There have been lots and lots of keyboards over the years, and most of the fancier ones try to enhance usability or implement some new feature that we can’t live without. Most of the time designers guess wrong, and implement a useless set of features, or take away things we have finally become used to. As of today, there is no one keyboard that can please everyone, which makes it difficult for the PC enthusiast who listens to music, does office work or programming, and gaming.
So, what does it take to build a perfect “everyman” keyboard that would rule them all? What features do we really need, and what can we live without? As a usability specialist and consumer analyst, I present to you what we should be looking for in the next generation of keyboards.
The ambiguous Functon keys have appeared on PC keyboards since their debut… and at the time were used to access special functions of WordPerfect. As Windows became more popular, the only function key that anyone really used was “F1” (to access help).
To try and make more use of the button real-estate, Microsoft proposed a dual-function use of the “F” keys, which are toggled through an “F-lock” system, which has got to be one of the worst usability blunders in recent memory. It is clumsy and confusing, and makes taking a screenshot a trial-and-error procedure.
Instead of a clumsy “f-lock” like Microsoft uses today, the industry should embrace Logitech’s Fn approach (as used on their Wave keyboard). The F row could have LCD icons and would be programmable. If you toggle between the modes or switch profiles, then these icons could change, which would be helpful for gamers and office workers who want programmable shortcuts.
Some “gamer” keyboards allow you to program macros, and even have multiple profiles, but usually require special software to make the change. This means that you cannot change profiles on-the-fly without Alt-Tabbing or existing your game. All functions, macros and shortcuts would be in onboard memory, so no driver would be needed to use it. The profile could be visually indicated on an integrated LCD display… at a minimum show the bank number, but a readout would be better.
On-the-fly programmable macros
Macros should be able to be programmed on-the-fly without software intervention. You could even name the macros, and the macro name would show up in the LCD display.
Readout should be programmable and automatic (like iMon software) that automatically detects the mode you’re in and displays appropriate content. Gaming content when in a game, media info when in media center, system info when general user, programmable screens, weather, etc. Backlight brightness could be adjusted. LCD and VFD would be available…
Many gaming keyboards today come with standard media controls, and even offer a microphone and headphone jack right in the base, too. They keyboard should also detect when either is inserted, and automatically turn off your speakers. Today, ALL keyboards should come with media controls, because even the stay-at-home-soccer-mom listens to MP3s while virtually making it with young boys on Second Life.
Integrated USB 2.0 hub
One of the first Microsoft ergonomic keybards came with two USB 1.1 ports, which have never appeared in any Microsoft keyboard since. I don’t know why Microsoft ever took this out… it was a great feature. At least two usb ports so you can have a mouse and usb stick without having to do a reach-around.