The keyboard matters

The keyboard matters

Summary: Very recently, the LCD panel on my IBM (vintage) Thinkpad T42 (around one year old), decided it had enough and stopped working on me. It was a gradual death.

TOPICS: Hardware

Very recently, the LCD panel on my IBM (vintage) Thinkpad T42 (around one year old), decided it had enough and stopped working on me. It was a gradual death. At first, the display would just turn off at times when I was relatively certain the computer shouldn't be entering the standby mode. But it wasn't a rogue element in Windows' power management that was prematurely putting the Thinkpad to sleep. The display was simply going off. Notebooks are sort of useless without their displays.  They can be rendered nearly as useless (permanently) by really poorly designed keyboards.


In desperation, I found a solution that worked, if only for a short while.  On Thinkpads (IBM's or Lenovo's), pressing the Fn and F5 keys in combination toggles the display between the on/off states.  When the display went off on me, toggling it off and then on again with Fn+F5 brought it back to life.  But once you begin to take desperate measures like that to keep you and your computer on working terms, you know it's only a matter of time before the end will come; those dreaded 3 or 4 business days that the computer will have to be sent somewhere to be repaired.  Or worse, the IT department will say it's not worth fixing.  They'll get you an new system and get it as up to speed with the old system as they can, but some things that you desperately relied on are usually gone.  My browser must have hundreds of passwords cached up for all the sites that I have to log into.  I can't remember which passwords I've used for which sites and that cache has become my crutch.  Moving to a fresh browser installation without that cache will undoubtedly ex-communicate me from some of the sites I work with.  Hopefully, the "Forgot your password?" link will do the trick.  It doesn't always. Or it mails the password to some email account I've forgotten about.  *sigh*

It's too bad I'm not running virtual machine technology like VMware Workstation on this Thinkpad like I've been recommending to everyone.  Well, I am. But I installed long after most of my applications were installed and the system was broken in like the back right pocket of my favorite blue jeans -- the pocket where my wallet fits perfectly (provided I insert with the concave side facing in).  Had I been running VMware from the get-go (on the Thinkpad) , this would have been a no-brainer.   The applications  would have all been installed and broken into one or more virtual machines.  And working with the new system would have simply been a matter of installing VMware Workstation (full blown or the runtime) on it, and copying the virtual machine files from the old system to the new.  Forget any of the other benefits of virtual machine technologies I've described.  This ability to copy a fully broken-in configuration of operating system and applications from one computer to another without skipping little more than a beat in productivity is worth the cost of the virtual machine technology (price of VMware plus the cost of some extra memory) in gold. 

For some reason, my Thinkpad T42's external monitor port decided to start working.  I'm not sure why.  It didn't before.  So, the task at hand, for the last few weeks before I send this notebook out for repair, is to get this other notebook system sitting on my desk -- an AMD Turion-based Acer Ferrari -- fitting as much like the wallet to my jeans as the old system was.  Only this time, I am installing everything in VMware-based virtual machines and so far, it has been great.  Several people have written to me, poo-pooing the idea of running separate VMs for different taskgroups.  For example, I have one VM for all my e-commerce.  Another for those applications that require my company's VPN to work.  And a couple others.   You're welcome to your opinion if you think this a dumb idea. 

But, right now, with my e-commerce VM shut off (I only run it when I need it) and with personal firewalls and privacy settings  on the other VMs screwed down so tight that none of my personal information can get out of them (I only let my personal information out of my e-commerce VM and even then, only to specific sites), I have no worries about being compromised even if I do end up with spyware.  I wish I could say the same thing for my wife's computer.  The personal firewall on that started to complain that several of its components (components that looked like Windows components) were trying to FTP something to  She's pretty sure she clicked no everytime the firewall asked to let the components attempt to communicate via Port 21 (FTP).   But we're not sure if something important may have gotten out.  Should something like this happen to a VM on the Acer Ferrari.  No big deal.  Nothing important can get out.  I can sleep at night.   Even better, I can just delete the affected VM and revert to an older snapshot that's known not to have the spyware on it (another advantage of VM technology).

So, now that my Acer Ferrari is nearly up to speed, there is one thing I've noticed about it that will interfere with my productivity.   Perhaps almost as much as an insecure system, spyware, or a failing LCD panel: it's the keyboard.  From one notebook to the next, the LCD technology is pretty standard.  It may come in different sizes.  But generally speaking, white looks like white.  Red like red and so on.  Imagine if, after you turned on your notebook, red looked like brown.  Or if white looked like yellow.  Notebook manufacturers know this would be a big mistake.  What's surprising to me is, after all the hullabaloo that was made over IBM's legendary ability to put a nearly full-size keyboard into all of its notebooks during the last decade, why any notebook manufacturer wouldn't look to put something that's close to the equivalent of that in their own offerings.  The keyboard on this Acer Notebook stinks.  To me, it's almost unusable (and inexcusable).

In addition to reminding notebook manufacturers of some basics in ergonomics, why bring this up now? Well, with all the excitement over the Origami systems that were recently shown off by Microsoft and Intel (some without keyboards) and the soon to be released DualCor system (a Windows Mobile PDA, Window XP system, and cell phone in one -- see CNET's video coverage), the game for the miniature device that packs the most punch is clearly on.  But most of these devices do not come with a nice built-in full-size keyboard the likes of which can be found on Thinkpads (not that they can).  Until they do figure that problem out (or do about 100 times better than they're doing today with speech recognition technology --- the real frontier of input), I'll stick by the notebooks with the best keyboards.  Right now, Lenovo's notebooks qualify.  Acer's do not.  Feel free to chime in below with your experience so as to keep ZDNet's readers from make the same mistake I did when I bought this Acer.

Topic: Hardware

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  • VMWare wouldn't have helped if the drive died

    "This ability to copy a fully broken-in configuration of operating system and applications from one computer to another without skipping little more than a beat in productivity is worth the cost of the virtual machine technology (price of VMware plus the cost of some extra memory) in gold."

    Or, you could simply have backup up the OS & it's configuration. Since you weren't doing regular backups, you got burned. VM's for "backup" purposes are useless if you don't save them on a disk other than your PC's hard drive. What if it was the hard drive that crashed, not the monitor? With your current backup "strategy" ("do nothing"), you could have a billion VMs, and you would still have lost all everything.

    Go ahead and push VMWare, I really don't care. But only if you push it for the right reasons. Otherwise, you give the impression of being either a fool or a shill.

    Justin James
    • Without backups, you're screwed either way...

      so it's a wash. The good news is that with VMware, backing up is a piece of cake with its snapshot capability. Take a snapshot and put it on a mass storage device like a USB drive. There is no other form of back up where you can just copy a handful of files to a new system and be back up and running as if you're old system never died.

      This is the way to go.

      • Where do these ideas come from?

        You are dead wrong. I will take Ghost or any other drive imaging software any day of the week over VMWare in terms of the ease of backups. One file, and no overhead. Or Windows Backup, for that matter. Again, one file, plus you can selectively restore. And because it uses shadow copy, it also is doing a snapshot of your system. And it's 100% free, and doesn't involve me violating my license agreement to use. And if I'm a non-Windows person, every *Nix has a snapshot system baked into the file system.

        VMs are great in a few select circumstances:

        * You are developing and/or tested applications and need a wide variety of systems to run against, or an environment that you can quickly and easily blow away without a moment's thought.

        * You need to run a wide variety of various OS's on a server that take little system resources. I still find it hard to beleive that you would need to do something like run a few different Linux's, a BSD or two, and maybe Solaris simulaneously. The vast majority of userland utilities and apps have been ported to most *Nix's, so again, I really can't see where this would be too useful. Heck, BSD has a Linux compatability mode that's pretty decent. And Windows has POSIX add-ons (Windows Services for Unix, Cygwin) that are pretty decent (from what I hear, never used them personally) so I really can't see this being too useful.

        Any other use of VMs is just plain foolish. If you try working with them as a way of isolating applications, it may be time to consider switching to a different set of applications, ones that aren't so lousy. If you're using Windows, you're in gross violation of your licensing, unless you really want to pay for each separate copy of Windows; even then, most of your apps are still being violated too, in all likelihood. If you are trying to work with two entirely different OS's, you still have all of the associate headaches from file system differences (pick your poison: a giant FAT32 partition with none of the benefits of a modern file system, or using SMB file sharing or NFS to transmit data between the two OS's, hooray for resource usage). If you are doing it for backups, there are better, easier, cheaper, and less resource intensive ways of doing that.

        Every reason, outside of testing/development that I have ever seen you put forth in favor of VMs cannot stand even the most minute scrutiny. This is what truly concerns me. I think that you have found a nifty technological toy (I will admit, the technology behind VM's is pretty cool) and think it is some sort of magic bullet. It isn't. You're doing the exact same thing with your VMs that you could do with a removable hard drive bay, except for run the OS's simultaneously. and that, as mentioned a dozen times by myself and others, is a major Microsoft licensing boo-boo.

        On top of that, VMs give you even more problems. Even the slightest memory leak or other "feature" in the VM software is going to make your life incredibly miserable. You have the wasted disk space from each of these seprate OS installs (to use it for what you want, you need the OS and all applications, which is typically 10 - 20 GB worth of space all together). You have the severe reduction in system speed; my system is slow enough just running one copy of Windows at a time, thank you very much. I can imagine that running two or three copies of Windows at once is akin to hitting yourself in the crotch repeatedly with a broken broomstick.

        Justin James
        • What you seem to be missing is the point on HW independence

          By using VMWare, the dependence that a Windoze installation has to a particular HW configuration goes away - completely. In the event of a catastrophe or disaster, you can restore a virtual Windoze machine to a completely different HW configuration. Because VMWare hides the real HW configuration from Windoze, all the registry entries that are dependent upon HW work without a problem, blissfully unaware the underlying HW has changed.

          In a disaster the alternative, of course, would be to either: a) find an identical HW configuration (a remote possibility); or b) install the OS and all the applications separately. While there are utilities that help in a disaster / HW replacement scenario, VMWare does this simply and quite elegantly.
          IT Makes Sense
      • *yawn*

        "The good news is that with VMware, backing up is a piece of cake with its snapshot capability."

        Piece of cake with Norton Ghost also. Having RAID mirroring also helps.
  • All Notebooks/laptops

    should be considered disposable computers. If you liked the Stinkpad so much why didn't you buy another one? You're like a guy in my office that swares at and by his Thinkpad. He practically cried when it died and needed a trip to the shop.

    Me, no way, no laptop/notbook for me. If I can't put it in my pocket it stays home. There's an ad running showing people dropping or otherwise trashing their laptops. That is the eventual fate of every laptop/notebook made, why pay $800 to $2000 for something you KNOW you're going to drop fatally?
  • Display-less laptop as backup

    Here's how I got extra mileage from a Toshiba laptop with a dying screen years ago: I used it as a backup, essentially just a big networked harddisk.
    Prerequisite: set it up for "no action" when you shut the lid (i.e. it does not go to sleep, hybernate ...etc). Hook it to your home network, any time you want to back up, just turn it on without opening the lid, and drive from the other machine. In fact this was not a classic "backup" but a fully functioning copy of entire directory structures from the other PC.
    Zoli Erdos
  • Bad keyboards

    The most grievous errors on computer keyboards are:
    1. The placement of extra keys (like Home, End, PageUp, PageDown, Delete, Insert, PrintScreen, Scroll Lock, Pause/Break) varies from keyboard to keyboard.
    2. Similar to the Shift Lock key on old typewriters, the Caps Lock key should not work unless the Shift Key is also depressed. One presses Caps Lock so often by accident when aiming for the Tab or Shift keys that the AutoCorrect feature of MS Word has a default of ?Correct accidental usage of cAPS LOCK key?. There surely must be some software patch that could correct that problem.
    I would also prefer that the Shift Keys have slightly more resistance when pressed so that it feels different from the other keys.

    • other bad keyboard thoughts

      There is a way to fix the caps lock key problem.

      Back in the olden days, on unix workstations, the caps lock and ctrl keys were opposite of where PCs have them. I.e. caps lock was down the the bottom left of the keyboard, and the ctrl key was left of the A key. There are keyboard maps and some wedge programs out there that do this for various OSes. If you've ever used some of the old typewriters out there, you'll remember that many of them had the caps lock key right under the shift key this was as well.

      The other thing I hate on keyboards was when Microsoft decided that the 6 key belonged on the left of their ergo keyboard. If you're a touch typist this is as bad as putting the b key on the right hand side, or the y key on the left.

      I used to have a password with a 6 in it back when I first got a MS ergo, and I swear I locked myself out of my own machine by failed login attempts way too many times before I gave up and went to the a local computer store and bought a keyboard with the 6 where it belongs, on the right.
  • Tablets are the worst - some have NO keyboard!

    Some tablet PCs come with NO keyboard!

    Which whittles you down to three options:
    -Pen input: Goodbye speed (especially if you were a touch typist - writing is a *lot* slower than typing), and it has a hard time recognizing my o's.

    -Voice recognition: Good luck if you have a heavy accent or have speech problems. Unless your speech is as clear as a bell, you can count on correcting errors left and right. And for navigating in Windows, it's slower - instead if hitting a quick and easy key combo, you have to speak a command. Speech recognition is mostly for writing documents, not for navigation.

    -Tapping on an onscreen keyboard: A touch typist's nightmare - since Tablet PCs generally don't use a technology that recognizes your fingers, you [i]have[/i] to use the stylus and hunt & peck on the on-screen keyboard.

    I'd rather get a bad keyboard than none at all.

    In the end, if you want to get a Tablet PC, [i]make sure it has a keyboard![/i] Especially if you're a touch typist.
  • Toggling FN-F5 probably enabled your aux monitor port

    When my Toshiba Satellite cracked its screen, (it did that all by itself! Honest!) I was stuck with stranded data on a hard drive I couldn't manipulate. I tried plugging a monitor into the aux port. I could watch it begin its boot on the auxilliary, but as soon as Windows XP got up, the auxilliary went black. But I was able to flip on the auxilliary monitor with a FN key combination, and then I was able to burn all my files onto a CD and move them to my new laptop. Did your auxilliary port never respond before your Thinkpad went sour, or had you never tried the right keyboard instruction?

    I discovered from this experience that any time the screen cracks, the manufacturer and the retailer both regard it as your fault and a liability you personally bear. Even if you are within the one year warranty, even if you were a sucker who paid extra bucks for the retailer's cover-everything extended warranty. And the dang screens cost 500 bucks to replace, which is a non-starter on a year-old computer that only cost 700 to begin with. A consumer's throat can fill with bitter bile over an incident like this, to an extent where, months later, he can still find himself unable to work until he dashes off another angry letter.

    But I digress.
    • I thought the same thing

      I once won a $450 Lotus software suite (early 90s, Lotus was hot) from an Intel rep at a college recruitment thing, he had to give a presentation and his Toshiba wouldn't put any video out. He said he'd give this software pack to anyone who'd get it going. So I Fn-F7'd him and away it went. He was a recruiter, not a tech, apparently.
  • "...speech recognition technology...

    ...the real frontier of input."

    Somehow, I don't see myself writing C code using speech recognition technology--I think I'll hang onto my keyboard a while longer.
    Henry Miller
  • Help for CAPSLOCK key in windows

    One workaround that has helped me immensely is to turn on "togglekeys" in windows. This causes your PC to emit a tone whenever the CAPSLOCK key is pressed - a high tone for "on" and a low tone for "off" which alerts you when you hit it by accident. To enable this, go to Control Panel, Accessability Options (the wheelchair icon), Keyboard Tab, and check "Togglekeys". You will be glad you did.
  • RE: The keyboard matters

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