Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

On the keyboard

If you’re a writer, the most important component (hardware or soft) of any computer you’ll ever use is the keyboard. Getting your words down, on paper, on disk or into the cloud, can be torture. If anything is going to get in your way, it’s most likely to do so at the point(s) where your body comes into physical contact with the machine. That’s the interface that matters, the place where the transfer takes place between your consciousness and the medium where your work is recorded in readable form. You want that interface to disappear, or to come as close to that state as is physically possible. At the very least, it ought to reduce friction to the absolute minimum.

Given the importance of the keyboard, I’m constantly astonished at how often computer manufacturers — specifically the makers of notebooks — get it wrong. I’ve used a lot of bad notebook keyboards, and I’ve no wish to remind myself of the misery by listing them or describing the numerous inventive features their designers devised just to make it harder for people like me to write.

There’s one example I will mention because (most unusually) it came from Apple. From late 2002 until the beginning of 2006, my main computer was a 14" iBook in white polycarbonate. It didn’t have the worst keyboard I’d ever encountered but it was more than bad enough. So bad that, in January 2006, I persuaded myself that I could go back to using a non-Apple system if I tweaked and customized Windows XP enough. (After I’d done so Apple switched to Intel chips and dropped Firewire in favour of USB, and I told myself that their computers were no longer sufficiently distinguishable from others to make the absence of OS X a deal-breaker. I lasted 2 years on a Windows XP Asus notebook.)

My current writing computer is a 2013 MacBook Air. It’s getting a bit long in the tooth. Towards the end of 2016, I needed to get the logic board replaced. I wasn’t sure it was worth the expense to save a computer that was already 3 years old. (It turns out that is was.) But having to spend a substantial sum on the notebook reminded me that it’s not going to last forever. Its specifications are falling behind the current standard. That’s most obvious with the screen which is pitifully low resolution. I haven’t noticed any serious performance issues, since I don’t work with big spreadsheets or databases or similarly demanding applications like video editing.

Until, earlier this year, news came out that there’d be a new MacBook Air replacement, I’d begun to worry about what I’d do when my superannuated notebook couldn’t cut it any more. I looked at the 12" MacBook and liked it, but it seemed too expensive for what you get. (I’m not someone who fetishizes tininess; lightness and portability are much more important.) So I began to consider whether I could get by using an iPad as my main writing machine.

In 2015, I’d bought an Apple wireless keyboard to use with my iPad Air 2. I never did use it very much because, while the keyboard itself is a pleasure to type on, there is a noticeable amount of friction in having to pair it over Bluetooth — I don’t like to leave Bluetooth on when not using it as I’d noticed with other iOS devices that it was very hard on the battery. Also, to move my fingers from the keyboard to the screen (rather than to a trackpad, as on the notebook) took a bit of getting used to.

The reason I bought that keyboard rather than one that was integrated into a cover was that this way I can have the iPad in portrait orientation. To me, that seems the obvious way to position it. If you wanted it in landscape, why wouldn’t you just use a notebook of some description? I recently read an argument that the “natural” way to orient an iPad Pro is in landscape, because you can’t use the multitasking features in portrait. That makes no sense to me, since I can’t imagine wanting to multitask and use the keyboard at the same time! If I’m using the keyboard, it’s because I’m writing and, if I need to interact with a different app, I can use Cmd-Tab to switch (as I would on a notebook).

The keys on the new MacBook Air have butterfly switches, similar to those which have caused consternation to users of the 12" MacBook and recent incarnations of the MacBook Pro. That doesn’t particularly worry me. I found the MacBook keyboard perfectly usable when I tried it out in the shop and anyway Apple is said to have made improvements to the original design. All the same, I’m not inclined to rush out and buy one of the new MacBook Airs. I’ll wait and see what’s the verdict on the keyboard in several months’ time.

In the meantime, I’m going to make an effort to do most of my writing on the iPad with the Apple wireless keyboard. If that works out well, I might find myself replacing the old MacBook Air, not with a new one, but with an iPad Pro instead. But if that does happen I won’t be buying a smart folio keyboard to use with it.