I finally saw Apple’s new ergonomic keyboard, the Apple Adjustable Keyboard. Its innovative features include the ability to open in the middle to up to a 30 degree angle, splitting the standard QWERTY layout (ISO for European users) so the 6, Y, H, and N keys sit on the right-hand side of the split. The space bar remains stationary in the middle and is enlarged for ease of use no matter what the keyboard’s orientation (I approve of this since the space bar is the most commonly used key). The keyboard includes detachable palm rests and a separate extended keypad which can sit on the right or left side of the keyboard, attached by a short ADB cable. The numeric keypad offers function keys on its left side, then a cursor keypad, and on its right side, the numbers. Apple also added features never seen before on Macintosh keyboards, including speaker volume, mute, and microphone recording controls, which will be ideal for the increasing number of multimedia users. That’s the good news, and even despite the upcoming bad news, I still think this keyboard is one of the best of the mass market.
The bad news is that Apple only gave the keyboard the standard little flip-down feet for slope adjustment, and as important as the opening angle is, some vertical adjustment would have been useful. Ideally you should be able to hold your hands so that your thumbs are on top rather than on the inside when typing. I can see where vertical adjustment would be hard to engineer, but hey, it’s my job to complain about this stuff.
Potentially more serious is the way Apple used chiclet-style keys (like the buttons on a touch-tone phone only smaller and round) for the escape key, the sound keys, and the function keys. I use the function keys (along with QuicKeys) on my extended keyboard to switch between programs because the function keys are hard to logically or mnemonically map to application-specific functions and work best on system-wide functions. I’m concerned that the chiclet-style keys will prove enough harder to push that they may actually aggravate repetitive stress injuries, contrary to the keyboard’s design. The infrequently used sound keys should be fine, and I wish Apple had made the Caps Lock key a chiclet key, since unlike all other keys it might be useful to have it small and round so I couldn’t press it accidently. Only extensive testing will allow me to determine whether or not the other chiclet keys will be a problem, but I’m considering replacing my five year-old and somewhat flaky Ehman Extended Keyboard with one of these Adjustable Keyboards.
Just today, we learned that Tony Hodges, maker of the Tony! keyboard, plans to sue Apple for patent infringement. The Tony! has been around for a while but has never shipped. When it ships it will cost much more than Apple’s keyboard but will offer more in the way of customized key angles and tilting. At the moment, both sides are muttering legalese, so it’s hard to tell what’s what, but we’ll write more about this should interesting details develop.
I tried touch typing on the Adjustable Keyboard at the show for a paragraph or two, and surprisingly, even at the maximum open angle of 30 degrees, I made few errors. The errors I did make were on keys more in the middle of the keyboard, the I and the U primarily, rather than the keys that border the chasm. The keyboard’s tactile feedback felt much like other Apple keyboards, which I don’t prefer, but at least it’s consistent. The unit I used had the keypad on the right side as it normally is, but I think I’d immediately try it on the left side so that I wouldn’t have to move my right hand as far to get to my Curtis trackball and to off-load some non-typing duties to my left hand. No need to discriminate here. The keyboard will supposedly list at $219 when it ships next month, and it is only compatible with ADB Macs (everything after the Plus), and it will work with PowerBooks. The software for the special sound keys works with System 6.0.7 and later. Give it a test write at a dealer and see what you think.