Review: Get 'Hands-On' With Alternative Keyboards - InformationWeek
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10/27/2006
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Review: Get 'Hands-On' With Alternative Keyboards

Three models promise greater comfort, easier learning, and faster typing. But how well do they actually work?

The computer keyboard is the weakest link in the entire user interface. The standard Qwerty keyboard—named for the keys in the top left row—is a legacy from the original invention of the typewriter nearly 150 years ago. Letters that are frequently typed (such as E, A, and I) were separated on the keyboard as a way to prevent the typewriter's keys from jamming. By the time fast typing was developed and made a requirement for clerical jobs, Qwerty's installed base was too huge to jettison. The invention of the PC in the '80s cemented Qwerty position.

For bold system builders and users, third-party keyboards now exist that can make up for Qwerty's drawbacks. Some condition the user to their improve touch-typing using Qwerty, while others dispense with the Qwerty layout altogether.

System builders who include such unique keyboards to their products and services catalog can offer increased value to customers, at least customers who are open to unconventional alternatives. One caveat, however: You will have to work personally with these alternative keyboards before you can proficiently offer advice about them. They're not intuitive—but then, neither is typing on a standard keyboard.

In this Recipe I review three representative examples of alternative keyboards: ergonomic, training, and a non-Qwerty.

Microsoft's Ergonomic Keyboard

When it comes to better comfort, I recommend you check out the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 from Microsoft. It sells through retailers for around $50.

Microsoft did a great job designing this unit ergonomically. For starters, the layout is divided into two banks of keys, as you can see in this photo:


The two banks are slanted 24 degrees away from each other to accommodate the angle of the user's wrists as they reach the keyboard from the sides of their body. Also, the two banks of keys slope upwards towards the center in a 14-degree gable, to reduce the rotation of the user's wrists.

There's a detachable foot under the front of the unit to give the keyboard a 7-degree downward slope toward the front of the unit. This is said to be more natural when used on a comparatively low table, when the user's arms will be sloping downward. This slope can also be removed to let the keyboard lay flat. Folding feet in the front of the unit to produce a conventional upward tilt, which is supposed to be better when used on a comparatively high table, when the user's arms will be sloping upward. There's also a sizeable wrist rest pad for comfort and reduced strain.

When pushing the keys on Microsoft's unit, I found the response comfortable and quiet, as if the idea was to cushion the fingers.

Beyond ergonomics, there are customizable hot keys, a zoom slider on the ridge between the two banks of keys, and back and forward buttons for Internet browser control. Incidentally, these last features require you to first install driver software from a CD.

While this keyboard was certainly comfortable, I found touch-typing to be rather uncomfortable. The keyboard's layout modifications were just enough to throw me off. I found myself looking at my hands the whole time to make sure they were placed correctly. While typing got easier with practice, even after a week, my typing speed was still about a sixth slower than with a clunky, noisy, non-ergonomic keyboard.

To be sure, there are plenty of people out there who don't touch-type. For them, typing is automatically tiring. The Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 should reduce their fatigue. Also, a boss (your customer) who supplies such a unit will be demonstrating concern and reasonable care for the welfare of his or her office workers, and perhaps mitigate the impact of any future repetitive stress injury lawsuits. For that, the unit's price of just $50 is a bargain.

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