Of mice and keyboards

First off, I wrote this as an e-mail, so some asterisks will be appearing below. I wasn’t trying to test the system in any way … I have a lot of vitriol right now, is all:

This one should be a no-brainer. Keyboards have been around since the 19th century, and mice for 44 years. There have been advances in both technologies since then, as is wont to be the case, but they’ve slowed significantly in terms of how one interacts with them.

Sure, with mice, we went from mice with balls (heh, heh) to optical mice to laser mice, and the scroll wheel was a godsend, as were the back and forward buttons. But folks, there’s a time when innovation has hit its peak, and now we’re adding bells and whistles or moving shit around as a solution in search of a problem.

With computer keyboards, it’s pretty much “same song, different verse.” I remember these bizarre models at my mom’s work in the '80s featuring 10 F-keys instead of 12 (I use F11 on a daily basis; anyone else?) – and they were conveniently located … over to the left of the qwerty set … arranged vertically. WTF?

The 101-key keyboard (http://www-306.ibm.com/software/globalization/topics/keyboards/physical.jsp) has been around since the IBM PC was introduced, and it’s a pretty solid design. We have our qwerty portion, groupings of F-keys, the insert-page down set, and a numeric keypad. It’s familiar to everyone, and it gets the job done. 101 keys, you ask? Those insipid Windows keys are what bring us up to today’s standard of 104. When I buy a new keyboard, the first thing I do is make sure that it types, and that test completed, I pop off both Windows keys and the Context Menu key.

A side note about these three keys: Who the hell is going to the Start Menu so frequently that a dedicated key is necessary? (Not to mention, Ctrl+Esc does the same thing.) And moreover, who is needing to pop open the Context Menu when they’re not using a mouse? All these three keys do is pop up menus I didn’t want in the first place (at work, the Option key on my Mac is critical, and resides where the Windows keys do), and this slows me down. As a dedicated input device, a keyboard should not be impeding the interaction I have with my computer (nor should a mouse).

Why this sudden screed? Well, I got a new wireless keyboard/mouse combo a few months ago, and all seemed to be going well, but now my mouse will click on its own, and bizarrely, sometimes provide input that I couldn’t even use the mouse to make. A good example lies in what has transpired just since I started writing this: Three times, now, I’ve suddenly had the back button hit (with my hands on the keyboard) – perhaps an amusing diversion up until the point the you realize my mouse DOESN’T HAVE A BACK BUTTON. So. Functionality that I want but do not have is being used at times I do not want it to be.

OK, you’re saying, maybe it’s time to buy a new keyboard and mouse. I agree. It’s the holiday season, and all manner of people would like to send me things, some of whom are, at this late date, still wondering what I’d like.

What I’d like is for manufacturers to make wireless keyboards and mice in a standard 104-key (I’ve given up on the Windows keys; I can pop those fuckers off) configuration and with the standard five buttons, respectively. Bells and whistles? Fine, but don’t charge me extra and don’t change the layout.

MOUSE OFFENSES:

• Four buttons and a clickable scroll wheel on a symmetrical flat-bottomed ovoid are all I ask. OK, I’ll be slightly more picky – I want the back button on the left, and the forward button on the right (or programmable to be switched). What problem, exactly, has placing both buttons on the left solved? And why is any reputable vendor producing mice with only two buttons? Too many people who never go online?

KEYBOARD OFFENSES (Note: I didn’t realize how many ways there are to fuck up a keyboard until today.):

• F-keys. Groups of four F-keys have been standard for more than 20 years. Yet, many keyboards are now shipping with our 12 friends grouped in sets of three. I know I’m hitting F8 because it’s at the end of a cluster; I’m not looking for it between F7 and F9. A sidenote to this is the damn “let’s turn the F-keys into quick keys” phenomenon, wherein you hit F4 to, presumably, get the functionality of the F4 key in whatever program you’re using, and instead, a new window pops up to send e-mail to someone. When I want to send a new e-mail, I’ll switch over to Thunderbird and hit Ctrl-N. It’s easy. For those who want programmable quick keys, that’s great – just don’t make me have to turn that feature off every single time I fire up my computer.

• Insert-Page Down. This ranks up there with retooling the F-keys. I want them three across, two down. Period. I do not want your newfangled vertical arrangement (I’m sure it’s all the rage with the kids … “Dude, check out my HUUUUUGE delete key.” “Wow, that IS big. I now wish to perform oral sex on you.”) that will, for many moons, make me wonder what key I’m hitting (and why is the delete key twice as big, and what button is missing to make that possible?).

• The scroll keys. These are meant to look like a Tetris piece. Don’t give me some bizarre two-by-two arrangement or an iPod-like round thing.

• Backslash. One would think that after ISO definition, keyboards would not be so wildly divergent about this. I’ll admit that whether it takes a chunk out of your Enter key or your Backspace key is a matter of taste. I’ve owned keyboards of both sorts, and being at home right now, I can’t even tell you which type I have at work, because it’s such a non-issue. But there are keyboards out there that take the rightmost chunk of the right Shift key and make that the backslash. Everyone wins, right? Wrong. Sure, now I’ve got big Enter and Backspace keys, but instead of capital letters, backslashes are strewn about the copy. (Historical note: The quixotic “Turbo” key used to reside here. Never found out what that did.)

• Shape. I’m sure one of those curvy keyboards (you know, the sort you want to buy a drink) are great, ergonomically, but I don’t want to type on one shape at work, walk home, and have to hold my hands differently just because I have a beer on my desk.

CONCLUSION:

There are zero wireless keyboard/mouse combinations available online or in stores that adhere to all these criteria, making it difficult to ask for a specific set as a Christmas present. For now, I’ll randomly be going back whenever my mouse decides it prudent.

CODICIL:

In the middle of typing this, I realized I’d forgotten the Alt code for a bullet point. Being on Vista, I opened the Start menu and typed in “charmap” – then hit Enter. Apparently, opening the Start menu and hitting Enter is the quickest way to shut down your computer. None of your open applications, nor Windows itself, will ask if you wish to confirm the shutdown. Thankfully, Firefox did save my entry upon restart. There would have been a fuckload more swearing otherwise.