Keyboard rants

It is 2015-01-20, and I'm still using an old-fashioned keyboard, despite everyone and their touchscreens and the occasional mouse. I believe it is the right tool for a lot of jobs, along with the mice and touchscreens; no single one of them can properly replace the others.

Touch typing

An immensely valuable skill, the teaching of which seems to be in decline despite its ever-growing potential. I took a typing class at junior high school, at a time when I was not that seriously into either writing or computers. It was almost an accident, as the art class was already full, but it changed my life for good in many ways. I guess such courses are considered too secretarial for the modern digi-native computer whiz who dreams of hacking the NSA with an iPhone.

In 2014, there was a national controversy as the Finnish board of education decided to phase out the teaching of cursive handwriting, in favour of print and typing. A common argument in favour of cursive was the development of fine motor skills; how exactly does cursive fare against touch typing, where you learn to use all of your 10 fingers in concert? As a musical keyboardist myself, the pun is intended on more than one level. (Touch typing is called "ten-finger system" in Finnish, highlighting motor skills and speed over "blind" tactile use.)

Starting in the early 00s, I have witnessed a gradual exodus of Home/End and PageUp/PageDn keys, particularly in smaller laptop-style keyboards. My hunch is that this is due to the proliferation of scroll wheels in mice, as well as scrolling gestures in touchpads and touchscreens, which can replace their functions to some extent.

Of course, the replacement is far from perfect. First, there are no equivalents of Home/End at all. Also, PageUp/PageDn generally moves an entire height of the visible screen, while scrolling is a much more gradual process. Scrolling adds a useful fine-tuning function, but doesn't exactly obviate the coarse ones. Besides, in the olden days we used the up/down arrow keys for an equally fine effect.

I am certainly not condemning scrollwheels — I use them myself whenever available — but I believe their existence reveals a profound misunderstanding of computer technology. With traditional mice and a keyboard with arrow keys, you already have two somewhat redundant methods for controlling spatial movements. There are substantial differences, basically in that arrows only provide relative/directional control, while a mouse can give an appearance of absolute positional control.

A scroll wheel, in this sense, is basically a second set of up/down keys. The whole idea of a computer is that you use the same hardware for countless different tasks, and don't just add extra keys willy-nilly for each job. To me, the scroll wheel reeks of appliances.

As a result, Home/End/Pgup/Pgdn keys are no longer available in many keyboards (except possibly by Fn modifiers), and the arrow keys are also shrinking to the point of being unusable. I sometimes wonder if this is simply down to the WIMP interface craze that started in the 1990s, where traditionally text-mode interfaces are constantly replaced by graphics and pointers even in places where they don't make sense. I look forward to the day when people no longer use keyboards, but instead they have mice with 100 buttons. Oh, and the mice will probably have scrollwheels within scrollwheels within scrollwheels to control that one tiny sub-page in a website.

Side note: Of mice and men

Many early mice had three buttons. The number is likely to originate in simple ergonomics: you need one finger on each side to move the mouse around effectively, so you're left with three on the top. Three is the number of buttons on a mouse, and the number of mouse buttons shall be three. The Unix saw it was good.

As companies like Apple and Microsoft later marketed their versions of mice for their microcomputers, they only had one or two buttons, presumably to avoid overwhelming users. However, when you count the functions on current mice from the same companies, the number is way beyond three, so how did that happen?

Meanwhile, the Unix user still finds a good balance in 3-button mice. In fact, this discussion is all about the Unix philosophy; adding genuine functionality is no excuse to mess up the big picture.

Case in point: some music-related programs use mock rotary knobs in their graphical interfaces. IMHO, scrollwheels are the best way to control them — there the physical rotary action makes a whole lot of sense, as opposed to reading pages of text, for example. However, the mock rotary knob is a very non-computing element to begin with. It would be great in a proper 3D tactile display or a virtual reality environment, but on a regular 2D screen it's just asking for trouble. In general, using extensive physical analogies on computers is not only awkward, but also very limiting — a computer can do much more than what's immediately visible.

A truly unfortunate side effect of the scrollwheel is making middle clicking particularly unergonomic, as the wheel generally doubles as the middle button. To click without accidental scrolling, you generally need to bend and tense up your middle finger. This becomes doubly hard with side-scrolling wheels, and the perceived extra functionality becomes a real burden.

[2015-02-05] As the issue was recently brought on up Slashdot, I ordered myself a Scrollpoint Mouse featuring a traditional middle button. It's pretty nice to have a real middle button again, while the trackpoint provides a non-intrusive option for scrolling. The blue LED on top is just idiotic, though, not to mention a health hazard — I disabled it for good by scratching off a PCB trace.

Number pad issues

I've never gotten into the habit of using the numeric keypad. If you swear by one, then more power to you. To me, the number pad is just an annoyance that costs more and takes up valuable space. The space issue is especially bad for being on the right side, where right-handed people might want to hold something more important, such as a teacup, or perhaps a mouse. It is doubly bad on those laptops that choose to include one, while neglecting the quality of other important keys, such as the aforementioned navigatory ones.

[2017-10-29] I recently got a laptop with a (kind of) number pad, basically dictated by other hardware choices. While it improves on most numeric laptops with a proper arrow T, I feel the number pad is underused; with the usual Num Lock function, some of the keys double as Insert etc., but the layout is very different from the classical layout. There, you get Home/End/PgUp/PgDn at somewhat logical places, and they can be used without modifiers once Num Lock is off. But the Legion uses the modern design of having these on the arrow keys with the Fn modifier. The Num Lock idea is being underused, as several number-pad keys lack the classical second functionality. So by ignoring this piece of history, they are wasting valuable laptop real estate.

Mouse-keyboard combinatorics

The mouse and the keyboard are both wonderful tools for different jobs. If you have two healthy hands, why not leverage the synergy of using both of them simultaneously?

In the late 1990s, I came across this crazy idea of mousing on your "wrong" (left) hand. Later when I actually took it up, it was a revelation in ergonomics: if you're right handed, chances are the right hand is more dexterous on the keyboard, so let it stay on the keyboard. Conversely, the left hand is actually more spatially oriented, being more closely tied to the "spatial" brain hemisphere (think of guitarists and violinists, for example).

This effect is particularly notable as the oft-used navigation keys are on the right side of the keyboard, so the right hand can stay around its natural location.

Perhaps most importantly, though, a mouse on the left is much closer to the main typing area of a keyboard. Remember what I said about the number pad taking up valuable space? At least this provides a workaround for the mouse.

The idea of putting everything important to the right-hand side vastly underestimates the natural ambidexterity of most humans. Another note about developing fine motor skills is probably in order.

National layouts vs. programmers' punctuation

Around 1999, I was experiencing a collusion of major new ideas. I was living in Great Britain, I installed Linux, and I started to program seriously. As a result, I soon realized how much the Finnish-Swedish layout sucks for programming and other serious computer uses. The reason has to do with punctuation characters. I have used the UK layout on my machines ever since, though I still do a lot of writing in Finnish.

A lot of punctuation characters are used in programming (and any vaguely involved computing task, such as typing HTML and using a Unix shell). In my experience, there are a few simple guidelines that make typing them tolerable:

For typing Finnish there are several solutions:

The one thing I keep wondering is: the FI-SE layout needs three extra letters (å, ä and ö) compared to the US and UK layouts. This means 3 punctuation characters that must be relocated, possibly necessitating an extra modifier key (the basic US layout has no AltGr). Why did they have to mess up the entire layout for just 3 keys? I guess the British can ask the same thing; you don't need all these changes just to add the pound (£) sign.

It's really just a historical accident that I now use the UK layout instead of US, which is closer to a default standard in computing. (For example, all the keyboards I used at CERN had the US layout.) The differences are not important to me, though in some ways the UK one is closer to FI-SE, for example when it comes to the quotes; IMHO, the US layout is more logical in having the two kinds together.

Of course, what's printed on the keycaps has little to do with the layout you choose to use. I have a mix of FI-SE, UK and US keyboards, and the technical differences are minuscule — though they do exist:

Physical layout differences

Keys are sized and grouped differently for a reason. For example, I use the Function keys a lot, and I appreciate the traditional grouping into fours for quick tactile access. The single row of Fs in Apple keyboards, for example, may look nice and solid while being utterly unergonomic.

Thinkpad keyboards are some that take these ideas to a careful extreme, for example by having larger Del and Esc keys that are easier to hit. Their Home/End/PgUp/PgDn section is also nice, even though laptop limitations make the whole very different from desktops.

Tall Enter

One thing I like about FI-SE keyboards: the Enter key that is relatively narrow and tall, spanning two rows between Shift and Backspace. I've often seen this in UK keyboards too, but never in US — they always have the flat home-row Enter.

It seems to be one of those religious issues to some, and I agree it takes a while getting used to, either way. But in a true ranting spirit, I will now explain why the Tall Enter is absolutely better. The reason IMNSHO is that Enter is not just any key; you generally write a brief passage using any-keys, and then you commit that line, once and for all, for better or worse, by pressing Enter. It signifies the edge between your comfortable typing area and the great unknown. The US-style single-row Enter mingles easily with ordinary, mortal keys like Shift; the Tall Enter means business.

Moreover, the Tall Enter doesn't exactly cover the Pipe key, it just moves it around slightly — thus bringing it closer to other keys for a more compact whole.

That extra European key

European keyboards have an extra key between Left Shift and Z, thus making the Shift smaller. This makes is impossible to fully use European layouts on a US keyboard. (The Tall Enter end only moves one key around.) With my recent Jagor's US layout, I first mapped the nearby Windows key to this, but eventually it just made sense to use the US layout as-is.

All in all, you should now understand why I prefer the UK layout. It has the proper physical layout from Europe with the proper punctuation layout from the US.

Mechanical vs. mushy

This is an obligatory section in every self-respecting keyboard rant. Alas, I have little to comment on it, having only just ordered my first mech. So far I've been mostly happy with the cheap and basic keyboards. A couple of them have been way too mushy for anything serious, but I generally like the light feel of not having to pound the keys down in a mechanical typewriter style (which has happened with one unfortunate laptop).

[2015-02-04] I got the Jagor Titon 80 last week, and it's no instant revelation in keyboarding, but I think I'm on to something here. Obviously, the different feel takes a while getting used to, but whenever I go to other machines/keyboards they just feel, well, mushy. Even my trusty old IBM Space Saver started to show its soft side once I got to know what real, honest keyboarding is like. So far, it feels a little like the first time on a grand piano; that awkward feeling of using too much force, when the keys are more sensitive than ever before, and thus making much more noise than intended.

Noise is indeed one downside. I ordered one with Brown switches for a compromise between proper typing feel while avoiding the click-clack, and it's still somewhat noisy for other reasons: The plastic keyparts hitting each other when keys are (needlessly) fully depressed, plus afternotes of the metal switching parts after keys are lifted. I believe there is plenty of room for improving the former issue, perhaps using some kind of cushioning, as there is really no need for full down-contact with these switches. I'm also a little worried about metal fatigue.

Laptop layouts

Take everything that's Wrong With Keyboards™ so far, add space constraints in all three dimensions (low vertical travel seems to correlate with bad ergonomics), and bind the user of this machine to this keyboard for all eternity. This is what you get with laptop keyboards, thus making them one of the most crucial factors when choosing a portable.

The thing about laptop keyboards is that everything else can be made smaller — even a screen can be relatively small and still very usable, as witnessed by everyone glued to their 4'' phones and tablets. However, your hands aren't getting any smaller, so the tactile interface makes a real lower limit to size.

The space constraints mean that laptop keyboards should be designed with a lot of care — there's literally no room for errors. Unfortunately, it seems that most laptop buyers are stuck with two kinds of bad option: a minimal Apple-style layout, or a nominally full layout with a number pad. The latter is particularly bad for two reasons:

Please, would someone take the huge space of a 15..17'' laptop and use it for better keys, not just more keys?

Meanwhile, Thinkpads have some of the nicest laptop keyboards around. The Trackpoint is a nice bonus, along with Free software compatibility. With other brands, there's probably little choice besides trying before buying.

Risto A. Paju