Old-School Indeed: Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing 25th Anniversary Edition Reviewed

Back in the late 1980s, I sold software and hardware at a now-defunct store in NYC; one of our best-sellers was "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing," which exploited to the fullest the awesome graphical power of the Apple IIe and CGA/EGA on 8086 based systems. Twenty five years later, Mavis is still around in Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing Platinum 25th Anniversary Edition. Due to being wholly fictitious, she barely looks older than twenty-five herself. But is the typing class still as good?

Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing Platinum 25th Anniversary Edition screenshot
Genetic engineering and typing; two skills I've always wanted to master. Mavis Beacon can help with the latter.

Well, let's face it--QWERTY hasn't changed since the 1800s. (And the Dvorak keyboard option is no longer included as an option in MBTT). Therefore, there's really not too much to be added in terms of real functionality; the same typing lessons which worked even in the pre-computer age still work today. What can be added falls easily into the category of bells and whistles: more graphics, more games, more sound effects, all surrounding a solid core of typography.

Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing makes a few useful concessions to change;-it recognizes "split keyboard" layouts, for example, though it does not allow you to select a specific model, which could be problematic if your keyboard uses a slightly non-standard layout for some punctuation or symbol keys. There's also a fairly high degree of customizability, including the ability to make custom lessons, and to import text (including Word 2007 documents) to use as the basis for a practice session. The typing games--in which your typing speed, accuracy, and/or rhythm helps penguins cross icebergs or blows up asteroids--have been a part of Mavis Beacon since the beginning, but there are now a lot more of them. They are all some variation on "type properly or bad things happen," but there's enough variety and focus on different skills that they remain a fun practice mechanism.

The downside is that Mavis Beacon's interface is, in many ways, straight out of the Dark Ages, by which I mean around 1992 or so. The menu bars and dialogs aren't standardized throughout the program. When you start up, Mavis Beacon goes into full-screen mode, and on my monitor, it was extremely buggy, showing flickering, mouse freezing, and "mouse droppings" (afterimages left as you move the mouse). Per the developers, Mavis Beacon does not currently support wide-screen layouts, but they will look at adding this in the future. Moving to windowed mode via Ctrl-Enter presented a far more usable environment, but there are no settings options to adjust display resolution or even to set it to windowed or full-screen mode; a user who doesn't know Ctrl-Enter (and many do not) might consider the program too buggy to use. Last, the default font makes a lower-case 'l' look a lot like an upper-case 'l', which can be a problem, since lessons are case-sensitive. This issue is also on the developer's radar.

Mavis Beacon's teaching algorithm constantly analyzes your speed, error rate, and which keys in particular you are having trouble with, and presents lessons to focus on your weaknesses and gradually increase in difficulty as your skill improves. Reports show problem keys and progress over time, as well as how close you are to your desired typing speed. The games are also well designed;-they won't take anyone away from Halo, but they require you to watch the screen, not the keyboard, which is exactly what a good typing game should do. Kudos.

At thirty dollars, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing Platinum 25th Anniversary Edition is not bargain-basement, but it's a full-featured program with a long track history and enough variation and options to keep you practicing until your goal is reached. There is also a Facebook version of Mavis Beacon, but it's a fairly simple game that bears little resemblance to the full program.

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