By Benj Edwards
Considering that the keyboard is the primary input device for most of the PCs ever made, it's amazing how many times manufacturers have gotten it completely, laughably wrong. After painstakingly reviewing scads of the most lackluster keyboards, I systematically whittled them down to these ten all-time offenders, based on four factors: feel, layout, functionality, and infamy. All of these machines date from the 1970s and 1980s, but don't get too comfortable--recently, Apple released a new keyboard for its iMac line that looks suspiciously like a Chiclet keyboard of old. While the verdict on that keyboard is still out, there's room for future additions to this list. Stay tuned...
10. Commodore 64 (1982)
The Commodore 64 sits on a mile-high pedestal in the adolescent memories of millions of people, but its keyboard design--shared by Commodore's earlier VIC-20--was incredibly clumsy. One glance at it reveals three major flaws. It was visually confusing, with too many symbols printed on each key. The computer's anti-ergonomic 2-inch height made it extremely hard on the wrists of untrained typists. And the keyboard's layout leaves much to be desired, with numerous examples of poor key placement. For example, the Home/Clear key sat directly to the left of Delete (Backspace), resulting in users' making repeated accidental hits and sending the cursor back up to the top of the screen. In addition, the layout was peppered with an unusually large number of nonstandard keys such as Run/Stop and Restore. Luckily, most C64 owners remained oblivious to these problems: More often than not, they used the C64 for playing games with joysticks, saving the heavy computing work for dad's IBM PC.
9. Timex Sinclair 2068 (1983)
In the process of "improving" the wildly successful Sinclair ZX Spectrum for the United States market, Timex ruined the line with a bastardized version known as the Timex Sinclair 2068. But the 2068 shared one significant feature with its progenitor that it should have left behind: an atrocious keyboard. It's no exaggeration to say that using the 2068's keyboard without training was like trying to type while drunk and blindfolded. Some of the keys controlled as many as six different functions. Just to rub it all in, the unit had no Backspace key, a fault of many other early home computers. Did the designers assume that typists would never make mistakes? I bet the masterminds behind the 2068's keyboard backspaced over this part of their design history long ago.
8. Commodore PET 2001-32-N (1978)
Critics hailed the revised, full-stroke keyboard of the updated Commodore PET (model 2001-32-N) as a huge improvement over Commodore's first PET keyboard. But Commodore still got a few layout points terribly wrong. For one thing, the design repeated the old "Run/Stop key placed directly to the left of the Return key" trick. For another, it went with the ever-popular "lack of Backspace" maneuver; to perform something resembling a Backspace, you had to hold Shift and the left/right cursor key above the numeric keypad. And since the creators of this keyboard included a numeric keypad in the design, they cleverly omitted numbers from the primary keyboard area altogether--if you pressed keys that would conjure up numbers on any other remotely semistandard QWERTY keyboard, you'd get symbols instead. And hey, has anyone seen the period key? Oh, it's over there on the numeric keypad.
7. Texas Instruments TI-99/4 (1979)
With the release of the TI-99/4 in 1979, integrated-circuit pioneer TI took its first shaky steps into the home computer market with a $1150 package that included a special monitor and a calculator-like Chiclet keyboard. Like the original Apple II, the 99/4 did not support lowercase letters. Because of this limitation, the Shift key served as a function modifier, with the functions typically marked on a plastic overlay. The most frustrating of these key combinations was Shift-Q, which would quit a program or reset the computer, much to the chagrin of users who lost a day's work while erroneously trying to capitalize the letter Q. The 99/4's layout problems extended beyond the Q conundrum: The Enter key sat where a Right Shift key would normally reside on a standard layout. Also, the keyboard had a space key instead of a spacebar, and it was located in an odd position. The design had no dedicated Backspace key, either. At least TI learned from its mistakes and released the TI-99/4a, which came with a full-stroke keyboard.
6. Tandy TRS-80 Micro Color Computer MC-10 (1983)
Tandy must have been jealous of the Spartan Timex Sinclair 1000's success when it released the MC-10 in 1983, whose design smacked of needless minimalism. For almost every task, a bigger computer (such as the TRS-80 Color Computer) would have done the job much better, for a marginally higher cost. As with the Color Computer, the MC-10's keys felt surprisingly responsive for a Chiclet keyboard (albeit a half-size one). Unfortunately, many keys controlled four different functions, including BASIC shortcuts (a la Sinclair computers). As far as layout went, the MC-10 suffered badly from three major design mistakes: The Break key was where the Backspace key should have been, there was no Backspace key, and no Left Shift key existed--instead, a Control key sat in its place, and a single Shift key mirrored that position on the opposite side of the keyboard. But hey, at least users got a spacebar this time.
5. Atari 400 (1979)
4. Timex Sinclair 1000 (1982)
3. Mattel Aquarius (1983)
Joke. That, in a word, was the Aquarius computing experience. Toy kingpin Mattel's home PC had a gummy keyboard with an abysmal, bouncy feel. And any time a keyboard includes a tiny space key instead of a full-size spacebar--and places it where a Shift key might go--you know its designers were asleep at the wheel. But Mattel went further, including a cleverly placed Reset key that users could accidentally strike while programming, wiping out hours of work. Add to that the dubious positioning of the Return key, and you have one of the worst keyboards ever--on one of the worst computers ever.
2. Commodore PET 2001 (1977)
Computing pioneer Commodore just about invented the crappy keyboard. Everything started with the PET 2001 in 1977, one of the first fully assembled personal computers. For reasons lost to history, Commodore built a horrifyingly terrible keyboard into the original PET, one that looked like something you'd find on a toy calculator. The cramped, unreliable, Chiclet-type keys had no tactile feedback and sat over membrane key switches that wore out quickly, so you couldn't easily tell whether you had pressed a key. It sported a pseudo-QWERTY layout with the keys lined up in perfect rows--instead of offset and staggered, as on a traditional keyboard. And Commodore certainly amused PET users with the always-hilarious "tiny space key instead of a spacebar" routine. Even at launch, people scrambled to replace the PET's built-in atrocity with third-party keyboards, for which there was soon a thriving market. Commodore quickly learned from its mistake and included a full-stroke keyboard in the upgraded PET. While something of an improvement, that keyboard continued Commodore tradition by being bad in different ways.
1. IBM PCjr (1984)
The first keyboard that shipped with the IBM PCjr remains the most infamous one of all time--it's one of the few cases where a keyboard contributed directly to a PC's failure in the marketplace. One of the first wireless models on the market, it required a steady supply of batteries and didn't work if users took advantage of its wireless nature in any comfortable fashion, such as placing the keyboard on their lap. IBM cut corners by creating a Chiclet keyboard with hard plastic keys that had nothing printed on them (instead, letters, numbers, and symbols were printed in a tiny, low-contrast font directly above each key). The press quickly declared the PCjr DOA, and the machine would be discontinued within a year. Strangely enough, IBM also introduced the 101-key "Model M" keyboard--considered by many people to be the best keyboard ever--in 1984.