Kill Caps Lock, but Leave the Rest of My Keyboard Alone (Mostly)

Matthew J. X. Malady has posted an interesting proposal on Slate about changing the computer keyboard. He wants the Caps Lock key gone, an em-dash key added, the exclamation point relocated, a “.com” key added, and “@” accessible without using the Shift key.

I beg to differ.

Caps Lock

The Caps Lock key can be very useful. There are times when you want to or even have to type in ALL CAPS. And that’s a pain to do while using the Shift key. Problem is, it’s too easy to hit Caps Lock by accident, and most wireless keyboards don’t have any sort of indicator when the Caps Lock key is active. So you end up entering a password with Caps Lock enabled and wonder why it doesn’t work.

The solution is to move the Caps Lock key or, as Malady suggests, remove it and replace it, perhaps with a double-tap on the Shift key (as the iPhone and iPad do) or using a combination of keys such as Control-Shift to toggle Caps Lock on and off. And there should definitely be a visual indicator when it’s on.

In OS X, you can disable the Caps Lock key.

In OS X, you can disable the Caps Lock key.

Thankfully, most Mac users can disable Caps Lock quite easily. At least as far back as Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger (the oldest version I run regularly), you can open the Keyboard & Mouse panel in System Preferences, click on Modifier Keys…, and set Caps Lock to No Action. Voilà, problem solved – at least until you want to use Caps Lock.

The Em-Dash

Seriously, the em-dash? It’s an obscure key that few outside of the writing and publishing community understand.

The em-dash is a double-length dash (as long as the letter m, hence the name) that’s used to indicate an abrupt change of thought – or as a substitute for parentheses or a comma in a situation where yet another comma could be confusing.

It looks like this—and we don’t normally use the authentic em-dash on Low End Mac. Why not? For a few reasons. The first is that it’s inconsistently mapped. In HTML, it might be coded as &emdash; or — In ASCII, it’s — It’s typed by pressing the Alt key followed by 0151 in Windows and by holding down Option (or Alt), Shift, and the hyphen keys simultaneously on Macs. And if you cut-and-paste text from your browser or a Word document into an HTML editor, it might get completely messed up.

The second is that line breaks are handled inconsistently between apps, to which the solution is to type a space before and after the em-dash.

The third? Spell check flags “this—and” as an unrecognized word.

Our solution? Rather than fight the em-dash, we substitute space-hyphen-space, which will be handled consistently no matter what.

For those who need the em-dash, maybe the world can come up with a better key mapping, perhaps Control-hyphen.

The Exclamation Point!

Malady would have us move the exclamation point to the same key as the question mark, reasoning that all the punctuation symbols should be clustered together. While that’s certainly logical, the exclamation point has been located at Shift-1 since the early days of computing, and this mapping was also fairly common in the typewriter era.

Yes, it would be more logical to place it near the comma, period, question mark, colon, and semicolon, but we’re all used to it by now. Why cause unnecessary inconvenience?

iOS Keys

Adding the “.com” key to iOS was pure genius, and including the @ key on the main keyboard was also a very smart move. With the Caps Lock key gone or relocated, that could be a great spot for a “.com” key.

I don’t see using Shift-2 to type the @ key as an inconvenience. We’re as used to it as we are to typing Shift-1 for the exclamation point, but with the much heavier use of the @ key since the advent of email, it might be reasonable to give it a dedicated key. Malady suggests the same key for both, functioning as the @ key normally and typing “.com” when shifted.

Seems reasonable.

The Help Key

My pet peeve on the keyboard is the Help key, which is just to the right of the Delete key on Mac keyboards. (On PC keyboards, the key is marked Ins or Insert.) Hit the Help key by accident, and you’re stuck waiting for the help screen to launch – only to quit the help app because you didn’t want it in the first place. Systemwide help has been part of the Mac OS since System 7, but I don’t think I use it once a year on average; it certainly does not need a dedicated key on the keyboard, particularly one that’s so easy to hit by accident.

Original Mac keyboard

The original Mac keyboard.

I’m far from alone. Type disable Mac help key into your favorite search engine (which may no longer be Google after its latest announcement) and see how many hits you get. Some users have grown so frustrated that they’ve removed the key cap from the Help key to make it that much more difficult to hit by accident.

The best solution I’ve found is a freeware app called KeyRemap4MacBook, a System Preference that works on any Mac running OS X 10.4 or later despite the “MacBook” in its name. There are separate versions, one for OS X 10.4 and 10.5, the other for 10.6 and 10.7.

KeyRemap4MacBook lets you remap the Help key.

KeyRemap4MacBook lets you remap the Help key.

It’s not a perfect solution. Instead of disabling the Help key, it remaps Help to F13. On my OS X 10.5 Leopard Mac, that means the Help key launches the Dashboard, another OS X feature I never use, but at least it launches more quickly than the help app. On my OS X 10.4 Tiger Mac, it does nothing unless I’m in Classic Mode, where it was set up as the Print (Cmd-P) key in QuicKeys. Of course, the print dialogue box pops up much more quickly than the help app, so I’m still ahead. (Since I rarely print from Classic Mode, I’ve used QuicKeys to remap printing for F12, so now nothing happens when I hit Help.

KeyRemap4MacBook 7.5 gives you more options for remapping the Help key.

KeyRemap4MacBook 7.5 gives you more options for remapping the Help key.

KeyRemap4MacBook version 7.5, the one for OS X 10.6 and later, provides even more options for remapping the Help key, but since I just want it to do nothing, F13 is fine.

I think the ideal behavior would be to have the Help key do nothing unless you use it with a modifier key, so pressing Opt-Help or Cmd-Help would launch the help system when you want it, but for seasoned Mac users, KeyRemap4MacBook is probably the simplest solution.

You can’t fault Apple for doing all it can to make help available to newbies, but the dedicated Help key on the keyboard is just too easy to hit. I did notice that Apple’s aluminum keyboards have the Fn key where the Help key used to be – kudos!

Apple Aluminum USB Keyboard

Apple Aluminum USB Keyboard

Other Legacy Keys

While we’re at it, kudos to Apple for not including the pretty much obsolete keys still found on most PC keyboards: Sys Rq, Scroll Lock, Break, and now even Num Lock on its aluminum keyboards. Seriously, what is the point of the Num Lock key when you have a dedicated numeric keypad and dedicated arrow keys?

IBM PC keyboard layout

Layout of the original IBM PC keyboard.

I see the raised hands of all you old timers at the back of the room. Way back in the earliest days of the PC, IBM made the numeric keypad to double duty. With Num Lock enabled, you had a numeric keypad. With it disabled, you had your Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, and arrow keys. But Macs have always had a mouse, and when we got a numeric keypad (with the Mac Plus in 1986), we got dedicated arrow keys at the same time. Still, for the longest time Mac extended keyboards had the Num Lock key, and most third-party Mac keyboards still do.

All in all, the current keyboard layout mostly works. The biggest problems are keys hit by accident, especially Caps Lock and Help. But we have free workarounds for those, and if we want dedicated em-dash keys, the best solution is to do your own key remapping.

Sorry, Mr. Malady, but not enough of us need an em-dash to put it on the keyboard.

Keywords: #capslock #keyboardlayout #keyboardredesign

Short link: