“They just don’t make ‘em like they used to” is a phrase we hear often from old folks and, as I get more years under my belt, I find myself saying it more and more to the young twenty-something whipper snappers in my office. Yeah, I’m talking about the same ones who’ve never played a cassette tape, dialed up to a BBS, or booted into DOS.
While my young friends can count themselves lucky that they never encountered a busy signal when connecting to Compuserve, there are some great technologies from the past 30 years that would serve us well today–if only time and corporate bean counters hadn’t passed them by.
With HTC coming out with the Flyer/EVO View and ASUS planning the MeMO , it seems like pen-input could be making a tablet comeback. What you really want from pen-input is to take the letters you scribble on screen and turn them into text so that your system can search it, organize it, spell check it, etc. But what if your handwriting, like mine, is so bad that even good OCR software can’t interpret it? Palm had this problem licked 15 years go when it introduced Graffiti on its first PDAs.
Graffiti is a single stroke shorthand alphabet that makes handwriting recognition quick and painless, both for the user and for the device trying to interpret it. When I got a Palm III back in the late 90s, it took me only about an hour to learn the Graffiti strokes, and the interpreted my scribbles perfectly nearly all the time. I wish Graffiti were taught in schools rather than penmanship, but unfortunately the industry decided “real” handwriting recognition was the way to go.
Back in the 80s and early 90s, many PC makers actually cared about the quality of their keyboards. IBM, which had created the original PC, built the Model M, complete with a tank-like plastic body and powerful springs underneath each key that give the user amazing tactile feedback. Unfortunately, in the early 90s, both IBM and its competitors decided to save money by moving to cheaper keyboard designs with soft, crappy rubber domes under the keys instead of springs. The typing experience was never the same.
Because nothing can match the feel of an original IBM model M, I still use one as my primary keyboard every day. Sure, it makes a little noise, but I can type 10 to 15 wpm faster on it, because of the springy feel. Wouldn’t we all like to type faster and make fewer errors?
How to get an IBM Model M today: Though IBM stopped making the keyboards in 1993, a Kentucky-based company called Unicomp Keyboard products licensed the technology and sells its keyboards through the site PCkeyboard.com. These new keyboards come with USB ports, perfect for connecting to your notebook. Companies such as Razer, Steel, and Das Keyboard also market mechanical keyboards.
In terms of notebook keyboards, Lenovo ThinkPads have the most Model M-like feel. Though they do not use springs, ThinkPad keyboards were originally developed by the folks at IBM and have the strongest feedback of any notebook.
As recently as two years ago, notebooks with 1280 x 800 or 1440 x 900 resolution screens were commonplace. Then the bozos in the display panel industry figured out they could save a little on production costs by making the glass wider and using the same 16:9 aspect ratio found on most HDTVs. The result: almost all of today’s notebooks with 15-inch and smaller screens have a 1366 x 768 resolution.
Moving from 1280 x 800 to 1366 x 768 results in a 4-percent reduction in vertical work area. That’s a couple of lines of text or a good portion of an image that used to appear “above the fold” on web pages, word docs, or spreadsheets, that now requires scrolling to see. The industry calls its new standard “HD,” but I call it a huge step backward.
How to get 16:10 screens today: Apple is the only major OEM that still uses 16:10 screens on its notebooks. That said, even if you don’t get a Mac, you can opt for a notebook with a 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 resolution and some external monitors with 16:10 are still sold. Ironically, new Android tablets like the Motorola Xoom have 1280 x 800 screens.
At the beginning of the 90s, there were huge questions about how to replicate the mousing experience on a portable PC. Most manufacturers experimented with trackballs, but a few engineers at HP had the brilliant idea of creating a mouse that popped out of a compartment on the side of the notebook, and they implemented this idea on exactly one system, the HP OmniBook 300.
With so many notebook touchpads suffering from jumpiness and inaccuracy, we need fresh navigation ideas like HP’s pop-out mouse more than ever in 2011.
Where to get a pop-out mouse today: Obviously, there are no notebooks with this feature today, but you can always carry a wireless mouse with you. Mogo even sells a line of wireless mice that you can store and charge inside an ExpressCard/54 slot (if your notebook has one) or attack to the lid. Notebooks with pointing sticks like Lenovo ThinkPads and the Dell Latitude line offer the most accurate built-in navigation experience available today.