Miscellaneous Ramblings

Don't Kill Caps Lock, Learning to Love the iOS Keyboard, and an Adaptive iPad Keyboard

Charles Moore - 2012.02.06 - Tip Jar

Slate's Matthew J. X. Malady contends that everybody hates something about their computer keyboard, and in his case - if you'll excuse the pun - it's the Caps Lock key, which he suggests getting rid of, along with four other adjustments he thinks would greatly improve the typing experience.

Stick-in-the-mud that I am, I disagree. I'm conservatively persnickety about keyboards, and I find the Caps Lock key indispensable when you need it, albeit occasionally annoying, especially, for example, with my Logitech Solar Keyboard, which inexplicably has no Caps Lock warning light (perhaps as an energy-saving strategy, although how much do you keep the Caps Lock on?).

Logitech Solar Keyboard for Mac

I would support moving the Caps Lock so it isn't so easily struck when you're going for the A or S keys, which would be more rational than getting rid of it altogether.

Malady suggests that tapping the shift button twice would be the solution, a la the iOS virtual keyboard. Better than nothing, but I find that aspect of my iPad's keyboard an annoyance when I have to type RAM or OS X or especially longer strings of all caps, and as Low End Mac publisher Dan Knight points out in last week's Kill Caps Lock, but Leave the Rest of My Keyboard Alone (Mostly) of this topic, in OS X you can disable the Caps Lock key if you really hate it.

However, I'm not a complete keyboard reactionary, and I do agree with Malady that a dedicated em-dash key would be a boon. Indeed, I would be delighted to have even a dedicated en-dash key on the iPad that didn't require a keyboard interface shift. The latter matter is one of the reasons why I prefer working in TextKraft on the iPad (see Entering, Managing and Editing Text on the iPad - TextKraft a Game-Changer), as I am right now.

Put the exclamation point on the same key as the question mark? I could go for that as well, and I also like the idea of an iOS-esque .com key, perhaps combined with the @ symbol.

Stick with What Works

I had the foregoing paragraphs roughed-out before I read Dan Knight's comments on Mr. Malady's keyboard ideas, and I was interested to note that, as is frequently the case, we had substantially similar responses, although not identically so. For example, I'm not a fan of nonstandard keyboard remapping. I use several different Macs, including laptop keyboards, and prefer to make my peace with a reasonably standard layout. I do likewise detest the Help key, as I do most dumbed-down and nannying aspects of computer interfacing. Hey, it's not rocket-science, although like most things worth doing, it does involve scaling a bit of a learning curve to master. If one is not willing to devote the effort, I'm not terribly sympathetic. Of course I've made similar observations about driving cars for decades, and if I had my way there would probably still be manual spark advance and fuel mixture controls on the steering wheel hub like there were on the Model T Ford.

Okay, perhaps just a slight exaggeration there. I can even concede the merits of automatic transmissions in certain contexts, although I remain a devotee of manual gearboxes and lament their increasing disappearance as an alternative on many vehicles these days.

Back to keyboards. My current alphanumerical daily driver is a Logitech K750 Solar Keyboard for the Mac. I love the build quality and precise feel of most Logitech input devices, and this particular 'board in white with blue accented livery appeals to my aesthetic taste as well. I've never been much of a wireless keyboard fan, but this one is very easy to live with, eliminating the hassle and expense of messing about with replaceable batteries.

It's far from perfect, though. There is the aforementioned Caps Lock light issue, and I also revile Logitech's choosing to make Mac OS functions, such as screen brightness controls, the default behavior of the Mac Solar 'board's F-keys, with the fn-key modifier required to toggle standard F-key behavior. (I also have a Windows PC version of the Logitech K750, and its F-keys work normally on the Mac. Irony.) I prefer having the F-keys assigned to do stuff like toggle AppleScript text macros in Tex-Edit Plus (configured in the program rather than remapping the keyboard), and using the fn-key modifier to activate the Mac control commands when called for, which is usually seldom. The contrary amounts to more tedious dumbing-down in my estimation.

Loving the iPad's Virtual Keyboard

And speaking of dumbing-down, I find myself doing more and more typing on my iPad's virtual keyboards these days, and as I've noted elsewhere recently, I've been a lot happier camper with that mode of input than I had anticipated. I've never had much use for pairing a Bluetooth wireless keyboard with the iPad, since that defeats the tablet's main raison d'être, which is its compact, use anywhere portability and simplicity. Also, even with a Bluetooth 'board, you're still stuck with the touchscreen for pointing and clicking, which is a far more egregious encumbrance than using the onscreen keyboard.

Using the excellent German text processor app TextKraft, which includes several substantial keyboard improvements without messing with the basic iPad keyboard layout, makes the virtual 'board even more tolerable.

An Adaptive iPad Keyboard

I also checked out another iPad keyboard option last week. The TypeWay Adaptive Keyboard for iPad is pitched as to the first self-adapting multitouch keyboard on the market.

TypeWay Adaptive Keyboard for iPad
TypeWay Adaptive Keyboard for iPad

The theory behind TypeWay is that while conventional keyboards require typing in linear rows, the shorter pinky finger and ring finger would prefer relatively shorter distances for the keys they cover. Hands are also individual in size, shape, and typing habits and may shift their position.

Consequently, TypeWay is programmed to use information about touch events in several algorithms to control and refresh its key configuration dynamically and continuously to adapt to the idiosyncrasies and physical characteristics of the individual user, which is claimed to make typing faster and more comfortable by self-adapting key configuration, or so they say.

TypeWay Adaptive Keyboard for iPad
TypeWay Adaptive Keyboard for iPad

I'm not a touch typist, so I can't really evaluate how TypeWay would react to proper touch input. However, what I discovered in just a little bit of real-world use was that - at least in the way it adapted to my typing style - the keys soon disconcertingly migrated toward the left and right keyboard extremes, until the left-hand alpha keys overlapped the Shift and Caps Lock, at which point they stopped responding until I hit the default layout restore button. Not very helpful.

However, I found TypeWay so unstable, I'm not sure it matters. I tried writing an article using TypeWay's note pad, but the app crashed on two consecutive attempts before I completed two paragraphs, losing the work. Inexplicably, there were no keys for quotation mark and apostrophe, which would render TypeWay useless to me even if it were stable. Finally, it costs six bucks, which would be steep for what it does, even if it worked well.

TypeWay's note pad app
TypeWay's note pad app.

My counsel is to give this one a pass, at least at its current state of development. You can get TextKraft and it's keyboard enhancements for two bucks more, and it's the best iOS text processor app I've found so far as well. And TextKraft's slightly less capable sister app, SchreibKraft is a relative bargain at just three dollars.

The sharing function in TypeWay's note pad
The sharing function in TypeWay's note pad.

However something both the Infovole 'Kraft apps and TypeWay demonstrate is that there's plenty of potential to improve on the iPad's software-based keyboard, and I look forward to checking out future innovations (I'm not smitten with the presumably thumb-typing oriented split keyboard option introduced with iOS 5).

On the other hand, while the traditional computer keyboard, which is a configurational descendent of the mechanical and electric typewriter keyboards I cut my journalistic teeth on, is concededly far from perfect, it's probably the best compromise in a world where its layout is imprinted in the muscle memory of literally billions of users.

And let's keep Caps Lock!

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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