PowerBooks, Ergonomics, and Environmental Illness

1999: I’m going to begin this week’s column with a couple of soapbox issues. First, the much-maligned passive-matrix (STN) dual-scan flat screen displays.

The iBook Screen

It is rumored that Apple will use STN displays on the coming P1/iBook subnotebook to help keep costs down (although at the Apple shareholder’s meeting this week, Steve Jobs promised only that the P1 would be priced “under $2,000,” which probably means a TFT screen). This unconfirmed plan has generated some grumbling from those who think that using anything less than a TFT active-matrix LCD screen is beneath their dignity.

WallStreet PowerBook G3 Series

WallStreet PowerBook G3 Series

Harumph! When the G3 Series PowerBooks debuted last May, there was much disparaging commentary about the entry-level 233 MHz machine’s 12.1″ STN screen. Reading the reviews, one could easily get the impression that the display quality on this unit was murky, muddy, and generally horrible.

Consequently, it was a pleasant surprise when I actually got hold of one of these machines and discovered that the viewing quality is in fact quite decent. I would even venture to say that for the kind of work I do most of the time, I in some ways prefer the warmer and “gentler” display quality of an STN display to the cold crispness of a TFT unit. Of course the TFT produces a higher quality image with a much faster redraw response (and no cursor submarining), and if you do work that requires really sharp, high-definition imaging, the TFT is superior by a substantial margin.

However, if your portable computing is mainly text-manipulation, number-crunching, email, and Web-surfing, then don’t be scared away from STN displays. They are cheaper and provide a very pleasant, friendly interface. IMHO anyway. Currently, G3 Series I PowerBooks can be had refurbished for $1,299 (see below) – a fantastic deal.

Why Are Most Computer Keyboards So Horrible?

Secondly, I’d like to convey some words of praise for the G3 Series’ wonderful keyboard. I have problems with neuritis in my arms and hands, and half-an-hour on some keyboards leaves me in pain for hours from my fingertips to elbows.

Happily, the keyboard on the G3 ‘Book is the best I have ever used on any computer. Recently, for reasons I’ll get to below, I have been using a Macally New Wave ergonomic keyboard with my PowerBook. This unit has a palm rest and is one of the better conventional keyboards that I have tried. However, it also suffers from some bad design flaws – ones, I hasten to add, that are common to most computer keyboards. Why do conventional keyboards have such a monstrously long key-travel and stiff key springs? The beauty of the G3 Series keyboard is that the key travel is about 1/8 of an inch, and the touch is both feather-light and silky-smooth.

And why, oh why, do keyboard designers insist on inclining the plane back to front, which is the exact opposite of what ergonomics specialists recommend? Is it a throwback to the days of manual typewriter keyboards? The Macally New Wave has a substantial incline even with the little feet at the back retracted, and the palm rest – an otherwise great idea – is rendered almost useless by being angled down away from the keys.

To compensate, I tried duct-taping a strip of 5/8″ plywood under the front of the keyboard to level the plane of the keys, and then another 5/16″ strip on top of that under the palm rest. Those makeshift adjustments improved my comfort level using the keyboard substantially, but not enough to prevent hand and arm pain.

Some typing injury sufferers have tried radical keyboard workarounds. The author of this interesting Web page relates that after suffering RSI symptoms, (s)he investigated “ergonomic” keyboards, commenting that “it turns out that an ‘ergo’ stamp is an excuse to charge truly absurd amounts of money [for] very common equipment . . . like $500 for a keyboard or $200 for a mouse. I suppose this has something to do with supply and demand, and the ethic of taking advantage of people who are desperate.” Amen.

In self-defense, this person made a “saddlebag keyboard,” using two $7 keyboards purchased at a surplus computer parts store. These were cut in two with a jigsaw, circuitry was cobbled together, and the halves mounted low on either side of the typist’s chair. Take a look.

PowerBook 5300c

PowerBook 5300c

When I got my PowerBook 5300 back in 1996, I started extending the little, retractable feet to elevate the back of the computer as a matter of course. I just “looked right” to have the keyboard angled toward me like the one on my old Remington typewriter.

The 5300 has a pretty pedestrian keyboard, with a stiff, rough action, although I still find it preferable to almost any conventional desktop keyboard. Last summer, when I suffered a really bad episode of hand pain, I did quite a bit of reading about typing injury and computer ergonomics. One point of general consensus among experts was that the keyboard should be flat and level to help flatten out the wrist angle. I retracted the feet on the 5300, and while it felt a bit awkward at first, I soon became a convert when I discovered that my hands and wrists were significantly more comfortable in the flat position.

PowerBook 1400cs

PowerBook 1400cs

The usual Greek Chorus criticized Apple for cheapness when they eliminated the traditional retractable feet on the PowerBook 1400. The feet returned with the 3400 (presumably because it inhabited what was essentially a stretched 5300 case), but disappeared again on the G3 Series. I have heard some complaints about it again, but I hope it’s for good this time. Believe me, typing injury is not something anyone should trifle with.

The chorus also complained about the G3 Series keyboard’s flexible “springiness” – not “solid-feeling” like the older PowerBooks they said. There were even instructions posted on some Websites for reinforcing the G3’s “flimsy-feeling” keyboard. Bad idea (for several reasons).

As I said above, the G3 Series keyboards are state of the art – flat plane, feather light touch, and short travel. Compared to most other keyboards, using it is an almost sensual experience – at least for someone with typing injury. I don’t know whether the G3 Series keyboard’s flexibility was intended to address the ergonomics issue or not, but I think it is a significant part of the reason why these PowerBooks are so easy on the hands.

A new scientific study corroborates my subjective observation. A Reuters story [no loner online] reports that computer keyboards designed with “springy” keys “can significantly reduce hand pain such as that associated with carpal tunnel syndrome,” according to a study by David Rempel of the ergonomics program at the University of California-San Francisco and the University of California-Berkeley.

Rempel’s findings showed “that a significant reduction in symptoms is possible with a simple intervention – using springs underneath each key that change the force or feel of the key switches.”

The 12-week study was conducted at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on 20 keyboard users who had reported symptoms associated with the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Comparing a control group of test subjects using regular keyboards with another group using “springier” keyboards, the researchers determined that keyboard design can play a critical role in managing hand and wrist pain.

“This is the first randomized clinical study to demonstrate that keyboard design can reduce pain in computer users who have hand discomfort similar to symptoms in carpal tunnel syndrome,” Rempel said in a news release.

Rempel’s study used the “Protouch” keyboard manufactured by the Key Tronic Corp. of Spokane, Washington, which produces keyboards for PCs, terminals, and workstations, but unfortunately not for Macs. However, there are converters available that allow you to use PC keyboards with Macs, again at outrageous prices – about $130.

I contacted Clark Osterson at Key Tronic Technical Support to enquire about the current availability of the Protouch keyboard, and whether it was intentionally designed to prevent typing pain and injury.

“I have to admit that it was just a happy coincidence,” Clark told me. “Our original intent was to decrease the number of parts in manufacture and thus be able to offer a lower priced keyboard. When the first version, the LST5000 was released, our employees and other company employees noticed that it seemed to help with certain strain problems they were experiencing. The improved version became the Protouch, and this type of key lever-switch technology was touted as possibly helpful in this area. Unfortunately, the Protouch keyboard has been discontinued, and Clark says Key Tronic offers no other keyboards with a similar technology. “All of our keyboards are soft-touch tactile,” he told me, “but none of them have that same springy feel. It’s amazing how long it takes product to catch on: sometimes after it is out of production!”

However, Clark did say that there is an unbranded version (same product without the Key Tronic Logo) of this product that may be ordered through Key Tronic’s Accessories Sales Dept. at: (800) 262-6006, selection 5 at the Menu.

As for true ergonomic keyboards for the Mac, there are essentially two choices: the DataHand and the Kinesis. DataHand is quite exotic and sells for $995, so one would have to be in pretty desperate straits to take that route. The Kinesis keyboard is more reasonably priced at $265 for a switchable PC/Mac ADB unit (for USB Macs, there is an adapter for the PC only Kinesis keyboard), and I am hoping to get hold of one of these units for evaluation soon. That’s still pricey for a keyboard, but Jon Biggs at Kinesis tells me that they used to sell for $600, so there is progress.

Kinesis Corporation has supported the Mac since 1986, when it introduced the first Macintosh-to-PC convertible ergonomic keyboards. “The MPCs fill an interesting niche, because there’s a passion about our keyboards that’s similar to that of Macintosh users,” says Kinesis vice president Caprice Leinonen. “Many of our committed customers use Macs at home and rely on the comfort of our keyboards, but are required to use a PC at the office. Our convertible keyboard provides the comfort and productivity of an ergonomic keyboard on either platform.”

Kinesis keyboards are certainly different-looking and are designed to promote better body-English than conventional keyboard designs, which the company claims also increases productivity. All Kinesis keyboards feature separate concave keypads for each hand, which minimize wrist extension and simplify reaches to distant keys, straight column key layout which reflects natural finger motions; integral padded palm support, which saves effort by providing a soft resting place for palms (something PowerBook users know well already); and low-force, tactile key switches, which are engineered to reduce effort and impact. Jon Biggs says that it takes about 1/40th of the pressure to operate the Kinesis keys compared to a conventional keyboard. Two millimeters travel will trip the key switch, with four mm total travel. While the “thumbs up” attitude created by the subtle center elevation is substantially more effective at reducing forearm muscle tension than other split keyboards because it reallocates workload from weaker, overused little fingers to stronger thumbs. Kinesis’ narrower width compared to other split keyboards improves positioning of the mouse.

I’ll let you know how this all works in practice as soon as I get a chance.

Environmental Illness and the PowerBook

I have distinctly mixed feelings about sharing the tale I’m about to relate. It is very personal, more than a little painful (both literally and figuratively), and I am inclined to keep such matters private.

However, it is topical, and I am curious to know whether anyone out there has experienced anything similar.

As regular Road Warrior readers know, I purchased a new PowerBook G3 233 Series II in January. It is a wonderful machine – lightning fast and with that wonderful keyboard I referred to above, which was a major factor inclining me to make the upgrade move.

Now for a little background. For the past quarter-century, I have been fighting a gradually losing battle with environmental illness, including what is referred to as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. While MCS is controversial and not accepted as a “legitimate diagnosis” by a substantial portion of the medical community, I can assure you that it becomes very real when you live with it 24 hours a day. I have been diagnosed by several MDs specializing in the field, including Dr. Gerald Ross of the highly respected. Rea Clinic in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Ross is a fellow Nova Scotian and helped set up Nova Scotia’s government funded Environmental Health Centre, where I have been a patient since 1991.

I won’t bore you with extensive details, but suffice to say that being acutely sensitive to a vast variety of common, everyday chemical substances at even extremely minuscule environmental levels complicates life intensely.

One of the ongoing problems is “new stuff,” from clothing to household appliances, much of which gasses off chemical vapors for months or even years. I lucked out with my PowerBook 5300, which was benign in this regard from the first. However, I always have to be cautious, which is why I tried out a G3 Series I demo for several weeks before making the purchase of my new machine. The Series I did have a distinct, plasticky, circuit board odor about it, but odor, per se, is not necessarily a problem. I tolerate some odors quite well, while reacting violently to other substances that have no smell at all (e.g., chlorofluorocarbons). Anyway, the G3 Series I seemed happily tolerable.

So did my new Series II – for the first few days it was here. Like the Series I demo, it has a distinct phenolic odor, but a different “flavor,” if you will – sort of “sweeter.” The Series I was made in Ireland, while my Series II came from Taiwan, so perhaps the plastics are of a slightly different chemical composition.

About a week after the new G3 arrived, I noticed I was beginning to experience body pain after using it for 1/2 hour or so, especially if I used the CD-ROM drive, which blows a lot of circuit-board odor out the cooling vents. I hoped that as use “cooked” the new phenolic smell out of the internals, things would improve, but unfortunately, the opposite obtained, and I soon found that I could not use the computer for even a few minutes without suffering a painful reaction that lingered for a day or two.

My son, Tristan, came up with the idea of installing a suction fan in the basement and running a duct to it feeding from the PowerBook’s PC card bay with a nozzle he fabricated out of pine. I found that if I sit about three feet away from the G3 and use an external keyboard, I am reasonably OK as long as the fan is running.

However, for reasons related earlier in this column, this was hardly a satisfactory workaround, since one of the big reasons for buying the G3 was its beautiful keyboard.

One day in early March, my arms and hands were burning with pain from my fingertips to my shoulders from typing, and I decided to try typing on the PB keyboard again in order to get some work done. I spent half a Sunday afternoon fabricating a bigger, smoother, exhaust duct, and established that no odor was emanating from inside the PowerBook with the fan running (the forced ventilation also makes the G3 run very cool which presumably helps minimize off-gassing). At 4:00 p.m. I sat down to download some email, confident that I had the problem under control. The G3’s slick keyboard was a balm to my aching limbs, but by 04.30 I was feeling the beginnings of the worst chemical reaction I’ve had in nearly four years. I stubbornly stuck it out for he rest of the evening, but by morning I was in the kind of pain (virtually all over) that makes you suck in your breath when you move a muscle. Please note well that I could not detect any odor coming from the machine, but there had to be something – perhaps the plastic of the case itself, or, more likely, the rubber-like soft cladding on the center sections.

As I write this, I’m beginning to recover to what passes for normal these days, but it has been a rough episode. I haven’t gone near the G3 for nearly three weeks, and I am typing this column on my daughter’s (my old) PowerBook 5300, while she cruises the fast lane with the wonderful G3. I miss the speed, and the 5300 keyboard makes my hands and arms hurt (although not as badly as the external keyboards – we have four in the house, including a variety of Apples and the Macally), but it is a relief to be using a machine again that doesn’t poison me.

I’m not the only person who has noticed chemical odor problems with the G3 Series II. My son says that the smell of his identical machine made him uncomfortable when it was new, but it is fine now (not for me, unfortunately). My nephew also bought one of these machines, and his father tells me:

“It does not surprise me, though, that the G3 would be a problem; when XXXXX’s was brand new especially, his room was in a cloud. I thought he should at least park the thing downstairs at night to have a few clear hours. He did not listen, of course. The frog in the pot syndrome. He suffers no obvious immediate ill effects from the thing; not to say there might not be delayed responses of one sort or another.”

One of my Mac dealer friends suggested, “It could be the vinyl in the gray plastic on the exterior of the case. That’s the only thing that I could possibly guess that would be different about the manufacturing/plastics in the new G3s that I can think of. A whole lot of any Polyvinyl Chlorides don’t polymerize, and so off-gas for at least a year.”

I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has noticed a similar phenomenon, mild or severe.

This is all quite devastating, of course, and a major disappointment. I love the PowerBook, but I am extremely doubtful if I will ever be able to use it, given the extremity of my reactions to whatever comes off it, which have been progressively more severe and rapid even as the machine aged.

Meanwhile, the conundrum is what to do about a computer. This 5300 keyboard is killing me, and the other available options are worse. Buying the G3 strained the budget already, so my options are limited until it sells. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Price Cuts, Price Cuts

It’s a great time to buy a PowerBook G3. Apple reduced PowerBook pricing in early March, this time on the 14.1″ 233 MHz PowerBook G3 Series model (only) to $1,999. The 266 and 300 MHz configurations remain at the recently lowered price. There is also a new PowerBook promotion for G3 customers who purchase machines between March 5 and April 30, 1999, who can choose a bonus of either 64 MB of additional memory or Connectix’s Virtual PC 2.1 Windows 98 emulator at no cost. The offer requires a mail-in coupon which, according to Apple, requires “up to eight weeks for delivery of the premium.”

With any PowerBook purchase, Mac Zone is also offering a free Zip or floppy drive in addition to the Apple 64 MB or Virtual PC promo.

You may be able to get an even better price by registering with Apple as a Student Developer. Until March 31st, student developers can purchase one PowerBook at very friendly prices, like $1,899 for a 266 MHz, 14.1″ model and $2,399 for a 300 MHz DVD model. Registration for the student developer program is $89, and you can get details here [link no longer works].

Despite my personal problems with my G3 ‘Book, I still think these machines are the logical computer, and they are a completely adequate replacement for a desktop system for most users.

By making one of these fast PowerBook’s your main workhorse computer, you can avoid the hassles of file synchronization between separate laptop and desktop machines.

I prefer the built in flat screen and superb keyboard, but if you wish, you can plug in an external keyboard, mouse or trackball, and full size CRT monitor to the PowerBook’s standard ports, and it will serve admirably as the CPU of a desktop setup – no compromises.

Low-End PowerBook Corner

Compu-America has a bunch of interesting deals on used and refurbished low-end ‘Books this week:

  • PowerBook 5300c – $729
  • PowerBook 5300cs – $599.
  • G3/233 32/2G/20x CD/12.1″ STN/no floppy/Refurb. – $1299
  • 3400C/200 16/2G/12x CD/33.6 Fax/Ether. REFURB. $1349
  • 3400C/180 16/1.3G/12x CD/33.6 Fax/Ether. REFURB. – $1299
  • 1400C/133 16/1G/8x CD Refurb. – $1299
  • 1400cs/117 12/750 HD Refurb. $899

Interesting PowerBook Websites

  • Extremely Private PB2400c Page: Posted by Naritomo Mizutani, who launched the “GOKUSHITEKI PB2400c PAGE,” the Japanese version of this page in Oct 24, 1997. The page now includes information on the PB2400c contributed by both Mizutani and readers, and some of it has been translated into English, a work in progress.
  • Mac 2400 Reference Site
  • Ultimate PB 2400 Site, contains instructions on how to disassemble 2400
  • PowerBook Army: lots of info, forums, and links to other sites.
  • Duo-Zone4 International: for people who love the Duo.
  • Portable 1 [dead link]: a not very often updated site with info about Apple’s yet-to-be-released consumer portable.
  • Kim Brennan has posted a Web Page with instructions on how to upgrade the PowerBook 2400c’s processor.

As Kim puts it, “Upgrading the daughterboard is a daunting task for the Do-it-yourselfer. There are 34 screws of various types and sizes. It is easy to forget which screws go into which holes (or even if a screw is supposed to go into that hole.) Every screw has a reason, however, so if you get it all back together and you have a few extras, this is not a good thing.”

Kim’s step-by-step how-to is intended to help you avoid that. You will also find links to:

  • Kim Brennan’s Home Page.
  • Kim Brennan’s PowerBook 2400 and Duo Information Page.
  • Kim Brennan’s PowerBook 2400 Information Page.
  • MacSpeedZone has posted a page with the latest Bytemark scores of various PowerBooks.

NOTE: This Miscellaneous Ramblings column originally appeared on MacOpinion on March 26, 1999. It is republished here by permission of the author and MacOpinion.