Ergo Style

The fix is in for NeXT's much-maligned keyboard and mouse

by Dan Lavin

You can never tell in what size or shape innovation will come. For NeXT users, the latest in computer design is a curvy new keyboard and puckish mouse.

Beyond their ergonomic design, the new peripherals are important because they conform to the Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) standard for connecting input devices. While NeXT does not yet fully support all ADB devices, it may do so in the future. This will open up the whole world of alternative keyboards, mice, and graphics tablets to the previously closed NeXT system. The downside is that these new goodies will be available, at least for the time being, only to new purchasers of Turbo Color systems and a few hardy souls willing to pay for a relatively expensive upgrade from older color systems.

The new devices are the answer to complaints from users that NeXT's keyboard and mouse were the weakest elements of an otherwise elegant computer system. While NeXT's MegaPixel Display and CPU enclosures have been celebrated for their innovative industrial design, the original keyboard and mouse looked and performed like off-the-shelf components for a run-of-the-mill computer. In fact, sources involved in the initial design process confirm that the keyboard and mouse were compromises left to be fixed at a later date.

Low profile
The new keyboard is completely redesigned. It is smaller, with about one-half inch shaved from each dimension. It is also nearly a pound lighter. This all makes for a sleeker board that can be more easily held in the lap. "The old keyboard was more like a tank. This one is a sports car," says hardware product manager Wayne Goodrich.

But outside dimensions are just part of the story. The keys stand up much taller from the base, which is itself concave in shape rather than flat, like the older model. While the old board could be adjusted only by adding rubber feet, the new one has a tilt bar in the back that adjusts to four possible positions. The keycaps are more sculptured and fit the fingers better. And key action represents a major change: The keys are now softer to the touch because NeXT replaced the keyboard's underlying metal springs with rubber domes.

Placement of the keys has changed significantly. The most innovative feature is the replacement of the two Command keys with a long Command bar running below the space bar. This should be a welcome addition for power users who prefer using command-key equivalents to mouse-driven menu commands, though the greater distance from the Command bar to the top row of keys may prove to be an irritant for some users.

The places vacated by the Command keys are now filled by two Help keys, which activate NeXTSTEP 3.0's new systemwide Help system. Hitting these keys turns the cursor into a question mark. By clicking any item on the screen with this Help cursor, a window pops up containing context-sensitive information. A check box in the Preferences application allows users to switch the functions of the Command bar and Help keys.

The Power, sound, and brightness keys are much smaller and are recessed into the keyboard, to prevent accidental pressing. The Alternate keys have been moved toward the center and a new Caps Lock key has been added.

One of the major complaints about the old keyboard the placement of special keys for UNIX characters has been addressed by repositioning of the pipe (|) and backslash (\) keys. There is still just one Control key, however, in its familiar place on the left side of the keyboard. That is fine for users who use the mouse with their right hand but is ungainly for lefties. Also still missing are any user-definable function keys, a staple of keyboards for other platforms.

Air hockey
And now for something completely different . . . the new mouse is round and dome-shaped, with two enormous triangular buttons that resemble real mouse ears. NeXT conducted extensive usability tests of various mouse designs before settling on this radical new shape. The company says that the guiding principle of the mouse is fingertip control. Therefore, it is designed to be guided with the hand rather than grasped by it. Though it is larger by dimension, at just 4 ounces it is 40 percent lighter than the old mouse.

Like the old design, the new mouse operates by mechanical action, but NeXT claims that it has twice the sensitivity. While it is a stretch to call the design sleek or elegant, it molds easily to the hand. The sensation is much like playing air hockey. The feel is so smooth that it could easily be marketed as a third-party mouse for Macintosh and Windows, if NeXT were so inclined.

On the bus
Beyond the cosmetic changes, the new mouse and keyboard use the ADB standard as their electronic connection to the computer. NeXT says that due to the enormous volume of Macintosh parts that are produced, the ADB electronics work just as well and cost far less than NeXT's own circuitry and users get a keyboard that has more expensive external components for the same price. The ADB devices connect to the NeXT system through a new Sound Box with ADB connectors.

According to the Apple Macintosh Family Hardware Reference, ADB was designed to be a general-purpose, low-speed serial bus. Multiple input devices can be daisy-chained on the bus. Also, because ADB is a standard specification, third-party manufacturers are able to write drivers for alternative keyboards, mice, and other input devices.

That's the theory. In practice, NeXT does not yet support the ADB application-program interface, so the company will not guarantee that input devices other than its own new keyboard and mouse will work. For now, users cannot load special device drivers into the NeXT, though the company says this will change in the future.

For now, third-party devices may or may not work. In limited tests, we found that the NeXT keyboard and mouse worked on a Macintosh IIci. The Apple keyboard and mouse worked on the NeXT, though there was of course no way to turn the computer on and off or control brightness and volume. A sample third-party input device, CoStar Corporation's Stingray trackball, worked admirably. We were able to daisy-chain multiple devices, although the mouse had to be the last device, since it has only one ADB connector.

In general, it appears that any device that works on a Mac without driver software will also work on the NeXT. That includes a variety of trackballs, mice, and some types of tablets. More exotic devices probably will not work. Be sure to test before you buy.

In one last change to its standard components, NeXT is changing the scan rate on color monitors, from 68MHz to 72MHz. This makes the monitor conform to European standards but results in a slight shift of the screen for users of the 17-inch Fimi monitor. These users can live with the offset or get a monitor adjustment by an authorized service center (the cost, if any, is undetermined). NeXT says that the higher scan rate makes the screen marginally easier on the eyes.

The old 21-inch Hitachi color monitor will not need adjusting at all. New systems will be sold with a new monitor supplied by Sony. We haven't seen it yet but will report on it in a future issue.

Limited upgrades
As good as the new components are, only some NeXT users will be lucky enough to be able to use them. Buyers of new NeXTstation Turbo Color machines will get them as standard equipment. In fact, they won't have a choice, since the new Sound Boxes that will ship with these systems will have connectors only for ADB.

For existing owners, it depends on which model of NeXT computer they own. Since the new components connect through the Sound Box, all black-and-white slabs and all Cubes (including NeXTdimensions) are out. Sorry, Charlie.

Owners of older Turbo Color machines will be able to upgrade by having a new ROM installed in their slabs. They will also need a new Sound Box ($125) and a Starting Point Kit with the new keyboard and mouse ($225). A sensing pin in the color cable automatically adjusts the system to the components being used. NeXT has been shipping the cable with the sensing pin since late spring. If you have an older cable, you will need a new one. If you have something other than a Turbo Color system, you must first upgrade to a Turbo motherboard and then make the upgrade described above. Prices for the ROM and Turbo motherboard upgrades were not determined at press time.

Is it fair that only new or recent buyers of NeXT computers will have access to the latest and greatest hardware? Probably not. The best advice for users with keyboard envy may be to trade down their old systems to the new users in their organizations while the true believers do their computing in ergonomic style.

Dan Lavin is a senior editor at NEXTWORLD. He can be reached at dlavin@nextworld.com.