Keyboard Standardization

By Michael Flanakin @ 8:13 AM :: 4003 Views :: Technology, Open Source/Standards, User Experience :: Digg it!

I've always shied away from laptops. Laptops, in general, aren't extensible enough and tend to be too expensive. Over the past few years, tho, as I have become more and more mobile, laptops have become a necessary evil. The worst thing about laptops is the keyboard you're stuck with... and I do mean stuck with. If you had some level of flexibility to switch out keyboards, that'd be a different story, tho. Heck, now that I think about it, with a little reverse-engineering, someone could make some money replacing standard laptop keyboards. I imagine most don't question their laptop keyboards much, but as a touch-typer who tries to ween every bit of productivity out of the system as possible, I want... no, I need my keys to be in a standard location. Honestly, when I look into buying a laptop, the keyboard is the first thing I look at. If you don't have a keyboard that at least closely resembles the standard layout, I take my money elsewhere. What do I look for? Perhaps the first thing is the Insert/Delete/Home/End/Page Up/Page Down buttons. I want the 2x3, horizontal layout. Most vendors get dropped out here. Next, I look at the arrow keys, which must be in the inverted "T" formation. From what I've seen, most vendors who pass the previous test pass this one, too. From there, I glance over the other standard keys like Ctrl, Fn, Win, Alt on the left and Alt, Context, Ctrl on the right of the space bar. I can live without the context menu button being there, but it is the "standard" location. These are the main things I look for and, believe it or not, most laptop vendors fail to meet them all.

I don't know why laptop vendors insist on placing keys in random places. It's almost as if they just shove the qwerty keyboard on a canvas and just toss the rest of the keys on to see where they fall. Perhaps the best vendor I've seen is Dell. HP does a pretty good job, but not as good as Dell. On the other hand, HP has been using extended keyboards with a full number pad. I always get annoyed when I see a laptop -- like my 17" Dell Inspiron from 2004 -- that has plenty of extra room on either side of the keyboard, but no number pad. When you see a laptop with a number pad, you know the vendor is putting more thought into its user. The other thing I like about HP is the button to disable the mouse touchpad. When I've mentioned this to people in the past, they talk of a software disabler, but I have yet to find one; either way, a button is nice. I've pretty much dismissed all other vendors (especially Toshiba *grumble, grumble*)... well, that was until I got a hold of my Lenovo. People told me how "solid" these laptops were and I always wondered what they really meant by that. Since I've tried various other laptops already, I figured I'd give it a shot. Let's just say I was sold. Lenovos are missing some of the consumer conveniences of other vendors' laptops, but if you can get past that, Lenovos can be summed up in that one word: solid. Unfortunately, they're not all that and a bag of chips, tho.

When it comes to Lenovo laptops, I have four complaints. Let me start with the small one: the touchpad buttons are too low, which makes it awkward to use when the computer is in your lap. If the stupid trackpoint buttons weren't so huge, it wouldn't be a big deal. I've always hated those annoying mouse "nubs" and it irks me that it degrades my experience. The second is another minor annoyance; a nicety that was added to enhance users' web browsing experience: Back/Forward buttons on either side of the up arrow. My annoyance is that I've hit these keys several times when I wanted to use the arrows. This can be very annoying when you lose a lot of data (i.e. a blog post). As if that wasn't enough, the capability already exists with the use of one additional finger about 4" away (Alt+Left Arrow). Adding buttons with trivial benefits like this annoys me; especially when there are obvious negative effects. I wish they would've opted for a smaller button that wasn't as easy to accidentally push, like one the shape/size of the volume buttons. My third complaint is the Esc key, which is above the F1 key instead of to the left of it. I keep hitting F1, which makes the system hesitate while it brings up the help. This derails my productivity, like the Back/Forward buttons. Speaking of derailing productivity, this last one baffles my mind: the left Ctrl and Fn keys are switched. This is the first time I've seen something this stupid. What really gets me is how a vendor who has such a quality laptop can miss something this obvious. Most people seem to think it's ok; that you'll just get used to it. I'm sorry, but I refuse to accept this. Of the 7 people I know who have a Lenovo, all of them say this is their #1 complaint. Another handful of people complained about this when I sent an email internally polling for a workaround. Unfortunately, the Keyboard Customizer Lenovo offers doesn't cover this.

This is obviously a common problem, tho, and Lenovo isn't the only one to blame. The broader topic of keyboard standardization came up in Hanselminutes Syndicated feed a while back. Some of my concerns were voiced there. Perhaps there's a need for a true standard. I don't see anyone pushing that, tho, so I'm not sure where to go for a global resolution. For now, I guess we're left with our voices.