June 22, 2018

.comment: The Search for a Truly Great Keyboard - page 3

The Weak Link

  • February 7, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

At last week's LinuxWorld, the purveyors of the "Happy Hacking" keyboard had set up a small booth, and I dropped by and bought one.

There are two versions: The original, which costs $120 or more and which works on a variety of platforms via different cables, and the "Lite" version, which cost me $50 and which comes with a PS/2 plug. (As I mentioned, I have PS/2-to-AT adapters, and in any event it would be a hell of an adapter that cost $70!)

The neat thing about the Happy Hacking keyboard is that it is irredeemably cute. It is tiny, yet the keys are normal size. How do they do it? The keys go right up to the edge of the thing, like early MacIntosh keyboards or the old Poquet PC. And there aren't enough of them. The Happy Hacking keyboard has but 60 keys. And two of those are marked with a diamond, about which more in a minute.

So how to they pretend to have a full-function keyboard with, effectively, 58 keys? Ah! Notebook computers have grudgingly endured the Fn key for years now. This is yet another meta key, that in combination with other keys changes the meaning of those other keys. Thus one gets access to such optional extras as arrow keys only by pressing the Fn key and holding it while striking the key you wanted in the first place, which spends most of its life as another key.

There are four DIP switches behind a little cover on the back of the Happy Hacking keyboard. These let you alter the functions of some keys. The first lets you decide whether the Delete key is a delete key or a backspace key. (The other function becomes Fn+Delete.) The second switch, if turned on, gives the Tab key new meaning: Fn+Tab=CapsLock. The third switch (and here the documentation becomes a little tough) lets you decide whether, depending on the position of switch four, the left Alt key means Alt or MUEHKAN or Fn, the left Diamond key means MUHENKAN, Alt, Windows, or Fn, the right Diamond key is HENKAN, Alt, or Windows, and the right Alt key is Alt, HENKAN, or Windows. The defaults are for Delete to be delete, Tab to be just tab, both Alts to be alt, and the left and right Diamonds to be MUHENKAN and HENKAN respectively, and I had no idea in the world what those two words mean. I phoned PFU America, Inc., and asked. I was told that they are useful only to those who need a Japanese language keyboard. This means that the Happy Hacking keyboard will provide multiple Alt, Windows, and/or Fn keys, but either Backspace or Delete has to be reached by use of a meta key. When you have only 60 keys to spend, you need to be careful how you spend them.

The key action is distinctly non-clicky (though the original, expensive version is even mushier), and would be a delight to those who favor a perfectly silent keyboard. Here, it was another mark against it. Because it is so small, at about 11 1/2 by 4 3/4 inches, it might seem a good alternative for those who do not like the keyboards on their portable machines. Problem is, most portables offer more key functions more readily accessed than does the Happy Hacking keyboard, which might nevertheless be useful in this way if you have, say, a Toshiba Libretto, which has the worst keyboard in the world.

All of which makes me very sad, because the people involved with the product are really nice. I'd love to see them succeed. If it were more programmable and the programming choices were a little broader, they might.

Which brings up another issue worthy of mention. One needs to be careful to avoid getting too wacky with keyboard design or customization. There are keyboard standards and, like them or not, they enable the user to type into one machine pretty much the same way he or she would type into any other box. It is presumably possible to dig into the code and remap the keyboard to assign just about any character to just about any scancode, then rearrange the keycaps to comply. You could, if you wanted, make your QWERTY keyboard into an ABCDEF keyboard. The result would be miserable to use until you got accustomed to it, after which you'd be of no use on other boxen. (You could even make your own one-way ROT-13 keyboard. You could do a lot of useless things.) This is the chief, maybe only, argument against improvements such as the Dvorak keyboard. Still, a good-hearted hacker might come up with a recipe to make the Happy Hacking keyboard more useful.

I don't think of myself as a hacker (nor does anyone who has seen any code I've written), and this cute little thing did not make me happy.

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