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First post, by Kahenraz

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Has anyone else noticed that in recent years there has been a slow extinction of the historical keyboard keys Home/End, PgUp/PgDn, and Insert/Del? In the 90s to mid 2000s it was VERY common for these keys to exist on most laptops in some form. Even many modern compact keyboards for desktops hide Home/End and PgUp/PgDn in the arrow keys. Many keyboards designed for use with bluetooth or mobile devices even have them absent entirely.

These keys were known to be extremely important in the early days of computing and have existed since the standardization of PCs with the introduction of the first IBM micro computer. Although most early word processors provided ways to quickly navigate through text through various combinations of keys, IBM was the first to provided the standard Home/End, PgUp/PgDn, and Insert/Del keys, originally available only on the numpad with the Model F PC/XT. This provided an extremely compact layout, mirroring something similar to by pocket calculators of the time, where all of the important key for navigating text were easily accessible with one hand.

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IBM later refined its computer keyboard with the PC/AT and expanded it with the now famous 101-key Model M. The new key arrangement is easily recognizable and is now ubiquitous as the most common layout in the United States. Additionally, the arrows from the numpad, Home/End, PgUp/PgDn, and Insert/Del keys all gained their own dedicated place between the main QWERTY block and the numpad. This allowed letters to be typed, numerical calculations to be input quickly with the compact calculator-like layout of the numpad, and text navigation to be accessed just as easily without having to toggle the NumLock. This layout contains functional duplicates of 20 keys and necessitated a wider frame. This would have increased cost of manufacturing but the benefit of faster input and increased productivity was real and I'm sure that researchers at IBM knew it.

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When portable computers debuted, mice were still uncommon and most tasks were still performed in text mode. This prompted manufacturers to include the keys important for navigating screens and text somewhere on their layouts. IBM included this group of keys at the top-right corner of their early ThinkPads with other manufacturers either copying this or diverging to the now more familiar vertical row along the right edge with Insert/Del being placed somewhere nearby although their location can vary.

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These keys were present on almost every laptop during the 90s to mid 2000 when laptops were still very expensive and typically only purchased either by businesses and individuals who needed a mobile workplace. Although the these keys may still be present on some laptops today, they are much less common in anything below 14". Surprisingly many modern laptops, even larger ones with plenty of empty space on either side of keyboard, still have these keys absent.

Those manufacturers who wanted to advertise a more compact layout and wanted to avoid compressing the width of keys even further opted to move the subset, Home/End/PgUp/PgDown, as alternate functions of the arrow keys, to be accessed in combination with the "Fn" key. This form seemed to become more prevalent, in my opinion, after the increase in mindshare and copycats of mobile Apple products since the popularization of the MacBook after the return of Steve Jobs. Note that no laptop from Apple has ever had either a full numpad or the dedicated presence of any of these keys.

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This change of moving to alternate functions of the arrow keys made performing certain text manipulation shortcuts more difficult with the need to hold down more keys, possibly requiring the some reorientation to avoid contortion between the now cramped area of Shift, Ctrl, and Fn. The continued push of this compact layout may have been due to manufacturers wanting to push smaller laptops, users feeling comfortable enough to use a mouse or trackpad to access the functions commonly provided by these keys, or perhaps they are meant to be used primarily for multimedia consumption with only light word processing and e-mails, or some combination thereof. Other possibilities could be schools eliminating touch-typing classes by schools, an unfamiliarity with how to use office applications optimally by the younger generation, or laptops being interacted with as though they were phones or tablets where forgiving the constraints of a limited on-screen keyboard is a necessity.

Now something interesting is happening. Laptops are now emerging without access to ANY of these keys. See the following Chromebook layout by Samsung. But what's even stranger is that there are many laptops coming out with plenty of space on around the keyboard and yet manufacturers continue to hide away Home/End/PgUp/PgDown within their arrow keys.

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As someone who grew up with computers in the 90s, this is an absolute shock. I feel like modern laptops and desktop keyboards are becoming less word processor friendly and cater to a more casual user who would use it primarily for email and entertainment. I understand how keyboards from much earlier micro computers prior to the IBM PC did not have these keys as layouts were non-standard and word processing was still in its infancy but I find this modern trend to be simply incredible.

For the retro crowd, I would be interested to hear about the workflow for various word processors on these early micro computers (such as the ubiquitous Apple II series) where these keys were absent. Also, how satisfied are the rest of you, those who don't use these keys at all, with your speed and comfort in word processors, typing on forums, and writing e-mails? If you spot a mistake somewhere is your first reaction to grasp for your mouse? Do you hold your finger down on the arrow keys to move up and down or across a line? I'm still surprised by how many people I see that don't know that you can hold Ctrl in combination with the arrow keys to jump whole words instead of just holding down an arrow key to move a whole paragraph (up/down) one character (left/right) at a time.

When working with large documents I find it extremely helpful to jump pages with PgUp/PgDown as well. When doing a lot of typing, I find that I almost never have to take my hands off of the keyboard. For example, to select the current line I can hit Home, Shift+End to select it without the newline (usually for deletion) or Home, Shift+Down to select it with the newline (usually for copy/paste). Other common shortcuts are Ctrl-Home to jump to the top of the document and Ctrl-End to jump to the end. The Del (delete) key allows me to delete characters from the right side instead of cursoring all the way over just to use Backspace. To me, these are easily the most important keys on any keyboard as they allow me to easily navigate and edit text. Trying to use a keyboard without them feels alien to me and tugs harshly at the strings of my muscle memory.

I would love to hear what anyone else has to say about this subject. It's something that I've witnessed as a slow progression over the years and has always dictated my laptop purchases. But now after seeing this Chromebook my brain is doing flips. How can anyone type on this without becoming frustrated at how difficult it must be to type a long e-mail or to write some large document. It just blows me mind.

Reply 1 of 11, by VileR

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I'm not a laptop guy, and get easily annoyed even with fairly full-sized laptop keyboards. But this phenomenon seems to extend even to the desktop world these days, especially when you look at what's hip among the mechanical keyboard enthusiast crowd. Not only are 80% ('tenkeyless') keyboards incredibly popular, there are also these 60% designs without any function keys or cursor control keys at all - even arrow keys (you have to hit 'Fn' + other keys for the functionality).

The chief argument for those is how much desk space they save, but (IMO, YMMV, OFC) at the point where that becomes necessary, you're probably doing it wrong. It seems to me that when you're the sort of person who can throw ~$400 at a Model F repro, it's safe to assume that you don't live in a shoebox and can spare the space for at least one adult-sized desk. ¯\(°_o)/¯

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Reply 4 of 11, by 640K!enough

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I think the whole idea is rather ridiculous. In the case of laptops, what is the point of an expensive "thin-and-light" machine if I have to carry around an extra 1 to 3 kg worth of keyboard just to get any work done? Admittedly they didn't start the trend, but Apple has taken this to ridiculous extremes, with the keys being low-profile "islands" in a slab of aluminium. Not content with that, they had to make things worse still, with the even-lower-profile "butterfly switch" design, which seems to be causing no end of trouble for some people. Many even insist that the very design is defective.

Personally, I can't stand these newer designs. I keep a Tactile Pro for Mac use, and alternate between a Unicomp Model M descendant, and an old Avant Stellar keyboard (spiritual successor of the often-praised Northgate keyboards) for PC tasks.

While we're on the subject of keyboards, I seem to remember Unicomp offering dampening rings as an option for their buckling spring keyboards. Does anyone have any idea if those still exist? They don't seem to be on the site now.

Why anyone is willing to tolerate such compromised tools for serious work is a complete mystery to me. I guess it will be a few years yet before we know what sort of injuries/strains will result from using this type of keyboard professionally.

Frankly, for a company with so much money in its coffers, and whose employees constantly claim to be uncompromising perfectionists, you would expect that Apple might invest a little in doing research to see what type of keyboard design enables maximum productivity with the least strain. Then again, I'm dreaming; they only care to sell one device after another, so that their lemmings can continue using their paid services; productivity, their own developer community and user health be damned. "How do better keyboards help me sell more phones?", I'm sure some bean-counter would ask.

As mentioned previoiusly, those whose jobs involve bulk text entry seem to be much more productive with quality keyboards, and this seems even more critical in software development and other professions with specialised software. Having such people constantly reach for an Fn key, mouse, trackpad or touch-enabled display, just to navigate their documents is a silly waste of time, when muscle memory would allow them to accomplish the task much more quickly and easily, if only the appropriate keys were present.

Reply 5 of 11, by Joey_sw

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Yes it is another example of newer design (which sometimes marketed as 'progression/progressive') does not equal better design.
I believe the regression began when laptop maker didn't want to includes the numpad for their keyboard layout, and thus selling us the numpad separately.
There are valid reason why Numlock are set "ON state" as default values in bios settings geez.
Yeah i remember encounter such bios setting on laptop that didn't have numpad on its keyboard layout.

-fffuuu

Reply 6 of 11, by dionb

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Joey_sw wrote:
Yes it is another example of newer design (which sometimes marketed as 'progression/progressive') does not equal better design. […]
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Yes it is another example of newer design (which sometimes marketed as 'progression/progressive') does not equal better design.
I believe the regression began when laptop maker didn't want to includes the numpad for their keyboard layout, and thus selling us the numpad separately.
There are valid reason why Numlock are set "ON state" as default values in bios settings geez.
Yeah i remember encounter such bios setting on laptop that didn't have numpad on its keyboard layout.

Tbh I'd say the dropping the numpad is a different kettle of fish. Firstly, no true laptop (as opposed to luggable) actually had a numpad in the first place. It just doesn't make ergonomic sense in a small portable device. Moreover the numpad doesn't actually contain any functionality not present elsewhere on the tenkeyless keyboard, it's just a re-hashing of some other keys in a way that makes sense for a small number of applications (involving lots of number entry).

Numpads only appeared on laptops when the current trend for desktop-replacement monsters (>15.6") started. Having had the unfortunate 'pleasure' of having had to use a few for work, I can say they're an unmitigated disaster, particularly when combined with unsculpted, undifferentiated, non-tactile, low-travel chicklet keys. They just present you with this huge mass of cramped keys that you'll end up pressing inadvertently. I far, far prefer an external numpad (on the rare occasions I need one) with a decent laptop keyboard than something that tries to cram in 105 keys in a space that wouldn't fit 84 proper ones. Particularly as you see a trend to lose unique action keys (PgUp/PgDn, Home/End) on laptop keyboards with numeric keypads. That's just wrong.

Then again, I'm probably not representative. I've become very biased towards ergonomics in my old age, sticking with a 7-year old Lenovo X220 (upgraded to IPS screen) as main laptop because it's the last one (anywhere...) with a real keyboard as opposed to some kind of chicklets or those awful HP scissoring things. My work laptop (Dell E7450) has relatively decent chicklets, but it's still crap to type on, so I've attached a Model M QuietTouch to it via a docking station with PS/2.

Reply 8 of 11, by butterfly

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To me it's just a matter of remapping keys in old games (+ DOSBox) on a thumb drive or SD card, just 'cause arrow keys don't do diagonals while pressed together

Reply 9 of 11, by Errius

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If you want a big laptop with a big keyboard then just buy one. Buying a small device then complaining that the keyboard is limited makes no sense.

“I like to dissect PCs. Don't you know I'm utterly insane?"

Reply 10 of 11, by chinny22

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I semi- get it.
I'm surprised how many younger people don't know shortcut keys. They just blindly use the mouse for everything and since the iPhone and moreso with recent MS pushing interfaces more designed for touch screen, it kind of attracts laziness to press buttons on the screen with a mouse or whatever.
Funny side affect, I don't know how to get into a few things without using shortcut keys, like Windows 8 when it first came out, How the hell do I shutdown? screw it! Alt F4

Although a friend at work who can touch type noticed more and more people using Caps to start a sentence, Most likely carry over from smart phones. It annoyed her massively. But then I noticed I also do it more often then I should.

I use a lot of the key shortcuts for highlighting, editing text as well (I didn't know about Ctrl Left right though) so would be upset if they go from keyboards.
chromebooks, I don't really rate as a laptop, more of a larger tablet but surprised if something like the MS surface done away with them.
Agree keyboards should have numpad, laptops are excused. but I'm glad they have settled on a constant layout like your pic above with Delete in the top right with Home, page up page down, end underneath. I was using an old Toshiba laptop the other day with delete on the bottom row and could never find it!

I don't the different keyboards hard to type on, but then I don't do that much typing in a day really. I use laptops a lot and do find touchpads becoming harder to use though as they try to do something fancy like apple (and I'm not a huge fan of those anyway, I never understood Apples hate of a nice simple right mouse button)

Reply 11 of 11, by Errius

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I recently spent a couple of days working on an Acer Aspire R11. Handy little thing. Small and light. But unpleasant to use because of its small keyboard. It's a trade off. Convenience of transport for convenience of use. Take your choice.

“I like to dissect PCs. Don't you know I'm utterly insane?"