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SUMMARY: Mini laptops are all the rage – but what about keyboard ergonomics?

As a frequent traveler, I like to have a laptop with me. What I DON’T want is a 7 pound albatross – I have carried on bags since forever and any excess weight/baggage is NG for me. What I want is a small, light weight laptop that does not lack for performance in “normal” (internet, Word, Photoshop) apps – my ideal would be something weighing 2-3 pounds (1 1½ kilos) with a minimum 10 inch screen @ 1024 x 768.

Above all, however, I want a keyboard that’s usable.

I have two laptops that meet most of these requirements which I reviewed earlier:

  • Sharp MV12W with a 12.1″ TFT active matrix LCD, 1024 x 768 native resolution, Intel PIII-M 1.13 GHz, 768 MB RAM, weighing in at 4.2 lbs with the CD and 3.6 lbs without. The keyboard measures 10 3/8″ by 3 7/8″.

  • Sharp PCA-280. I wound up with a Sharp PCA-290 instead of the 280. The A290 is 0.91″ thin at the front and 1.22″ at the back, has an 11.3″ XGA 1024 x 768 TFT LCD, powered by a PIII 366 MHz with 128 MB RAM and weighs just over 3 pounds. The keyboard has a large 17 mm key pitch and 2.5 mm keystroke and measures 10 x 3¾ inches.

I found both of these to be delightful travel laptops, although the PCA-290 is underpowered when it comes to anything more than light work. I have used it to write articles, edit photos and access the net, so it meets the bill using Windows XP. However, the Sharp MV12W is a better choice even though it’s a tad heavier at 4.2 pounds.

Both of these laptops feature keyboards that work well, although the PCA-290’s keyboard for me is the limit. Mini PCs now seem to be all the rage as Asus exploded this market with its Eee PC. Below are a number of entrants:

Dell apparently is also developing a model to compete in this segment as well.

One major issue I have seen in user comments about this current crop of mini laptops is the keyboard’s size – too small for extended use. I found an interesting paper “10 Inventions on Reducing Keyboard Size by UMAKANT MISHRA” which concluded:

“Various methods are followed to reduce the size of a keyboard. Each method
has some advantages and disadvantages, which have been overcome by
different inventions. The following are some methods to reduce keyboard size.

  • Reduce the size of the keys, so that all the keys can be accommodated
    in a small size keyboard

  • Reducing the gaps between keys, either horizontally or vertically or both
  • Reduce the number of keys, so that the size of the keyboard can be
    reduced. (The inventions on reducing number of keys are presented in a
    separate article)

  • Eliminating duplicate keys, such as duplicate numeric keys and cursor
    control keys

  • Reorganizing the keyboard layout to conserve space
  • Reorganizing cursor control keys and other special keys while keeping
    the basic QWERTY structure in tact

  • Making a compressible keyboard that can be expanded when used and
    compressed when not in use

  • Make a folding structure of the keyboard so that the big keyboard can be
    folded in to a small place (The inventions on folding keyboard are
    presented in a separate article)”

After looking over these patents, you don’t get the warm fuzzies that an acceptable, small keyboard is attainable without significant compromises to cost and usability. Personally I don’t think a keyboard footprint less than 10″ x 4″ will be acceptable for extended use.

There are a few concepts that might enhance a small keyboard’s usability:

  • Predictive Typing: There is software available which “looks ahead” so that as you type, it anticipates what word you are entering and completes it for you. One example is shareware predictive keyboard program for Pocket PCs, although this particular program is for a very limited keyboard. I do remember a word processing program that did predictive typing and it drove me nuts – but that’s me.
  • Flexible Keyboards: These have been around for while and I tried a few – I found the tactile feel terrible. They are light and easy to carry, light and you can roll these up to a small footprint for packing. I think this technology has more promise that others I have seen.
  • Virtual Laser Keyboard: As the pic below shows

    Pic

    this is a projection onto any surface approach. The problem is the surface – there is no tactile feedback on a desk. Intriguing approach but still leaves a lot to be desired.

CONCLUSIONS

As much as I love small, light laptops, my deciding factor will be the keyboard’s footprint. If you’re thinking of buying a mini laptop, I suggest you pay very close attention to the keyboard – it could be the “make or break” on a purchase. If all you want to do is two finger typing, then screen sizes 9″ or less will do fine.

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