[Update 2011-04-04: Added links to Coding Horror articles]
As a long time computer user, software developer and observer of the personal computer revolution, I've been exposed to many different pieces of hardware. At my new job, I brought in my trusted Microsoft Natural Keyboard and one of the executives made note of it as it was his favorite keyboard as well.
The Early Years
The early years of the personal computer revolution were notable for many whacky keyboards that were available. Each new computer design had their own way of doing things – layouts were not standardized, and each manufacturer had different ideas about the size and feel of the keys. Notable were the Commodore Pet, the TRS-80 Color Computer Chiclet keyboard (which I used for many years), and the original Apple Macintosh M0110 keyboard, which didn't include arrow keys.
Even IBM, with its long history of typewriters, word processors and computer terminals was not above ignoring its collective history regarding keyboards. The original IBM PC keyboard departed from IBM's experience with its lousy vertical ENTER key and oddly sized SHIFT keys. The IBM PCjr keyboard used an Infrared Chiclet keyboard.
The IBM Model M
But IBM redeemed itself with the famous IBM Model M keyboard. Originally shipped with the IBM PC-AT in 1984, this keyboard was very popular with computer users throughout the late 1980's and 1990's. It was very solid, had a long coiled cord, and a distinctive sound – though loud by today's standards.
I didn't own a Model M keyboard until 2000, but I did have for a few years one of its variants, the space-saving model that shipped with the IBM PS/2 Model 25. This was the first PC I owned, purchased in early 1988. This keyboard didn't include a number-pad and saved space by being narrower. By 1991, I had sold that computer and keyboard. However, in 2000, I bought a used IBM PS/2 Model 25 off eBay, and to my pleasant surprise it came with a full-sized Model M keyboard.
The Microsoft Natural Keyboards
However, in the 1990's, I fell in love with another keyboard – the Microsoft Natural Keyboard. When I started working at Microsoft in 1994, everyone was given these keyboards with their computers. They also sold in the company store for a greatly reduced price. I purchased a couple of these keyboards to use at home.
It was one of the first keyboards to support the new Windows and context menu keys. It was comfortable, solidly built, and worked very well.
I had learned touch typing in high school (very glad I took that class) and it had always served me well. But the Natural Keyboard exposed a flaw in my touch typing. I had a habit of using my left index finger to press the Y key, but that didn't work well with the Microsoft keyboard.
As a "natural" keyboard, it is split down the middle; with the T/G/B keys on the left separated by an inch or so from the Y/H/N keys on the right.
So, the Y key was too far away or my left index to reach. I quickly got used to this, and began to appreciate a curved keyboard versus a straight keyboard, which tends to force your wrists to bend at an angle, which can cause repetitive strain injuries.
Microsoft Keyboard Missteps
To counter the perception that the keyboard was too large, Microsoft came out with a smaller version, the Natural Keyboard Elite in 1998. To save space, the design modified the size and layout of the cursor keys along with the positions of the Insert/Delete, Home/End and Page Up/Page Down keys. Traditionally with 101-key keyboards, there were two rows of three keys; Insert, Home, and Page Up on the first row, with Delete, End, and Page Down on the second row.
The Natural Keyboard Elite instead used three rows, with the Home and Page Up keys on top, End and Page Down in the middle and Delete and Insert on the bottom row. Instead of the inverted-T arrangement of the cursor keys, a diamond shape layout was used. The cursor pad keys were also smaller. I remember not liking the Elite version of the keyboard and avoiding it.
Thou Shalt Not…
The Natural Keyboard Pro
Then Microsoft did something wonderful and in 1999 came out with the Natural Keyboard Pro model. This keyboard restored the original placement of the cursor pad keys, with the original size, and added a number of buttons along the top to invoke features within Windows. In addition, the Natural Keyboard Pro supported PS/2 and USB connections, even including two USB ports in the back.
I still have an OEM version of the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro sold by Dell. It has beige application buttons and doesn't have a PS/2 connector, only USB. The Calculator button is renamed to Dell.com.
I have a collection of these keyboards now – all but one in working condition. The plastic has yellowed slightly due to ultra-violet (UV) exposure, but not as bad as some other hardware I have. I'm typing this blog post on one that is nearly 15 years old, but after a recent cleaning, looks great and works perfectly.
Cleaning Your Keyboard
Cleaning the Microsoft Natural Keyboards is easy. While some people claim you can throw a keyboard into a dish washer to remedy a liquid spill, I personally don't recommend this.
I've spilled water, tea, and more than one Coke-cola into my various keyboards.
If you ever spill something on your keyboard, the first thing you should do is flip it over to prevent the liquid from seeping in via gravity. Disconnect it and blot up as much excess liquid as you can. Get a bowl and fill it with warm soapy water. Remove the key caps and place them in the soapy water to soak. Continue to blot up excess liquid.
I prefer to disassemble the keyboard to clean it, removing as many pieces as possible and cleaning each one with an alcohol-based cleaning solution. After the keys have soaked for a while, pour out the soapy water and thoroughly rinse the key caps and drain out the excess water. Lay out the keys on a towel and let them dry before putting them back on.
It's amazing how much junk gets into keyboards – eyelashes, dead skin, ear wax, you name it. Use a Q-tip swab soaked in alcohol to clean the channels between the rows. Compressed air is also helpful to blow out some of the debris.
What are your keyboard experiences? Any horror stories or particularly memorable keyboards you've used? Do share!