November 13, 2007

Where They Should Be

When I saw the new Apple keyboards a few months back, I thought they were pretty ridiculous; they’re as thin as a Ritz cracker and barely raised off of your desk. It seemed more like comical modernism, as in the case of the Mighty Mouse, than something realistically useful. I must admit, after trying one out and finally buying one, I love the damn thing. The ridiculous height and lack of girth turned out to be the best typing experience I’ve had.

This past weekend I was using the previous Apple keyboard on a friend’s computer and it was like rediscovering my old Commodore 64 after years of it being hidden away—clickity-clack, clickity-clack—and as silly as it sounds, I became acutely aware of the finger effort needed to depress each key. The new Apple keyboard laughs at all of that, combining the ease of typing on a laptop with the scope of a full size keyboard. Plus there’s barely any room for dirt and fuzz to settle inside… there really isn’t an inside!

Consistently Inconsistent

As beautiful as it is, I have but one small beef: Apple moved the volume keys from the top right of the keyboard. It seems like such an insignificant thing, but it screws with the use patterns I’m accustomed to. On the previous keyboard the volume controls and disc eject keys resided at the top right. Now they double up in the middle of the keyboard (joined by three iTunes play control keys) occupying the F7-F12 keys. For whatever reason, I can’t seen to get this through my head. I’ve been using this keyboard for weeks and I still find myself hitting the top right keys.

Perhaps weirdest of all is the eject key. In both the current and previous keyboards it didn’t share space with a function key; it was only the eject key. Previously, it was in the extreme top right spot; F19, then to the right, eject. Clean and simple. On the new keyboard, eject is slapped in between F12 an F13, creating an odd break in the continuity of the function row. It gets even more confusing when I use my MacBook which places all dual purpose F keys to the left while leaving the eject key by itself on the far right (the MacBook Pro can’t decide either).

Why did Apple move them? Did they change them for the sake of the new truncated wireless keyboard that more closely resembles a laptop keyboard? That way the wouldn’t have to manufacture different F keys for the two keyboards, one set with those seven keys on F7-F12 and one set with them on F14-F19. With the groupings they have now—three iTunes control keys, three volume keys and one eject key—they could’ve easily map these sets to the sections of three and four function keys on the right side of the keyboard. It seems so much more natural and intuitive, much the same way that in the middle is avoided in the OS menu bar; important functions are pushed to the far left and far right sides. Isn’t that where they should be?

Commentary (29):

1. Simon says… nov 13, 2007 | 10:39 am

Although I’ve not played around with the new keyboard yet, I can imagine it being disorientating having the volume/eject keys in a different place. It’s odd how the smallest things become habitual and elicit the greatest response when they are changed.

And I must admit, I do like the look of the ultra-slim keyboards. Less place fo dirt to reside can only be a good thing!

2. Jared says… nov 13, 2007 | 10:54 am

It seems that the more commercially successful Apple has become (and, presumably, bigger, with more people involved in designing products) the less concerned it has been with things like this. Even positing the old “context over consistency” argument doesn’t hold water here. I’m with you: this whole key switcheroo is just random and confusing.

3. Jarad Johnson says… nov 13, 2007 | 11:04 am

My initial reaction to the new keyboard design was to spam everyone on my IM with image captures and linkage. I was concerned by how Apple has repeatedly failed with the Mighty Mouse, but after receiving the keyboard I have yet to find anything that doesn’t work perfectly.

By far the best feature (aside from the exposé features, in lack of hot corners) are the iTunes controls…something that has been lacking for far too long.

4. John Niedermeyer says… nov 13, 2007 | 11:40 am

My frustration with the top row extends also to the Exposé and Dashboard keys…

On the MacBook Pro, to hide all windows, press F11. But, hook it up to a Cinema Display and the new keyboard, and you have to remember to hit Command+F3. Same for Dashboard: F12 on the MacBook, but F4 when I’m at my desk.

I’ll never get this right – it takes me an extra couple of seconds to orient myself, and tap the right keys. And yet, this is still the best keyboard that I’ve ever had.

5. Jason Santa Maria says… nov 13, 2007 | 11:44 am

John Niedermeyer: Wow, so the external keyboard overrides your laptop keyboard. That’s confusing as hell!

6. Ian says… nov 13, 2007 | 1:34 pm

What Apple has done with the new keyboards is, at once, amazing and demented. I use Exposé nearly a thousand times a day – my left hand could find F9 in the dark. Apple trained it to do that, it’s no longer a conscious effort.

Nowadays though, F9 does little more than launch iTunes, cause me to curse and remind to take my fucking right hand off my fucking mouse and press the motherfucking F17 key for the seconds-delayed, same-exact effect. Assholes! I want my seconds back! Why not fuck up the QWERTY while you’re at it?!

Sorry, Stan. This has been building up. Good post.

7. Kirk says… nov 13, 2007 | 2:06 pm

I’m sort of lucky with this because I switched over to a Mac a relatively short time ago at work so didn’t have that long to get really accustomed to any particular key layout, though the whole Ctrl vs Cmd thing did take me a while to get used to. The iMac at work is the previous model while the one I have at home is the latest. I too considered the new keyboard with a suspect eye but so far I like it though to be honest I still like the tactile response of the bigger keys. Through into the mix that I still do some things on PC and I’ve got more keyboards that any poor soul should ever have to contend with. The fact that I can type this without mistyping every other word is a freaking miracle.

8. apartness says… nov 13, 2007 | 3:50 pm

I like Ian’s comment.

9. Brian Warren says… nov 13, 2007 | 3:52 pm
John Niedermeyer : “I’ll never get this right – it takes me an extra couple of seconds to orient myself, and tap the right keys. And yet, this is still the best keyboard that I’ve ever had.”

Exactly my thoughts. Odd, disorienting, and at times annoying, but by far the most delightful keyboard I’ve ever had.

10. David Sleight says… nov 13, 2007 | 6:30 pm

Amen! Typing on this keyboard is a joy, but the function key arrangement is warped. Anchoring the volume/eject keys at the physical upper right corner of the keyboard (instead of an internal “layout” corner) had nice Fitts’ Law benefits.

Worse to me is the ordering of the Exposé and Dashboard buttons. Exposé (unlike Dashboard) has multiple commands (Show all windows, Show all application windows, Show Desktop). But this layout makes it impossible to place them in a logical sequence without having a Dashboard button stuck in between them like a rude lost tourist. (Let’s all sing that “One of These Things is Not Like the Others” song.)

Unless of course you don’t mind remapping the keys and having them be totally mislabeled.

11. yani says… nov 13, 2007 | 6:57 pm

Isn’t it possible to remap the keys on the new keyboard? I’ve been using Synergy for years just so I can have keyboard shortcuts to iTunes (Apple+F14,F15,F16) and for Expose I’ve remapped them to Apple+F1 for application windows, Alt+F1 for all windows and Shift+F1 for desktop. This means I never have to let go of my Mighty Mouse!

12. Brian “DoctaBu” Moore says… nov 14, 2007 | 1:02 am
Ian: Nowadays though, F9 does little more than launch iTunes, cause me to curse and remind to take my fucking right hand off my fucking mouse and press the motherfucking F17 key for the seconds-delayed, same-exact effect. Assholes! I want my seconds back! Why not fuck up the QWERTY while you’re at it?!

I remapped the same order (all apps then windows in app then desktop then dashboard) over F16-F19. It’s taken a bit getting used to, but it now feels at least a bit like it was back on my old keyboard.

13. Jim Jeffers says… nov 14, 2007 | 1:07 am

Jason, that EXACT same thing led to an embarrassing moment at the Apple store. I went to the grand opening of one of the new locations out here in Arizona during the Leopard launch. I decided to have my iPod looked at by one of their geniuses, as no reservations were needed that day, and thought I’d kill some time on a new iMac while I waited. And that’s when it happened, I opened up iTunes and hit play only to realize the speakers were set to FULL volume. Those things are LOUD! Caught off guard, I sprawled to the top right of the keyboard but couldn’t find the volume buttons. People around me started looking at me. I must have had a blatant look of confusion on my face. Instead of just pausing iTunes I kept looking for the keys. It felt like an eternity.. I never found them and eventually came to my senses and paused itunes with the mouse. Only to discover the keys in the top middle afterwards. I don’t know how they made that design decision but I agree with you, I don’t believe it was a good one.

14. Danny says… nov 14, 2007 | 9:52 am

I can see your frustration on things getting redesigned or relayed out. I think they moved it for 2 reasons, the new wireless keyboard and putting all the special function keys together. I applaud Apple for changing things up from time to time. If Apple took the safe “everyone is use to it” approach and not change things around, Mac OS X would still feel 15 years old much like Windows is. I believe MS doesn’t change their OS besides adding new features and visuals because people are use to their old ways and want no part in change and relearning.

15. Jason Santa Maria says… nov 14, 2007 | 9:57 am

Danny: Why would they change the layout to accommodate the keyboard that fewer people would have (considering all the desktops come with the full size keyboard)? And, the special function keys aren’t all together, there is a gap: F5 and F6 have no special function.

I agree that Apple should move forward and try to improve things. No one is disagreeing with that. But this keyboard shift still seems totally random to me.

16. Danny says… nov 14, 2007 | 10:05 am

Good point. And I do agree that the volume and eject buttons don’t feel as natural as before.… I don’t have an answer to that.

I’m sure there are a few applications/mods that let you configure the special keys. Now if only someone could come up with a way to move the illustrations on the keys. :)

17. Damien Guard says… nov 14, 2007 | 1:12 pm

I really enjoy using the new keyboard at work as it feels almost as good as a tactile keyboard but is incredibly quiet - which keeps my colleagues happy.

The previous Apple Pro keyboard I had used the same rubber-mat technology of most cheap keyboards but did feel a little better.

If you want a really clicky responsive keyboard and don’t mind the noise then consider checking out those with Alps-switches like the Mattias Pro, keysprings like the IBM Model M or Cherry switches like the Das Keyboard 2.


18. Shelby Drayton LaBadie says… nov 14, 2007 | 2:15 pm

I love my new Apple keyboard, too, Jason, but have precisely the same beefs with the rearrangement. Strangely, when I was designing the first MacBook site in the spring of 2005, the first rounds of photography I saw of the keyboard had their keys left mysteriously blank. Throughout the product launch, many key emblems were changed, indicating to me a heated debate within the product design department about which key should go where. This caused all kinds of headaches while designing, as I was constantly swapping out one retouched image for another. I knew something was afoot and feared for my second nature key command ways. The rearrangement seemed as random to me then as it does now, and no hardware product manager could tell me why.

19. Andy States says… nov 14, 2007 | 8:36 pm

I’m still jumping like a little girl when I go to insert a symbol in flash and I itunes begins blasting at full volume again. I’ve considered turinging it down, but I must admit, I do like to rock.

20. Montoya says… nov 14, 2007 | 10:56 pm

What are you talking about? Apple never does anything wrong. </sarcasm>

21. Blake says… nov 15, 2007 | 9:05 am

Isn’t it amazing how it’s the little changes in life that make a big difference. We’re creatures of habit. When a habit is broken (even a little one), our minds send signal flares all over the damn place.

Somebody moved my dual monitor display off about a couple inches one day. Don’t know who it was, but it took me at least a day to forget the funny feeling I was looking in the wrong direction. ;)

22. Elliot Jay Stocks says… nov 15, 2007 | 1:16 pm

I’m with John Niedermeyer, David Sleight, Andy States, etc.: the repositioning of the keys has actually stopped me from using some of my most used shortcuts.

Sure, I’ve got around it by ignoring the new setup and have just treated the buttons as they used to be, but this has the adverse effect of a) mislabelling the keys, and b) resulting in there being no volume keys. To change volume (or brightness), I have to hold the function key (on the MBP keyboard) and the use the MBP keys themselves. What’s up with that?!? Yes, I need to remap everything. But it shouldn’t really be that way, should it, Apple?

Nice one for posting this, Jason - it’s about time someone said something!

23. cpawl says… nov 16, 2007 | 9:54 pm

Wow. I am a huge Apple fan but I honestly can not believe everyone is trying to justify the new Lost in Space toy keyboard. Hearing things like ‘Yeah it changed everything I’ve done, all my productive shortcuts, I have to remember 4 different ways to use Apple keyboards depending on what computer I sit at, it feels cheap and looks cheaper, but damn if it aint cool.”

In my opinion this thing is a disaster and an insult to the community. This is worse than the mighty mouse. At least the mighty mouse with it’s tickle ball of goofiness does what all mouses (mice?) do. I never use that piece of poop either but when I have to I am glad that moving the ball to the right doesn’t crreate a new playlist in iTunes.

Don’t even get me started on the wireless version. I got a free one from a professor I know that hated it and now my 2 year daughter plays with it as a pretend toy.

That is another thing, iTunes. One thing I always loved about mac keyboards over PC keyboards was they realized how silly it was to include application specific keys. Does anyone really need an email button or an AOL IM button? Now we have iTune controls where system wide controls were… great. What are we in 3rd grade? Maybe we should ahve a button that does nothing more but creates the water ripple on our screen, now that would be hot. I predict someday the entire mac OS will live in iTunes and the new imac will be nothing more that a large touch screen with one button.

Again I say wow. I am going back to the internet archives to read all the reviews from those who equally praise the hockey puck mouse. I have a feeling they are going to read exactly like most of these comments.

24. Jason Santa Maria says… nov 17, 2007 | 6:14 pm

cpawl: Wow, “an insult to the community”? That’s a bit much. It’s only a keyboard, I don’t think they were going out of their way to offend you. :D

I never liked the hockey puck mouse, or really any Apple mouse for that matter, but this keyboard is a genuine treat, by far the nicest, most comfortable, and easy to keep clean that I’ve ever seen or owned. The wireless version is another matter, that does indeed seem misguided and for little reason—the last wireless keyboard was still a full size.

25. cpawl says… nov 17, 2007 | 9:11 pm

I really don’t think referring to it as an insult to the community is too much. The mac keyboard layout has been virtually unchanged for good reason. Applications have built key commands based on it’s layout and function. Heck Apple themselves have key commands and OS specific features based around it. Then one day, to be weird, to save money, maybe just to sit back and laugh that once again no matter what they do the community will follow - they decide to rearrange everything. If you relied on photoshop particular commands for the last 10 years.. time to re learn some of them. If you relied on Flash based commands, time to re-learn some. If you relied on Expose commands for the last 2 1/2 years, too bad. If you used the same eject CD key since 1991, oh well. Doesn’t matter now because our keyboard is made with the same material as astronaut’s belt buckles and that is cool so that is what should matter.

If there was an obvious or even explained reason for these odd decisions than I would give them respect for trying to re-invent the wheel. Instead it appears random and deliberately unconcerned with anything more than style. When a company offers a product lineup of only a few machines and there are 4 different keyboard layouts (the two laptops, this thing, and the wireless version) available I consider that an insult.

I guess we differ on what is comfortable. Even if Apple followed it’s own rules and the layout was normal this keyboard feels like a toy, even more so than the ibook plastic barbie doll keys. Not to mention it looks like something that would come with a Mattel Star Wars Deathstar special addition command station operation game. I am a fan of low profile keyboards, personally I use the Macally IceKey for it’s low profile, tackle feel, and standard layout. Even more so I am a fan over function over style. Even if it was the most comfortable keyboard to me I would never sacrifice my productivity and waste time re-learning standard keyboard layouts and key commands for it. I thought that is what the iphone was for.

26. Colin Devroe says… nov 19, 2007 | 4:18 pm

I’m a little late to this party but I did want to mention that when I am away from home I miss my wife, my cats, and my new Apple keyboard - in that order.

27. Warren Parsons says… nov 20, 2007 | 12:36 pm

I tried the new keyboard when a co-worker bought one, and while it’s significantly better in feel than the previous Apple standard keyboard, it’s not even in the same league as something like the MacAlly IceKey (of which I own two - one for home and one for work).

For those who say it’s the nicest keyboard you’ve ever used, I’d just like to say that it’s far from the best available.

28. Ian Corey says… nov 20, 2007 | 8:29 pm

I found a review that made it clear how to use Function Row as standard F1, F2, etc. keys. Oddly, in System Preferences > Keyboard & Mouse one can select Use all F1, F2, etc. keys as standard function keys. Even odder, when this option is selected, press the Fn key to use the special features on each key.

Pretty obvious now.

29. Designer says… dec 16, 2007 | 10:50 am

I actually quite like the keyboard layout of my new MacBook. It all makes total sense to me. On the left there’s even a new button for “Expose”, although some people might argue that this is a bit over the top. I will take a look at my colleagues’ iMac keyboards tomorrow. Thanks for sharing this info with us.