Pushing The Right Buttons

Keyboard (courtesy of Serif)

Keyboard (courtesy of Serif)

It may sound slightly obsessive but my search for the ideal keyboard is more drawn out than my search for the perfect pen.

The fashion today, often wrongly attributed to Apple, is for the flat, minimalist, chiclet keyboards which were originally applied to cheaper home computers in the 70s and 80s but made popular more recently by Sony’s Vaio laptop range however the best keyboards I’d used were classic IBMs. The first PC I owned myself was a 486DX based IBM, a huge beige box with a battered compact keyboard, a version of the PS/2 keyboard (the model M2, or so I’ve just been informed by Google Image Search). I also own an earlier IBM too though I’ve not actually used it.

It was a great keyboard to use and since then the only keyboard that came close to it was a cheap one that cost less than a fiver from Argos (it was replaced when my new PC came without PS/2 ports – I couldn’t find an adaptor).  This was true until a few days ago when the Lenovo one I’m using now was delivered which I bought because it’s one of the descendants of those IBM PS/2s.   You can tell.

One important aspect of a keyboard is comfort and this is lacking in most modern keyboards, the Lenovo for example has good key travel, good cushioning and good return response which results in comfortable typing over long periods without numb fingertips while still retaining a pleasing clicking sound which is subtle and low-pitched, a kind of burble when you’re typing quickly which is almost a vocalisation of the words you’re pouring into the on-screen page. I also find that the tall key caps mean you hit two keys at once less often, the one you’re just touching stays put and guides your finger down with the one you were aiming for. These are the qualities I liked with the IBM keyboards and had been missing in the many others I’ve tried over the years. Modern flat keyboards are all very well but many can be less accurate, harsher or squishier, just not as satisfying to use for long periods, even if by the same token many are, to be fair, really quite good – I own one bluetooth one for the Nexus 7 which has a nice clicky feel to it but even that’s just not the same.

Of course there are the even more expensive keyboards with the same kind of mechanical keyswitches that old keyboards possessed which are beloved of gamers for their millisecond accuracy but I don’t need that level of sophistication.

Keyboards like the Lenovo aren’t pretty or cool and minimalist but they work, and despite being low-cost they don’t sacrifice comfort and accuracy and that’s what’s important. The daft thing is that they’re so old-fashioned looking they’re at risk of becoming popular as retro tech.

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Too Clever?

English: A woman typing on a laptop Français :...

English: A woman typing on a laptop Français : Une femme travaillant sur un ordinateur (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some modern software annoys me because it tries to be too clever and as a result it ends up being slow, or a pain to use.  Take the software I use to quickly crop images or convert to mono – in order to get to the image I want to edit it insists on showing me the contents of the folder the image is in, and all the subfolders and the folders around it, all indexed, tagged, thumbnailed and so on.  If there’s a lot of images it can be a while before you can double-click the one you want, especially if it keeps moving around the screen as it arranges the other images it finds into date order like some overly nervous assistant who’s just dropped all your pictures on the floor.  The problem is that I haven’t found a way to change this behaviour yet.

Then there’s autocorrect in many programs which insists on changing two initial capitals into title-case, or inserts a capital where you’ve used lower case because it assumes you’re just a sloppy typist, which I might be, sometimes.  EXcept when I’m typing a POSTCODE.  (WordPress thankfully doesn’t have this yet.)  Oh, and the annoyance when you start typing a chapter and the first line contains the chapter number, after typing a few paragraphs you look up and find that they’ve all been turned into a numbered list.

I know this is all useful for beginners and it can all be turned off somehow but these things were all there in the past but they weren’t automatic, people read the manuals, we created lists on the fly as required, in the very old days we indented lists after typing them and proof-read what we’d we’d written.  Yes.

Often too software is locked down to prevent novice users changing settings that they’re not supposed to even know exists and for those of us who can and like to tinker with the settings that’s annoying too.  What we need is a little switch that says novice/experienced which switches on an old-fashioned, go find it yourself mode, put it behind a “here be dragons” warning like Firefox’s about:config page if necessary but at least give us something to turn off the pseudo-intelligence in one go.

In my own experience it’s more frustrating finding a way around the automatic stuff than finding out how to do these things as you go but as more software is designed for inexperienced users to use without needing to read instructions it can only get worse.