Critical Section

unused keys

Saturday,  06/12/04  06:24 PM

Have you ever wondered about all the unused keys on your keyboard?

Compaq Evo keyboard

I've been using computers for about 35 years now, and all through that time, keyboards have been remarkably similar.  Keypunch machines, teletypes, dumb terminals, system console, PCs, Macs, Sun workstations, and now laptops - they're all very similar.  You have a "standard" QWERTY setup with four rows of keys with the alphabetic and numeric characters.  You have a space bar, two shift keys, a return, etc.  The ASCII special characters are always pretty much in the same place, except for maybe the weirder ones like backslash and pipe ("|").  But - and this is the thing - there are always keys you don't use.  In fact, they are mostly keys you don't even notice.

On my laptop, at this moment, there are several: scroll lock (?), pause/break, caps lock, "Windows", and "Menu" (shaded pink above).  I believe scroll lock is completely unused, and if pause/break has a purpose, I am unaware of it.  Caps lock's only purpose is to get accidentally pushed, which means I have to push it again to disable it.  (WHO USES ALL CAPS ANYMORE?)  The Windows key is always in a different place on every keyboard, and I'm just not used to it; I know what it does (it brings up the Start menu), but if I need to do that I just, er, click Start.  And the Menu key is new to me on this laptop; I see what it does (essentially a right-click), but have no use for it.

As well, most keyboard these days feature twelve function keys (shaded blue).  There are probably programs which use most or all of them, but I don't use any of them, not even F1 which is mostly but not always Help.  As for shifted function keys, forget it; who could possibly remember all that?  As a counterpoint to those who think I'm hopelessly mouse-centric, I generally prefer keyboard shortcuts to mousing and love CLIs.

And then - there is a weird convention shared among laptop manufacturers that laptop-specific hardware functions be invoked via a Function key (shaded orange).  For example, on my laptop, Function-F2 toggles WiFi, and Function-F4 changes the monitor mode.  These functions are mnemonically indicated, so they're easy to use, but that Function key in the lower left corner throws me off - I expect the Control key to be there.  Since I use a laptop-specific function about once a month, how about putting the Function key in the upper right corner instead, and while you're at it, get rid of the pause/break key altogether?

[ Later: Several of you wrote to point out something really interesting I should have thought of; which keys are missing?  The main missing key is Help, which should have been added at time zero.  These days Mac keyboards have +/- keys for adjusting volume, and another for Mute.  Many laptops have these functions as buttons which are separate from the keyboard.  Those are pretty useful.  Any others?  ]

[ Later still: I received some good feedback, please see more unused keys... ]

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