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7/26/2005
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Supercharged Pointing, Clicking, And Tapping

Still using that old-and-busted keyboard and mouse? Check out the new hotness: a world of innovative input devices.

Even if you don't remember the staccato "thwack" of type bars as they pounded letters and numbers into paper, you're still dealing with the typewriter's most important and unfortunate legacy: the computer keyboard. It also qualifies as one of the worst inventions of its time.



Remington Standard #2.
Courtesy of typewriter.rydia.net.
(click image to enlarge)
In 1871, when the first semblance of a modern typewriter appeared (manufactured by the Remington gun company), it had one flaw: Levers from adjacent keys had a tendency to jam together. The solution was to rearrange the letters so that those commonly used together were pushed as far away from each other as possible, effectively making typists slower but, at the same time, reducing the likelihood of two adjacent keys being used together. Such was the inglorious birth of QWERTY.

About 60 years after QWERTY, a redesign called the Dvorak layout -- named after one of the inventors, not the layout -- was attempted. This layout puts consonants on one side of the keyboard and vowels on the other. Their positions were optimized for English, so you alternate hands as you type. Dvorak users have claimed speeds in excess of 170 words per minute, but a thousand typing teachers and probably 100,000 existing QWERTY keyboards have done a good job of keeping it under wraps.

But wait, there's more! Lots more.

Ergo-Playland

At some point in the mid to late '80s, we all learned a new word -- ergonomics. It's the technique -- many say science -- of making the equipment fit the worker rather than the other way around. After a flurry of media attention, it caught on briefly with the production of some of the oddest-looking chairs and desks, monitor stands, keyboards, and mice ever built. While much of the hoopla has worn off, computing still sees its share of ergonomic devices.


Courtesy of Microsoft.
(click image to enlarge)

The Dvorak keyboard was one of the first ergonomic keyboards. Most famous, however, could well be the Microsoft Natural Keyboard. Gone was the rectangle, replaced by a somewhat wavy, somewhat amorphous shape that retained the QWERTY layout but split the block of keys down the middle and set them at an angle to each other. With the back tilted up and a pad or ledge for your wrist, this new key attack angle was meant to reduce repetitive stress problems.



Ergomatic Keyboard.
Courtesy of Ergo-Comp Systems.
(click image to enlarge)
Others soon jumped on the "natural" bandwagon and, over the years, the plain old natural keyboard has evolved into "Pro," "Elite," and other jazzy versions that add functionality as well as slightly modified designs. Is it a winner? To a limited degree. The "natural" is decidedly unnatural for hunt-and-peck typists; the key split takes a bit of getting used to; and all the extra functionality plumbed into them as they evolved is often distracting. Notably, many natural-style keyboard makers, including Microsoft, also offer several standard models as well.


Courtesy of Evoluent.
(click image to enlarge)

Vertical mice like Evoluent's fared a bit better. These rodents-come-lately look like hump-backed versions of their somewhat flatter brethren. The idea here is to return your hand and forearm to a vertical position, like a handshake, rather than the twisted, flat posture needed to use a standard horizontally oriented mouse. To that end, the mouse buttons are typically placed on one side, so your fingers fall naturally over them. Some vertical mice are even designed in a contoured, half-cup shape to hold your hand in the correct position for you. As with anything different, you'll need to retrain your reflexes a little.



Courtesy of SafeType.
(click image to enlarge)
There are even vertical keyboards such as the SafeType Ergonomic Keyboard that take the natural layout, put the keypad in the middle, fold the sides up, and put the typing keys on the outside of the fold. As with the vertical mice, the logic here is to keep your hands in a natural "handshake" position. As natural keyboards in general are easiest to learn by touch-typists, vertical keyboards might be best friends with touch-typists who've mastered natural keyboards.


Orbit Optical Trackball.
Courtesy of Kensington.
(click image to enlarge)

If you find yourself slamming your mouse against things while you're trying to navigate your desktop, it's probably time for a trackball. Borrowed from electronic video games, they've become ergonomic easements in their own right. Desktop trackballs have grown to near vertical mouse proportions with the ball no longer underneath the device but now transplanted toward the top, where your thumb would rest, and the buttons placed to one side under your finger tips. Forget mechanical. As with mice, trackballs are optical now.

Fear not that you'll be tethered to your computer with any of these alternatives. They are, more often that not, available in remote infrared or Bluetooth versions. Bluetooth is preferable, since infrared requires a general "line of sight" orientation between the transmitter and receiver.

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