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It seems that the caps lock key is not a frequently used key on a computer keyboard yet on all the keyboards I have used, it is afforded a significant amount of interface real estate, often as much as the backspace space key and more than quite a few other keys such as delete, arrow keys and escape.

The caps lock key is used in some specialist applications: engineers use it, as do people with poor motor control of their hands and I imagine graphic designers who often use capitals for stylistic reasons also benefit from it's existence, but even in these cases it will be still be an infrequently used key.

Why is it so big? Should it be resized or put in a different position on the keyboard?

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What makes you think that Caps Lock isn't used that often? I, for one example, never use the Shift+[Letter] sequence and so use Caps Lock quite frequently. –  Brendon Jul 6 '13 at 17:46
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i meant not frequently used key press wise. i.e. the enter key, or the backspace key are more frequently pressed keys during use of a computer as they have more commonly used functions associated with them or more functions depending on context –  ColinSharpe Jul 6 '13 at 18:04
    
+1 Your questions are great, keep them coming! –  Gala Jul 7 '13 at 8:54
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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Originally on mechanical typewriters, both Shift and Caps Lock physically shifted (moved) the mechanism, and required a lot more force than typing any of the other keys. Hence, the Shift and Caps Lock keys were made bigger as many typists would use two fingers on them to make it easier to press.

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And for those not old enough to have used a mechanical typewriter, the Caps/Shift Lock key literally was a ratcheting lock which held the mechanism in place. IIRC, it was released by pressing the Shift key at completion of the typing. –  cdkMoose Jul 8 '13 at 15:47
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The caps lock key is "descended" from the typewriter shift-lock key. My guess is that, at the time typewriter keys became rectangular (as opposed to round) the shift-lock key was made wider than most keys is to fill the space between the "A" key and the left border of the key cutout in the body of the typewriter. Possibly the tab key was made wide for functional reasons, and this pushed the left edge of the key cutout leftward, so the shift and shift-lock keys were widened to keep the left edge of the key cutout a straight line.

Old IBM Selectric typewriter

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I'd go with the 'filling the space' argument. On a manual typewriter (rather than the electric, pictured) the shift keys have to be bigger as you have to exert force on them to move the whole mechanical apparatus: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/… –  PhillipW Jul 6 '13 at 22:11
    
Concur. All the keys beside the alphabets, on the ends (left and right) and widened to accomodate the empty space. –  rk. Jul 6 '13 at 22:14
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I don't know the historical reasons behind it being so big, but I don't think that it needs to be changed. If someone decided to make it a "normal" size (the same as of a letter key), it would mean that you have to shift all the second row of letter keys to the left by about a key's width. This would render the keyboard unusable to anyone who is as much as a moderate typist, because the important keys would move from their familiar positions. You'd need to be an extremely bad typist not to be affected by this change. It would also place the first letter keys in the three rows in a very strange layout:

  QWER
 ASDFG
   ZXC 

The alternative would be to stick some other key in the remaining space just to fill it in, which also doesn't sound like a particularly good idea.

Some keyboards for different languages move around some of the more rarely-used keys (which only frustrates tourists), but the relative placements of the letter keys is pretty much always the same.

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i would probably consider promoting some shift accessed key, such as the @ key, underscore or currency sign (but leaving the promoted key available where it usually is too) and put caps lock up with scroll lock - this would provide the user with improved set of easily accessible keys while leaving the QWERTY layout alone - not to mention also stopping the annoying situation where people who can't touch type end up with a line or capitals in their text. –  ColinSharpe Jul 6 '13 at 15:38
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You can decrease the size of the Caps Lock key without changing the keyboard's layout. See for example the picture of the electrical typewriter that @obelia added, where the actual pressing space is smaller than the whole key. This reduces the chance of hitting it by accident (which happens all too much anyways). –  Dvir Adler Jul 7 '13 at 6:00
    
I think that the OP meant that it uses up too much real estate that could be put to better use, so this wouldn't solve it.. If he meant that it could be pressed by accident, then you're right. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Jul 7 '13 at 8:31
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