• The Night Owl Review: A Regular Keyboard for Laptop Users

    January 7th, 2006

    Night Owl Rating: ★★★☆☆

    The typical keyboard on a portable computer is super thin, with limited keytop travel. Although keys seem squished together, proper design dictates that they should be the same size and shapes as those of a full-sized keyboard. Action is reasonably light, which should allow for fast typing, assuming you can get comfortable with the form factor. But since roughly half of you buy laptops these days, and most of you don’t buy standard keyboards to accompany them, it’s clear that this kind of keyboard has caught on in a big way.

    At least that’s what the folks at Kensington Computer Products Group must believe, witness a product with the clumsy name of SlimType Keyboard – Mac. The long and short of it is that this is essentially a laptop keyboard installed in an slick white plastic case. Fringed with metal, it sports seven media keys that are activated courtesy of special software. The list price is $39.99, and, like other Kensington gear, it gets a limited warranty of five years. There’s also a black PC version for $10 less, which seems to be otherwise identical except for the presence of a Windows key and other relics from that other computing platform. I won’t hazard a guess why Mac users are saddled with a higher price, unless white plastic is somehow a lot more expensive to manufacture, which I doubt.

    For the most part, the SlimType is full-sized, although Kensington has crowded the navigation keys adjacent to the regular ones, pretty much as you’d find on an iBook or PowerBook. It saves a couple of inches in width, but it’s an otherwise questionable design decision, as far as I’m concerned. There’s also a standard numeric keypad with a proper level of separation. The F keys are shortened and also crowded atop the main section the keyboard, again as you see in a laptop.

    As with a laptop, the SlimType employs short-travel scissor-switch technology, and feels as if someone just grabbed the guts of a PowerBook keyboard and put it in a regular case. If that’s what you like, I expect you’ll be pleased as punch. Alas, it lacks extra USB ports for a mouse or other devices, another questionable design decision in my book. For some reason, there are also two Control keys. Don’t ask me how that happened, since it’s not mentioned in the documentation.

    As keyboards go, it’s a judgment call. Personally, I have mixed feelings about laptop keyboards in general. I tolerate the one on my 17-inch PowerBook just enough to avoid the inconvenience of plugging in a standard keyboard. So I can’t say that I was overwhelmed by the SlimType. At the same time, it seems solid and well engineered, which is why I give it a three owl rating.

    But keyboards are matters of personal taste, and I want to make it clear that you shouldn’t take my word and dismiss this product outright. If you love or are at least comfortable with a laptop keyboard, it may make a lot of sense to transfer that typing experience to your desktop computer. If you prefer a standard keyboard of whatever type, look elsewhere.

    In general, it’s a good idea to test drive a keyboard at a dealer before you take one home. Although many keyboards use the same switches, there are enough differences to warrant experimentation. I won’t get into matters of posture and the need to take a rest break every hour of two after a heavy keyboard and mouse session. But if the keyboard itself is not a perfect fit, it will just engender additional fatigue. It may not seem terribly important if you don’t type that much, but you’ll know the difference after a long workday.

    I prefer the soft touch of Apple’s Pro keyboard, and products with similar behavior also get high marks in my book. One such device is the USB 2.0 Keyboard from Matias which, as the name implies, sports a USB 2.0 dock. I’ve had one for several weeks, but the initial shipment had a product defect or two, and Matias asked me not to write an official review until the final retail version is shipping. It should be getting mine any day now, and I’ll get a review out as soon as possible.

    But that won’t stop me from making a few preliminary comments. Keyboard action, for example. It’s pretty close to that of an Apple product, and I’ve been using it for my regular work since early December. There are some differences in layout, however, such as a Caps Lock key situated at the bottom right of the main keypad. One clever design innovation is putting the optional key symbols on the keys themselves, so you no longer have to rush for a character map to figure out they are.

    Yes, the Matias USB 2.0 Keyboard has promise, but I’ll withhold further comment until I get the promised replacement unit.

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