[solved] Is there a laptop keyboard that doesn’t suck?

Update: Found one!

I'm in the market for a new laptop, but I can't seem to find one with a decent keyboard. I'm a programmer so these are keys that must be easy to hit without looking:

  • Esc
  • Enter
  • All the arrow keys
  • Tab
  • Home, End
  • Del, Backspace
  • Alt, Ctrl

Most laptop keyboards, unfortunately, have one of the following problems:

  • A stupid little "Fn" key as the lower right key, making it nearly impossible to hit left-Ctrl without looking
  • No space around the arrow keys, so I can't feel which button I'm touching
  • Little or no consideration for the placement of the Home/End keys, rendering them unusable without hunting (or that blasted Fn key)
My modified Acer Aspire 3500 keyboardMy modified keyboard

I've modified my current laptop keyboard to add space and remove annoying keys:

Victims include: Tab, Scroll lock, Ins, Context menu, and some proprietary dollar and euro keys nestled in with the arrows.

I'm not looking for a fancy machine with an amped-up graphics card or fingerprint reader or other such nonsense. I just want a basic laptop with standard hardware and a keyboard that doesn't suck.

Anyone want to recommend a manufacturer?

Cross-posted to LJ and the Neon Guild mailing list.


Responses: 10 so far

  1. TedTrippin says:

    I hear ya!!

    My work supplied me with a Dell Inspiron 1600. Whilst originally I loathed it, being a programmer and used to a "proper" keyboard, I eventually got used to it. It had that infernal Fn button but I was able to live with it. The home and end keys (2 of the most useful I find) were small but well placed.

    I poured wine (not on purpose) over it so they've replaced it with a Dell vostro 1500. I regularly beat it. For some reason they have put the home/pg up/pg down/end keys down the side in that order. They have shrunk the right shift key to make way for the cursor keys, so I go up a line when ever trying to type a capital letter! Finally, they have put the context menu key in between the right ctrl and left cursor key so instead of scrolling left, word at a time, I get the context menu.

    So there you go, 1 ok keyboard and 1 to def. avoid.

  2. Kemp says:

    No.

  3. Robert says:

    I AGREE COMPLETELY.

    I too am a programmer and I went looking online today for a laptop replacement.

    I've always bought DELL's but won't buy a DELL because of the new keyboard layout.

    Programmers use the keyboard all day ... and apparently these laptop designers don't know that.

  4. Zusukar says:

    My work provided me with the HP nc8430 and it's keyboard is very good for a laptop. There is a link to a picture below which shows the keyboard. Of note is the correct orientation of the Insert through Page Down keys at the top right and also the Fn key is not leftmost.

    http://www.notebookreview.com/assets/14636.jpg

    Perhaps of interest to your windows readers is TouchCursor ( http://www.touchcursor.com ) and AutoHotKey ( http://www.AutoHotKey.com ). TouchCursor will allow you to use your Space key as a modifier (like Ctrl) to change your J,K,L, and I keys to function as the arrow keys. AutoHotKey can be used to remap any key to any other key or a macro. Unfortunately AutoHotKey does not see the Fn key because it does not send a scancode directly.

    I prefer to use CapsLock as a dedicated Play/Pause key and I also remap the Application key to act as an additional Windows key (useful for one-handed Win+L when walking away from your computer).

  5. Jim says:

    What your looking for is called a mobile workstation laptop. They typically have 15" wide-screen monitors and full size 104 keyboards; very little use of the "fn" keys. :)

    Something like this from Dell: http://www.notebookreview.com/default.asp?newsID=4471

    Or this from HP:
    http://www.notebookreview.com/default.asp?newsID=3864

    I have heard some complaints about the quality of HP laptop monitors, and I am biased toward Dell.

  6. RC, unix sys-admin says:

    Good observations, Tim! I recently got a new HP laptop, but took it back (and paid the restocking fee) because I hated the keyboard layout so much. The designers only seemed to care about making a style statement with the keyboard, not about usability.

    It has the pattern Ted mentions: home/pg-up/pg-dn/end, all in a column at the right edge, which is downright annoying.

    Maybe if I look for a laptop aimed at small-business folks, it'll have been designed with usability in mind and not just abstract style concepts. The "mobile workstation laptops" Jim refers to seem way too much in hardware and price; 2 GB of memory is just fine, thanks; don't need 4.

  7. Tim McCormack says:

    I just bought System76's Pangolin Performance (specifically, the panp4i model), and the keyboard is great! Here's a photo:

    System76 Pangolin Performace (panp4i) keyboard

  8. Dmitry says:

    SCREAM: 17" laptop keyboards suck like the most sucking things.
    Why do they make keys that are used most often on average - the arrow keys, smaller than the rest, i.e. tiny, fit for baby fingers? Why do they shift them down so that Control combinations become a form of exercise? Why do they move PageUp, PageDown keys to the top far right of the keyboard so that you have to stretch your palm, and again make them tiny in a row instead of natural vertical layout? The reasons:
    Firstly, the holy right Shift key. You can't mess with the right Shift key and not have its right edge flush with the Enter key above to make room for the Arrow Up. It has to be the largest key by width on the keyboard, or else (bad omen, evil jinx etc). Secondly, a 17" laptop has enough space for a numeric keypad, but you can't have a row of navigation keys between it and the keyboard, no, no, no!! It would mean that you are frivolously wasting precious space if you make all keys just a tiny bit narrower to fit in a column of navigation keys. Accountants and hard core gamers would notice that tiny difference and crap themselves in disgust.
    Thirdly, it is a good mental workout to make sure that you are hitting the right keys at the right distance and your fingers are sufficiently nimble and stretch well.
    The last good keyboard layout I had was a Digital Note with a navigation column in this order from bottom to top: Right Arrow, Page Down, Page Up, Delete, Insert and Home and End on top horizontally, which is a natural layout, as navigation in text documents from start to the end of the line is horizontal by nature. Even if they reward you with a navigation column on the right hand side (on 15.4 " laptops), some wise guy decided that the Page keys should be between Home and End. He's wrong.
    While many laptop makers stopped placing tiny PageUp/PageDn/Home/End on top and tiny down-shifted arrow keys at bottom on 15" laptops (the prime example is Dell), it hasn't filtered through to 17" laptops yet, and I am losing hope. Hyper-expensive Sony Vaio AW is the only one, having navigation column beside the numeric keypad (which I could have reprogrammed to a PageDn/PageUp/Delete/Insert/End sequence once I decided to splurge). Unfortunately, another bright mind has decided that laptops are primarily for watching BlueRay movies, so it has a lopped-off resolution 10% less than WUXGA. That "perfect for watching BlueRay movies", "full HD", in reality "10% less screen space for your documents" trend is spreading like wild fire. Lord, have mercy.

  9. jepeuxlavoir says:

    Hi,
    My take on things is that because the goal is to have as many keys as possible accessible without having to look for them, and ideally without having to move your hands, using a bigger keyboard is not really helpful. Actually for most people who are neither lumberjacks nor concert pianists a smaller one would be more accessible.

    Also it seems that adding more keys along the right side of enter, backspace, etc, is a less-than-optimal strategy. Enter, Backspace, and the right shift key are already further away from a touch-typist's index fingers than tab, capslock, escape, and the left shift key. J and F are the "home keys", ie the place where you put your index fingers. J -> P and F -> Q is almost the same distance -- there's usually less than a half-key-width in the difference. But P has at least three keys -- [, ], and \ -- outside of it, and Q only has one (TAB). And then they stick more keys over there, further out of reach?

    So there should be an extra column of keys on the left side of the keyboard, probably for HOME, END, PGUP, PGDN, etc. Usually this extra column, as with both of the pics posted here, is located on the right-hand side. I've never seen a keyboard with that column placed on the left, but I can't see the downside to this design. Might as well move the arrow keys over there too so you can have them nearby. Since there's so much space to compensate for, they can be wider than normal keys. Actually this is the general rule -- the further away the target, the larger it needs to be if you want to be able to hit it frequently; that's why shift, enter, backspace, etc. are that size. The Escape key should be huge.
    Another possibility is to make the additional keys normal width but taller, and then put Home above End and PGDn above PGUp in two columns, with Home/End being further away from the center (because it's more powerful and more likely to cause problems if you hit it by accident). If you make Home/End taller than PGUp/Dn, you can use the extra space below PgDn for the up arrow key.
    So this way you can reach all of it easily with your left pinky instead of having to shoot in the dark with your right.

    This also has the nice bonus feature of resolving the touchpad location issue:
    Currently a lot of laptops have touchpads that are not centered with where your hands are supposed to be, ie located with their center directly below G and H. This causes problems because you're more likely to accidentally touch the pad with your thumb if your right hand has to be hovering over it in order to put your fingers on the right keys. But if you do align the touchpad with GH, it's not in the center of the actual layout of the laptop, which causes aesthetic issues.
    So the solution, again, is to add more keys to the left side of the keyboard so that the horizontal center of the actual keyboard is the same as the horizontal center of where your fingers go.

    This is so completely obvious in retrospect that I kind of believe that laptop designs are created by people who don't know how to touch type. Or perhaps they are an elite class of mutants whose right fingers are much longer than their left fingers.

    The Fn key is useful because it lets you relegate keys that are rarely, if ever, used -- what does SysRq do?? -- to subfunctions of existing keys, and save real estate for commonly-used functions. Although the Fn key itself might be better located in the middle of the bottom-row "blind spot" -- this is between what you can comfortably reach with your pinky and what you can comfortably reach with your thumb. This last is often just the space bar, because it's usually larger than it needs to be.

    So does this happen? Anybody know where I can get a keyboard like this? How much variance is there between the interfaces of different laptop keyboards, ie the connectors and housing? Are there some companies that make better-designed replacement keyboards for existing laptops?

  10. Robert says:

    Returned my HP - bought a DELL - hate it just as much.

    The issue is the HOME and END keys being in the far right. It makes it impossible to go from start to end of line.

    Everything is based on consumer watching movies.

    No real function key access
    Home and End keys should be easier to access

    The touchpad location on all HP machines is horrible being off centered, so you rub against it when typing.

    I think DELL should offer all laptops with both layouts - old and new.

    I wont buy from DELL or HP - both have changed their keyboard and monitors to be heavy consumer use.