New Apple Keyboard: Fine hardware, but the software side still needs work

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
August 30th, 2007 • 2:28 pm

The other day, for some reason I felt that typing with my older white Apple keyboard (the one that does not cause spurious double keystrokes for me) was particularly slow and hard. It might just have been the mood or the physical state that I was in, but since I had seen positive reports about the new (wired) keyboard recently launched by Apple, I figured I would order one and give it a try.

There is not much point in doing a lot of research on keyboards before buying one, because ultimately the only real criterion is how it feels for you, and you cannot know that without getting one yourself (unless you are fortunate enough to have access to someone else’s hardware and it includes one of the new keyboards). Since it was a relatively minor expense ($44CDN educational price), I figured that I didn’t have much to lose anyway.

I should also stress that, being a bilingual Canadian, I absolutely need a keyboard with the Canadian CSA layout. And unfortunately in that area options are much more limited than with the standard English keyboard layout. American and English-speaking Canadians have a variety of third-party keyboards that they can choose from. On the Canadian French side, unless you want to buy a PC-oriented peripheral, you are pretty much out of luck. It’s Apple or (almost) nothing.

I am also reasonably satisfied with the Mighty Mouse. (I really like the small scroll ball much better than a traditional scroll wheel—although I do need USB Overdrive to prevent it from scrolling horizontally in contexts where I don’t want it to do so.) So I have a reasonable amount of confidence in the abilities of Apple’s designers of input peripherals (more than in the era of the original iMac’s infamous hockey puck, let’s say).

And finally, the new keyboard looked like a rather bold departure from the previous generations of keyboards, which appealed to me, because I was looking for a drastically different approach.

Well, I have been using the new keyboard for 24 hours now and, on the whole, I am really pleased with it.

There are absolutely no problems with double keystrokes. In fact, I occasionally would get double keystrokes even with the older white keyboard that I was using, especially with the Return key. So far, I haven’t had a single occurrence with the new keyboard.

I like the fact that the keys are really flat and require little effort with the fingers. I am already typing faster than with the previous keyboard, and possibly with fewer errors. The keyboard is quite similar to the one used on the MacBook (not the MacBook Pro), with just enough space between the keys. I really like that. I would always accidentally hit function keys with the previous keyboard. Not so with this new one. There is enough space between the top row of number keys and the function keys above to avoid this.

The fact that the function keys are not as big as the other keys doesn’t really bother me. They are still big enough. The only thing that I don’t like is that the glyph for the function key number (F1, F2, etc.) is rather small. I am short-sighted and, even with my glasses on, I find it hard to see the number next to the “F” without squinting. Since there is no longer any separation between the first four function keys and the next four (and the next four), it makes it a bit hard to know which key I am about to press. On the other hand, many of these keys now have “hardware control” fonctions with big symbols, so I will probably end up using those symbols visually to help determine which key I am about to press, when I need to look at the keyboard before pressing a key.

The new hardware functions do not bother me much either, except maybe for the brightness controls (F1 and F2). I cannot for the life of me understand why people would want to have the brightness settings so readily available. The lighting in my office does not change, and I don’t need to change the brightness all the time. I can understand the need to adjust brightness regularly on a laptop, because of the variety of lighting environments that the laptop might be used in, but for a desktop computer that does not move? It is too easy to accidentally hit these brightness controls when you don’t mean to. And, unfortunately, as far as I can tell, there is no way in the System Preferences tab for keyboard shortcuts to turn these key functions off.

Which brings me to the software side of things. The first thing you have to do after you plug in the new keyboard is to download a software update, which weighs 16 MB (!). I don’t know why the software update is so large, but it certainly is not a complete solution. Even with the software update installed and the computer restarted, I still find a number of issues with keyboard shortcuts in Mac OS X. For example, if I try to assign a keyboard shortcut using one of the new function keys (F17) to a menu item in Pages, it simply does not work. On the other hand, I can assign F17 to some other system functions. So it looks to me like there is not only a need for a system update, but also for application-specific software updates, and Apple’s own Pages does not seem to be… on the right page yet.

I will have to experiment some more, and the whole situation is rather confusing, because the new “hardware” functions of the F1 to F12 keys seem to interfere with keyboard shortcuts even when the keys are used in conjunction with modifier keys. For example, I have a system-wide shortcut for “Bring All to Front” (in any application’s “Windows” menu), which brings all of the current application’s windows to the fore. Before installing this new keyboard, my shortcut was control-F12. But now, with the new keyboard, control-F12 has the same effect as F12, i.e. it increases the volume level. (These “hardware” functions can be disabled altogether, but I don’t really want to do this, because I want to use them.)

In addition, it should be noted that, even though the Exposé and Dashboard features are now handled by the F3 and F4 keys, the keyboard shortcuts listed in the Dashboard & Exposé preference pane (and in the Keyboard Shortcuts preference tab) are still the ones that I had assigned on my previous keyboard. I don’t know if this is because I assigned non-standard keyboard shortcuts to those functions instead of the default ones (typically I used the default key combined with the Command key, precisely because it was too easy to accidentally hit the F9-F12 keys and trigger Exposé/Dashboard unintentionally). But what is for sure is that the keyboard shortcuts listed in the Dashboard & Exposé preference pane definitely no longer work with the new keyboard and do not match the default behaviour of the new keyboard.

I would turn the hardware feature off altogether and configure things manually instead, but the trouble is that half of the hardware functions are simply not listed in the Keyboard Shortcuts preference pane and therefore cannot be assigned a shortcut manually.

It’s all rather non-intuitive and I sure hope that a future Mac OS X system update addresses all these shortcomings. Also, if third-party software updates are indeed needed in various applications to make them work properly with the new keyboard, I am afraid the situation might remain confusing for a while still.

I don’t really care much about the look of my keyboard, but for those who care, this new keyboard is indeed sleek looking and very flat. In fact, the packaging is ridiculously slim, which makes the huge cardboard box that Apple used to ship it in even more ridiculously big. (What a waste of packaging!)

When I first unpacked it, I was even afraid that it would be too slim and too flat. (There is a support on the back that lifts the keyboard toward the typist, but it is not a very big lift.) But in reality it feels just about right to me (which is good, because it’s not adjustable).

Finally, I should note that, while I appreciate the addition of the “cmd” abbreviation on the Command key, in lieu of the Apple symbol, I really cannot understand why they did not also add an “opt” abbreviation on the Option key. Surely they realize that this key needs “opt” as much as the Command key needed “cmd.” How many times have I had to explain to fellow Mac users which key the Option key is?

Yes, it’s the one with “alt” on it, or with that double-arrow symbol, or with that ? symbol… (All three are there.) But in the Mac world, it is called the Option key, for crying out loud! Baffling.

So, all in all, I am very pleased with my $44CDN (+ tax) purchase. It certainly is reassuring that the current Apple keyboard is one that suits me and my typing again—whereas the previous generation was obviously incompatible with me (all those double keystrokes…). And at this point I have to say that typing with this new keyboard feels right. We’ll see over time if it ends up being actually less tiring than with the previous keyboard that I was using, but it certainly feels that way already.

But there is still a fair amount of work that needs to be done on the software side of things, by both Apple itself and other third-party developers.

11 Responses to “New Apple Keyboard: Fine hardware, but the software side still needs work”

  1. Arden says:

    I completely agree about the older white keyboard. My dad had one and my mom still has one, and both are too hard and clunky. After reading this, I might recommend she get the new one.

    Personally, however, I’m not a big fan of the new keyboards. I quite like the somewhat chunky typing feel I get from my Logi, not to mention the extra buttons for various other tasks. I also dislike the way Apple rearranged the features of the keyboard. The feel is only okay for me (as with most laptop keyboards), but definitely not as nice as full keys. I’ll stick with PC keyboards. :)

  2. danridley says:

    I’m not entirely confident that the software issues are going to see a speedy resolution, given the no-man’s-land that F14-F16 have been on the current keyboard since 2004 at least.

    I loved my MacBook’s keyboard, though, and I’m thrilled to see the desktop hardware taking cues from it. I suspect I’ll be getting one for my iMac shortly.

  3. Neil Anderson says:

    So far so good. New aluminum Apple keyboard feels great. And I am surprised how fast I got used to the new function key assignments. :)

  4. Paul Ingraham says:

    How did you get your keyboard so quickly, Pierre? Perhaps the wired/Canadian CSA version is more available. I ordered a wireless one when they were announced, but have had a mid-September shipping date all along, and apparently I may not get it even then. I was told that their first shipment of wireless keyboards won’t cover 10% of their orders. Yikes.

    Well, I look forward to getting it eventually. The software issues sound kind of par for the course to me — disappointing of course, but not surprising. They won’t be any worse than the myriad of difficulties I’ve had with 3rd-party keyboards. What matters to me is having a compact wireless keyboard. I hate reaching over a numeric keypad for my mouse!

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    Paul: I got it by ordering it from Apple :-). Seriously, there’s probably a supply issue with the wireless that does not affect the wired keyboard (two different designs). Hope you get yours soon.

    The software issues just add to the overall inconsistency of the Mac OS X experience, I am afraid.

  6. Paul Ingraham says:

    Okay, reporting back about my wireless aluminum keyboard, which arrived yesterday.

    Fantastic hardware. Light yet solid, a good compromise between key noise and resistance, freakishly slim and low profile, charmingly lacking in a numeric keypad. My hands breathe a sigh of relief on this keyboard! I love the tiny little power light that is virtually invisible until it turns on, the nearly perfect featureless of the keyboard aside from the keys themselves. I could only improve it with a slightly different selection of special keys. I like it so much I feel like ordering another one, for no reason I can think of other than, I dunno, having a backup. ;-)

    As for those brightness keys … actually, I like adjusting my desktop’s screen brightness! Lighting conditions are certainly not constant in my office: rather bright during the day, rather dark at night. I like working in the dark, and turning the screen way down. It’s always been a PITA opening the brightness control panel for that. I’m genuinely grateful to have brightness at my fingertips.

    And no issues with the software yet. I am not experiencing any of the problems that other users are reporting at (In a sense, the variability in user experience is almost as disturbing as the actual problems, but I’m pleased to be on the “no problem” side of the equation for once!) As for the problems you’ve pointed out here, Pierre:

    I had no problem assigning F-key shortcuts in iWork (not sure if that problem was limited to the high F-keys for you).

    No problem assigned Ctrl-F9 to “Bring All to Front”.

    Old F-key shortcuts for Exposé are still as before … and still work as before.

    I’m also pleased to report that, while the wired keyboard lacks an “opt” label, my wireless actually spells out “option” and “command” and “control”! However, I can see from the photos on that the wired keyboard looks the same, so it sounds like the key labels are different on the Canadian CSA version.

    And my shipping box was just exactly big enough for the keyboard. ;-)

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    Paul: Try assigning shortcuts with the higher-range F-keys (F13–F19) in various applications. You will encounter various problems, including in Apple’s own applications. That said, Apple has just released another update. I will have to try it. (It’s a 22 MB download that requires a restart.)

    I wouldn’t mind the brightness keys if they were configurable, i.e. if I could remove the shortcuts. But they are hard-wired and cannot be changed with the keyboart shortcuts pref pane.

    Thanks for the clarification about the Option key. I guess the Canadian CSA keyboard engineers were not brought up to speed. Geez.

  8. Paul Ingraham says:

    Ah, but I have no higher-range F-keys! The wireless keyboard is compact. The F-keys stop at F12. So, that issue n/a for my keyboard.

    Yes, good point, we should not be stuck with the keys as they are. In particular, we should at least have the option of just turning off the special function and choosing either another function from a list (including running AppleScripts, of course), or having it simply default to the underlying F-key. Really, how hard would that be to implement? Why, I could practically do it myself! Ha ha. Not. But Apple should, and we may well see this in future updates or in 10.5.

    You’re kidding, another update already? What a lot of keyboard updating! I look forward to reading your report …

  9. Pierre Igot says:

    Sorry, forgot that the wireless one doesn’t have all those keys :).

    I will install the update soon, it’s just a matter of downloading the 22 MB and rebooting…

  10. iPhone update raises hackles « MaCinJay’s Musings says:

    […] Chris’s other complaints hinge largely on his own personal tastes. For instance he dislikes the new Apple keyboard but his opinion is by no means universal as the keyboard has received a lot of praise from other quarters. […]

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