Keyboard Modifier Keys, Short Survey

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .
modifier keys 20200721
Modifier keys on the left side, on a normal keyboard of year 2020. [see HAVIT Keyboard]

Took a hour to do a little survey of modifier keys on computer keyboards. Vast majority of keyboards all have the same {Ctrl, ❖ Window, Alt} on the left side, in that order.

However, the right side is entirely a different story. Here's some common design:

If you look at the cheapest generic brand keyboard, they tend to have all the modifiers. For example, Alt ❖ Window ▤ Menu Ctrl. Both Logitech and Microsoft's cheapest keyboards are like that.

Microsoft digital media keyboard Flip3D key-s
Flip3D key. Microsoft Digital Media Keyboard 3000 (2008)

[see Windows Flip 3D, Instant Viewer, Productivity Tips]

More expensive or fancy keyboards almost always have some other arrangement. In particular, Logitech seems to start to have them like this: Alt Fn Ctrl. This is functionally a downgrade. Because:

Logitech solar keyboard k750 fn key
The FN key on Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750 Buy at amazon

I cannot forgive such conspicuous idiocy. This happens on their expensive models too. (e.g. Logitech Wave Keyboard.) However, it doesn't happen on Logitech gaming keyboards. (Good! Am relieved to know that at least gamers know the value of function keys.)

Most popular Microsoft split keyboards have Alt ▤ Menu Ctrl. (e.g. MS Natural Ergonomic 4000.) This is not too bad. You lost one ❖ Window key as extra modifier.

Why Keyboard Designers Remove the Right Win and Menu Key?

It's not hard to see why keyboard designers remove the right ❖ Window or ▤ Menu key. Those keys are useless by default!

One Win Key is Enough

The ❖ Window key is designed to invoke the menu [Start] menu or as global shortcuts combo key. If you look at the assigned functions with ❖ Window key, [see Windows: Keyboard Shortcuts] , typically they are not of the type that need to be executed frequently in a short time. (in contrast to Undo, for example.) So, one left ❖ Window key is enough. Also, the behavior of popping up the Start menu is annoying if accidentally invoked. More reason for just a single Win key.

Menu Key is Useless by Default

The ▤ Menu key (aka App key), invented by Microsoft, is designed to be application specific. This is a fantastic idea. Imagine, each app will just have its own shortcuts in the ▤ Menu+key space. This won't conflict with the system-wide ❖ Window+key space, and won't infringe on F1 to F12 space that is supposedly to be user defined, and won't interfere with other global keys with Ctrl and Alt.

Unfortunately, it seems no app took this advantage, and all the ▤ Menu key do today is pop up a context menu, which is mostly useful only when used together with cursor position (yes, it needs to be used together with cursor (mouse), because it's useful only when on a selected item or focus.) (and the mouse's right button does it).

So, the ▤ Menu by default is practically a useless key.

Removing Useless Keys

It's not good to have useless keys. So, manufactures try to remove them, or improve them, to innovate, to get more customer love, thus more money. Thus, Microsoft either removed the right ❖ Window key, or introduced the Flip3D key in place of it. While, Logitech rid of both ❖ Window and ▤ Menu and replace it with their Fn.

The move by Logitech is stupid, but it's advantageous to the company. By introducing Fn, it means they don't need to have 5 or 10 special buttons for launching apps or controlling multimedia. This saves them manufacturing cost.

Misfortune to Programers and Gamers

However, for programers or gamers who know how to use their keyboard fully, the removal of ▤ Menu or right ❖ Window key is a misfortune. Because, for us, it simply means a lost of modifier keys. Not just losing a couple of keys, but keys at critically convenient spots for the right thumb. The Logitech's Fn is particularly idiotic because Fn usually is hardwired in keyboard circuitry and not visible to the operating system. This means, you can't remap Fn. You can not have it be Super, Hyper, Ctrl, Meta, nor Escape. If you don't care for the pre-assigned 2-button combo of Fn+Fn to launch apps or multimedia, then that Fn simply becomes a dead horse squatting on the front seat.

A ideal solution for keyboard manufacturers, is to put Fn or Flip3D or whatever there you think is innovation, but yet let the key be accessible thru standard USB protocol or OS API, so that advanced users can still access that key for whatever they may want to do with it.