5 min read

Review: Get 'Hands-On' With Alternative Keyboards

Three models promise greater comfort, easier learning, and faster typing. But how well do they actually work?
New Standard's Non-Qwerty Keyboard

For weaning a typist off the cumbersome Qwerty keyboard method, I recommend the silver and black NSK 535 S, which can be had for just under $70 from its developer, New Standard Keyboards. The firm also offers a color-coded unit with the same layout.

Since 1936, the main alternative to Qwerty has been the Dvorak layout, in which the most common letters are placed on the middle row. Once you get used to the Dvorak keyboard, it's very fast. In fact, the world record in typing speed was achieved with a Dvorak unit. Yet the layout, at first glance, is seemingly as arbitrary as that of the Qwerty keyboard. As a result, the Dvorak keyboard remains a niche item.

The NSK 535 S attempts to get away from Qwerty without resorting go the Dvorak layout. In fact, the NSK's layout is both non-arbitrary and quite accessible. The layout is refreshingly straightforward and so logical, it would most definitely appeal to Star Trek's Mr. Spock: The keys are laid out in alphabetical order, starting with ABCD in the top left. As you can see in the photo below, the letters A to M are on the left, and N to Z are on the right. Navigation and shift keys are in the middle:

The NSK 535 S also has fewer keys than a standard keyboard—many fewer. Using special shift keys, each key produces as many as six responses: lower case, upper case, numbers or ordinals, symbols or less common punctuation, special function keys or additional symbols and numeric keypad emulation. This reduces the number of keys to 53 from the standard 104.

Also, this keyboard is small and compact. It measures just 4.5 inches deep by 12.2 inches long, as opposed to a standard 6.5 inches by 18 inches.

Alas, the NSK 535 S is not easy to adapt to. After using the keyboard for an hour, I was still typing at about mosquito-swatting speed. I had to visually sight each key before pressing it. The fact that they were in alphabetical order only indicated which side of the keyboard to look on for a particular key (A to M being on the left).

After four hours (over several days) of working with New Standard's keyboard, I did become acclimated to the layout. I even mastered the patterns involved in typing a few common words. At that point, I was typing at about 20 words per minute, or the classic untrained hunt-and-peck speed.

Basically, the ABCD layout proved to be no less workable than the Qwerty or the Dvorak layout. But obviously, a layout only makes sense when your fingers press the correct keys. Thanks to years of conditioning, Qwerty simply makes sense to my fingers. Trying to use the ABCD layout was, in a word, agony. Switching to this layout offered me no obvious benefits commensurate with the painful downtime.

While the keyboard's use of key combinations to reduce the number of keys did make the unit smaller, it didn't speed up my typing. For instance, making Number-Backspace the equivalent to Delete eliminated the need for a Delete key, but I believe that simply pressing Delete would be faster and certainly easier to remember. Sadly, the makers place the "cheat sheet" listing the key combination equivalents on the underside of the keyboard, where it was hardly convenient. In fact, I didn't even notice it initially.

On the other hand (pun intended), learning the ABCD layout in no way interfered with either my Qwerty typing conditioning or my overall typing performance. The two are separate modes; learning one did not mean unlearning the other.

Having said all that, there are plenty of people who are neither Qwerty touch-typists nor planning to become one. They will not balk at a new layout, and ABCD will be appealingly less arbitrary than Qwerty.

The ABCD keyboard would seem more suited to environments where speed typing is not such an issue, or where a keyboard layout isn't known in advance—perhaps for a beginner or a novice. Or, for example, if you're marketing lab equipment overseas, you might want to include a small control keyboard that doesn't assume Qwerty conditioning. Using the ABCD unit, users in Mongolia or Yemen could manage to reply to screen prompts as long as they were acquainted with the Roman alphabet. In fact, they could probably manage it faster than with a Qwerty unit.

In the end, it's important to realize there is no perfect keyboard; they all require training and practice. But there are alternatives to the standard issue Qwerty units that come with PCs. They have features that may prove valuable to specific users, while adding value to a system builder's business proposition. The key is making customers aware of alternative keyboards and the advantages they can offer.

LAMONT WOOD is a freelance writer in San Antonio, Texas, who has been covering technology for nearly a quarter of a century.