Tool of the trade

Since I spend a good portion of my day on a keyboard, its design is important to me, and especially important is the specific placement of the keys. I have five laptops in my home right now, three that I no longer use because the hard drive is too small, the screen is cracked, or some other issue, one Mac Book Pro that I use only for video editing, and my current machine, a Dell Studio XPS.

All of these machines have served me well and have offered me a variety of excellent features, but for me, the most important feature of all on any laptop is the placement of certain keys on the keyboard: Page Up, Page Down, Home, End, Shift, and most especially, Delete. Though it makes no sense, these keys are located and sized differently for each of my laptops, even though all but the Mac are made by Dell.

The Mac does not have a delete key, of course, but instead relies on the user to use Backspace in its place. This is annoying and stupid and one of the reasons I do not write on this machine. The lack of the second track pad button, providing me with the ability to right-click, is the other.

Steve Jobs needs to get over his issue with buttons.

The keyboard on my current machine is my favorite by far, with the Delete key located in the top right corner, easy to find and strike, and all the other important keys (PgUp, PgDn, etc.) stacked along the right-hand side of the keyboard, also easy to find. The keyboard is also backlit, and being a person who types with four-six fingers at a time and often is forced to look at the keyboard while doing so, this is a great feature.

Lenovo recently came to understand the importance of keys like Delete and made a change in their keyboards, the first significant alteration in years. Recognizing that Delete and Esc are used quite frequently, they increased the size of these keys. This has led to a decrease in accidental tapping of the keys surrounding these two and improved efficiency and speed, at least in the tests they conducted.

This is good, since the keyboard is actually designed to be inefficient. In the nineteenth century, when the original keyboards were being designed, fast typing would jam typewriters, so the keyboard layout was designed to purposely reduce a typist’s speed. This is why the “A” key, for example, was placed on the far left of the keyboard. If the keyboard was designed for speed, more frequently used keys would be centered in the middle of the keyboard, but a quick look at the keyboard shows you that this is not the case.

This is exceptionally frustrating for those of us in the twenty-first century who have keyboards that can now keep up with the fastest of typists, yet with no way of improving the design of the keyboard. Imagine if the tool you used most often at work was specifically designed to slow you down.

A hammer that misses the nail every fourth time.

A thermometer that requires you to take a patient’s temperature three times and average the totals.

A computer program that inexplicably shuts down once an hour. Well, many of us suffer with this already.

But despite its poor design, my biggest complain in terms of the keyboard is the Caps Lock key, which has always been the largest key on my keyboard (save the space bar). For those of us who do not always look up when typing, it can be exceptionally frustrating when you finally take a peek at the screen and see that the last 400 words have been typed in capital letters. From what I understand, Caps Lock is important to programmers, database managers, medical staff, and other work-specific tasks, but do we really need to keep this extra-large button alongside the second most frequently used letter in the alphabet? Are people really switching Caps Lock off and on with a rapidity that requires the key to be so prominently placed on the keyboard and with such great size?