BOOT CAMP 239 (20/08/02)




This week, in part two of our short series on basic input and output devices we focus on the keyboard. The one that came with your PC is almost certainly a cheap and cheerful type that sells in bulk for a pound or two. They are okay for composing the odd email but if you need to do any kind of serious text or data entry then not only could it be slowing you down, it may even be causing you physical damage!


Expert opinion is still divided over the root causes of repetitive strain injury (RSI) but there is little doubt that the modern PC keyboard and word-processing software encourages faster typing speeds. The most plausible explanation is that the keys on many PC keyboards have a very light action and relatively short travel – compared with a typewriter – which has a percussive effect on finger joints, over time this can result in discomfort and pain. The design of computer keyboards, monitors and inappropriate furniture can also encourage poor posture, which can lead to a range of problems in the arms, neck and lower back.


If, like me, you have ever suffered from a nagging ache or pain in the fingers or wrist after a long typing session your keyboard could well be to blame; my own discomfort disappeared within a couple of days of changing to a new keyboard. The keyboard in question was an ‘ergonomic’ split-field type, with the keys arranged in two groups on a slightly curved and sloping case, with built-in palm support. This design allows the hands to remain in a much more natural and relaxed position and the curvature and divided keys means the fingers have shorter distances to travel.


There are several variations on the ergonomic theme and it’s worth trying a couple of models out for size at your local computer dealer, if possible on a desk at normal working height. Palm and wrist supports or pads, whether they are built in or not can also make a difference. Pay particular attention to the ‘feel’ of the keys, the action should be firm with some damping, to cushion the impact. Adjustable feet are worth having, so it can be angled for maximum comfort but make sure they’re steady and unlikely to collapse, especially if you are a ‘thumper’ or a ‘pecker’.


A standard Windows keyboard generally has a compliment of 105 keys but nowadays many aftermarket models have between 109 and 130 keys. The extra ones are usually assigned to additional functions such as PC power (standby, sleep and wake-up), Internet and email functions, volume control and user-defined ‘hot keys’, where you can set a key or key combination to do a particular job, such as open an application or call up a menu option. You can also get keyboards with built-in pointing devices, like trackballs and touch pads – similar to the ones on laptops – replacing the mouse. The touch pads on some models are large enough to be used as small writing tablets. Some extra functions can be genuinely useful but just remember that there’s also more to go wrong…  


Advanced keyboards are normally recognised as standard keyboards by Windows and to access the extra functions it is necessary to load a driver or utility program on a supplied floppy or CD-ROM. Keyboard driver programs can sometimes be a bit flaky and it’s not unknown for them to conflict with other applications so it is important to read the system requirements on the box, note any warnings and pay particular attention to the operating system requirements if you are using Windows XP.


The majority of Windows keyboards use the standard PS/2 mini DIN type plug to connect to a socket on the PC’s back panel. To assist identification and distinguish it from the mouse, which uses exactly the same type of connector; the keyboard socket and sometimes the plug as well is coloured purple. Never connect or remove the keyboard whilst the PC is running. Keyboard controller chips on PC motherboards are notoriously delicate and if you zap it the whole motherboard will have to be replaced.


A growing number of keyboards have USB connectors and these can be used as a ‘hub’ for other USB devices, including mice. Whilst there are no performance benefits to this arrangement it can be a convenient way of cutting down back panel clutter since both devices share a single lead, moreover it makes it easier to connect other devices that you may only use occasionally, like a transfer lead for a digital camera or a memory card reader.


Cordless keyboards have a mixed reputation. The downside is that like cordless mice they usually entail more cables than conventional ‘wired’ devices, for the receiver module and power supply/charger. Wireless keyboards are usually powered by rechargeable batteries and like all rechargeable gadgets, have a nasty habit of running down at the most inopportune moment. They can also be subject to interference from a variety of sources, including other wireless devices, remote controls and even the radio transmitter at the local minicab office.


If you have a disability, visual impairment or are left-handed it’s worth knowing that there are a multitude of adapted and custom designs available, there’s also an apparently endless succession of ‘alternative’ layouts, meant to overcome the essentially redundant QWERTY layout. Another area you may want to investigate are keyboards designed for specialist applications, these include ‘ruggedised’ and water/spill proof types, point of sale (POS) models for use with computerised cash registers, keyboards with separate number pads and even high security keyboards with biometric fingerprint recognition pads. Details of companies manufacturing and marketing specialist and custom designs can be found on the Internet.


Next week – monitors





Identification of individuals by measuring or analysing unique biological markers, such as fingerprints, patterns in the retina or iris and facial recognition 



Deutsche Institut fuer Normung. German standards organisation and a member of the International Standards Organisation, developers of the round multi-purpose, multi-pin plugs and sockets used on computers and hi-fi equipment



Universal Serial Bus, high-speed industry standard connection system for peripherals



Since we’re talking about keyboards here’s a couple of shortcuts worth remembering when you are using Internet Explorer. Pressing F11 toggles the display between normal and full-screen views, handy if the Start menu bar obscures parts of the web page you’re looking at. Should you want to make the Start menu reappear just press Ctrl + Esc or the Windows key (WinKey), you can use the mouse or cursor buttons to make a selection or make it disappear again by clicking into an empty area of the web page.

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