Your keyboard is boring — completely practical, functional, useful even, but also awful, boring and stupid. You just don’t know it yet. I learned about boring keyboards in college, when a nasty case of carpel tunnel syndrome threatened to silence my fingers forever. Then, one day, my father lent me a ridiculous vertical keyboard that changed how I think about typing. Now I can’t stop collecting oddball keyboards.
SafeType Ergonomic Keyboard
Yes, I blame my father for my obsession. When my wrists started acting up he brought home the SafeType keyboard: a unwieldy vertical typewriter that he’d been using at work to stave off carpal tunnel surgery. It’s big, it has rear-view mirrors and it looks like a disaster — but the learning curve is shockingly shallow. It’s basically just a normal QWERTY keyboard, but turned on its side. If you can type without looking down at your hands, you can use the SafeType, and it’s worth it. I switched to this vertical contraption almost full-time (it’s rubbish for gaming, of course) and my wrist pain went away.
I don’t just use the SafeType for physical relief — somehow, I just find it more fun than a normal keyboard. It makes me feel like I’m flying a spaceship, and I derive a sort-of twisted pleasure from the confused, half-offended stares I get from co-workers. At some point, using this keyboard stopped being about ergonomics and became an exercise in self-indulgent ridiculousness. It didn’t take long for me to find something even more absurd.
The AlphaGrip iGrip
Stop laughing — it’s more awesome than it looks. OK, no, it isn’t really, but I still love it. The AlphaGrip is like a gamepad, but with keyboard buttons that cover its entire surface, even the back. I stumbled across it while looking for a PC game controller for my living room, and one look told me that it would probably be the worst gamepad I’d ever use. I had to have it anyway.
It took me months to get hold of the iGrip (there was a waiting list for the next production round), time I spent justifying the ridiculous purchase. I held fast to the vain hope that I might actually play some games with it, or told myself that it was academic: a test to see if the QWERTY standard could be beat by something more “innovative.” They were bad lies — I just couldn’t resist playing with a keyboard even stranger than my SafeType.
The iGrip arrived in a plain brown box with an instruction manual and two stickers, each detailing the unintuitive mire of buttons on the pad’s rear. It was almost as if the controller was admitting defeat. “Yes,” they said, “we know exactly how ridiculous this thing is.”
It took me ages to learn the AlphaGrip’s bizarre layout, but eventually I was able type at about half of my normal speed. I loved the challenge, but I never got fast enough to use the contraption as my primary keyboard. Even on light work days, I find myself reaching for a normal mouse — the iGrip’s tiny trackball just gets stuck too easily. Still, I can’t help but revel in owning keys that force my thumbs to do more than just hit spacebar. I still can’t tell you why I bought it, but I pick it up whenever I need to be reminded that I can accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. I’m always surprised at how well I remember its layout, too.
The AlphaGrip was almost portable, and had me thinking about what it would be like to have keyboard I could use to type anywhere — even if I didn’t have a computer. Soon, I concocted an idea: a modern, digital typewriter with seemingly endless battery life and almost no features apart from text entry. I spent weeks trying (and failing) to build one out of an old Nook E-Reader and a USB keyboard when I discovered it already existed. This is the AlphaSmart Neo.
The Neo is the simplest keyboard in my collection, but it might be my favourite. It’s little more than a basic keyboard, an LCD screen and a word processor. There are no wireless features, very little storage and only the most basic apps: a calculator, a “quiz” function (for use in classrooms, the device’s target market) and a dictionary. That’s about it. So, what’s the big deal? The battery: unlike my laptops, the AlphaSmart Neo lasts forever. It’s rated at over 700 hours of constant use, and I’ve read some users have been able to use the same batteries for almost two years. It’s something I keep next to the couch for when inspiration strikes, or toss in my bag to pound out words during an especially long flight.
So now, you’re probably wondering: How does blogger Sean Buckley not get fired when his favourite keyboard doesn’t have an internet connection? Oh, but that’s the best part:
Some day I’m going to take this thing backpacking, and I’ll be able to write just as efficiently as if I were at home. It’s the ultimate distraction-free writing tool.
I thought I was done with off-beat keyboards, but then I walked by the Keyboard.io at TechCrunch Disrupt last year. This butterfly-shaped typewriter is still in development, but it incorporates a lot of things I like, including a more thumb-focused layout, the ability to transform into a partially vertical keyboard and, surprisingly, the ability to control your PC’s mouse without taking your hands off the alphabetical key-caps.
Pressing down on the “function” button that lies under the users palm activates a series of hotkeys that jump the cursor to different quadrants of the screen and activate manual control via the WASD keys. It’s intriguing sounding (and probably not half as good as I imagine), but it’s a novelty that tickles me in all the right places. My wallet fears the day this butterfly hits crowdfunding.
Even my collection has its limits, though: that space-station control panel up there is the DataHand keyboard, an ambitious ergonomic device that puts five keys within mere millimetres of each finger. It look like an awesome movie prop, but it’s just too far out there for me — somehow it just seems too tedious. Yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds coming from a guy who owns the iGrip.
OK, maybe I have a problem — maybe — but at least I’m not alone. My obsession with finding daring, strange and unique keyboards eventually led me to GeekHack: a forum full of dedicated keyboard enthusiasts who put my scruples to shame. This is a community with an vast knowledge of key-cap design, switch resistance and alternate key layouts. It’s also a creative mecca of alternative keyboard design: the Keyboard.io was born there, as well as dozens of custom rigs. If you share my obsession, you should really check it out.
Don’t share my obsession? That’s fine. Enjoy your boring, efficient rectangle.