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If you want to buy an Apple keyboard, you have two choices of Magic Keyboard: a full-sized version with numeric keypad, and a cropped version. Like most Mac accessories today, it relies on Bluetooth and charges with a Lightning cable.
But despite its name, the Magic Keyboard is rather bland. Sure, it’s slim and flat and perhaps even comfortable, but I wouldn’t blame you if you would rather replace it with a third-party alternative instead. Or maybe you just spilled coffee all over your MacBook and need a backup third-party keyboard to tide you over until you can get it repaired or replaced.
Either way, there are some things to know about using third-party keyboards on Mac, including how to set them up for maximum comfort and productivity.
Using a Third-Party Keyboard on Mac
Modern Macs support nearly all USB and Bluetooth devices, so any USB or Bluetooth keyboard you find should be compatible without issue — at least for basic features like typing standard keys. Media keys may or may not work, for example, but I’ve found that they often do.
Once you start getting into keyboards with advanced features, don’t expect Mac support. That being said, things are improving at least where certain manufacturers are concerned. For example, the Razer Synapse software that allows for macro recording on Razer keyboards is available for Mac!
In other words: if you have a third-party keyboard laying around, there’s a good chance that it’ll work just fine with your Mac. Going to buy something instead? We recommend looking into mechanical keyboards because they feel so good and last so long.
Tweaking Basic Keyboard Settings
To connect a USB keyboard, simply plug it in — the system will detect it. If there are any special drivers to install, download them off the manufacturer’s website (make sure to grab the Mac version!) and install them accordingly.
For Bluetooth keyboards, navigate to System Preferences > Bluetooth, then turn the keyboard on (set to discovery mode if necessary). Once it’s discovered, click Pair.
To configure the newly connected keyboard, navigate to System Preferences > Keyboard.
First, click Change Keyboard Type… to help the operating system detect what kind of keyboard you’re using and what its layout looks like. It’ll walk you through a wizard, asking you to press various keys. Based on that, it’ll set up some appropriate default settings.
Second, click Modifier Keys… to rearrange the modifier keys. Apple keyboards order them as Control, Option, Command whereas non-Apple keyboards use Control, Windows, Alt. By default macOS registers the Windows key as Command and the Alt key as Option, so switch the two to go “back to normal” and prevent confusion over keyboard shortcuts in apps.
Third, I recommend enabling the checkbox for Use F1, F2, etc. keys as standard function keys if you have a third-party keyboard that shares media keys with function keys.
Lastly, alter the Key Repeat (how quickly a key repeats when held down) and the Delay Until Repeat (how long before the key repeating kicks in) settings to your liking.
If you use a non-traditional keyboard layout, such as Dvorak or Colemak, or if you have a foreign language keyboard, then you can set that up in the Input Sources section.
Click the plus “+” button to add as many layouts as you want. While you can’t define your own layouts, Apple provides many different layouts across dozens of languages, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the ones you need.
I recommend enabling the Show Input menu in menu bar checkbox. With it enabled, the menu bar icon will show which layout you’re currently using, and you can click on it to conveniently switch to any other layout you’ve set up.
Tweaking the Keyboard With Karabiner
If you need to tweak your keyboard even further than the system preferences allow, you may want to install Karabiner (for El Capitan and before) or the lightweight subset Karabiner-Elements (for Sierra and after). I use Karabiner-Elements.
Karabiner and Karabiner-Elements both accomplish the same task: rebinding keys on your keyboard so that the system sees them as other keys. They’re both open source software released under the Public Domain license, so they cost absolutely nothing.
I never actually use Caps Lock so I started using it as a Delete key several years back. With Karabiner, I can bind it so that pressing Caps Lock triggers the Delete action. You can rebind literally any key to any other key, including modifiers, arrows, numpad, media keys, etc.
Even if you don’t have media keys, you could potentially rebind all of your function keys to media keys, then bind another key to the Fn key, then use that combination for quick media actions.
Tweaking the Keyboard With BetterTouchTool
If even Karabiner or Karabiner-Elements isn’t enough for your customization needs, I highly recommend checking out BetterTouchTool. Though it’s mainly used for its mouse augmentation features, BetterTouchTool actually has a section for keyboard tweaks.
The main thing it can do is trigger system-level actions using keyboard shortcuts or keypress sequences. Actions include things like toggling Do Not Disturb, dictionary lookups, centering windows, changing brightness, sleeping the display, and more.
You can also set up new keyboard shortcuts or keypress sequences to trigger other shortcuts and sequences. For example, if you’d rather use a sequence like Command > Command to copy text, you could set up that sequence to trigger the Command + C shortcut.
And best of all? Keyboard shortcuts and keypress sequences can be created for global use across all apps or tied to a specific app only when it’s in focus.
Which Keyboard Are You Using on Mac?
At the end of the day, Apple’s official keyboard has its pros and cons. If the cons outweigh the pros for you, which is possible because Bluetooth keyboards are still risky, then there’s no shame in turning to a third-party keyboard. Use whatever is most comfortable and productive.
For me, a third-party keyboard would be a nightmare to use if it weren’t for the nifty utilities covered in this article. With those in hand, I’m quite happy now and would only go back to using my Magic Keyboard if I had no other choice. If you decide to stick with the Magic Keyboard, be sure to check out these custom keyboard shortcuts for Mac that come in handy.
How do you like Apple’s Magic Keyboard? Which third-party keyboard are you trying to use instead and why? Share your thoughts and frustrations with us in a comment below!