April 19, 2014

.comment: The Search for a Truly Great Keyboard - page 4

The Weak Link

  • February 7, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

There are tons of really interesting keyboards to be found in the point-of-sale hardware channel. Many of them are built like tanks and cost a lot of money. And their key action typically takes a back seat to their ability to withstand an onslaught of fries and a supersize soft drink. They're usually associated with Macs -- of the Big variety. But there are some that are designed for use by people for whom computing is other than keeping track of lunch hour. Sadly, most of these employ a software layer that ties the user to some flavor of Windows for the programming to be effective. For instance, I've heard the Avant keyboard spoken of in glowing terms -- but a visit to that company's website produces all manner of Windows-centric stuff and relatively little about the keyboard itself. In that their really good version costs close to $200, testing of it for suitability for use with Linux will have to await someone with pockets deeper than mine.

An alternative is the Ortek MCK-142Pro (which, no, is not made by the people who produce the eight-pound vacuum cleaner). It has 142 keys!

The Ortek resembles an OmniKey Ultra, in that it has function keys both to the left of and above the standard alphanumeric keys. But it goes further: in addition to the usual arrow keys, it has four diagonal keys, which move the cursor up or down one line and over one space; in the center of this starburst of arrows is a key labeled "Fast Repeat," which doubles the repeat rate of a key that's held down.

The real standout feature of the Ortek, though, is the double row of programmable function keys across the top of the thing. You can record as many as 320 characters in each one and play them back at will. If you regularly type things such as "CXXFLAGS=' -march=k6' ./configure --prefix=/opt/kde --disable-debug" but don't do it often enough that it will be in your shell's scrollback file, these are very useful. The keyboard has 8k of onboard memory and a lithium battery to keep the programming alive even through a machine shutdown (once the lithium battery dies, you need to power the thing with four AA batteries).

Programming the keys is a simple matter of pressing a key labeled "Select" twice, hitting the key to which you want to save the string, then typing in the text string you want to save. (I'm told that meta key combinations can be saved, but I have not thusfar gotten it to do so.) Press the "Select" key again twice and the string is saved. To invoke the string, press the "Select" key once and then the programmed key (they're labeled PF1-PF24) containing the text string you want. There is a little DOS-based utility that is pretty useful -- it lets you dump the contents of the keyboard to a file, and lets you load it back in, or lets you load it into another Ortek keyboard elsewhere. If you put it on a bootable DOS floppy, you can boot from there and save your configuration onto the floppy. (Not that it's of any particular use to Linux folk, but in that the program takes the filename as a commandline option, you can throw it into a batch file for specialized functions loaded as particular applications are started.) I haven't yet tried to run it under, say, DOSEMU, and I don't know the data structure of the keyboard files. But if the Ortek keyboard becomes popular, a little Linux app that accomplishes pretty much the same thing oughtn't be too tough.

I got one of these great large keyboards -- they cost about $130 -- and am using it to type this. The keys are clicky, but the springs aren't as powerful as the ones on the IBM keyboard, giving a sense of cheapness that probably is undeserved -- it feels almost exactly like a Northgate, though it's not as heavy as one. The nonslip pads on the bottom are very sticky, though, which makes up for the lack of weight. The web page for the Ortek says it comes with a regular DIN keyboard plug and an 8.5-foot cord, both of which claims are erroneous -- the cord is a 3.5-foot thing with a PS/2 plug at the end; if you call and holler, they'll send you an extension (at least until they get their web page fixed). The keyboard comes with one of those plastic templates such as used to be shipped with high-end applications; this one fits over the PF keys and lets you write in (if your writing is extremely small) what the keys have been programmed to accomplish. There is a similar built-in plastic insert above the top row of regular function keys, leading to the sense that these, too, can be programmed, but if they can, the documentation is silent about it.

While I'm not shouting in the streets about the Ortek keyboard, I'm not displeased with it, either. It'll become the new standard here.

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