The Keyboard Experience: Laptops, netbooks, tablets, and QWERTY

There was a time when people ranted about keyboards. IBM Thinkpads were once lauded for their exceptionally tactile and responsive keyboards. Gamers shelled out good, cold cash for expensive desktop gaming Logitech keyboards just to strafe opponents properly and with gusto in Doom, Duke Nukem,Descent, or even Wolfenstein. When Bluetooth came around, mobility was more of a priority than keyboard comfort. Keyboards were a secondary concern just six or seven years ago when laptops became affordable and people shopped for portables based on the processor (this was the time of Intel Pentium M), battery, and overall performance. Laptop shopping advice columns were written urging shoppers to try-before-you-buy the laptop keyboard before investing in an Acer, Dell, or HP portable, but casual users were more concerned about the price to performance ratio than anything else. A full-sized keyboard for 14" laptops was plenty real estate after all.

Keyboards became a huge issue once again when netbooks came along. Reviewers eviscerated the netbook for its key placement, cheap plasticky feel, and lack of resistance. American tech sites wrote repetitively about how men with huge Hulk-like hands could never use the netbook. Manufacturers took steps to improve the keyboards in netbooks until even the cheaper ones provided a good typing experience. But by then smartphones were coming along and touchscreens became the latest fad. Now no one gives a damn how bad a keyboard is. It's about touch now.

It's strange how fickle the general consumer is. The old cellphones had horrible keypads and weren't ideal for typing messages of any length (thus the rise of horrible grammar and extremely abbreviated sentences) but countries all over the world held Nokia or Samsung sponsored "texting" contests. Onscreen keyboards in Windows and Linux have been around for years but once Apple made the onscreen touch keyboard standard on their iPhones and iPods, you'd think it was the second coming of Wonder Bread.

As a user who is happy with any electronic device I can afford, I have nothing against touch screen keyboards, but any developer would tell you that the keyboards on a well-made netbook are a hundred times better than those on a tablet or smartphone. Unfortunately, the tablet and touch trend dictates the industry moves away from physical keys towards touch-sensitive capacitive ones. Ultraportables have the same quality of keyboards as mainstream laptops or mid-sized netbooks so they don't really count as a new thing, but the keyboards on hybrid tablets such as the Microsoft Surface are definitely going to come out and try to bring something new to the table. IPad keyboard accessories from Belkin and Logitech started the trend years before so perhaps there's nothing new in these detachable typing sets after all.

In the old days, my brother had a generic whitebox with a clunky keyboard. I felt guilty mangling that keyboard while I played Space Quest, Wing Commander, Hexen, and Quake. It surprisingly survived my days of shooting and battering orcs, heretics, and Kilrathi pilots. As long as I could also write journals in Wordstar or WordPerfect ala Doogie Howser M.D., I didn't mind that the keyboard kept my dad awake or was slowly giving me arthritis. Later on, I equipped my own makeshift PC with a super-cheap Genius keyboard that sadly required the proportional strength of a spider in order to type with. I was horrible at "texting" with my first Nokia phone and even worst with a QWERTY smartphone a few years later. I initially thought I could write whole stories on-the-go on my iPod (I was wrong) and hardly ever type on my iPad except for adding notes on the Calendar app.

I've never been picky with keyboards. However, after testing a Windows 8-powered hybrid tablet I realize now that the best keyboards I've ever used were on my retired 7-year old Acer Aspire 5500Z and my 3-year old ASUS EEEPC 1000H netbook. Although I spend 75% of my life hammering away on a desktop keyboard, the netbook and laptop's keyboard fit me better than any desktop keyboard I've ever used in any company I've worked with. Ironically, I'm more prone to errors on my Lenovo Ideapad Z360's full-size, island-style keyboard than I am on the 1000H netbook or the old Aspire. I guess it takes all kinds.

I wonder what's next for keyboards. Replacing physical keyboards with touch screen keyboards is similar to replacing printed books with ebooks. It's almost inevitable. There are many people who prefer the feel of a page and cover to an ebook in the same way programmers and developers prefer the clicking and clacking of keyboards than with a synthesized beep. The keyboard, like the mouse, is an aging and obsolete input device . . . but I think the keyboard is perfect the way it is. Can you remember your favorite keyboard?


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