Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing
REVIEWED BY DAVID PLOTKIN
START CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
As a new school year rears its ugly head, START feels that it's high time we reviewed Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, still the best typing tutor available on the ST. The program combines graduated exercises with a game to encourage you to increase your typing speed.
You don't run Mavis Beacon from the distribution disk. You must first install to produce an "installed" data disk to which you can add users. One unique thing about Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is that several people can use it and it tracks the progress and problems of each user. When you add a user, the program requests the user's name and age range (although the ranges seem strange: younger than 8, 8-14, or older than 14). This data is then used when producing progress charts.
Users are split into three categories: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. The lessons are built around a chalkboard, wherein the fictional Mavis suggests a lesson plan and tells you why. Then you can either proceed with that lesson or choose something else to do. The main screen shows the keyboard and a pair of "shadow" hands poised over the keys. As you type, the shadow fingers move and strike whichever keys you strike, and the keytops light up. Generally, however, the shadow hands aren't very useful, since you're too busy looking at what you are typing to see what the hands do anyway.
There are basically three types of lessons. Untimed tests put text on the screen for you to type, primarily emphasizing problem areas that have been identified (more on this in a moment). A cursor may or may not be visible to help you follow the text. The cursor helps you figure out when you've reached a space, although the program wants you to learn to type by "feel," not by sight. The tests beep at you and print your letters in red when you make an error.
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Timed tests are similar, except that a score of your words per minute (wpm) typing rate and the number of errors are kept track of. The "raw" number of words per minute is adjusted down for the number of errors you make, giving you an "adjusted" wpm rate. An onscreen metronome keeps a beat consistent with your target typing rate. According to the manual, having this beat helps you speed up, but I tended to ignore it.
The third type of lesson is an arcade racing game in which the text area is replaced with a view out the windshield of a car. The graphics are good, with a realistic rendition of the road going by (there's even a city in the distance) and a rear view mirror showing where you've been. Periodically, a jet plane zooms across the screen, leaving text for you to type. The faster you type the faster you go, and a "speedometer" records your wpm rate. There is also an "accuracy meter" to keep you honest. There is an opponent on the road, and if you don't type fast enough, he will pass you. But if you're a real speed demon, you can leave him in the dust.
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing even lets you design your own lessons. You can select the type of lesson (including the race game). You can choose to emphasize speed or accuracy (or both), set the lesson length (in words or in time), set the metronome or pace car speed and the text format. This last lets you choose from a regular drill exercise, a "barrier drill" (only a few letters ahead of where you're typing are visible), pattern typing and transcription (typing from printed copy). There are also a variety of items in a main menu that let you customize your copy of the program, involving things like keyboard design (backspace on/off, or perhaps a Dvorak keyboard), setting the learning aids (such as the metronome) and calling for graphs of your progress. The graphs are impressive, tracking your proficiency in finding certain keys, your progress in typing speed and even a printed report card for boasting.
Mavis Is Smart!
The most important thing about Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing though, is that it's smart. As you begin the lessons, the program analyzes everything you do and the suggested lessons very quickly start closing in on problem areas. For example my first lesson included a few symbol keys (the items above the number keys at the top of the keyboard). Right away, the program picked up on the fact that I had problems with these keys. Before long, it began providing lessons with lots of symbols. Interestingly, though, it didn't concentrate onlyon symbols, which would become frustrating quickly, but interspersed these lessons with the racing game and some other lessons that I could do really well on. Words of encouragement were also handed out lavishly. (It felt good to be told I was doing well--even by a mere computer) The built-in semblence of intelligence in this program is very effective.
On the Other Hand
There are some things I would change about this program. The installation program doesn't let you install it on a hard drive (despite what technical support said), and copying everything to your hard drive simply gets you a "demo" copy that doesn't do any lessons--it's just a waste of space. Software Toolworks should revise the program so you can run it from a hard drive. The other annoying thing about the program is that I can outtype it! As I type my lessons, the cursor falls behind, which means that I can type an incorrect letter and get well past it before I even realize it. This can be pretty confusing.
Finally, you're supposed to be able to set the length of a session, but although I set a length of 30 minutes, the program didn't warn me that the time was up--I finally quit after about 50 minutes.
Still, this is easily the best typing program I've ever seen for any computer, and if you want to learn to type or just polish your skills, I heartily recommend it.
START Contributing Editor David Plotkin is a chemical engineer for Chevron U.S.A.
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, $49.95. The Software Toolworks, 19080 Nordhoff Place, Chalsworth, CA 91311, (818) 885-9000.