After seeing the leaked photos of the Google Chrome Netbook’s keyboard I’m both impressed and annoyed. They’ve taken the opportunity to re-invent portions of the keyboard, which is great, but they’ve not done it a way that suits the product, and not taken the opportunity for real change.

Keep in mind this is mostly a consumption device, after all it is attached to a netbook.

To me the navigation is what is important in the keyboard, especially on the netbook form factor where users are often crammed into an airplane seat and don’t use an external mouse. I’d prefer a more cramped QWERTY and more finger friendly navigation keys.

In my day-to-day life I typically use the keyboard for most things, including scrolling around web pages. This may come from my age and DOS roots or my programming background, but in any case my keyboard preference is far from unique.

They’ve done some nice work:

  • Replacing Caps Lock with Search is a very good idea, the Shift key functionality in Android has proven to be more than sufficient. It didn’t need to be a Search key there, but since this is Google we’re talking about it is fine.
  • Replacing numbered function keys with labeled functional keys is great. Not including a refresh is a an issue in my opinion – perhaps we can remap “Forward” to be “Refresh”? But the rest are right on the mark.
  • Dropping the Ins key is good, it is an antiquated key. Likewise not including any of the other seldom used keys (PrintScreen, SysReq, Scroll Lock, Pause, and Break) is overdue.
  • Dropping the Del is OK assuming you’re conceding this is for consumption only; I’d never want to write a blog post on a keyboard without it.
  • Dropping the Windows/Meta key and replacing it with an config key in the former function key area is great.
  • I’m not convinced about dropping the right-click key, netbooks are the only place I ever use that key. I’ll have to reserve judgement until I see the OS in action.
They’ve also done some terrible disservices:
  • The tiny up/down arrows are terrible, I press the down arrow more than any other on my keyboard. Many laptops over the last few decades have been panned and failed for this oversight.
  • Missing PgUp/PgDn is a killer for me, and missing home/end is less bad but still a problem. They are probably doing something like a shift/ctrl/alt combo with the arrows to achieve the same functionality, but those key combos are either already taken or awkward for such common actions.
But here’s the real missed opportunity:
  • Square and curly braces, backslash, pipe, back-quote, and tilda are all seldom used outside programming, and how often are programmers writing code on a netbook? These should either be Alt- keystrokes or should be accessible as special characters via an on-screen selection. I’d recommend:
    • Map “\” with Alt- to the “/?” key
    • Map “|” with Alt- to the “;:” key
    • Map “[” with Alt- to the “,<” key
    • Map “]” with Alt- to the “.>” key
    • Map “`” with Alt- to the quotes key
    • Map “{” with Alt- to the “9(” key
    • Map “}” with Alt- to the “0)” key
    • Map “~” with Alt- to the “+=” key
  • Then use the newly recovered space to put back in proper navigation. I think the traditional navigation keys are well honed but I’d also be open to new interpretations.
  • Also the ESC key should be moved down to the back-quote/tilda location, giving more room for function keys at the top. It doesn’t have to be the escape key there, but I do like the idea of the “Back” button being the new all-important upper/left key.
  • They could have also really pushed the envelope, such as replacing the Caps Lock with two buttons – one labeled B for bold and i for italic. They could easily make all Google sites compliant with the new keyboard modes and the industry would probably follow quickly.
The launch of a new OS with branded hardware is an opportunity to shake up the world that doesn’t come along very often. I want to love this keyboard but unfortunately I feel let down, even more so than if they had just attached a stock netbook keyboard. My desire for the change opportunity to be done right is clouding my ability to see this product for what it is. It may prove to be a good or great keyboard for the future but I can’t see it yet.