A matter of keyboards: the nomad’s dilemma


The Early Days:

My first exposure to keyboards, outside of typewriters was the card punch machine we used at the academy to punch the cards for the Wang Programmable calculator. Since I could only hunt and peck at that time, the quality of the keyboard really didn’t matter to me. As a matter of fact, someone had one or more portable punch units that we shared around to punch the cards for our projects.

By Arnold Reinhold - I took this picture of an artifact in my possession. The card was created in the late 1960s or early 1970s and has no copyright notice., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=775153

A punch card similar to the ones I used. Photo: Arnold Reinhold .

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A similar device to the one we used to punch cards. Photo By waelder [GFDLCC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5 ], from Wikimedia Commons

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What we really used, rather than fight to get a turn at the big machine during the hours the computer lab was open. Photo: By Journey234 [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

From the Wang machine we moved on to working on computer terminals, which were in a separate room from the mainframe. These terminals had big chunky keys which were nice to type on, even if it were just with two fingers. For the rest of my time at the academy all my computer time was in the computer room, using those terminals, which at the time were state of the art. I wasn’t the only cadet back then to laugh at having to learn computers, when we were going to sea, and not to an office.

I didn’t directly interact with a computer again until being stationed at First Coast Guard District Headquarters in Boston. It was my first real job in an office. The only other time in my life that I had worked in an office was answering the phone for my father’s construction company and later when I was a TA for my physics professor. When I arrived at my first day of work, I was surprised to see that everyone in the office had a terminal on their desk, except the receptionist, who only had a typewriter. The computer mainframe was sitting right in the middle of the open office space.

The PC Years:

Though we had no PCs in the office, several of the guys had them at home. I found that I enjoyed working on the mainframe. It sounded like owning a PC was a lot of fun. It was coming up on Christmas, and I kept seeing the ads for Tandy computers. I was a long time patron of Radio Shack, because I have always been a tinker. I made several trips to the Radio Shack at the mall near to where I lived talking to guys about what computer I should get.

I chose the two-piece model, the 1000 SX. Its keyboard was pretty much the same as the terminal keyboards we had at the office, so I didn’t really think about buying a third-party keyboard. It wasn’t long after I got the Tandy, that I learned to type. (See: A Dyslectic’s Love of Typewriters)

Tandy 1000SX First Advertisement

The first in a long line of Tandy computers I owned.

Eventually in the 90s, Tandy didn’t keep up with the other PC makers. I was deep into reading PC Magazine and Computer Shopper. It would take me months to decide on what my new computer would be. To start with I paid no attention to keyboards. Whenever I got a new keyboard that was substantially different from my old one, I would load up my typing tutor program and run through drills until I was comfortable with it.  It was during this time that one computer I bought came with an ergonomic keyboard. Some ergonomic keyboards were just so odd, that I couldn’t use them. That is when I began to order only the CPUs keeping my old keyboard, monitor, and track ball.

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An ergonomic keyboard (Logitech 987225-0403 Cordless Access Keyboard), which was just has chunky as my computer. That computer was so heavy we had to buy the government surplus steel desks to support our monitors.

For a long time not much changed. I was always able to find a Logitech keyboard and trackball I liked. Then came the fateful day that I bought a Mac Mini to use as an unobtrusive media server in my living room.

Having Drank the Apple Juice:

At first nothing about input and output devices changed. Eventually, I got tired of trying to use a Windows Keyboard with my second Mac Mini, which had replaced the two PCs that had once been in my home office, and I bought an Apple keyboard.

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I went straight for a wireless keyboard, keeping my old Windows wired one around for those times when the computer doesn’t see the wireless keyboard after boot. Photo:  Roadmr .

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Eventually I replaced my old windows wired keyboard with an Apple wired keyboard for those times when the wireless wouldn’t work.

With my small hands,  I found the Apple chiclet keyboard to be a huge improvement over the bulky ergonomic keyboards I had become used to. I liked that the keyboard was quite, while still giving a nice clicking noise. The keys also had just the right amount of travel. I think I liked the old Apple keyboard size, because it was pretty much the same size as most of the keyboards I had used over the years, including portable typewriters. That keyboard remained unchanged for years, and that made me happy. I had to replace it once. Water was involved.

When Apple changed to the Magic Trackpad and the Magic keyboard. I loved the idea that they could be recharged and I wouldn’t have to worry about AAA batteries and all their issues. I did and do love the Magic Trackpad. The keyboard was more than useless to me. Though I am a person, who doesn’t like a lot of key travel the key travel on these new keyboards was so shallow, that after typing 1000 words, I felt like I had been pounding my fingers into cement. By this time I had begun to write the novels I had always threatened to write. (See: Novels by S. L. Pirtle )The thin wedge shape of the keyboard was also bothersome.  The space under the old keyboard made it easy to pick up.

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The magic keyboard was less than magic. It had a strange angle, closely spaced key, and many of the keys had strange shapes and sizes.

I tossed this one in a drawer and forgot about it, until sending it off to Goodwill during a clean up. I plugged in my wired keyboard and just didn’t worry about it for a while.

Issues With Travel Once I Found Myself in the Appleverse.

I owned quite a few laptops before entering the Appleverse. I can’t say that I really thought about the keyboards when buying a PC laptop, since I knew that I would have to work at getting used to the smaller size. (Typing Tutor 4 to the rescue.) Actually, I didn’t even give much thought to my Apple laptops. I did note that the keys were pretty well indistinguishable from the desktop keyboard. It was nice because I no longer had to practice when I left home and practice again when I got back to the desktop. I was very happy with my MacBook Pros, only upgrading when something new and flashy came out.

Then came the iPads. My first iPads were only used as consumption devices. When I was up to the iPad Pro, Scrivener, my favorite writing project software published an iPad version. Then it became necessary for me to buy a keyboard to use with the iPads. At the time I wasn’t very worried about weight when I traveled as I was using rolling bags. I watch a lot of TWiT.TV, so I was paying particular attention to their recommendations for keyboards and keyboard cases. Often the guest, who has the best advice, is Andy Ihnatko. He was the one, who turned me on to Scrivener. After considering all the options, I decided to stay with my old favorite, Logitech.

I loved the one that I bought for my smaller iPad Pro shown below. I called that one my SemiPro and the 12.9 inch iPad, just the Pro. I wrote one whole novel on the Semi Pro. There was something about the Logitech keyboard case for the Pro, that just didn’t feel right. I think that it might have been that it was just a bit bigger than the keyboard of the 11 inch Mac Air, which I traveled with at that time. Strangely enough, I didn’t like the Apple keyboard case for the Semi Pro, but liked it for the Pro. It still wasn’t my go to for longform writing. That was okay since I liked writing on the smaller form factor. The Pro was my drawing and game playing unit.

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My first iPad keyboard case by Logitech. It is the one I used to write a whole novel.

Another problem I had, was,that I was always looking for an easy way to write long-form using my iPhone. I tried way too many keyboards before finding the app Drafts. With the draft app all I had to do was talk into my phone or Apple Watch (yes, looking silly doing that!). Later I could quickly move what I had “written” into Scrivener.

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iWerkz Universal Foldable Bluetooth Keyboard (44652RD), one of the many foldable keyboards that I tried and rejected.

The problem with using the iPad Pros, was that it caused me to be driven crazy by the low resolution of the 11 inch Mac Air screen in comparison. After I retired I got Gazelled both of my remaining laptops, and put the money aside to buy one lightweight travel laptop.. I knew that I needed to buy a new laptop before I started traveling again. I wasn’t going to use them until that time, so I shipped them off and hoped that Apple would come out with a good replacement for the Mac Air before I had to leave again. I knew that I wouldn’t be trying to replace the 15 inch MacBook because it was just too darn heavy.

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At one point my iPad was bigger than my laptop. This shows the 11 inch Mac Air alongside my iPad Pro 12.9 inch. The iPad was in the keyboard case I eventually stopped using.

I put my condo in Honolulu on the market and was planning on leaving as soon as it sold, so I bought the MacBook 12 inch to give me time to get used to. It was the only Mac laptop which would do what I wanted it to do, even if it does have a horrible keyboard. As I have mentioned in other posts. the weight of my electric gear was the major factor when packing. I was unhappy with the battery life of my iPad Pro and the smaller iPad Pro wasn’t quite large enough for some of my favorite games. I Gazelled both of them and had enough money to buy the new (at the time) iPad 10.5 inch.

I was disappointed that Logitech had changed their iPad keyboard, to a style I didn’t like the looks of.  I decided that I needed something a bit better than the Apple Keyboard Case, which I went ahead and bought because I thought it would come in handy for those times I was writing short form. The WireCutter Recommended the Logitech Easy‑Switch K811 Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard for Mac, which I bought for the trip, but found myself using in my home office with the iMac, while my leaving was delayed until August.

I cannot recommend this keyboard enough. It has three buttons which can be linked to three different devices. I am able to switch easily between iPhone, iPad, and Mac by pushing a button. The F and J keys’ bumps are well-formed, so you never have to look at the keyboard to align your fingers. If you are a touch typist like me, you know how important that is. The backlit keys are rounded, have a slight divots, and are well spaced. I have no trouble with my fingers drifting between keys. The keyboard is USB rechargeable, and the charge lasts for a long time. It can also be used while charging. There is a power switch, that when turned off, your devices forget it is there.

The video below shows how I used my iPad and favorite bluetooth keyboard on the flight from Hawaii to Oakland, using the iPad clamp in the seat back of my Hawaii Airlines’ seat.

Now let’s talk about what Apple has done to their keyboards on their laptops. I have heard a lot of bad things about the MacBook Pro keyboards, but I can only comment on the MacBook 12 inch. The key travel is very short. The keys are large, with very little space between. The keys have almost no divot to keep your fingers aligned. There is only a faint suggestion of a bump on the F and J keys. The only thing that I can say good about the MacBook keyboard, is that it is backlit. If the Apple keyboard case for the iPad 10.5 were backlit, it would be better than the keyboard on the laptop.

With only the MacBook to travel with, I was doing most of my writing on the iPad, wishing that all my essential programs had apps for the iPad that worked well (Yes, I am looking at you, Quicken and Quickbooks!). I could of course use the portable keyboard with the laptop, but then I would have to sit at a table to work. I like to sit on a cushion on the floor with the laptop or iPad. In Hawaii, I could do this using my floor table. Since I don’t have a floor table here in Cuenca, I wasn’t able to use the keyboard with the laptop while sitting on the floor.

I noticed the other day, that the portable keyboard was just about the right size to sit over the laptop keyboard, so that the two would fit on my lap. I realized that if I were going to use it like that I was going to have to find a way to disable the laptop’s internal keyboard. First thing I learned was that there was no easy way in Mac OS to do this. On the internet most people wanted to temporarily disable the laptop keyboard to protect it from cats.

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Photo credit: Ryan Tir

After digging around on the internet I found a software called Karabiner Elements on PQRS. It is freeware, and as far as I was able to find out there are no known security issues with it. Set up was quite easy. I have it set so that when my external keyboard is powered up to disable the laptop internal keyboard.

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The setup screen for Karabiner Elements.

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The MacBook 12 inch with my favorite portable keyboard.

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How I now use the keyboard to get over the crappy Apple keyboard. One side benefit of this setup is that the height of the external keyboard, helps me keep my thumbs off that huge trackpad.

I didn’t find out until I was ready to test the rig that there are little rubber feet on the bottom of the portable keyboard, which keeps the keyboard from pressing down on the laptop keyboard. I might not have needed to disable the laptop keyboard, but I think it is better that I do.

Categories: Coast Guard Years, Computer Follies, History, Talking Story, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , ,

2 comments

  1. Ha! Right in the pocket for me as I explore options. I literally type off the letters on my MacBook. 🙂

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