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ATPM 12.05
May 2006

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Hardware Review

by Christopher Turner, cturner@atpm.com

SmartBoard USB5000

verynice

Developer: Datadesk Technologies

Price: $100

Requirements: USB port

Trial: None

I remember when Microsoft first released its Natural Keyboard, the company’s attempt at bringing an affordable ergonomic keyboard to the masses. I purchased one for use at work, where it was a Windows environment, and I longed for a similar keyboard to be available for my use at home, on my Macintosh.

Apple used to sell a semi-ergonomic keyboard, the Apple Adjustable Keyboard, and I located one on an online swap list, and used that until the last ADB-equipped Macintosh in my home departed. Thus continued the search for an affordable, ergonomic keyboard built specifically for the Mac, and a USB-equipped Mac at that.

Some Macintosh users had taken to using the latest versions of the Microsoft Natural Keyboard in conjunction with system hacks and key-remapping software on OS X. Eventually, Microsoft saw this as a potentially lucrative market, and created its own software for Mac OS X that would allow use of a Microsoft keyboard or mouse on the Mac with the appropriate keys remapped. This was the setup I used for quite a while, switching back to the standard black Apple keyboard that shipped with my Cube on occasion. My only caveat with using the Microsoft keyboard was that the operating system had to load for it to be recognized. So if I needed to boot in to single-user mode for troubleshooting, it meant plugging in my Apple keyboard.

When my new Intel-based iMac arrived earlier this year, I began my affordable-ergonomic keyboard hunt yet again, and it led me to Datadesk Technologies, and their SmartBoard USB for Macintosh. Datadesk is no newcomer to the keyboard or Macintosh arena; they’ve been around for quite a while, and most people are familiar with them through the line of keyboards for children. I contacted the company regarding the SmartBoard, and soon one was on my desk.

The SmartBoard USB for Macintosh is made of sturdy white plastic, with black characters on white keys. The F keys are a transparent grey-purple, which offers a nice contrast without being garish. It has two USB ports, for a mouse or trackball and other USB device. I use the second port for my Dazzle media card reader. Like the Microsoft Natural Keyboard series, the SmartBoard is tall toward the center, with split key sections, tapering downward for a more natural resting position for the hands.

smartboard1

Datadesk claims the SmartBoard is 20% smaller than other ergonomic keyboards, so it can fit in standard-size keyboard drawers. Not having such a drawer, I cannot speak to this, but the size reduction is noticeable, mostly due to what they had to do with the key arrangement to make it work.

First, not all of the keys are the same size. Keys toward the interior of the board, such as T, G, B, Y, H, and N, are narrower than outer keys like Q, A, Z, P, :, and /. The company refers to this concept as “variable width.” This took considerable getting used to, and I have average-size hands. After a month of use, I’m still missing or hitting the wrong keys in certain situations.

smartboard2

Another adjustment for me was the movement of the =/+ key, from its usual position to the left of the Delete key. Instead, it can be found between the `/~ key and the 1 key. I’ve been typing since my junior year in high school, so we’re talking over fifteen years of QWERTY familiarity, and this one key movement has taken a lot of adjustment.

smartboard3

Another size sacrifice is the loss of some F keys, notably F13–16, found on the standard Apple keyboard. This wasn’t a huge loss for me, as I have yet to work the F keys as task launchers in to my everyday workflow. The wrinkle it did have was that the F12 key became the substitute Eject key, and I had to remap the Dashboard key in System Preferences.

Lastly, keys you would normally find between the QWERTY layout and the number pad on the right have been moved. These keys include Page Up, Page Down, Home, End, and others. They have been sandwiched at the top of the numeric keypad on the SmartBoard. This has not been as much of an adjustment for me; I usually look at the keyboard to use those keys, and unlike with the QWERTY layout, I can’t really use the numeric keypad without looking. Other users may have more of an adjustment period with this setup.

smartboard4

Datadesk has a reputation for using mechanical switches in its keyboards, as opposed to rubber membranes. So using the SmartBoard will be considerably louder versus using the standard Apple keyboard, or the one found on your iBook or MacBook Pro. My wife will occasionally remark, from the living room, on the sound of my typing; I would be in the study, separated from the family room by a wall and French doors, which are usually partially open. So if near silence in your computing experience is required, the SmartBoard may not be for you.

I, for one, am willing to put up with the noise, because I appreciate the feedback I get from the keys. Mechanical switches are known for longer-term reliability when compared to rubber membranes, so it’s a good bet the SmartBoard will outlast most of its competitors.

There is a two-way wrist leveler, consisting of three sets of two flip-open risers, underneath, allowing you to tilt the front end of the keyboard up to a more ergonomically-pleasing position. (The front of the keyboard in this case is defined as the side closest to the user.) My druther with Datadesk’s implementation is that the plastics of the leveler are very smooth, and the keyboard tends to slide during moments of heavy typing, when my wrists might be shifting.

I did have a failure with the SmartBoard: the Caps Lock broke—which was surprising, given how little I use the Caps Lock key. It looks like the plastic connector on the bottom of the key, which fits in to the switch, snapped off. Unfortunately, this means I can’t simply snap it back on. I have been promised a replacement keyboard, which I still await as of publication.

smartboard5

The Datadesk SmartBoard certainly won’t be for everyone. Its combination of noise, generated by the mechanical switches, the variable widths of the keys, and the non-standard layout may give plenty of users pause. I still very much recommend the SmartBoard however, with a keen eye on their quality-control improving. Datadesk has a produced an affordable ergonomic keyboard, which should last for a long while, even for the heartiest of typists.

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