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Keyboard Common Sense

We all know that the traditional QWERTY layout of the keyboards most of us use constantly is foisted upon us by the mechanical typewriters of yore. It seems that unlike bell bottoms and disco music, the QWERTY layout is here to stay. OK, so we'll suffer - even theoretically better layouts like the Dvorak layout are too radical for the massive installed base of keyboards. But have you ever thought about where the keys are in the layout? If you do, notice that none of the alphanumeric keys line up - that is, a line drawn vertically through the center of a key never touches the line from another key. The key arrangement doesn't even make sense, except for one thing - mechanical typewriters used levers for the striking mechanism. Press a key, and a lever jumped up and whacked the paper. The keys had to be laid out so the levers didn't run into one another. Made sense then, and we're stuck with it now.

Lest I be accused of not properly researching my articles, while back east in December, I checked out the manual typewriter my grandmother used in high school in 1937, and it was indeed designed as I said above. Perhaps the most interesting thing, though, was that manual typewriters had physical "tab stops," actual metal tabs that you could slide around. Pressing the Tab key then moved the carriage to that tab stop. The Tab key came over to the computer, but without those metal tabs, the name of the key makes no sense. Yet again, I guess we're stuck with it now.

However, on the numeric keypad, a relatively late addition, the keys are laid out in straight rows, and "10-key" speed can be extremely high. Thus, it would seem to make sense to lay out the alphanumeric keys in the same way. That's precisely what Richard Somers, of Somers Engineering, did with his EK1 Ergonomic Keyboard, which sports the alphanumeric keys in straight rows. Rather than completely reinvent a new keyboard, Richard reworked the alphanumeric module of a Datadesk Switchboard keyboard, which enables the user to move the keypad and cursor key modules around and has high-quality Alps switches with a nice IBM PC keyboard feel (lousy machine, great keyboard). The Datadesk Switchboard is compatible with the Mac and the PC, merely requiring a cable swap.

Richard sent me an EK1 to try, warning me that it is only for people already experiencing hand and wrist pain (those not in pain see no reason to do anything different). I still have some pain from carpal tunnel, and I had to go back to the mouse on my 660AV since the Curtis MVP Mouse trackball and footswitch doesn't work well on it (some timing issues with clicking - it's a damn shame that Curtis hasn't addressed this since it's a fine trackball) and using the mouse aggravated my right hand. [Update: the pain from using the mouse increased to the point where I dug out an old CoStar Stingray trackball to use instead. I don't like it nearly as much as the Curtis MVP Mouse, but it beats the mouse for my hands.]

It took me several hours before I was completely comfortable with the new key layout, and I think someone who touch types correctly would learn even faster. I tend to hit the b key with the wrong hand, it seems, and such mistakes are exacerbated by different layouts. However, a few hours of clumsy typing isn't bad, after which I was fully up to speed. The feel of the keys is indeed great, better for me than the feel of the keys on the Apple Extended keyboard that I use now.

After a week of using the keyboard in the standard configuration and liking it just fine, I tried moving the numeric keypad module to the left side of the alphanumeric module. I thought it would be great, since the mouse would be closer to my right hand. In fact, moving the module became a real problem, since I'm used to hitting the modifier keys based on relative location from the edge of the keyboard, and that didn't work any more. My hands were also confused when I entered numbers into Managing Your Money - which hand hits Tab and which hits Enter? I recommend trying such modifications carefully, especially since they limit your ability to move to another keyboard. Perhaps the worst problem was that after I moved the numeric keypad module, I kept hitting the Caps Lock key when I meant to hit Shift or Tab, and since the Switchboard lets you assign Caps Lock to be the Control key if you want, it's not a lock-down key and is too easy to hit. That drove me nuts.

The only other minor negative is that because of rearranging the keys into a straight layout, there are a few blank spaces at the edges that collect dust. Richard said that if he can go into mass production on the keyboard he'll use larger keycaps to eliminate some of those spaces.

Moving back and forth to a normal keyboard is a problem since your fingers learn the different layouts. Basically, if you buy one of these keyboards, you'll want to use it and it alone. The main people who will suffer in this respect are PowerBook users, who have little choice of keyboard layouts. To complete the test, I went back to the Apple Extended keyboard after about ten days, and after about an hour was fully comfortable on that keyboard again.

So what were the results? It's hard to say. I don't think my hands felt better while using the EK1, but they did feel slightly worse when I went back to using my Apple Extended Keyboard. That could have been due to the mouse, though, and I couldn't eliminate that factor. It's possible that I simply wasn't in sufficient pain to notice the difference. Richard said that responses from most users who were already in pain was highly positive, in contrast to healthy users, who were merely irritated to have to learn a new layout. It's amazing how open-minded pain can make you.

The straight layout makes sense, and it feels more efficient. I type rather quickly anyway, but don't particularly time myself. I know of no research that proves that the straight layout is better, although in this case I think Occam's Razor might be an appropriate rule to apply (when in doubt, choose the simplest case). The original key layout was not simple for a specific design reason. That reason no longer exists, and thus the layout no longer makes sense for any reason other than installed base. But since the EK1 is only a minor change, still using the QWERTY concept, it's far easier to use than a Dvorak keyboard or one of the more radical keyboards, such as a chording keyboard (although chording keyboards have the advantage of being a totally different skill set, so you don't lose the ability to type on a QWERTY layout if you use a chording keyboard). I won't say that the EK1 keyboard is for everyone, because it's not, but if you are in noticeable pain and only use one keyboard, it very well might be worth $348 (plus $10 shipping) to attempt to alleviate that pain. Somers Engineering offers a 30-day money back guarantee and a three year warranty.

Somers Engineering
3424 Vicker Way
Palmdale, CA 93551


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