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Every so often a keyboard stops working or acts up. It's tempting to look everywhere but at the most likely culprit: the keyboard itself.

The number '2' key stopped working. And when I type the 'Q' key, I sometimes get a 'a' instead. What am I doing wrong? Is there a setting I need to adjust?

It's a surprisingly common question - a key on the keyboard is acting up for some reason. There are several reasons that a key might not work, but a very large number of people fail to realize a very simple fact:

Keyboards can break.

When you think about it, your keyboard is perhaps the most exposed and abused piece of equipment related to your computer. It's full of many, many moving parts, and - whether you like to think about it or not - dirt. Lots of dirt. All sorts of "stuff" that falls between the keys and stays there.

Given that, and how we often abuse our keyboards (tell me you've never pounded on yours - I know I have!), it's actually amazing that they last as long as they do.

When they break, various things can start to happen. When an individual key stops working all together, it's fairly obvious. But when pressing one key results in multiple characters being "typed", or an entirely different character all together - physical problems with the keyboard are always suspect. A short in the wires beneath the keys can easily produce all sorts of wired behavior.

So... your keyboard starts acting up. What do you do?

I'd eliminate the "easy stuff" first - software can play a role in getting things confused.

"...it's actually amazing that they last as long as they do."

If your problem is around the Shift, Alt and Ctrl keys, you might want to check this article: Help! My Shift key is stuck!. There's an accessibility feature than can be enabled by mistake that changes the behavior of these keys.

If almost all your keys are producing the wrong characters, check out What's Dvorak, and why did my keyboard layout suddenly change? There are alternate keyboard layouts, and if your computer was mistakenly configured to use one of them, things can get very confusing very quickly.

If your keyboard seems to be typing on its own, this article might have a clue: Why does my computer go nuts sometimes? Voice recognition might be enabled and turning what your computer "hears" into keystrokes.

So what if none of those help?

Your keyboard might have a problem, or it might just be broken.

One of the things I often do is gently clean the keyboard with a little compressed air. Turn it upside down, or tilted to one side, I try and blow some of the crud out from underneath the keys. It can get fairly disgusting to see what's been in there if you haven't done it for a while, but this can sometimes remove dirt that is interfering with a key's operation

If that doesn't help, I always recommend shutting down, and then swapping the keyboard with another - or in the case of a laptop, plugging in an external keyboard. Assuming your replacement keyboard works, you now know that the problem is actually with your old keyboard itself. Keyboards are so cheap these days that replacing it is often your best bet.

If the problem doesn't go away even when you use a different keyboard, then it's fairly certain that it's your computer somehow. Unfortunately there are many places that could be a problem. The chances of any of them actually being "it" are pretty low, but at this point they're all you have left. They might include:

  • The keyboard interface on the motherboard

  • The USB interface for USB keyboards (often on the motherboard, or an add-in board

  • The computer's BIOS

  • The keyboard driver

  • anti-virus or anti-spyware software

  • conversely: viruses or spyware

  • Keyboard enhancement software, such as Intellipoint, keyboard macro tools, and the like

But in my experience the thing that most people overlook, that is in fact the most common cause of keyboard related problems is the keyboard itself.

Article C2848 - November 22, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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15 Comments
Simon
November 23, 2006 9:56 AM

Surprisingly, you can actually wash a keyboard in the dishwasher (or by hand). Avoid doing this with wireless keyboards, or anything fancy or complicated (e.g don't try it with those MS/Logitech models with lots of extra buttons and dials; or buckling-spring keyboards), but for a plain, bog standard PS2 membrane keyboard it should work fine.

Some tips:

- Don't wash it at too hot a temperature; plastic can warp.

- If you have a dishwasher with a 'heated dry' cycle, disable it; same reason as above.

- To dry the keyboard, take all the keys off* and just leave the body vertically or upside down for a good length of time - a few days - in a well-ventilated place, to ensure all the water has evaporated.

Good luck!

P.S. Don't try this with mice, or anything other than keyboards. And once again, don't try this with wireless keyboards.

(*Leo, don't blame me if you get a spate of questions in 3 days asking which keys go where on a keyboard...)

Simon
November 23, 2006 10:01 AM

Addendum: If you try this with a laptop, *do* just wash the keycaps and not the rest of the, err, "keyboard"...

Leo Notenboom
November 23, 2006 10:45 AM

Great if that worked for you, but .... wow. No way would I attempt that as anything other than an absolute last resort - just before I'd throw the keyboard away. I'd expect washing to do more damage than good, actually. However if it worked for you, I can't really argue with that. But ... wow.

Simon
November 23, 2006 11:21 AM

Addendum 2: for the pedants, when I said "a plain, bog standard membrane keyboard" I of course meant "a plain, bog-standard dome-switch keyboard".

Simon
November 23, 2006 11:29 AM

Sorry, Leo, didn't see your comment before posting the addendum. It's actually apparently quite common; Google throws up loads of people who've done it sucessfully. There's not really much it can damage in a normal keyboard -- they're pretty simple mechanically -- except if either the heat makes the plastic warp, or if for some reason you leave it several days without drying it, in which case it's possible for the metal 'tracks' to corrode. If you're really hardcore, if the latter happens, you could try patching them up with a high-graphite ('soft', 'black') pencil...

fred
November 24, 2006 6:20 PM

i did it,works great.also i put a fan on it to speed drying.

Terry Hollett
November 25, 2006 6:17 AM

I had a experience with juice being spilled on a keyboard. I turned the keyboard over and took out all those little screws on the bottom and then pried the board apart.

What I discovered, there where 3 sheets of plastic, one with printed circuits on, they where all gummed togther. Using alcohol rub I cleaned them all off and put it all together again.

Worked just fine after that.

Howard Rubin
November 26, 2006 12:25 PM

A less obvious problem may be at fault! Do you live in a 3rd world country? Check the voltage coming from your wall outlet. If it starts rising towards 300 volts your 220-115v transformer will not be able to cope and your computer will start doing crazy things. This is more likely to happen in a high salt environment. The transformers that are bought in 3rd world countries advertise the same benifits as a uninterruptable power source (UPS) however they provide absolutely no protection for your PC! I live in Fortaleza, the Northeastern corner of Brazil.

Steve
November 28, 2006 2:57 AM

The Q being swapped for an A might suggest that for some reason a non English keyboard layout has been selected in software somehow (AZERTY rather than QWERTY. I have two servers and they have different keyboards so I am used to the problem.

Cynthia Powell
January 6, 2009 12:08 PM

my first keybard, got the usual newbie thing. coffee on keyboard. I panicked, decided it was dead anyway so took it apart (another smart idea) and husband came home,found me rinsing the 409 I had sprayed on it with the hose at the kitchen sink. Now he knew less than I did about computers but is an electrician and the scream from him rattled my teeth. I just kept spraying (I knew more than he did which was zip) but made sense to me. Spill, wash, rinse, dry. Well, NO it didn't work but iti could have. Made sense to me. Yes, I'm blonde, yes I'm a woman, yes, I was brand new. Still made sense. No, it didn't work, it was sdead from the first splash of coffee. He never discusses the computer with me anymore. Now, as you suggessted, I just go buy another one. They do have a new one out now that is enclosed so nothing gets into it. I like the idea of that one.

Cynthia Powell
January 6, 2009 12:17 PM

What doesn't make sense is if my washing it didn't work why would you put it in the dishwasher? The best thing i see of that is the heat starting the drying process. My 409 would do the same thing I thought. I used a hairdryer after just in case i had invented something new in the world of computers. I have a stack of dead keeyboards knee high in the corner over there. Right there, nexnt to two huge monitors. Saving up for a flat screen monitor. I would never imagine putting it in the dishwasher. But whatever works is great. They are dead anyway, right?

Michael Chuzie
June 4, 2009 1:42 PM

Great page!

My laptop keys 1 q a z and the CAPS lock stopped working. I tried the driver and even swapped the keyboard but that is not the issue. I am certain this malfunction is occuring while in the bios setup too so I believe I have a hardware issue like the keyboard interface on the motherboard (mentioned above) but find it strage that only those few keys on that side of the keyboard do not work. Thoughts?

stevo
November 18, 2009 3:15 PM

I'm using a virtual keyboard because this morning i awake to find s, d, m & CTRL not working. As the day has progressesed about 25% more keys dont work at all. 'm running on an Acer Aspire 5735-4774 on Vista if it helps. I have rocess explorer and didnt find a darn thing. Also ran boot-time scan w/ Avast AND Malware-Bytes but can up with nothing. I even got desperate and tried some more anti-virus type programs but came up w/ nada. Please RESPOND EVEN if you can't help. Thanks! I have lot of anxiety so it would help. Here's my hijack this log to go with...

Logfile of Trend Micro HijackThis v2.0.2
[HijackThis Logfile Removed]

Mike Spencer
February 3, 2011 4:23 AM

I spilt a little coffee ( I take sugar) on my laptop & it caused terrible problems, even though it was only a few drops. Several keys would not work, or keep repeating. I turned the laptop off and turned it upside down, & took the battery out. After a day all was fine, except for the y key. Rather than plug an external keyboard in I usde the on screen keyboard to type the y. In Vista this is in accessories - Ease of Access.

This will suffice until I try to clean the y key underneath.

ollie
April 24, 2011 4:56 AM

all the keys on my laptop stopped working (not on this one) and i did all the things you said and it didnt work so i have taken it to a specialist and they said that it was buggered. they then gave me a new one and charged me like £300 for it when i looked up how much it was to get another company to repair it they said they could of done it for £50 no matter what they had to do. morel of the story always research before you send it off.

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