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There are a number of promising features about the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard, and it may be a very good thing for many people, but I decided against using it for a number of reasons – which might also be relevant for other people.
There are at least two generations or models of the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard. The one I bought in September 1999 has a different cursor, Insert and Delete key arrangement from the accepted standard. Its name, moulded into the case, is "Natural Keyboard Elite". It has PS/2 and USB interfaces, not the standard AT 5 pin DIN connector. Quite what the model number is, I don't know – there are numbers all over the place, but I think they refer to the stickers and packaging.
According to the packaging, the relevant URL is http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/ . However (at least on 14 Sept 1999) I preferred to access this with MS Internet Explorer, because it generally stalled and then crashed Netscape 4.61 under Windows and stalled Netscape 4.6 under Linux.
From there I got to a keyboard section: http://www.microsoft.com/products/hardware/keyboard/ .
My keyboard came in a carton with a plain red background, rather than the textured orange background of the box shown at the web site. The packaging of my keyboard said nothing about the 30 day money back guarantee mentioned in the web site. My keyboard was made in Mexico. The packaging and quality of the keyboard is excellent.
I know that earlier versions of the Microsoft ergonomic keyboard had the normal arrangement of keys. Click here to see a picture of one. The new arrangement seems to be driven by the desire to reduce the width of the whole keyboard, but this can only save 20 mm or so at most. If I had realised that the key arrangement was different, I probably would not have bought it. It is one of those all-too-common computer-gotchas: you buy the latest version of a well established product and find that it has some new-fangled design feature which detracts significantly from its value.
A friend who was working intensively all day on the one computer highly recommended this keyboard, so I bought it for AUD$75 (~USD$50). Another friend had told me he gave up after trying one, but I did not remember why. Now I think I know.
I do a lot of my work with computers, so ergonomic issues are important – for productivity, health and happiness.
Around May 1999 I did develop some wrist strain and potentially the beginnings of carpal tunnel syndrome (see: http://www.sechrest.com/mmg/cts/ctsintro.html ). The immediate cause was several hours of intense handwriting into the wee-small-hours as I tried to solve some nasty technical problems with the need to re-design two memory boards of mine. The background was a lot of typing – mainly email correspondence. I took it easy for a while and it is no longer a problem, but this episode certainly made me concerned, since I can't earn my living if I can't type or do electronic work.
A year or two ago, I looked at an earlier version of this keyboard, but rejected the idea of buying it because its keys were little different from the flaccid, dead keys which are found on most keyboards these days.
This new model has what I consider to be an excellent key action. Significant force is required to displace the key initially, and after that, a smaller force is required to hold it down.
I think the average PC keyboard which most people use these days is rubbish. The keys have little or no "positive" action. By this, I mean that there is an even or increasing force required to displace them. The best action is where a larger force is required to displace them a little, but then a smaller force holds them down. The original IBM XT (and AT) keyboards had such an action. It was very noisy, since the switch involved a little paddle of conductive plastic slapping down on the capacitive sensitive circuit-board. (The tiny "Enter" key on those XT keyboards was a disgrace!)
I don't like keyboards with "Windows" keys either, as explained below.
Over the years I have collected a number of my preferred keyboard: the Nan Tan KB-6251EA. These were made in Taiwan between about 1987 and 1991. They are a compact 101 key AT/XT keyboard – the case is no bigger than it needs to be. The earlier ones had screen printed key legends, but the later ones were double-shot moulded – so the legend is moulded as part of the key in black plastic and can never wear off.
The distinguishing feature of these keyboards is that they use a complex and costly ALPS mechanical keyswitch. Each switch has ten or so components. It has an excellent action, although it is a bit heavy for some people's tastes. To me, it is important that the keys don't move if your fingers simply rest on them. These keyboards are rather noisy compared to most modern keyboards.
The keyswitches are very reliable and I have been using these old keyboards exclusively since about 1993. The have a large "Enter" key, shaped like a back-to-front "L". The backspace key is small and to the left of it is the "|" and "\" key. Many keyboards, including the Microsoft one, put that key under an enlarged backspace key and make the "Enter" key smaller.
I use the right fingers for the right keys, but am not a really accurate "touch typist". I used to look at the keys a lot, but with all the writing I have done in the past few years, I only do this when pressing number keys or some other keys than for plain text.
My computers at present are:
I don't currently run a laptop, Mac or other kind of computer.
- Main Windows 98 machine: K6 200 MHz with a largish Hitachi monitor running at 1152 x 864. Logitech Marble+ trackball (PS/2 interface with the marvelous scroll wheel.).
- Pentium Pro 233 MHz Linux machine. Eizo monitor 1024 x 768. Logitech Marble trackball. (PS/2 interface) (It takes some work to get X applications to respond to the scroll-wheel of the Marble+, and I haven't done this yet.)
- Dual-boot Win98/Linux PPro 180 MHz machine with Daewoo 1024 x 768 display. Totally antique white and grey Logitech Trackman from 1989.
- One or two other Linux server machines which have keyboards plugged in, but no monitor except when I am setting them up. One the operating system is installed, I control these via Telnet, so their keyboards are hardly ever used.
The split keyboard arrangement is very natural to use, once you get used to it. It didn't take long – an hour or so of use. This is the primary benefit of this keyboard. In my week or so's experience with it, I thought that it was a benefit well worth fighting for. However, I am not convinced that the more natural resting of the fingers and easier access to the keys makes that much difference to the ergonomic disaster that any QWERTY keyboard is. (The key arrangement was developed by Remington ages ago deliberately to slow down typists so as to avoid the jamming of typewriter hammers. They probably did it quite arbitrarily in an hour or two, since the top line of keys is an anagram of "typewriter".) The action of the key switches is positive and light. Also, the key switch action is very quiet. (This would be big issue in an office with many people working together.) The "Num Lock", "Caps Lock" and "Scroll Lock" (who uses this these days, and what did it ever do?) LEDs are in the middle of the keyboard, instead of off to the right where they are not noticed. (I modified my Nan Tan keyboards to put a red LED next to the "Caps Lock" key, because I often accidentally hit it and the LED helps me notice this.)
I found the new arrangement of the main alphabetic keys very good, and quite easy to learn. However the primary reason I am abandoning this keyboard is because learning it upsets my use of ordinary keyboards. I don't have an MS split keyboard on every computer I use, and there are technical reasons why I couldn't even if I wanted to. I found myself making lots of mistakes with an ordinary keyboard – unless I slowed down and looked at the keys!!!
The same problem exists for the re-arranged cursor keys and the re-arranged Insert and Delete keys.
While it is true that I could learn to use two kinds of keyboard, it is stressful to have to think of which keyboard I am using. The last thing I want is to be losing efficiency and comfort with ordinary keyboards - but it seems that that is the result of becoming comfortable with the split keyboard design. This is no reflection on Microsoft, or any other designer of improved keyboards. It would not be a problem for something which was very different from a keyboard, such as the one-handed devices or the two/one handed "Data Hand" listed below.
If I decide that the benefits of these split keyboards are worth it, and especially if I can find some with good keys and a standard key layout, which I can connect to all my computers, then I might consider using them.
Here are some links of interest. I am not trying to develop the definitive link-farm in these fields.
- http://www.keyalt.com/kkeybrdp.htm Repetitive Strain Injuries - The Hidden Cost of Computing.
- http://www.sechrest.com/mmg/cts/ctsintro.html Diagrams and explanation of carpal tunnel syndrome.
- http://www.tifaq.com This is supposedly the home of the Typing Injury FAQ, but when I tried, the server did not exist.
- http://www.ergonomics.com.au/ergolinks.htm Large link farm for ergonomics.
- http://www.esmerel.org/misc/onehand.htm Keyboards, software and other resources for one-handed people.
Some other ergonomic keyboards, or alternatives to keyboards:
- http://www.datahand.com/ <<<< Check out this "Data Hand"! It is not a keyboard at all – the fingers stay in one place! Zero hand movement, built-in pointing device ("mouse"). Looks expensive, but excellent. This would have the advantage of not interfering with normal keyboard habits, whilst most of these re-designed keyboards really must make it more difficult to use a normal straight QWERTY keyboard. Works with PCs, Macs, Silicon Graphics . . .
- http://wearables.www.media.mit.edu/projects/wearables/keyboards.html Media Lab listing of interesting devices, including a 7 button hand-held "data-egg" which is apparently suitable for use in the field by emergency personnel.
- http://www.handykey.com/ The Twiddler: a one handed tilt-"mouse" keyboard replacement.
- http://www.mbhs.edu/~ojenkins/wearable/fiddler.html Hackers only clone of the Twiddler for wearable computing applications.
- http://www.keyalt.com/kkeybrdp.htm <<<< Distributes lots of different keyboard designs. Be sure to look at these. My list of keyboards cannot possibly be kept up to date, but retailers such as these will list the major currently available products.
- More retailers with large range of keyboards and one-handed input devices: http://www.infogrip.com/ , http://www.safecomputing.com/keyboards.html (See the photos of the BAT one handed keyboard: http://www.safecomputing.com/onehandedkey.html .
- http://www.ergointerfaces.com/Welcome.htm Seriously split keyboard! One half on each arm-rest of your chair.
- http://www.dmb-ergonomics.com/maxim.htm Variable split keyboard.
- http://www.teleprint.com/ Split, deeply sculpted keyboard with numeric pad in the middle.
- http://www.ergopro.com/ Split straight, but partially re-designed, keyboard.