BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 1999

  

 

KEY ISSUES

 

The standard PC keyboard has 101 keys, which is curiously large number when you stop to think about it. Even if you add up all of the alphanumeric characters, punctuation marks, symbols and various control keys it still doesn't come to anything like 101, so what's going on? The fact is a good 25% of the keys on a modern PC keyboard are either redundant or serve no purpose whatsoever.

 

You can get rid of seventeen of them straight away, plus the incredibly annoying Num Lock function. The numeric keypad on the right hand side of the keyboard is just a waste of space. There's a perfectly good set of number keys along the top row of the alphabet keys which fall readily to hand and tie in with the traditional typewriter keyboard layout. Who really needs a separate numeric keypad, clearly not laptop PC users who seem to get on just fine without them?

 

Doubtless there are a few die hard number-crunchers and bean counters who can make a case for retaining it and there are one or two games make use of the extra cursor keys but why should the rest of us have to put up with it? Keyboards without numeric keypads are available but try finding one, and needless to say they are more expensive than standard keyboards…

 

Would anyone miss the Scroll Lock key? It used to have a function many years ago on early word processor programs but these days all it does is switch the Scroll Lock light on and off. How many PC users know what SysRq does? It’s on the Print Screen key, which is in itself something of a misnomer? Print Screen does nothing of the sort. It’s a DOS command that predates Windows but it's not totally useless on Windows PCs. Microsoft has given it a job, of sorts. Pressing it takes a snapshot of what's on the screen. It creates an image file – in Windows bitmap format – which is copied to the Windows Clipboard. From there the image can be pasted into documents and graphics programs. But what about the mysterious SysRq? It's short for System Request, you can press it until you are blue in the face but it doesn't do anything. It's a long forgotten throwback to the days of mainframe computers, though the command is still used in other PC operating systems, such as Linux.

 

The Pause/Break key also takes up valuable real estate on Windows PC keyboards. It's yet another vestigial DOS command that stops or pauses a running program, but the chances of most Windows users ever needing it are negligible. Of course some keys from the olden days still earn their keep. The Esc or Escape key does actually work in a lot of Windows programs, cancelling the last command. The Ctrl key -- short for Control – serves as a multi-purpose function shortcut key, when combined with other keys, as does the Alt or Alternate key, which is often used in conjunction with the Ctrl key.

 

The Alt key (used with the cursor keys) also comes in handy if the mouse fails, calling up drop-down menus in Windows programs, but what about that right hand Alt key? On most European keyboards it is labelled 'Alt Gr' whereas on US keyboards both Alt keys are the same. It is used extensively in countries such as France and Germany where some keys can have up to four characters or symbols, (the two extra characters are sometimes printed in green on the key caps). It works like a supplementary shift key; the normal upper and lowercase characters are accessed by pressing the key, or Shift plus the key; the two extra characters are keyed in using Alt Gr plus the key or Shift + Alt Gr plus the key.

                                                    

It would be difficult to eliminate the twelve 'F' or function keys on a PC keyboard even though very few programs make use of them all. The action of each function key varies from program to program and there are several conventions that Windows users get accustomed, such as F1, which almost always summons a programs on-line help.

 

Getting rid of keys that no longer serve any purpose would make PC keyboards quite a bit smaller, however not all of them have to go.  There's a good case for renaming keys or assigning them to functions more relevant to today's software applications, such as copy and paste commands, which either have to be activated by the mouse or keyboard shortcuts, involving pressing two or more keys.

 

Unfortunately changes are unlikely. The 101-key keyboard has become a deeply entrenched technical standard that has resisted numerous attempts to replace it over the years so we're stuck with it, for the time being at least. On the other hand, maybe that's not such a bad thing; suppose someone did come up a PC that responds to spoken commands what would you do with your fingers?

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