Apple Keyboard Problems

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Keyboards and mouses from Apple ever since the iMac in 1998 are usually the worst keyboards with respect to ergonomics.

Hard-to-reach Right Command Key

Apple keyboard
Apple Pro Keyboard A1048, Year 2003

Note the distance of the right side's modifier keys. It is not possible, to use the right thumb to press the ⌥ option key while the index finger remains on the J. It makes these keys essentially decorative in nature. (Apple did this to make the keys flush at the lower right corner; sacrificing function for esthetics.)

Functions Keys in One Continuous Row with no Gaps

Another bad design is that the function keys are all squished together into one beatific contiguous row. The contiguous-row design makes it difficult to press the right key by touch.

[see Apple Keyboard History ⌨]

Function Keys is your best friend.

Human perception is not optimized to deal with uniform geometric arrays. A array of neat rectangles may be esthetically pleasing, but it is not a form that occurs much in nature, and makes it more difficult to recognize or hit the right key.

By making the keys of uniform shape of rectangular array, you take away the ability to distinguish keys by tactile sensation. User must look at the keys.

Function keys are important for programers and gamers. They are very useful as single-press shortcuts that are customizable.

Multimedia Keys Combined with Function Keys

Apple combined multimedia keys (such as sound loudness control) into the functional keys. This means, when you want to use functional keys, you have to hold down the fn modifier first. This is a dysfunctional design.

Apple do this because Steve Jobs wants visual elegance, and consider separate multimedia keys too complex or esthetically unwieldy. Steve Jobs wanted to even eliminate the function keys, and did that with his NeXT Keyboard .

Apple computer, software and hardware, are usually of high quality in terms of design with respect to function. However, in some department, such as keyboarding and mouse, they sacrifice function for esthetics.

Certainly, for most people, the function keys are rarely used. Getting rid of them is a great innovation “FOR THE REST OF US”. However, for professionals (programers, gamers), the function keys are critical. This is a sharp contrast between ugly-looking industrial machines vs pretty-looking consumer devices. [see Keyboard Shortcut vs Launch Buttons]

Shape of Multimedia Keys

mwm mm keys2
Microsoft's ergonomic keyboard. Special keys are shaped in special ways, increasing tactile feedback and visual recognization.

On most Windows keyboards, the multimedia keys such as sound-level control, next/previous song, mute, usually have different shaped buttons. This is a good design. Because, different shapes for special keys increases tactile recognition as well as visual recognition.

Some keyboards, even use a rotary knob for sound-level control. which is even better, because rotary knob fits well with the control requirements of sound-level change. When the sound-level control is a button, you need to press it multiple times. With a rotary knob, you can change loudness to desired level fast, or reverse direction.

[see Keyboards with Volume Wheel]

Position of LED for CapsLock

Apple iMac Keyboard A1243 capslock esc
Apple keyboard caps lock key LED indicator.

Also note the LED indicator for the CapsLock key. It is right on the key. You might think that is good design because this way it's clear what the light is for. But, there is a practical flaw. When you are typing, you can't see the light there. It's actually better, to have the light indicator elsewhere on the keyboard that's easier to see. For most generic computer keyboards, it's on the upper right side on top of the numerical pads. On some Microsoft ergonomic keyboards, they actually moved it to the middle of the keyboard.

[see Microsoft Ergonomic 4000]

The issue here is intuitiveness vs long-term practicality. Having LED on capslock key is intuitive. But having LED at somewhere visible is more practical.

Difference with Windows Keyboard

Note that Apple's keyboard and Microsoft Windows keyboard have minor differences in their set of keys. For example:

For detail, see: Difference Between Apple and Microsoft keyboards .

Using Symbols as Key Labels

Apple Keyboard Key Symbols

Apple Keyboard History

Apple Keyboard History ⌨

Mac Keyboard Guide