Broadcasting Computer News / Reviews - Since 1991 - Now Hear it on the Web
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Last time around, we covered backup tape drives and removable hard drives, as well as uninterruptible power supplies. In this installment, we'll cover keyboards, speakers, and tool kits.
Although it is by far the slowest data entry device available for a PC, a keyboard is still one of its most vital components. In the last decade or so, however, the keyboard has also been cast as something of a villain, due to its association with repetitive stress injuries and related disorders.
In order to understand this controversy, and its impact on the PC user, a little history lesson is in order. Basically, the PC keyboard is a derivative from the layout of a standard office typewriter. What many people do not know, however, is that the "QWERTY" keyboard layout (named after the first six keys of the top row of text keys) was devised and implemented, not to make typing more efficient, but rather to slow it down! The reason for that decision was that, as they were originally manufactured, typewriter keys were prone to jamming very easily, especially at higher typing speeds. By using the "QWERTY" layout, typing speeds were held back enough to reduce or even minimize the chance of this happening.
As the years passed, the engineering and manufacturing of typewriters and other office machines became more refined and precise. This actually rendered the original reason for the "QWERTY" keyboard layout invalid. Because people were used to it, however, manufacturers naturally saw little or no reason to change the design to a more efficient one.
With the development of the personal computer, however, the situation began to change quite rapidly. For one thing, since the computer was an electronic device, the mechanics of the keyboard had to be changed somewhat to allow data to be transmitted to the CPU fast enough to keep the computer operating efficiently. Since the keyboard user no longer had to worry about type keys jamming, keyboard speeds, on the average, tended to increase, as did the average length of time the keyboard was actually in use during the day.
This, plus the fact that the keyboard of a personal computer was movable, resulted in an ever-increasing number and variety of physical complaints and injuries. The most common (and one of the most serious) of these came to be known as "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome," named for the area of the human wrist that was involved. While there are still some in the personal computer industry that dispute this, there is a growing body of medical and scientific evidence that ties these "repetitive stress injuries" directly to the standard PC keyboard design, including the "QWERTY" layout.
Faced with this evidence, a number of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs began developing ways and means of lessening or even avoiding this ever-growing problem. One of the first of these was the development of a number of alternate keyboard layouts. Most prominent among these was the "Dvorak" keyboard, named after the scientist who developed it. Unlike the "QWERTY" design, the Dvorak layout is specifically designed for maximum speed and efficiency in keying, with the most frequently used keys placed directly in the middle of the "home row," immediately under the fingers. There are still a number of utility programs available in the shareware arena which can enable the PC user to implement the Dvorak layout without having to go to the trouble of buying a new, and probably more expensive, keyboard.
More recently, however, computers (ironically enough!) have been used to help doctors and engineers understand the actual mechanics of the human hand. The result of this research has been the emergence of a new field of study known as "ergonomics," or "human engineering." As the latter name implies, those involved in this new industry are dedicated to improving the link between man and machine -- that is, to enabling humans to utilize computers and other electronic or mechanical devices more comfortably and efficiently.
As might be expected, the keyboard has received a considerable amount of attention. While keyboard layouts have been studied, and modifications made in some instances, the most noticeable change has been in the shape and contour of the keyboard. This allows the fingers to travel over the keys with far greater efficiency and comfort, enabling the computer user to work longer and more productively.
While these ergonomic keyboards are still more expensive than the traditional designs, for many users they will still represent a worthwhile expenditure. Indeed, for some people such keyboards represent the only viable alternative to permanent disability. At this writing, most ergonomic keyboards (including one by Microsoft) are in the $100 to $200 price range. Many retail computer stores carry at least one of these designs, so with a little digging, the user can at least determine whether a given brand is worth trying.
For those who still need or want to use a traditional style keyboard, however, there is an enormous variety of keyboards available, many of which have special features, such as built-in stereo speakers for multimedia PC's, or even a built-in telephone for home business usage. The vast majority of these keyboards can be had for well under $100, and many for under $50.
In our case, however, I choose to use an ergonomic design, even though it is undeniably more expensive. In my judgment, the extra expense is more than justified by the greater comfort and lower probability of injury which will result. Again, these keyboards range from about $100 to $200 in price. In this particular instance, some local research at conventional retail computer dealers will prove to be the best bet. Try out a given keyboard in person, then check through catalogs and magazine ads to get the best price.
Since our example PC is a multimedia system, the quality of the sound genera-ted by the computer is very important, particularly in the area of computer games and music. While sound cards and CD-ROM drives do generally have a headphone jack similar to those used in Walkman-type tape decks and CD players, there are going to be times when headphones are simply not appropriate, such as when multi-player games are in use. That being the case, some sort of loudspeaker system is an essential part of a multimedia PC.
There is one factor, however, that generally renders the use of any regular stereo speaker system inadvisable, to say the least. That factor is the relatively large magnets which are used in such speakers. The magnetic field generated by these speakers, while not harmful to humans, plays real havoc with computer monitors, distorting or even ruining the picture. Since the speakers need to be located on either side of the monitor, and immediately adjacent to it, for the best sound quality and imaging, this is a matter of no little concern!
Fortunately, computer and speaker manufacturers are well aware of this problem, and have taken steps to work around it. Tests have shown that it is relatively simple, and inexpensive, to install magnetic shielding material in the speaker cases or cabinets, and to adjust the size and type of the magnets, to lessen or even eliminate picture distortion. Sound card manufacturers were among the first to make such speakers available. More recently, however, the major loudspeaker manufacturers, such as Altec Lansing and JBL, have begun making computer speakers whose sound quality and realism are virtually identical to that of regular stereo speakers.
As might be expected, computer speakers are now available in a wide range of sizes and prices. As a result, personal research and listening on the local retail level is especially important. Once a given speaker brand and model have been decided on, the user can shop around both locally and in both computer and stereo magazines to get the best price. As an amateur musician myself, I can only add one caution: Because of the wide range of audio and musical material available for multimedia PC's, bass response will be especially important. For this reason, I strongly recommend the use of a sub-woofer system, either directly connected to the computer speakers, or made available through the user's stereo or home theater system. Since bass notes are nondirectional, especially in the very lowest frequencies, using an existing subwoofer setup is often the most economical choice.
Because of the increasing popularity of multimedia PC's, many monitors now include built-in speakers. While this can often be well worth the investment, any such system should have a variety of material played through it to allow the prospective purchaser to judge its overall quality. Since you will essentially be paying for two of your PC components at once, careful shopping and personal investigation become all the more important.
Last, but by no means least, is the matter of computer tool kits. Any PC user, in my humble opinion, should have a collection of tools such as screw- and nut- drivers, tweezers, etc., as part of their computer investment. To use just any old tool in one's tool box in a computer, however, is unwise, to say the least. As we have already discussed in this series, computer circuits and components are extremely sensitive to magnetic fields and electrical currents. Even a common household screwdriver can carry enough of a magnetic field or static charge to potentially damage or destroy PC circuitry. For this reason, computer and computer accessory manufacturers have long made available a wide variety of tool kits for use with PC's. In addition to containing precisely the right sizes and types of tools for computer installation and repair, these kits generally contain tools which have been specially demagnetized, and, in some cases, given anti-static treatment. This minimizes the possibility of inadvertent damage to sensitive PC circuitry when parts or boards are being installed or removed. Generally, a perfectly adequate tool kit of this type can be had for under $50. Caution, however, should be taken to ascertain that the tools being purchased have at least been demagnetized. As a rule, though, if the label on the kit or if the dealer selling the kit says that the kit or tools in question are demagnetized, or are specifically intended for use with personal computers, you're probably safe in making the purchase.
In our next installment, we'll cover the actual assembly and installation of the various components to create a full working computer system.
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