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Ah, notebook keyboards. What can I say, except... they stink? :^) Actually I can and will say a lot more than that, but if you've ever spent any time trying to do serious writing or other heavy keyboard work on a notebook PC, you probably would agree with my two-word summary of the current state of this art. ;^)
There's a simple reason why notebook keyboards aren't nearly as good as their desktop counterparts: almost all of the design features that make for good keyboards are directly in opposition to the design features that make for good notebooks. For most people, a high-quality keyboard is large, heavy, rugged, well-spaced, properly organized, nicely laid out, has large special keys, is comfortable on the fingers and has reasonably deep key travel. Yet we want our notebooks to be narrow, thin and light! You just can't have everything, and most of the time, the keyboard's design and layout is sacrificed to meet the higher goals of the rest of the notebook system.
The issues of keycap size and travel with notebooks I have addressed elsewhere. I will also say that non-standard key widths or oddball spacing between keys isn't normally an issue--I'm sure the engineers are tempted, but most manufacturers fear prompting the wrath of their customer base by putting out a notebook using teeny-tiny keys. :^) The only place this is done is with very small sub-notebooks; there, the goal is "small at any cost" and customers are willing to accept almost any sacrifice for this objective, including a keyboard too small to easily use for touch typing.
The layout of the notebook PC, however, is another matter altogether. Every notebook is different, so they all vary in terms of how well they implement the keyboard, but most units have several issues in common:
The only attitude you can really take with the keyboard on a notebook PC is this: grin and bear it. :^) As notebook owners know, these machines are an exercise in compromises, in just about every way. However, if you plan to use your notebook PC's keyboard a great deal, be sure you try the unit out before you buy it. Small changes in layout can make one model much easier to use than another, which could be a deciding feature for some.
It's also worth noting that notebook keyboards are better now than they once were. As I mentioned, the trend in notebooks is towards increasingly larger screens, which make the notebook chassis wider, reducing cramping and providing more room for a functional keyboard layout. As an aside, IBM used to make notebooks with "butterfly" keyboards: they actually split into two "wings" that folded into the notebook body when you closed the system. When you opened it, the two pieces popped out and interlocked, yielding a full-sized keyboard that was wider than the footprint of the notebook! A very cool design, I must say. However, with LCD screens now approaching 16" in diagonal width, this sort of engineering magic isn't really needed any more.
Finally, remember that most notebooks include a PS/2 ("mini-DIN") port for an external keyboard. This is often the best solution, as it makes the quality of the notebook's keyboard not much of an issue. Of course, it's only of value to those who are stationary most of the time that they use their notebooks (like me). It doesn't help the person who uses the notebook while travelling.
Tip: The lack of a proper
numeric keypad on a notebook PC can be addressed using an external