I’m a barely average typer. I haven’t really timed myself very well, but I know that I’m much slower than a lot of people that I know. What’s more worrying is that my typing is very error-prone, I have to hit the backspace key once very two or three words, certainly not very encouraging. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently, and typing in general. Being a computer scientist and software developer in training, I’ll be doing a lot of typing over my lifetime and being a fast accurate typer is a must for me. All the more so, because I enjoy writing and blogging, but can’t really afford to spend a lot of time on them.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that there really a number of complicated issues here: not just very important things like RSI and ergonomics, but a lot of smaller things that can become very important. In fact, I wonder if there should seriously be college-level typing courses. These courses would not just teach ways to avoid RSI and ergonomics, but would also teach techniques like touch-typing which can significantly speed up typing speed. A part of the course would also be devoted to letting students experiment with different types of keyboards from different manufacturers and brands. I think that one size fits all certainly doesn’t work when it comes to keyboards. Though computer scientists might be the ones that most benefit from such a course, almost every college student could benefit from becoming a better typer — writing papers might take just a little less time if a student was pumping out 100+ words a minutes instead of 30-50. In the old days before typing became standard, people laid great emphasis on having clear legible handwriting. In an age when standard fonts have made legibility a non-issue, I think we should start placing just as much emphasis on being a good typer.
So back to my problem, how do i improve my speed and efficiency? One of the reasons that my typing is slow and error prone might be that I switch between a number of different keyboards: my 15.4″ Toshiba laptop has a fine flat keyboard with nice large keys closely spaced and I really enjoy typing on it. My old G4 Mac uses one of the old white Mac keyboards, those are nice, but I’m not very fond of it. My college library recently updated one of their Mac labs to the new aluminum iMacs and their thin flat keyboards. I have mixed feelings about this one, I like the laptop-like keys (though sometimes I do wish they were a bit stiffer), but I’m not quite sure about the spacing. Occasionally I find myself having to use various Dell keyboards and I like each of them to a different extent. I’ve been wondering if using a single keyboard might help improve my typing. Hardcore gamers are known for carrying their keyboards and mice to LAN parties, why shouldn’t programmers do the same? Ok, so there really aren’t that many coding parties, but you never know when you might have to sit down and write some code to save the world.
On a more serious note, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that finding the right keyboard is an absolute necessity for anyone who does a fair amount of typing. Your muscles have a certain memory and the better you train that memory, the better your typing will be. Of course if you keep switching keyboards, your muscles will have a hard time keeping up and won’t be remembering much. I’ve written before about how a good keyboard is important, but I haven’t really been looking for a full time keyboard myself. But now that I am putting more and more time into typing related activities, I realize that it is important that I find a good keyboard for myself. So what is important to me? Firstly, much of my programming takes place on my laptop under Arch Linux. I actually do like my laptop keyboard a lot and I’m not sure if I want to use an external keyboard with that. Portability is important for me as well. I like working from different places around campus: different rooms in the library and different computer labs on campus. I would like to be able to carry my keyboard with me. I also have developed a dislike for the ‘standard’ desktop keyboards, with thick heavy keys (once again probably due to heavy laptop use). Though I don’t really dislike them, they are not something I would like to buy and use all the time. It would be ideal if I could get a laptop-like keyboard, slightly larger, but light enough to carry around without much trouble.
There are a number of laptop-like desktop keyboards out on the market. The most popular seems to be the Kensington slim keyboard. It looks like a decent product, stylish and fully functional. There are also a number of foldable keyboards out there which I found rather interesting. There are some that are completely flexible and can be rolled up nice and tight. But I really don’t want something like that, because I think it’s too far from what I’m used to for me to feel comfortable. I looked at some types that are rigid, but divided and hinged so that they can be folded up. But they are mostly designed for PDAs and hence come with short USB cables and I didn’t really feel any that made me feel that I really wanted it. One keyboard that I was really interested in was the Matias folding keyboard. Unfortunately it seems to be out of supply and at almost $70 the price tag is a bit hefty. Considering that I’m not really all the go all the time, I don’t think the investment will be worth it.
So what can I get? I think I might have found a solution in the new Mac keyboards. They do take some getting used to, but the more time I spend it with one (currently almost an hour each day) I find myself getting better with them. The keyboards are also light, but sturdy, and the two USB ports on the side come in handy for plugging mice and USB drives in. The $50 price is a bit higher than I would have liked, but I think it’s acceptable. I’m not ready to commit yet, I’m going to spend another week or two trying them out before actually buying one, but I think it is the best option for me at the moment.