Friday, October 12, 2007

Ode to a keyboard I came across this post and was moved to link it and wax prosaic on a subject near and dear to my heart fingers. For whatever reason, the humble keyboard is probably the piece of computer equipment that most people put the least thought into when purchasing a computer, and manufacturers -- with some notable exceptions -- pay as little attention to as possible. Which is odd because with the exception of the monitor it is the instrument with which we have the most direct interaction on a daily basis.

I recall first coming to the realization of the importance of the keyboard when a computer magazine columnist pretty much wrote the last two sentences of the previous paragraph probably 15 years ago. At the time, I was looking for a new laptop and had almost decided on one without ever having seen it firsthand (from magazine articles mostly, since the Internets didn't really exist except in simplified form back then). Happily, a local store had some and I tried one out. Good thing, too, because it had the cheapest, crappiest keyboard I had ever used. You had to really mash down on the keys to get them to work, but when you did that the whole keyboard area got squished down as well.

The first actual computer that I bought was a Leading Edge XT:

Which you can see in (almost) action in the pics I posted here. That one had the IBM-like keyboard that made the distinct clicking sound at a key press. We had communual office space back then and since we'd all bought the same computers, you would often walk in and hear the clickety-clack of three guys banging away. Ah, the sound of happy, productive graduate students.

BTW, not to start a flame war, but that was one reason I hated those early Macs. Despite their advanced user interface, does anyone look back fondly on those tiny toy keyboards?

I bought a Gateway 2000 486 after that and didn't care much for the keyboard. Too squishy. You could never really tell that you'd pressed a key. I also got a Toshiba laptop shortly thereafter, and that thing had a wonderful keyboard for a laptop. Not the clickety-clack kind, but it was truly a pleasure to use. My second Toshiba laptop had a similarly excellent keyboard, but the latest one (Toshiba) is truly awful. A lot of the keys need a heavy press to get them to work, so whenever I'm at home I'm constantly having to go back and reenter stuff. I think ThinkPads always had excellent keyboards, but they were always too pricey for me.

Anyway, my current work keyboard was bought for me by an employer probably ten years ago. It was about the time Microsoft changed from their "Ivory soap" mouse, which I am unable to find a photo of right now. They made a new "ergonomic" mouse which promptly started causing my right wrist to hurt like the dickens. I don't think it was carpal tunnel, but it sure hurt and made me need to pop the wrist joints a hundred times a day. It still needs to pop a lot to this day. I really liked the TrackPoint mouse on my Toshiba, so I had them buy me a true IBM keyboard with the TrackPoint embedded in it. It's much like this one, except with the TrackPoint:

Most people don't like TrackPoints; they prefer either a normal mouse or a track pad. I think it's one of the most natural things in the world. You don't have to move your hands from the keyboard and it's pretty darn accurate. But back to the keys: they're still the same old heavy spring kind the original post above talks about. You really know when you've hit a key. Plus, you know, even if you're typing emails to friends, everyone else in the office thinks you're working up a storm. I have yet to have to buy a new keyboard, as this one is going strong, and various employers have allowed me to, first, take this one with me when I left, and, second, plug it in and use it. I imagine some day it will give up the ghost, and I hope there will still be someone selling both the clickety-clack and TrackPoint type. Heck, hopefully this one will last until we can talk at them like HAL.