Keyboards with Special Features

Several keyboards on the market have special features not found in standard designs. These additional features range from simple things, such as built-in calculators, clocks, and volume control, to more complicated features, such as integrated pointing devices, special character layouts, shapes, and even programmable keys.

Ergonomic Keyboards

A trend that began in the late 1990s is to change the shape of the keyboard instead of altering the character layout. This trend has resulted in several so-called ergonomic designs. The goal is to shape the keyboard to better fit the human hand. The most common of these designs splits the keyboard in the center, bending the sides outward.

Some designs allow the angle between the sides to be adjusted, such as the now-discontinued Lexmark Select-Ease, the Goldtouch keyboard designed by Mark Goldstein (who also designed the Select-Ease), and the Kenisis Maxim split keyboards. Others, such as the Microsoft Natural keyboard series, PC Concepts Wave, and Cirque Smooth Cat, are fixed.

These split or bent designs more easily conform to the hands' natural angles while typing than the standard keyboard. They can improve productivity and typing speed and help prevent repetitive strain injuries (RSI), such as carpal tunnel syndrome (tendon inflammation).

Even more radical keyboard designs are available from some vendors, including models such as the 3-part Comfort and ErgoMagic keyboards, the Kinesis concave contoured keyboard, and others. A good source for highly ergonomic keyboards, pointing devices, and furniture is Ergonomic Resources.

Because of their novelty and trendy appeal, some ergonomic keyboards can be considerably more expensive than traditional designs, but for users with medical problems caused or exacerbated by improper positioning of the wrists at the keyboard, they can be an important remedy to a serious problem.

General users, however, are highly resistant to change, and these designs have yet to significantly displace the standard keyboard layout. If you don't want to spend big bucks on the more radical ergonomic keyboards but want to give yourself at least limited protection from RSI, consider keyboards with a built-in wrist rest or add a gel-based wrist rest to your current keyboard. These provide hand support without making you learn a modified or brand-new keyboard layout.

USB Keyboards with Hubs

Some of the latest USB keyboards feature a built-in USB hub designed to add two or more USB ports to your system. Even though this sounds like a good idea, keep in mind that a keyboard-based hub won't provide additional power to the USB connectors. Powered hubs work better with a wider variety of devices than unpowered hubs do.

I wouldn't choose a particular model based solely on this feature, although if your keyboard has it and your devices work well when plugged into it, that's great. I'd recommend that you use this type of keyboard with your USB mouse or other devices that don't require much power.

Bus-powered devices such as scanners and Webcams should be connected to a self-powered hub or directly to the USB ports built in to the computer. USB keyboards and mice correspond to the USB 1.1 standard but can also be connected to the faster USB 2.0 ports on the latest systems.

Multimedia and Web-Enabled Keyboards

As I discussed earlier in this chapter, many keyboards sold at retail and bundled with systems today feature fixed-purpose or programmable hotkeys that can launch Web browsers, run the Microsoft Media Player, adjust the volume on the speakers, change tracks on the CD player, and so forth.

You need Windows 98 or later to use these hotkeys; Windows Me, Windows 2000, and Windows XP add additional support for these keyboards. For the best results, you should download the latest drivers for your keyboard and version of Windows from the keyboard vendor's Web site.