Behold two retail products from my old acquaintance Edgar “Nobody Else Calls Me ‘Edge’ ” Matias (a surname, incidentally, pronounced “matyeas”).

Full-sized black keyboard with cable terminating in four ends, plus tiny L-shaped keyboard

I’ve known Edgar off and on since 1992, and I wrote about his Half-QWERTY research in 1993. It started out as a software method to type with one hand. You’d type one half of the keyboard normally; for the other half, down the Space key and type the mirror-image key. Unlike other cockamamie schemes, this one was actually tested. Most subjects exceeded half their two-hand speed, although errors went up.

Edgar has run his own company, complete with VC financing, since 1990. (It’s located up in the 905 somewhere.) Back dans la journée, Edgar sent along an eval unit of his then-new Matias Half-QWERTY Keyboard, which I was ostensibly set to review for Tidbits. I decided I had very little good to say about it and, more importantly, keyboards were more of an infatuation during my days of pure journalism than they are today.

Then, over the weekend at CPUsed’s fire sale, I dug through the rubble and discovered an apparently functional Half Keyboard. I bought it for a buck, along with a bagful of other keyboards and a mouse (also a buck each). Apparently my infatuation is far from over.

The terminology tends toward confusion here. The Half-QWERTY is a full-sized keyboard that, interestingly, uses IBM Model M–style buckling-spring switches. (According to “Edge,” he had a line on the last million or so keyswitches in existence. This is not exactly borne out by PCKeyboard’s claimed ability to sell you a buckling-spring keyboard for as low as $69.) A key at top right, labelled 1/2 (not ½), toggles between one- and two-handed typing. The tiny Half Keyboard is exactly that – half a keyboard, and it only works via one-hand typing.

The big keyboard has the weirdest cable I’ve ever seen – one cord terminating in USB, PS/2, and male and female ADB connectors. At least it can plug into everything. However, too much went wrong:

  • After long absences of usage, and especially if the computer went to sleep in the interim, the big keyboard ignores the first keystroke (not keypress – I learned to override it by pressing a modifier key first). Hence trying to type ⌘F and a search string causes the program to attempt to interpret every character in the search string as having been typed in the main window, among many other faults.

  • The top-right keycaps fell off. If you don’t stick them back in place immediately, you risk confusing the 1/2 key with the Eject key. The top-right keys are three-quarter-width and too narrow to reliably press.

  • The 1/2 key was a bother and it kept resetting itself at random intervals. You’re meant to press it once for one-handed operation and twice for two-handed – clicking and double-clicking, essentially. But there’s no mode indicator of any sort. (The tiny Half Keyboard takes that idea and squares it – you can press a certain key once, twice, thrice, or four times to activate different modes.)

  • It turns out that a wistful fondness for buckling-spring keyboards is mere nostalgia, a relic from the DOS era akin to remiscing about how you could jigger WordPerfect 5.1 to do whatever you wanted through brute force of Reveal Codes. The last ten years have taught me that collapsing springs are too loud and require too much force. Even after putting a lot of time into it and giving the keyboard well more than the benefit of the doubt, I couldn’t hear myself think while typing on it.

  • When going at full tilt (near 90 wpm), the big keyboard would type a letter (I think it was an f) instead of a space at certain unpredictable moments, but always several times per paragraph. (Sometimes it added a comma in front of a space, or before or after a letter that appears before or after a space. It did that just now, in fact. The word from often came out as frlom even after I did a lot of testing to make sure I wasn’t the cause.) This wasn’t an occasional thing; it happened every single time I used it for lengthy periods.

  • A black keyboard looks modern and severe, or at least as modern and severe as the first Thinkpad, but it gathers dust that borders on impossible to remove. (I couldn’t turn the thing upside-down or I’d lose four keys.) I tried every little pad and cloth and rag in the house. I suppose I could have bought some kind of brush.

  • I can adapt to an oldschool keyboard to some extent – I do a lot of work on a BlackBook, which, incidentally, doesn’t get as dirty as the big keyboard. But I would prefer a few additional keys, like volume controls.

    Admittedly this ceased to be much of a concern when I upgraded to Le Tigre, since all the special keys on my main keyboard (from Microsoft!) immediately ceased to work. (There’s a vestigial Microsoft keyboard control panelette that I can’t remove from my system; it occasionally causes a problem.) I also pretty much cannot live without a double-height Delete key anymore, a Microsoft feature.

The Half-QWERTY keyboard seems in every way identical to Matias’s 508 Keyboard save for name, keyswitch, and price – $99 for the 508 vs. an astronomical $595 for the one I have. You know how people say that you can buy an entire Mac Mini for the price of Jaws? Well, you can buy a single keyboard for the price of a Mini. Of course, even in its name the 508 Keyboard is intended as an occupational accommodation (as under U.S. Section 508 accessibility rules); you are not intended to buy one for yourself.

Now, what about the tiny keyboard? It may become a dusty relic in my collection, since the combined Tab/Backspace key doesn’t work. As a fast but inaccurate typist, I find that a dealbreaker.

What I really want is a utility like Quic(k)Keys or USB Overdrive that recognizes every key on a keyboard and lets me map them to whatever function I want. I am thinking specifically of old IBM 3208 keyboards with 30 function keys and up. Make that thing work for me and you’ve got a sale.

Superspecial note about the Optimus Maximus

The owner of a good graphic-design shop in corrupt Mother Russia, Art(emy) Lebedev, has spent years talking up a phenomenally expensive new keyboard. The Optimus Maximus has keys (at least ten of them, at most the whole rack) that contain a little reprogrammable display. (See report, with video, from CES.) I foresee the following problems.

  • Flat keys don’t work. Your fingertips aren’t flat, and neither is the region in space defined by the reach of your fingers. (Check a modern keyboard against, say, the Model M. Hold it up: The profile is concave now, not flat as in the olden days.)

    When I slaved away on the help desk the engineers’ gulag in the Dal computer centre – we had six Victor 9000s, a machine I still miss, but no software beyond BASIC and WordStar – the remaining three-quarters of the room was taken up by dumb terminals and another help desk. One of its minders was a black chick with keloids who was a prodigy at computer programming. More than once I saw her reaching out her pen to correct a student’s printout before it even hit her desk. She could program as fast as she could type and encountered exactly one problem she couldn’t solve in the years I spent incarcerated in the basement with her.

    She finagled one of the few terminals with flat, low-resistance keys onto her desk, evincing a hatred for “spring-loaded keyboards,” i.e., those hideous old DEC keyboards that were like a Soviet knockoff of the Selectric.

    But she was the only one who liked those keyboards, and surely it is a quirk of fate that the Soviets Russians are now pushing the same form factor, proving that the computer keyboard has remained formally unchanged for half a century.

  • According to reports, the keys are too wide. This will do you in real fast.

  • Most important of all, the Maximus is priced for gadget freaks who love keyboards even though they manifestly do not need this device. They can all touch-type. They never look at the keycaps. (Do you?) The Optimus Maximus is an artwork, not a productivity tool. Its entire reason for existence is nullified by its intended use. It exists to be looked at, which is exactly what you do not do to a keyboard.

Nonetheless, having cracked the $500 barrier in keyboards, I might as well triple that. I’m gonna see if I can get an eval unit. I envision a response consisting of hearty laughter straight out of Absurdistan.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2008.01.13 16:27. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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