Comparing Portable Keyboards and Digital Pianos

Sometimes, the terms "portable keyboard" and "digital piano" are used interchangeably. While the term “electric keyboard” can be used to describe both, there are definite differences between portable keyboards and digital pianos. These differences come down to size, features, and cost.

Body and Keyboard Size

Hand on a keyboard
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  • Portable keyboards are just that, portable. They usually weigh less than 20 pounds. and have a smaller range, with 61-key and 49-key models being the most common. Optional keyboard stands may be offered with the instrument at an additional cost, but they can be played atop a table, and they are also easily storable.
  • Digital pianos are not unstorable, but they’re typically meant to sit atop a custom-fitted stand. They can weigh from 25 to 60 pounds and usually come with 61, 76, or 88 keys.

Keys and Sensitivity

  • Portable keyboard keys are notoriously light and plasticy compared to acoustic or digital pianos. Touch-sensitivity—which allows for a change in volume depending on how hard a key is pressed—may not be a feature. And polyphony, the ability to sound many notes at the same time, can be limited or omitted.
  • Digital piano keys are usually full-length and feel more like those of an acoustic piano. Some models even mimic the feel of a piano incredibly well, with keys that are heavier to the touch in the bass octaves (a feature known as “graded hammer-action”). Polyphony may range from 32 to 64 notes (sometimes more), and touch-sensitivity is often standard and adjustable.

Voices and Song Banks

  • Portable keyboards come with many (sometimes hundreds) of rhythms, built-in songs, and voices. These tend to include several varieties of pianos, organs, and woodwinds; bells and percussion; as well as a wonderfully random selection of sound effects. However, the voices of very inexpensive models can sound phony and electric, and speaker volume may be limited.
  • Digital pianos may only offer a few voices and might not contain any songs or rhythms at all. These voices usually sound pretty genuine (depending on brand and quality) and tend to be the staples: grand piano, harpsichord, strings, and jazz or pipe organ. Abridged sample songs may be included to preview these sounds.

Price Comparison

  • A portable instrument carries a lighter price tag, weighing in between $90 and $500, depending on size, brand, and features. The Casio WK-500, for example, is a 76-key option that costs around $200 to $300.
  • A digital set of keys can be found for as low as $300, but many fall in the $500 to $1,500 range. The most expensive digital piano—which is actually a grand piano/digital hybrid—will cost you a mere $20,000.

Bottom Line

Digital pianos are preferred as cost- and space-effective alternatives to an acoustic piano for performers, serious musicians, and avid amateurs. Portable keyboards are best-suited as beginner or practice instruments, or to sort out if the piano is for you or your child without a significant investment.