Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The demise of the function key


I recently upgrade to a new Dell Studio 15 and retired my old Inspiron. One thing I've noticed is the function keys are now secondary - these keys are now multimedia/system functions by default and you need to use the blue Fn key to activate the old F1-12 behaviour. Other Dell and Apple laptops (at least) seem to be doing the same thing.

Is this the end of the function key? The Litl keyboard got rid of them entirely. The key combination to use them on my laptop is sufficiently difficult that they might as well not exist for me.

So this leads me to the conclusion:
- I can never rely on function key shortcuts in any software I write.
- The existing window management shortcuts (e.g. alt-F4 to close window) don't work anymore. Now I understand when people complain how applications don't consistently bind the same key to close window (Ctrl+Q or Ctrl+W or something else or nothing?).
- At the Lucid UDS we discussed Compiz keybindings - often these were bound to function keys. I notice the macbook uses the old F3 key for "show all windows". I hope some standard could emerge for these functions on PC keyboards.

I can't say I'm going to miss them overly.

24 comments:

Jam said...

All I can say about that is "LOL". Why shouldn't I, as an application developer, use the function keys. I think this is your fault. Give it back to Dell or wherever you get it.

Anonymous said...

Your keyboard also doesn't have "home" "end" "insert" etc.

I think it's a deficiency of the keyboard, not a trend.

/\/\/\/ said...

> Why shouldn't I, as an application developer, use the function keys.

Well, maybe you'd like to make it possible for people to use your program in a wide variety of environments? Why not at least provide an alternative if the trend is clear?

I have a Logitech diNovo Mini keyboard for my Linux-driven living room PC. It's pretty much the key element of a pretty awesome setup. But it lacks F-keys entirely. (Not even a way to get at them using the Fn key they have on there!) This means that I have to plug in another keyboard when I fire up the atari800 emulator (to play M.U.L.E. of course), which requires use of at least F1-F4. Gah!

I have searched high and low for a way to remap, say, Alt+1 to F1, Alt+2 to F2, etc. -- thought it was possible via xmodmap at the very least -- but have so far come up empty. :(

f.zweig said...

So, if Dell decides to ship their laptop keyboards w/o an Enter key, you as a software developer are going to write software which doesn't use the enter key?

To me, this is defective by design, not a trend.

Anonymous said...

the same thing happend with my hp laptop i got recently
I could switch it back to the old way in the bios

Anonymous said...

A friend commented on this subject recently - he felt that making the laptop key functions (brightness, killswitch, etc) primary and the F-key functions secondary worked for him, since he used the former more often.

Speaking for myself though, it would annoy the hell out of me... Alt-F1 to bring up the Gnome menu, Alt-F2 to bring up the Run dialog, Alt-F4 to close the window. All things I use constantly...

Anonymous said...

This pisses the hell out of me. Worse is when somebody complains that their internet randomly works sometimes... I need to explain how to use the Fn key because the old F2 key seems to be the wireless hardware control. They tell me that it doesn't make sense and all I can do is agree.

Ethan Anderson said...

Function keys are ugly and confusing, and I'm glad to see them die.

No one loved them anyways.

Bob said...

I agree about the WiFi key being far to easy to bump. I'm still not even sure why this key exists at all (is it an aircraft requirement?)

jani said...

This is nothing new, i have a microsoft natural keyboard thats about 5 years old and even thou the keys are still there tagged as F1 thru F12, in order to use them, you gotta press the fn lock key first ..

Anonymous said...

AFAIK you can switch function key behavior in the BIOS and make the F-keys primary again

Anonymous said...

The multimedia keys are much more useful than the function keys. Except for debugging in Eclipse, I never use them.

Miles Prower said...

Yuck, the pictured keyboard looks aweful.

Irregular arrow keys? Navigating through documents will be a hassle. Not to mention playing Stepmania will be quite difficult without mapping the keys differently.

Fonction button at the bottom left? I'd really, really have the Ctrl button there instead, which is far more useful. Hitting Fn accidentely is always an annoyance to me (Ctrl+W will work, closing the current tab in Firefox, but Fn+W is a frequent mistake. Not to mention Ctrl+S to save, Ctrl+P to print, etc).

Function and Control not swappable because of their form? Yuck. At least, for some laptops, it is possible to revert Ctrl and Fn in the BIOS and move physically the keys around.

Lucian said...

I love that, actually. I rarely used F keys, if ever. It's not an issue for developers, keys should be mappable anyway.

That said, putting a wifi switch over there is stupid.

TGM said...

the future of keyboard is touchpad! have that paper technology underneath showing the keys and you have a universal keyboard!

jruschme said...

It's actually nothing new for Apple laptops. My PowerBook G3 (Pismo) from 2000 is set up that way by default.

litl_phil said...

At litl we had a LOT of discussion about the form of our keyboard before we settled on this version but it was always clear from the start that we would not have function keys or capslock which we see as legacy features from the 1980s. In the end pg-up/pg-down went as well. These discussions were driven by our CEO, John Chuang, who was determined that we would keep to the litl philosophy of doing away with anything that really didn't contribute to our user experience. Unneeded keys, unneeded UI features, unneeded settings, unneeded anything - it all had to go. John was always saying things like: tell me again just why we have to have THAT because I want it gone. This was the litl antidote to the cluttered, tangled, over-featured, maintenance-intensive experience of the general purpose computer. I tell you if we could have we would have dumped alt, ctrl and arrow keys, too - but we really couldn't! - these passed the test of being needed.

Numpty said...

I've never really understood why people consider Caps Lock to be a legacy feature. I certainly use it often enough that I'd miss it if it wasn't there, and as an accessibility feature (e.g. for people who can only type with one hand), it makes typing even simple things like 'GNOME' a lot easier.

(Yes, you can use Sticky Keys to emulate Caps Lock instead, but that's just not as convenient.)

Joel said...

I miss F5 for refresh, F2 for run command in gnome (cmd-space = spotlight on osx is a good replacement though).

I miss home/end pgup/pgdn more though.

Mario said...

You can change the setting in the BIOS, it's just a "default" setting.

Corey said...

I work in a tech shop. One of our keyboards has multimedia keys from F8-F12 and requires the FN key to use F8-F12. I hate that goddamn keyboard.

Przemysław Kulczycki said...

I have a Macbook and I hate its keyboard layout. I miss the Ins key - how in hell I am supposed to work in mc (midnight commander) without it?
And this small Enter clone near the arrows? Completely messes things up when you don't look at the keyboard.
How about PrintScreen? How should I make screenshots now?
It even lacks a Del key! Come on!
You want multimedia keys? Then make them separate above the keyboard like in HP Compaq laptops. They are not standardized, so every vendor will make his own layout. How is that supposed to help people learn how to use their computers? Why in hell people are forced to learn a new keyboard layout every time they change their computer?
My next laptop will be a Thinkpad, with a classic keyboard with all the keys I need.

Anonymous said...

I have a Dell Inspiron with this "feature". It is a huge annoyance. The function keys should be primary; in particular, the F2 key is remapped to turning Wifi on and off. This is so easy to hit by accident. I also use this machine for working with SAP, and it would be nice to be able to use Function Key shortcuts with having having to hit Fn. Other than this problem, the Dell is a nice machine, but this was a dumb move.

NV Girish said...

why can't you configure xmodmap and just forget about it?