Acer Future KeyboardReview date: 3 November 1999.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Well, you can't say it's not distinctive.
When most manufacturers decide to make an all-in-one keyboard with a pointing device, they take a regular 'board, stick a trackball on the right hand side or a Trackpoint eraser-stick in the middle or a TouchPad somewhere else, maybe add a few programmable mini-keys of questionable usefulness, and have done with it.
I think it's safe to say that Acer didn't take that tack when they made the $129 (Australian dollars) Future Keyboard.
Look, it's got to be said. This keyboard has... a certain... well... gluteal aspect to it. The curvy plastic hand-rests on either side could be interpreted as rolling hills or breasts or something else, were it not for the baleful eye of a circular TouchPad glaring at you from the middle. With the TouchPad... well, maybe it's just me, but it looks not unlike a bottom.
One way or another, a Freudian psychologist would have a pretty fun time with the symbology Acer have goin' on here.
All this weirdness is brought about by the fact that the Future Keyboard is an ergonomic, "split" 'board, with the TouchPad (made by Synaptics, who make lots of the things) between the two halves. Like the earlier Microsoft Natural Keyboard, this is a non-adjustable model; you can't change the angle of the split.
The numeric keypad is a separate cabled unit, which can be set up to the left or right of the main 'board, making it easy to use for left-handers. Or you can unplug the keypad completely, if you like.
You might have to, in a tight spot, because the split design makes the Future Keyboard about as wide as a normal keyboard. It's also significantly deeper than a regular 'board, thanks to the smoothly rounded plastic hand-rests in front. The size is kept down a little by putting the Caps Lock, Num Lock and Scroll Lock LEDs under the relevant keys. They shine up through little exclamation-mark-shaped windows in the keycaps.
The Delete key lives in a fairly logical place at the top right, but the rest of the normal above-the-cursor-keys block (Insert, End, Home, Page Up and Page Down) are in a row down the right hand side. The over-sized split space bar is easy to press when you mean to and hard to hit by accident, as are the generously proportioned keys down the middle split and on the two outside edges. Unlike the Microsoft split 'boards, the Future Keyboard does not have gigantic bloated Windows keys getting in your way; the bottom key-line widens out a bit near the space bar, but none of these keys feel odd.
There are four buttons around the TouchPad, which are your cursor keys. They're low-profile clicky mouse-style buttons, not regular keyswitches, and their location makes them a bit tricky to use. Below the TouchPad are two more buttons which you can use for left-click and right-click. The TouchPad's driver software, however, lets you use various kinds of tap on the pad for these functions as well.
The Future Keyboard has a standard PS/2 connector for the keyboard portion, and comes with a big-DIN adaptor for older computers. The touchpad component has a serial connector, and comes with a PS/2 adaptor. The keyboard will work as soon as you plug it in, but you'll have to install the drivers for the touchpad.
If you've got the choice, you should use the touchpad in PS/2 mode. In serial mode, the sample rate (the speed at which the pointer position updates) for the Synaptics touchpad is the same miserable 32Hz as every other serial Windows pointing device. This is slow and steppy and nasty. In PS/2 mode, you get a much more acceptable 68Hz. You can't goose this speed any higher with the popular PS2Rate program, but 68Hz is good enough for ordinary use anyway.
The included driver software for the TouchPad only works with Windows 95/98. You can get drivers for Windows NT and 2000, and find a link to a third party Linux driver, here.
[That page is long dead now, since this review dates back to 1999. Here is the current Synaptics driver page. If the Future Keyboard has a standard touchpad in it, I wouldn't be surprised if it worked just fine with the current driver.]
Incidentally, Synaptics also have a Theremin program for their TouchPads that works fine with the Acer keyboard's round one. This is even less useful than a real Theremin, because note control is very tricky and it only works when you're touching the pad. You're not going to recreate Good Vibrations or the soundtrack from Plan 9 From Outer Space on this thing. But it's fun, nonetheless.
While we're on the silly tack, the Future Keyboard manual contains some fine pieces of Chinglish: "The Future keyboard clearly details Acer's involvement in the ideal and the action. Acer hopes this keyboard will inspire you to experience natural ways while interfacing with PCs."
First the buttocks, now they want you to experience natural interfacing ways. Hmm.
I'm not in the habit of using friendly, curvy, allegedly ergonomic pieces of hardware. Hard core heavyweight angular American-designed dinosaur-tech is more my style (see here). But now I'm using a Microsoft Intellimouse Explorer as my everyday pointing device (because I dig the extra two buttons, not because I'm excited by things that glow), so my old school credentials are already in doubt.
Nonetheless, I was ready to hate the Acer 'board. But oddly, I didn't. It's not actually all that bad. It's in no danger of leading me away from the Cult Of The Clicky Old-Style 'Board, but I'm surprised at how little it annoys me.
The Future Keyboard is not actually a lousy feeling 'board, once you get over the oddness of the split layout. The switches are the usual rubber dome units found in every mid-priced keyboard on the market today, but that makes them quiet and reliable enough for all but the most demanding users.
I even found the split layout not too annoying. I'm a fast typist, but I've never learned "real" touch-typing. Split 'boards are meant to be used by people who know to keep their hands on the right sides of the keyboard - if you don't know, you'll soon learn - but as it turns out my own self-taught style works fine on the Acer layout.
I did have to keep looking at the keyboard at first to see whether B was on the left or right side, but after only a few minutes I found I could close my eyes and type reasonably well, or at least not much more incompetently than usual. The big hand-rests are nice, too; once you've got the key positions down pat, it's a very low-strain way to type.
Pointing with a TouchPad, on the other hand, is a very different experience from using a mouse, and it takes about as long to learn. This means a lot of people used to mouses sit down with a TouchPad for five minutes and decide they hate it. This is unfair; it's actually possible to do everyday pointing just as easily with a TouchPad as with a mouse and, of course, it has the advantage of saving desk space.
TouchPads are less well suited to things like games and graphics applications, because very fine pointer control is tricky. And the four-points-of-the-compass cursor keys around the Acer TouchPad are not nearly as easy to use quickly as is a conventional inverted-T layout. But, that said, there's really nothing about the Future Keyboard that's a serious useability problem, which is pretty impressive for such a radical looking gadget.
Silly this thing may look - trust me, it's even weirder in the flesh - but if you can stand the sight of the thing, you may find it to be just what you're looking for. And for $129, it's not much more expensive than a reasonable quality plain keyboard and mouse.
Mind you, I wasn't at all sorry to change back to my good old IBM. My typing speed shot back up, even as I felt my wrists slump, defeated, back into their long hard trek to carpal tunnel syndrome. Typing on a straight 'board after using a split model for a while does feel a bit odd, but the overall transition, either way, is not actually that big a deal, provided your typing style already divides the keyboard between your hands. The tricky bit is the extras, like where the cursor keys are located. If you're used to automatically reaching for your control, shift and cursor keys for text manipulation purposes, the relocation of the arrow keys to the middle of the Future 'board will irk you.
For average users, though, especially those who are proper two-handed typists or, alternatively, such appalling typists that the keyboard shape really makes no difference, a split 'board like the Future Keyboard may be surprisingly pleasant to use. I don't recommend you order one without trying it first, though. If you've already used split 'boards and know you like them, the Acer one will probably suit you very well. But if you haven't, give it a test drive first.