Apple boards the PCI bus

Apple’s move from NuBus to the PCI 2.0 bus will give users a greater choice, but in the short-term it could prove a problem when upgrading kit, says Sutherland Lyall, who takes a hands-on approach to recent keyboards and mice

SBHD: Apple’s move from NuBus to the PCI 2.0 bus will give users a greater choice, but in the short-term it could prove a problem when upgrading kit, says Sutherland Lyall, who takes a hands-on approach to recent keyboards and mice

The big news from Apple (apart from the fact that the rival Pentium chip screws up on some calculations and that nobody has recoded any mainstream apps for the chip) is that it’s moving from NuBus to the PCI (Peripherals Component Interconnect) 2.0 bus. It’s the bus that most new IBM clones have moved over to in the past year.

What it means – apart from the fact that when you upgrade your kit you’ll presumably have to replace all your accelerator cards and so on – is that there will be a lot more choice, simply because there are a hell of a lot of PC card manufacturers out there who are more than familiar with PCI-bus architecture. This is all part of the Mac-PC convergence. Put another way, Apple has decided that being high-priced and snooty doesn’t help sell billions of machines in the wider non-graphics market.

Apple is being very coy about it all and about what second generation Power Macs are going to have inside running them. The word from elsewhere is that they will have fast 604 chips, but for the moment Apple won’t say anything about this. Maybe there will be an intermediate stage to get you used to the PCI bus with existing 601 chips, perhaps speeded up beyond the current top range 8100/110 MHz. Apple was apparently hoping that this chip would run at 130MHz but early yields from the silicon foundries couldn’t reach that consistently. Whatever, it’s not a bad idea to hold on upgrading until Apple deigns to let us know what it has decided to do – by around March/April.

But enough of Apple, Apple all the time. That curvy ú70 Microsoft Natural keyboard got a few mentions in the media last year. So, fashion victims that we are, we thought we should try it out.

Microsoft seems to be dead scared about RSI lawsuits so, despite the sculptured shape, this is not being flogged as an ergonomic keyboard and the manual comes with several pages about good posture and taking frequent breaks and that sort of thing, but nary a hint, apart from the name, that this is going to save you from carpel tunnel syndrome or any of the familiar (though legally non-existent in England) aches and pains you get from using keyboards and mice.

We also tried out the Microsoft Home mouse which works under the same Windows app as the keyboard. At the same time we tested a cheapo (̼12) standard keyboard as a sort of control Рand, for good measure, asked an experienced touch typist to use the Natural keyboard for a while. This is because journalists, like myself, normally lack discipline and splash about all over the keyboard, and this one is really designed for a proper typist.

I have to say we started from a sceptical point of view. A while ago, Microsoft came out with an ergonomically shaped mouse. Questioned by lefties, a straight-faced Microsoft announced that it was ergonomic for them too – which didn’t quite explain the idiosyncratic shape which seemed to be right-hand-specific.

The Home mouse is apparently so-called because if you squint at the profile you can make out a couple of roofs and a little red chimney where the cable comes out. You have to give it the benefit of the doubt and hope that the name came after some marketing person saw the likeness. It is different in that it has a pointy bit nestling into the crevice between thumb ball and the rest of the palm, but it works as well as any other mouse.

The keyboard, which has been almost universally slammed by magazine reviewers, is actually not all that bad. There’s a blank wedge down between the middle of the keyboard and the two sections are angled so your arms and hands are in a straight line and this middle section is humped. Sure, this is a pain if you aren’t a touch typist and have fallen into the habit of using the shift keys according to which is nearest. It’s almost impossible with this keyboard, but I had as many ridiculous typing errors as with the cheapo keyboard on another machine. Our touch typist got ratty about the different angle of the wrists until it was pointed out that this new arrangement was much more natural and she ended up reasonably happy with it. There are a few problems: some of the control keys are bigger than the two shift keys and the carriage return, and it’s easy at the start to invoke unexpected special commands in Word 6 – such as underlining – without any obvious way of getting out of them. Still, that’s a matter of practice. My guess is that your admin staff, a number of whom are apparently still working on PCs, might be happy to give it a go. Can’t hurt. Following Microsoft’s example, I make all the usual legal disclaimers here.

The big problem is that there will be low productivity for a week or so while your staff get used to it. A tiny caveat: while the keyboard was attached we had consistent mouse freezes half a minute or so into Internet and other comms programs. It may have been the old local pulse-based exchange having a blip, or perhaps the Home mouse should have been connected too, but we didn’t think of that until after.

Like the special pull-apart Apple jobbie, the Natural keyboard raises the whole issue of desktop ergonomics. I tried slinging it in the under-desk tray I always fit so there is desk space for papers in front of the monitor – how office workers and copy typists get on I can’t understand. But the Natural keyboard’s hump meant that the tray had to be lowered and you get a bit fed up with having the tray grinding the upper part of your thighs. I get mouse wrist when the mouse isn’t on the same level as the keyboard: you discover yourself putting the whole weight of your seated body on your mouse wrist, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

I’ve yet to see any decent research which offers guidelines on the optimum relationship between hand and shoulder height, screen-eye distance and mouse and keyboard heights and that sort of thing – research, that is, which isn’t based on the conventional configuration of screen sitting on computer box, 31in desk height with the keyboard sitting on top of that, the screen quite close up and a non-touch typist doing the key-bashing. There are a lot of us out here.

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