Backslash Usability

March 25th, 2009 by Potato

Wayfare’s old Toshiba laptop is having some issues lately. It’s a “regular” 15.4″ laptop weighing in at roughly 6 pounds. While I take my 8-pound monster nearly everywhere, for her 6 pounds is too much and she often doesn’t bother to take it on the train with her. Combined with the other issues (such as an upcoming trip), she’s looking at getting a new netbook now, something under 3 lbs and 12″.

I have a computer under my desk running the Apache/SQL server behind this website. It’s 10 years old, a Pentium-III. Despite its age it has plenty of power to surf the net and do word processing (maybe not with Windows XP and Office 2009, but that’s beside the point). So when my brother spilled water on his laptop and fried it (for the second time), my purchasing advice for him was to just go to the store and get the one he liked the most. Any of them would have plenty of power for what he needed.

So likewise when Wayfare wanted to buy a netbook, my advice was to just try it out in store to make sure she liked the usability, they should all do what she wants (and in fact, they all seem to be running the same Intel Atom processor and chipset). She had done her own research and decided on an Acer Aspire One. It’s a cute little 10″ thing, comes in an attractive shiny case… and within seconds of trying it, she realized she hated it. Why? Because they made the moronic decision of changing the keyboard layout. There are of course always unique keyboard layouts on any laptop under 17″ because there just isn’t enough space for a standard full-sized keyboard, but usually the compromises are made at the periphery: half-sized function keys, weird insert-home-delete-page keys with dual or triple functions depending on concomitant key presses. The parts for touch-typing are often left alone. However, we found the weirdest thing (and I wish I took a picture): they put a half-sized backslash key where the enter key should be, and then made a tall enter key that was further from the home row.

They sacrificed the usability of the enter key in favour of backslash.

Wayfare walked into Best Buy, credit card in hand, ready to buy that Acer tonight, and didn’t because she knew that changing how she typed (on a computer that would only be used for web surfing and word processing) would cause her more frustration than the computer was worth. Bizzarely enough, that same keyboard layout was used on a few “regular” (14-15″) laptops from Acer, Gateway, and HP. Thankfully, HP’s 10-inch laptop didn’t succumb to the same insanity. I’ve complained before about how prominently the backslash key is featured on keyboards, and it makes even less sense in its new position.

She’s out in the living room right now researching alternatives (the Dell Inspiron Minis and the HP 10″s are still in the running) and muttering “stupid Acer” to herself all the while. So obviously that keyboard layout lost them a customer, and I can’t fathom any that it would bring in, unless *nix uses a lot more backslashes than I thought (I really thought they were forward slashes, which is how we have forward slashes in URLs). Even then, ewww. Backslash should be above enter, and that’s all there is to it.

Right now the HP 1035 10″ netbook and the Dell Inspiron Mini 12″ are neck-and-neck in the running. My favourite of the two is the Dell: it’s a more comfortable size, you get a bigger, higher-resolution screen (12″ you could use for quite a long time for work, whereas I wouldn’t want to use a 10″ screen for much more than I’d use an iPhone for) and a better keyboard/trackpad combo (thanks to the marginally larger size) for only a small increase in weight (about 2.5 vs 2.7 lbs). Because of the larger screen the Dell is reported to have a bit less battery life (about 2.9 hrs vs 2.5 hrs), but has an option to go over 3 pounds (up to about 3.1 lbs — this figure is harder to come by exactly) for a 6-cell battery (5-6 hrs of battery life, $50 more). It just seemed to have to make fewer sacrifices: a half a pound for more usability. If she’s carrying it in her backpack then the extra width shouldn’t matter, and it’s actually a bit thinner than the HP (though the smaller HP or Acer might just fit in her purse, whereas the Dell looked a little too big for that). The Dell has 3 USB ports to the HP’s 2, and the Dell also has a standard VGA-out port in the event that she wants to connect an external monitor or run a presentation; the HP has a proprietary port that requires a dongle.

Update: Ah, this weird vertical enter key is apparently a european feature, allowing more space for accented characters (rather than the useless backslash it is here). Still, eewww. Why not bring the enter key closer to the home row, make it a single row, and deal with the accents somewhere else?

2 Responses to “Backslash Usability”

  1. Wayfare Says:

    Stupid Acer.

  2. Rez Says:

    I got the Acer Aspire One recently (8.9″ model) and I, too, hated the international keyboard. I bought an OEM US keyboard online for $30 and swapping the keyboards was literally a snap (no tools required).

    I don’t know anything about the 10″ AA1, but the problems I have with mine are that the stupid mouse buttons on the touchpad are on either side of the pad as opposed to beneath them. Because of that I almost always use a wireless mouse.

    The other issue is the native res of only 1024×600. The problem is that almost all netbooks out right now have that same res so I guess I’ll have to live with that (although there’s a free utility that lets you set the res to 1024×768). I installed Mac OSX on the Acer with no problem for an XP/OSX dualboot system, but never really used OSX so I got rid of it to try out Linux. I’ll probably drop Linux, too, in favour of the Windows 7 beta, which is said to run faster than XP on the AA1!

    Anyway I just wanted to let you guys know that the AA1 (especially with the 6-cell batter; 6hr battery life baby!) is actually one of the best netbooks out there right now (not counting the $1000 ones).

    I’m going to add another GB of RAM to it this week ($16) and look into adding a permanent bluetooth card ($9) inside the case for use with a bluetooth mouse and to sync with my phone.

    There’s lots you can do with this little sucker.