Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 10 / OCTOBER 1984 / PAGE 20

A new keyboard for the PC; which one is right for you? (evaluation) Russ Lockwood.

As the IBM PC moves into more and more offices, more and more touch typists are finding that the wonderful PC has a not-so-wonderful keyboard. We examined the replacement keyboards offered by several manufacturers and discovered that their approaches to solving the problems of the PC keyboard vary greatly.

Actually, we like many of the features of the IBM PC keyboard. It is detachable, which is a major improvement over other computer keyboards. Previously, manufacturers like Apple, Tandy, and Commodore made the keyboard an integral part of the system unit. IBM put the PC keyboard at the end of a six-foot coiled cord, which lets you hold the keyboard on your lap or just move it out of the way. In fact, you can argue that IBM started a trend, since most new computers now feature detachable keyboards.

We like the 10 function keys on the PC keyboard. Again, IBM was one of the first manufacturers to put separate function keys on the keyboard. We also like the separate numeric keypad, which makes for fast data entry. We think the keys are well-sculpted with a nice, solid feel, and the aural feedback is good and loud.

We also like the slant adjustment, which allows you to vary the angle of the keyboard. A nice extra feature is the ridge running across the top of the keyboard. This lets you prop a manual or book between the keyboard and system unit, a feature that can be very, very handy.

Unfortunately, the PC keyboard is far from perfect. Ironically, the PC does not conform to the now-standard IBM Selectric layout, and it aggravates touch typists no end. It places an extra key between the Z and Shift keys and locates the Return key slightly farther above the Shift key than most of us are used to Why IBM did not follow the layout of their own successful Selectric typewriter keyboard remains a mystery. What to Look For

The most important feature is the feel or touch of the keyboard. touch refers to the tactile sensation you experience as you type. The IBM PC uses a hard touch, which is reminiscent of a typewriter; you must depress each key fully for a character to register. Other keyboards use a soft touch, which requires only a light tap to input a character. If you switch from a hard to a soft touch keyboard, plan on spending a few hours just to accustom yourself to this change.

If you are a touch typist, you will probably prefer a Selectric layout. The misplaced backslash and Return keys on the PC keyboard will slow you down and cause a great deal of frustration. Also, look for word labels rather than cryptic arrows on the Return, Tab, Backspace, and Shift keys.

Sharing cursor control keys with a numeric keypad is adequate, but to manipulate the cursor with greater speed, a separate set of keys is far superior. Better yet, the cursor control keys should be in a logical diamond formation and special text editing keys, such as insert and delete, should be above or below the cursor controls.

LEDs on the Caps Lock and Num Lock keys are also desirable, as are raised bumps on the J and F keys and the 5 on the numeric keypad. An extra Return key on the numeric keypad helps speed data entry considerably.

Do not overlook the weight of the keyboard, especially if you use it on your lap most of the time. The PC keyboard is fairly heavy, and after using it for a few hours, you might feel that circulation to your legs has been cut off. A lighter keyboard reduces fatigue and is easier to move about.

For those with more esoteric tastes, keyboards with a Dvorak layout are available. Unlike QWERTY, the Dvorak layout places, from left to right, the A, O, E, U, I, D, H, T, N, S, keys on the home row, with the common letters located near the stronger fingers. The result is that an accomplished Dvorak typist types faster than a QWERTY typist. However, a great deal of retraining is necessary to realize this speed advantage.

Frankly, most people have adapted to the idiosyncrasies of the PC keyboard because they had no other choice. But in this age of better mousetraps, several manufacturers are building keyboards to correct the problems of the PC keyboard. Maxi-Switch 8505

The Maxi-Switch 8505 keyboard layout is an exact duplicate of the IBM PC keyboard, with the exception of LEDs on the Caps Lock and Num Lock keys. All the advantages and problems of the PC keyboard layout are included.

The keys are well sculpted and the touch is good--not as hard as the PC but much firer than a soft touch. The keys depress fully, although the throw is not as long as on the PC keyboard, and the distinct click of the PC keyboard is lacking. Overall, we liked the feel of the keyboard very much.

The main inducement for buying the Maxi-Switch is the weight. At 4.3 lbs, it is 16% lighter than the PC keyboard, which weighs in at 5.1 lbs, and it can sit confortably on your lap for hours on end.

For those who leave the keyboard on the desktop, the Maxi-Switch has a three-position slant adjustment--one position more than the IBM PC keyboard offers. MAxi-Switch wisely kept the ridge along the top of the keyboard.

Maxi-Switch also manufactures the 8506 keyboard, which places the Shift and Return keys in their proper places, labels the Return, Tab, Backspace, and Shift keys, and adds a Return key on the numeric keypad. Maxi-Switch also makes the 8507, a Dvorak keyboard. Titan Data Systems Sure-Stroke

After our use test, we were left with mixed feelings about the TDS Sure-Stroke. It had some nice touches which we'll mention later, but also some idiosyncrasies which we found awkward. Others may not. Read on.

We are convinced that the Sure-Stroke has the world's largest Return key--1.5" x 1.5" to be exact. Compared to the 1.5" x 0.5" Return key on the PC keyboard, this is huge. You cannot possibly miss this Return key.

Unfortunately, Titan did not label it as such, preferring to use a cryptic arrow. The Backspace, Tab, and Shift keys are nicely labeled, but not the Return key. Furthermore, the Return key could be better placed. Titan put the tilde ([tilde]) key directly above the Shift key. We would have prefered to find the tilde tucked underneath the backslash and Backspace.

Titan places the ten function keys across the top of the keyboard instead of on the lefthand side. If you are used to finding the function keys on the left, you must take time to get used to the change. In addition, the Num Lock, End, Pg Up, Dn, and Scroll Lock keys are also placed on the top--a clumsy arrangement at best.

The numeric keypad has a Return key, although like the giant main Return key, it is labeled with the cryptic arrow. Unfortunately, Titan did not place a raised bump on the 5 key, but did thoughtfully include a multiplication key on the keypad.

Titan also includes separate cursor control keys, but they are located above the numeric keypad. This awkward placement makes these keys difficult to reach. You must reach over the numeric keypad to use the cursor controls, a clumsy procedure at first, but one to which we quickly become accustomed.

Although three of the cursor keys are in a logical half-diamond formation, the fourth is not. To make cursor control matters worse, the End, Page Up, and Page Down keys are with the function key grouping, located between the Num Lock and Scroll Lock keys. Again, this is awkward and clumsy. You need the dexterity of a concert pianist to move the cursor with any sort of speed.

Finally, the cursor control key grouping has an unmarked, undocumented key to the right of the right arrow. It does not print a character on the screen, move the cursor, or invoke a function, but every alternate press elicited a beeping sound. FRankly, we were baffled.

Then quite by accident, we discovered that the key turns the aural feedback, that beeping noise, on and off. After 10 minutes of typing with this arcade noise toggled on, we were searching for earmuffs. We were pleased to finally determine the function of this key, but it should have been labeled.

Fortunately, the normal keystroke click is subdued and absolutely marvelous. It is not as pronounced as the click on the PC keyboard, but it is reassuring and comes as close to optimum aural feedback as a keyboard can get. The tactile feedback is just as good. The keys require a firm press and have a nice, solid feel to them. We are very impressed with these facets of the Tital keyboard.

The Caps Lock key has an LED, but the Num Lock does not. Of all the keyboards we tested, only Tital features an on/off LED for the keyboard. It is a nice touch. One Little, Two Little, Three Little Keyboards

Colby sent us an evaluation unit of its Key-2 plug-in keyboard. Unfortunately, after 15 minutes of use, it emitted a death squeal, the LED lights on the Caps Lock and Num Lock keys came on, and it refused to function. Back it went.

The second keyboard also lasted 15 minutes and died with two melancholy LED lights staring at us. That one also went back. At that point, a Colby spokesperson admitted that some of the boards were defective, but claimed the problem had been fixed.

With trepidation, we plugged in the third keyboard, which looked exactly like the other two, and booted up the PC. Eureka! It worked.

The Key-2 is the smallest of the keyboards we tested--just 15" wide, compared to the 19" width of the PC keyboard. It is also the lightest, weighing in at 3.5 pounds. This makes the Key-2 very easy to move around.

The Key-2 corrects most of the mistakes of the PC keyboard. The Shift and Return keys are in their proper places. The Caps Lock and Num Lock keys have LED lights. The numeric keypad, which doubles as cursor control keys as on the PC keyboard, has its own Return key. The Shift, Tab, Return, and Backspace keys are labeled with arrows and words.

Colby places the 10 function keys and four extra cursor control keys across the top of the keyboard. Unfortunately, the extra cursor keys are arranged in a line rather than a logical diamond formation, dimishing their effectiveness. That's Ergonomics

Unlike other keyboards, the Key-2 keys are enclosed on three sides by a three-quarter inch high wall. In theory, by running your hand along the ridge, you can find the extra cursor control keys in the top left corner, function key 10 in the top right corner, and the Return key on the numeric keypad on the righthand side of the keyboard.

In practice, the wall gives us keyboard claustrophobia--rather like typing in a box. Furthermore, we keep smacking the wall with our left hand, an especially aggravating constriction. After a few hours of typing, we were wishing the wall was not there. By the end of the day, we were ready to take a hacksaw to it.

The feel is adequate, although the keys do not seem as solid as on the PC keyboard. The aural feedback for the Colby keyboard is more subdued than that on the PC keyboard, but again, nothing special.

The Colby keyboard is not slant adjustable. Presumably, teh thin profile of the Key-2 does not allow for spring-action legs. It does have three rubber feet on the bottom of the keyboard, which keep it rock steady on the table. Key Tronic KB 5151

The Key Tronic KB 5151 is the largest of the four keyboards, measuring a whopping 20.25". With the extra space, it also offers the best layout of the keyboards, dividing the keys into four distinct groupings--alphanumeric, cursor control numeric keypad, and a row of function and specialty keys.

The KB 5151 corrects the mistakes of the PC keyboard. The Shift and Return keys are located where they should be. The Caps Lock and Num Lock keys have LEDs. The Shift, Return, Tab, and Backspace keys are labeled with words, not arrows, and the F and J and the 5 key on the numeric keypad have raised bumps.

Unfortunately, Key Tronic places the Caps Lock key above the left Shift key and the Control key to the left of the Caps Lock key. You must make a mighty long stretch to reach the Control key with your pinky. The placement is awkward and clumsy, and for control key-intensive software, downright aggravating. In addition, one of our testers complained that with her fingers on the home row, she was unable to see the LED on the Caps Lock.

The tactile feel takes some getting used to. At first, the KB 5151 feels mushy because it has a very soft touch. However, once you become accustomed to the feel and tap the keys instead of trying to press them through the bottom of the keyboard, you can type quite fast. We are not saying you can double your typing speed, but the less effort and motion you need to expend, the faster you can type.

The numberic keypad doubles as cursor control keys. Key Tronic adds a Return key for fast data entry.

The dedicated cursor control keys are arranged in a logical diamond formation, with the Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys in the appropriate spots. The special editing keys, Insert and Delete, are above the cursor keys.

You must toggle the cursor keys on and off with a special Cursor Pad key. When the cursor keys are activated, the numeric keypad automatically switches to numbers. Thus, you use only one set of cursor keys at a time. We wonder why Key Tronic bothers to toggle the dedicated cursor control keys on and off. Not a big point, but we wonder.

The function keys are divided into two groups of five along the top. Next to them are a Pause key, Cursor Pad key, Print Screen key, a key with no name or purpose, and a Reset key. Note: you must hold the Control and Reset keys down to emulate the Control-Alternate-Delete sequence to reboot the system. You also must exert more force to depress the reset key than the other keys on the keyboard.

The KB 5151 is slant adjustable and has a ridge running along the top to prop up manuals and books. Key Tronic thoughtfully includes a 16-page operator's manual with the KB 5151. Prices

The Maxi-Switch 8505, 8506, and 8507 carry a suggested retail price of $210. The Tital Data Systems Sure-Stroke costs $198. The Colby Key-2 sells for $260. The Key Tronic KB 5151 retails for $255. Decisions, Decisions

All the keyboards we tested have advantages and disadvantages. The first question is whether you are dissatisfied with the IBM PC keyboard and want to switch to another. Keyboards are rather personal. Once you get used to one, it can be traumatic and time-consuming to adapt to another.

Another consideration concerns the plastic and cardboard templates that come with many of the most popular software packages. All of those templates are designed to fit around the 10 function keys on the IBM PC keyboard, and they will not fit the function keys as laid out on the Colby Key-2, Key Tronic KB 5151, or Tital Data Sure-Stroke. Only the Maxi-Switch 8505, which duplicates the PC keyboard exactly, can accommodate these templates.

Above all, your personal preferences should guide you in choosing an replacement keyboard. Soft touch, hard touch, standard layout, LEDs, separate cursor control keys--the options are available. You need only choose the features you want. The PC keyboard is adequate, but if you want a replacement keyboard, we are sure one of the four we tested--Maxi-Switch 8505, Titan Data Systems Sure-Stroke, Colby Key-2, or Key Tronic KB 5151--will satisfy your needs.

Products: Maxi-Switch 8505 Keyboard (computer apparatus)
Titan Data Systems Sure-Stroke Keyboard (computer apparatus)
Colby Key-2 Keyboard (computer apparatus)
Key Tronic KB5151 Professional IBM PC Keyboard (Computer keyboard)