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Hardware: Keyboards

Sandra Prior
Aug 8, 2008
Ask a roomful of computer users to make a list of the sexiest peripherals, and you can be pretty sure keyboards won't be at the top. Despite being the part of the computer we touch most, they're more like elbows than, say, breasts. They're functional, and you wouldn't want to go without, but do they get your heart racing? No.

Nevertheless, you'll need a keyboard for email. And for newsgroups. And for chat. Even the Web, with its lengthy addresses and endless forms, requires you to prod some sort of letter making device. You might as well have a decent one, then, so you can type at reasonable speed and in some sort of comfort.

The Querty Conundrum

When Cristopher Latham Sholes invented the mechanical typewriter in the late 1860s, the design of its innards meant the mechanical arms tended to jam when you typed adjacent letters in quick succession. He solved the problem by rearranging the keys to separate common letter pairs, thereby giving us qwertyuiop, asdfghkl and zxcvbnm. Incidentally, the Sholes & Glidden Typewriter was manufactured by Remington - the pen may be mightier than the sword, but typewriters don't make you as famous as guns.

Anti-qwertians says that Sholes wanted to slow typists down. Pro-qwertians point out that by reducing jams, he in fact enabled them to type faster. Either way, the problematic arms are long gone, so there's no reason to retain the qwerty layout. So said Professor John Dvorak, anyway, and in 1932 he set out to build a better keyboard.

Dvorak's keyboard puts the vowels and the five most common consonants in the middle row. Pro-Dvorakans say his arrangement is more efficient. Anti-Dvorakans say he conducted many of the tests himself, and that other experiments show little difference between the layouts. Millions of qwerty trained typists expressed no interest whatsoever in starting all over again. Dvorak's design never really took off.

The Dvorak layout is still out there, probably because journalists lumbered with writing about keyboards keep trotting out this story. Dedicated Dvorak keyboards aren't common, but you don't actually need one - you just switch your operating system into Dvorak mode. Pressing the qwerty 'H' will then give you the Dvorak 'D', which sounds hideously confusing but isn't, because you aren't supposed to be looking at the keys. If you need to cheat, you can use stickers to re-label them.

The RSI Debacle

Arguments about the arrangement of the keys have been overtaken by the debate about the inherent evilness of all keyboards. Nobody wants to make a definite statement about the relationship between typing and pain, numbness or tingling in the hands and wrists, because millions of office workers might up and sue.

However, to quote Logitech's comfort guidelines, 'some research suggests that long periods of repetitive motion, using an improperly set up work space, incorrect body position, and poor work habits may be associated with physical discomfort and injury to nerves, tendons and muscles'. Such injuries are generally known as repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), although you can find a host of other acronyms in the Typing Injury.

Despite the fact that RSIs might or might not exist, depending on whether you talk to typists or employers (or the lawyers for either party), several manufacturers have added sexy ergonomic curves to their keyboards. Most split the keys into two groups, set at a slight angle, so your wrists end up further apart with your hands turned slightly inwards. Some have a hinge so you can adjust the angle, and others are 'dished' to match the shape of your hand. Budget models may simply have a wrist rest for when your thoughts dry up.

Ergonomic keyboards aren't panacea, and manufacturers are careful to point out that you still need to sit up straight, and take breaks, and consult a qualified health professional if your wrists hurt. They also take a bit of getting used to, especially if you've been a dedicated user of regular keyboards.
About the Author
Subscribe to Sandra Prior's Online Newsletter and get up to date Computer Technology News delivered right to your email box for free. See website for details http://usacomputers.rr.nu and http://sacomputers.rr.nu.
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