104 keys: who needs them anyway?

· by Steve · Read in about 5 min · (898 Words)

I fired up my desktop Windows PC for the first time in a while recently, and the first thing I realised is that I absolutely hated the keyboard. This was nothing to do with the slight differences between the PC and Mac keyboard layouts, the latter of which I’ve become more accustomed over the last couple of years, nor was it about whether the keys were mechanical or scissor switched, or any such nuance.

No, it was solely this: the damn thing sticks out way too far on the right hand side if you’re a right-handed mouse user.

Like most heavy computer users, I’ve had various bouts of RSI over the years. The most basic case was resolved by learning to touch-type rather than the spider-typing that actually most programming languages encourage you to self-teach if you don’t know any better, given that all the useful symbols are around the edge of the keyboard. Later on, I found that low-profile keyboards with low travel distances & pressure resistance reduced general fatigue-related issues I started to get with age. But there was one issue which never went away - aches caused by mouse use. The main issue for me was not the mouse itself, but that because of the asymmetrical nature of the standard PC keyboard, with the cursor / navigation block and numpad sticking out to the right, your mouse has to be placed quite far out to the right, meaning that when using the mouse your body is skewed out of symmetry, meaning you’re straining one side of your body more than the other. This gives me shoulder & back ache, and also the angle means the unnatural wrist rotation of most mice is even more exaggerated, causing issues there too. I try to use keyboard shortcuts as much as possible, but you can’t avoid reaching for the mouse sometimes.

Now, I’ve been using a MacBook Pro pretty much exclusively for the past 2 and a bit years, and all those aches have gone away, because the trackpad is right there in the centre and everything remains aligned. I love the Mac laptop trackpads - they’re large, expressive, multi-touch, ergonomic and just a joy to use, to the extent that I can’t use any other trackpad without being struck by how awful they feel. I’ve tried a few on Windows laptops over the last few years and my response is always really negative. And this is a desktop in any case, they’re quite hard to find outside laptops even if I wanted one. So in practice, a PC-based trackpad wasn’t going to cut it, the mouse really had to stay.

Secondly, since I’ve been using a laptop keyboard for so long, I don’t feel I even need all those separate blocks of keys any more. Sure, I used to use them all the time;  I’d used 102/104 keyboards since 1991 and my muscle memory had got me used to jumping over to the cursor keys, Home/End, and occasionally the number pad. But in the last 2 years, that tendency has been completely eradicated from me - I now reach for the arrow keys in the bottom-right of the keyboard, and use combos like Fn-Left-Arrow rather than needing a dedicated Home key without even thinking about it.

So here I was, with a keyboard that was throwing off my ergonomic balance due to a couple of blocks of keys I didn’t need anymore anyway. I could have just sawn the keyboard in half I suppose, but I looked online and ended up grabbing a surprisingly cheap ‘compact’ keyboard that just gets rid of all that. You can see the difference in the image below:

To me, this feels a lot more natural; the angle of my right arm is far less acute, and that puts less pressure on my shoulder and wrist as well as not requiring me to reach as far when I move back and forth from the keyboard to the mouse.

The keyboard in question is not great quality, (I would have bought this one instead if it wasn’t for the fact that it only came in American layout with the horrible single-row Return key) so I’m going to have to see how that pans out. The range of choices for keyboards like this seems very limited, with a few options like this one at the budget end (probably designed for server rooms methinks), and a few crazy expensive options at the ‘specialist ergonomic’ end, which I wasn’t ready to pay for (I don’t expect to be using this machine all the time). If you know of any others for future reference, please let me know in the comments.

A final thought: over the years I’ve become more aware of how we seem ready to accept working in configurations that are actually quite bad for us physically, due to convention and familiarity. Almost 10 years ago a colleague of mine bought a Fingerworks TouchStream LP, a weird multi-touch surface that acted as both a keyboard and a mouse at once, with gesture support, and which at the time I thought was total insanity (and I found it impossible to use his PC!). In hindsight, I recognise the genius in that product, and can see why Apple bought the company - who of course ended up being at least partly responsible for how good Apple’s touch-based tech feels today.