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Caress your keyboard

Caress your keyboard

Design engineers have a lot of buttons to push. Creating new products in 3D CAD simply demands a whole lot of interaction with your computer. Accordingly, recent software innovations tout "heads-up design," a reduction in pop-up dialog boxes, context-sensitive menus, and even voice-command CAD.

But a simple product from Microsoft may help engineers rest their fingers and speed product creation just as much-the Office Keyboard.

The company studied how people use conventional keyboards, counting keystrokes and timing tasks. They found that most of us spend the majority of our time doing common jobs like composing and sending e-mail, browsing the Web, and writing and editing documents. That's a lot of mouse clicks and menu choices. So Microsoft dedicated the top row of its new keyboard-the function keys-to shortcuts for those tasks. The keys are grouped in threes, according to their typical sequence of use. So the "F"-keys include: new, open, and close; reply, forward, and send; and spell, save, and print.

Microsoft's research also found that some keys are rarely used, and that one hand overwhelmingly completes more tasks than the other.

Now look to the left side of the Office Keyboard: that cluster of six buttons and a scrolling wheel constitute the "Single Touch Pad," designed to let users compute with both hands at once. The coolest things here are Back and Forward buttons that truly speed Web page navigation, and a rocker button that lets you toggle between open applications. "With your left hand on the Single Touch Pad and your right hand on the mouse, you'll work more easily and get more done," the instruction book says.

Finally, look above the function keys. There's a whole new row of 13 buttons for one-touch launching of popular programs.

Altogether, Microsoft calls it "the most significant keyboard advancement since 1994 when the split-design, ergonomic Natural Keyboard Elite was introduced."

"Our research has underscored just how integral keyboards are to our daily lives," says Christy Hughes, product marketing manager for keyboards. "In fact, we discovered that most computer users touch their keyboards more than their partners or spouses each day. When you touch something that much every day, it's important that it be a comfortable, highly productive experience.

"Caressing my keyboard more than my wife sounds like a recipe for jealousy. So when Microsoft sent us a demo model, I offered to let her take it for a drive. Here's what she thought:

"Okay, so far the new keyboard is pretty cool. I've used it for all of 30 seconds, but have managed to open up all my applications, reassign a button to be Palm instead of Outlook, and scroll around a document. The feel of the keyboard is pretty nice. Soft keys. The ergo set-up is okay so far; you can really only tell that over time, though. It isn't as ergo as the bent/broken keyboard." Microsoft has no plans to make an ergonomic version, since it says that 80% of users prefer a flat keyboard.

She continued: "Basically, it makes things quite simple. Even though I know perfectly well how to most efficiently open my applications, pushing on one little button is very nice."

"Also, it allows you to be far less dependent on your mouse. Having that flexibility would really help relieve some minor carpal issues. To reply to you, I hit the Reply button on the keyboard. Know what I'm going to do next? Hit the Send button. They moved the "insert" button, which I used to constantly hit by accident. It is no longer in my "oops"-range. Smart. And for the new user, it totally consolidates how you do things. Open is Open whether you're in Word or Excel or Outlook. Same with New. Basically, I've used it for two seconds and I'm totally sold."

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