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I just got my Google I/O Chromebook and one of the most interesting things about the keyboard layout is that certain keys have been replaced by Google with new ones that are more relevant for an operating system that is a browser.

For instance, the caps lock is now a search button that opens a new tab and focuses the search bar. The F-keys have been replaced by back, forward, refresh, full screen, screen switch, brightness and volume buttons.

There are also no page up/down, insert, home or delete keys. Instead you can use Alt+up/down to scroll full pages and Ctrl+up/down to go to the top or bottom of the page immediately.

Chrome OS is a very progressive operating system built on a new paradigm and lots of new ideas. But does Google taking this step mean that others should or will follow? Is it time to take a fresh look at keyboards and the remnants of keys we've had in place for decades now?

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My personal opinion-- I like how many laptops (especially Macs) use the F keys for common system functions by default, but also allow you to use them as custom shortcut keys (with Fn), which I use quite often. I haven't used Chromebook, but I would be disappointed if it didn't include an Fn key. The one drawback, however, is that I find myself slowed down just a tad by the fact I have to use both hands to page up and down (fn+up/down). The caps lock key, on the other hand, can't be used as a shortcut and is pretty much useless IMHO. –  Jeff Aug 5 '11 at 23:14
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@jeff You can use the space bar to jump down on web pages, and shift+space to go up. FWIW –  tajmo Jun 15 '12 at 22:49

5 Answers 5

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I recall that Jef Raskin proposed the removal of the Caps Lock key over 10 years ago in his book The Humane Interface, I think advocating an undo key. I don't think it's any more the case now that the keyboard needs a rethink; it's always had issues, but only recently have they begun to be addressed. The ones that come to mind are:

  1. Caps Lock is basically useless. Almost anything would be better. (This one Google is fighting)

  2. Num Lock is just as useless, 95% of the time.

  3. F# keys that are modal and basically useless because nobody knows what they do. (Apple has been adressing this one for a while.

  4. The awkward space between space bar and the arrow keys that has a couple of modifier keys or whatever that nobody really uses as far as I know. One last keyboard reinvention that springs to mind is the use of the former eject key as the power key on the latest Macbook Airs, although it should be noted that this is the same design as Apple's ill fated eMate 300, way back in 1998.

The trend is basically that the standard keyboard layout is basically a typewriter artifact, and while it's largely too unpleasant to relearn the regular keys, there's plenty of room for improvement around nonstandardized functions.

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For that matter, buttons like num lock and print screen aren't on this keyboard either. –  Rahul Aug 6 '11 at 10:44
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According to the pattern of dirt on my keyboard I still use Caps Lock. The square bracket keys are however completely unused. –  PhillipW Aug 6 '11 at 11:10
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@PhilipW ew, clean that thing! –  Rahul Aug 6 '11 at 12:49
    
Well, I use all the keys you are mentioning - capslock, numberpad, insert, delete etc. The problem is, people don't know how to use a keyboard. Using keyboard is much faster than using mouse. I assure you that anybody who types a lot of texts (laywer, programmer, writer) can be much more effective when using the keys you don't understand. I also use the F keys. However, keyboard manufactures stopped making a small space between ESC/F1, F4/F5 and F9/F10 so now it's pretty hard to find the correct key without looking. –  Sulthan Jan 2 '13 at 14:04

I was lucky enough to get one during the pilot program and I found myself using that search key quite often.

However, I believe much has already been done in that regard. While Chrome's were unique they were not the first. I can remember far back getting HP desktop that came with a keyboard with a few extra keys on it. One to search AOL's keywords haha.

But the best example of what is happening now is in laptops and netnooks. With the constricted space much is consolidated. Mac's have their own style and functions too.

Yet the reason Google was allowed to break out the box with their keyboard is because....well they broke out of the box and the netbook(chrome) is focused on being a web browser, so the functions it needs to represent are the different. So it can be different in its design.

With powerful laptops and desktops the need has not changed. Thus you only get innovation like what the Alt FKeys do.

I think the only trend everyone should take from the Chromebooks is that wonderful replacement of the CAPS LOCK KEY, BECAUSE I RARLEY NEED IT AND IT OFTEN MAKES ME SEEM LIKE I AM SHOUTING, AND HAVING OPEN UP SEARCH IS SOMETHING I USE QUITE OFTEN.

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ok, ok! Calm down already :-) –  Roger Attrill Aug 5 '11 at 20:56
    
hahahahahaha :) –  jonshariat Aug 5 '11 at 21:38
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If you are on Windows: have a look at "Caps Lock Be Gone" on ihatethecapslockkey.com . It has served me well, especially on my laptop where I tend to hit capslock when I want the tab or the shift key. Having the search key in that place would really irk me out... –  Marjan Venema Aug 6 '11 at 9:41

The problem with changing a keyboard layout is that for a touch typist, this makes the machine almost impossible to use.

Many existing laptops already have non-standard layouts ( eg the shift keys will be in the wrong places).

My main criteria for buying a laptop is how good the keyboard is (layout + key 'bounce')

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Well, that's the great thing about virtual keyboards - they're often context-specific. I like how android virtual keyboards have a .com key when you type a web address and a @ key when you type an email address. Unfortunately, virtual keyboards suck in most other aspects and you can't really use them in a productivity setting.

So I think that the direction is to combine the two, and to explore the direction of an easily customizable physical keyboard. The Optimus Maximus was a step in the right direction, but it's unfeasible in its current form. When they come up with a cheaper and a better one, maybe it will begin a new age for keyboards :)

UPD

People seem to be hating the CapsLock key, so an anecdote about that:

In Hebrew we don't have capital letters, so what the CapsLock does when we write in Hebrew, is turn on English capital letters. And especially in technical settings our documents often contain a huge amount of English words. So we use that to quickly switch to English and back with the stroke of a key. Also, Hebrew has a special system of diacritic marks which aren't represented anywhere on the keyboard. So the way to type them in Windows is to press CapsLock, and then hold Shift and use the number keys. It's completely counter-intuitive, but in this instance pressing Shift while in CapsLock doesn't cancel the CapsLock, but gets you into a third mode.

Also, many games utilize CapsLock to turn on whatever it is that Shift does - usually Run mode.

I don't mention this as reasons to keep the CapsLock - everyone will find a workaround eventually, but just to point out that it's not completely useless :).

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I hate it when people use the capslock to switch to English - all the letters end up in uppercase. Perhaps the capslock should be replaced with a language key. –  Danny Varod Jun 30 '12 at 10:50
    
I use Alt+Shift to change between languages. Granted, you do have to set up multiple languages first, and it is two keys instead of one, but it still makes it quite quick to switch. And you get the benefit of having a complete English keyboard. –  mflodin Jun 27 '13 at 12:53

I think that some of these assumptions are only true for some sectors of users.

The F-keys are commonly used by power users such as programmers, we know what each one does in each app with and without Ctrl and Shift pressed down and we need those extra context-specific keys for frequent use.

If the keys changed label accordingly, it would be nice, but since experienced users don't need to look at the keyboard while typing, it is not necessary.

The thing I hate about my keyboard is the F-lock that cancels the F-keys.

The num-lock can be very useful. I use the numpad as arrows at least 95% of the time. The better layout than the 4 keys and the additional diagnols used for faster movements (home, end, page up/down) enable faster keyboard-only navigation through documents together with selection of words or lines. In games the 8 arrows (including diagnols) are very useful for faster movement in all directions.

By better layout I meant the fact that the down key is below the left and right keys which is a more logical layout.

Most of the time I enter number via the keys above the letters. Only if I am entering a large amount of numbers one after another do I use the numpad for numbers and also only if the keyboard has the =()/*-+ keys next to the numpad. (E.g. Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000/7000.)

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