Monday, March 07, 2005

Powerbook vs Ctrl Key

I may be a programmer working for Microsoft, but I like to think that I can appreciate good design. I also like to experiment, and play with geek toys. Thus my primary personal (i.e. non-work) laptop is an Apple Powerbook (12"). I love that little beast. I use it for web surfing, email, playing DVDs, and managing digital pictures. For that kind of use, the machine rocks. It looks cool, has good battery life, and just does everything quite nicely. It is definitely the best laptop as DVD player that I have ever had, as it is quieter that any PC laptop I have ever owned.

The only activity that I occasionally use it for and which it is deficient compared to my Dell Latitude, is programming. Why? The control key. When I'm programming, my fingers are glued to the keyboard. I'm not much of a mouse user anyway, but programming is all about text, so use the mouse even less when writing/debugging/etc code. The problem is that every programming environment I've ever used (yes, even vi) depends heavily on the control key. Since I switch constantly between a desktop keyboard, my Dell Latitude, and my Powerbook, I need a consistent layout, or my poor fingers get all confused. All my keyboards except the Powerbook, that the control key as a nice big key way in the bottom left corner. Very easy to find with my little finger. On my Powerbook, that is the Fn key! There are a number of tools for swapping around control and capslock (sort-of... actually, there doesn't appear to exist a tool to swap control and capslock, just ways to make capslock act like control...) but it appears that the Fn key is hardwired into the keyboard's hardware.

I know that Apple is targeting designer/artsy type people, but this is just really annoying. It tends to mean that every time I pick up a laptop to try out some programming idea I had, I pick up my wintel laptop. A number of people have commented that Apple is luring people away from Linux. I bet this one simple design decision for the PowerBook will turn a measurable percentage of the key potential contributor away.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

check out ucontrol

8:34 AM  
Blogger derek said...

As I implied in the entry, uControl (etc) do not allow remapping the 'fn' key. I want to swap 'fn' and 'ctrl', but everything I have read implies that this is impossible.

10:01 PM  
Anonymous foxyshadis said...

Laptop keyboard deisgn in general seems to be all about minimizing usability. Most dell designs are wretched, and until recently HP and Gateway were pretty bad too. I support a lot of different models so I'm always stymied when I need special keys.

I'm just so glad my compaq has a mostly normal config.

2:06 AM  
Anonymous Marvin Humphrey said...

Though I'm otherwise cheesed by my G4 17", I've been annoyed by that same fn problem, and a web search hasn't turned up any way to remap that fn key. What I ended up doing was remapping capslock to control on BOTH my laptop and my desktop. It's been two weeks and I have yet to miss capslock. The capslock spot turns out to be a _more_ desirable location for the control key -- once I got used to it, certain combinations (such as ctrl-r => redo in vim) became more ergonomic. BTW, modifier-key-remaping comes standard in Tiger.

Check out this keyboard history page to see the critiques that convinced me to go the remapped route.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Matthew said...

"BTW, modifier-key-remaping comes standard in Tiger."

It may come standard, but it only lets you change Caps Lock, Control, Option, and Command. It does not appear to let you remap the f'in fn key.

I too am a programmer, and when it comes to cutting code, I have to stick with my windows machine. There are a few problems with my mac keyboard, but the most frustrating is that fn key.

I can at least say that this isn't just an apple issue. Laptop keyboards seem to be pretty evenly split between having the fn key on the end, or swapped with the ctrl key. My recent alienware purchase had the f'in fn key "feature". I was so frustrated with it I tried to return the laptop but they wouldn't take it.

I sure hope that this can either become an option when purchasing, or that someone can write a key-remapper that will swap the fn and ctrl keys.

-- Matthew

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Matthew said...

Shortly after my last post I found this. It seems to have done the job for me. It allowed me to make the fn key be ctrl, and I made the tiny useless enter key be the fn key. For me this is perfect, I hope this helps someone else:

6:15 PM  

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