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Mac Rant: Keyboard visual design

I'll talk about my new laptop later, but I found that as I collected my thoughts on the issue, most of my attention was directed at keyboard peeves. Switching keyboard layouts is certainly not going to be easy, and I do like the softer feel of the keys and their big size, but it seemed much of my ire was preventable by a better visual design.

First, there are the basic criticisms. Apple reduced the number of keys on the keyboard, but they still found room for two keys labeled 'enter', and no one can tell me the difference between 'enter' and 'return' -- I've found people who have used Macs for years without noticing the extra 'enter' key. Apple also can't stick two visible buttons on a mouse, but they have four modifier keys (fn, ctrl, option, command), two of those modifier keys have two labels (alt/option, apple/cloverleaf), and most still don't have labels that matches the labels that OS X uses (caret for ctrl, up for shift, indescribable for option). I still don't know the difference between alt/option and apple/squiggly-leaf.

The greatest object of my hatred though is the 'fn' key. First, there is the fact that it is located where the Control key should be, but that's not my main peeve -- I remapped the caps lock key and am much happier now. My main peeve is that many of the keyboard keys are decorated with two labels, one to indicate what happens when you press it, and the other to indicate what happens when you press a modifier key. But they don't tell what that modifier key is, nor are they consistent. For the F1-F12 row, it is the 'fn' key. For numbers, its Shift. For the overlaid keypad, its the 'fn' key once more. So far, not too bad. For the left/right arrow keys, its the apple key, but for some applications the 'fn' key sometimes has a behavior; for the up/down arrow keys its the 'fn' key, but the Apple key has yet another behavior, which happens to be identical to the behavior of 'fn' + left/right. Then there's the missing label(s). At first I thought there was no "Delete" key -- the Mac 'delete' key is actually backspace -- but it turns out that 'fn'+'delete' has the missing behavior, it just doesn't advertise it.

The PC laptops I have use a simple solution to this confusion: colored labels for fn-related keys. Dell even found space to stick in the proper icons for shift, enter, backspace, and tab. Less pretty, but I remain unconfused.

Comments (2)


It's funny, I have some similar gripes with the PC keyboard, mainly that the "Apple" key brings up the start menu. I've been messing around with Parallels (that windowed emulator software for Intel macs) and the keyboard disparities become painfully obvious when Apple-tabbing between windows (or alt-tabbing when I happen to be on the Parallel window).

Still, I agree with your basic issues with the keyboard options. It's odd for a system that seems to scream at the top of its lungs that it's all about simplicity to be, well, pretty confusing at times. Go into the keyboard shortcuts in the System Prefs and everything is listed by its keyboard symbol, a number of which don't even appear on the keyboard. It's like the world of keyboard iconography is stuck in the awkward middle ground of establishing and using. People recognize the "play" and "stop" buttons on any device, but the outlined up-arrow still isn't universally seen as the shift key.


I never thought how weird that Apple/Start key rewiring must be for Mac people -- its a bit easier going in the opposite direction as the Start key certainly is much more disruptive to your work. Its a bit strange they even bother mapping it, seeing as some PC manufacturers still refuse to stick a Windows/Start key on their keyboards.

Somehow my brain has managed to achieve the rewiring of the Control and Alt keys that occurs between PC/Mac (e.g. cut and paste shortcuts), but it is weird that they have so openly diverged yet converged, e.g. Windows is Ctrl-X for cut, Apple is Command-X.

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