cheap logic analyzer I used.
The start-of-input was measured by pressing two keys at once -- one key on the keyboard and a button that was also connected to the logic analyzer. This introduces some jitter as the two buttons won’t be pressed at exactly the same time. To calibrate the setup, we used two identical buttons connected to the logic analyzer. The median jitter was < 1ms and the 90%-ile jitter was roughly 5ms. This is enough that tail latency measurements for quick keyboards aren’t really possible with this setup, but average latency measurements like the ones done here seem like they should be ok. The input jitter could probably be reduced to a negligible level by building a device to both trigger the logic analyzer and press a key on the keyboard under test at the same time. Average latency measurements would also get better with such a setup (because it would be easier to run a large number of measurements).
If you want to know the exact setup, a E-switch LL1105AF065Q switch was used. Power and ground were supplied by an arduino board. There’s no particular reason to use this setup. In fact, it’s a bit absurd to use an entire arduino to provide power, but this was done with spare parts that were lying around and this stuff just happened to be stuff that RC had in their lab, with the exception of the switches. There weren’t two identical copies of any switch, so we bought a few switches so we could do calibration measurements with two identical switches. The exact type of switch isn’t important here; any low-resistance switch would do.
Tests were done by pressing the
z key and then looking for byte 29 on the USB bus and then marking the end of the first packet containing the appropriate information. But, as above, any key would do.
I don't actually trust this setup and I'd like to build a completely automated setup before testing more keyboards. While the measurements are in line with the one other keyboard measurement I could find online, this setup has an inherent imprecision that's probably in the 1ms to 10ms range. While averaging across multiple measurements reduces that imprecision, since the measurements are done by a human, it's not guaranteed and perhaps not even likely that the errors are independent and will average out.
This project was done with help from Wesley Aptekar-Cassels, Leah Hanson, and Kate Murphy.
Thanks to RC, Ahmad Jarara, Raph Levien, Peter Bhat Harkins, Brennan Chesley, Dan Bentley, Kate Murphy, Christian Ternus, Sophie Haskins, and Dan Puttick, for letting us use their keyboards for testing.
Thanks for Leah Hanson, Mark Feeney, Greg Kennedy, and Zach Allaun for comments/corrections/discussion on this post.