THERE IS RARELY A PRODUCT release in this market that completely redefines its space particularly when that product is as simple as a keyboard. A keyboard is a keyboard, right? In most cases, I'd be inclined to agree, except for the small selection of alternative keyboard designs that have surfaced over the years. The product engineers who see the traditional keyboard as an obstacle on the road to improved efficiencies make up this fringe market that includes often less-than efficient products. The AlphaGrip AG-5 may be destined to change that bumpy road.
AlphaGrip, Inc. has been pushing toward a successful launch of this innovative product for many years. The result of that dedication to improving the keyboard is the AG-5 that we've had an opportunity to use for the past 60 days.
Height: 5.99 inches (152.1mm)
Width: 5.76 inches (146.4mm)
Depth: 2.9 inches (73.7mm)
Weight: 10.5 oz (297.67g)
Key force: +/- 15g (80gf)
Key travel: 2.5mm
AlphaGrip AG-5 s
9 ft. detachable USB cable
Character location guide decals
Additional USB expansion slot
The techFEAR USeR Experience is our model for evaluating how products perform out of the box. It stands for Usability, Stability, and Reliability; we consider these more important than any other facet of testing or usage.
The AG-5 has striking similarities to an easy to use console game controller, but at first glance, the thought of using it can be a little daunting. Most game controllers only have a handful of buttons strictly bound to a particular function. Here, the AG-5 offers all the keys and functions available on a traditional keyboard plus a trackball all in a compact and portable package.
The top-side of the AG-5 includes common maintenance keys such as Shift, Escape, and Delete. AlphaGrip also chose the top for buttons that aren't used as often. The Shift and Space buttons are probably the most used in this area. This surface is also home to the trackball.
The bottom of the AG-5 includes eight key rockers and four additional keys around the index finger position. This design puts all of the commonly used keys literally at your fingertips. The color codes indicate which Shift button on the top needs to be depressed to activate the particular key.
On the left side, the AG-5 includes the Shift button (white) to type capital letters and six alpha characters. Here's a good look at the color-coded shift keys that activate alternate key strokes when depressed.
The right side is home to the trackball and buttons as shown in the picture. The trackball does take a little getting used to and requires some Control Panel tweaking to get it up to speed. Once the speed is set, it can easily function in place of a standard mouse.
Here's a close-up picture of where a lot of the action takes place. A large percentage of key (button) strokes are on this side of the AG-5. The USB connection and additional USB port are shown as well. What is interesting is that the AlphaGrip AG-5 is a direct replacement for any keyboard and doesn't require drivers to install. This is important to our USeR Experience and allows users to dive in and start experimenting right away.
AlphaGrip does realize that the AG-5 is a departure from years of muscle memory programming that most of us have gone through using a standard QWERTY keyboard. To help the uninitiated, they do include a set of stickers that fit nicely on the front grips of the AG-5 and act as cheat sheets to the buttons hidden on the reverse of the handheld unit. The design of the AG-5 forces users into a touch-typist mode even if they come from a "hunt and peck" background.
USeR Experience, continued
Installation in Windows XP is as easy as installing any USB-based keyboard and the AG-5 is immediately available for use. We did use the AG-5 mostly when connected to a desktop or laptop, but our experiences will translate to a more mobile usage pattern.
During our time with the AG-5, we were fortunate enough to have direct contact with Michael Willner, President of AlphaGrip, Inc. His guidance for the early phases of use was to use typing programs readily available on the Internet to help overcome the initial hump of learning a distinctly different product such as this. He also suggested we participate in the already growing community of users and consider their growing pains when falling into the routine of using the AG-5. We'll include these resources at the end of the evaluation, but AlphaGrip has incorporated a lot of these tips on their corporate web site.
The first few hours with the AG-5 made me think back to early typing classes in primary school. It quickly seemed like I would never be able to overcome decades of muscle memory hardened by years of QWERTY use. I can touch type at around 70 words per minute (WPM) which isn't record-setting, but certainly allows me to get by. It was frustrating to be knocked back down to a paltry 3-5 WPM while continually concentrating on learning new button locations and focusing on accuracy. At this point, I'd imagine that most users will want to put the AG-5 out the window. My advice? Stick with it. The experience does get better.
Surprisingly, my speed got better very quickly and within a short time, I was at the 17-20 WPM mark with a high degree of accuracy. Of course, this also happened to be my first plateau and I would find it difficult to make any gains for quite some time. It's important to remember that muscle memory is easiest to reprogram by spending short sessions with a new task and letting our brains absorb the changes over time. I can attest that 8 hour sessions will not make your learning experience any better. I spent approximately 30 minutes a day between other tasks over the past 60 days and tried not too stress to much over my own learning curve.
I haven't reached my more natural 70 WPM yet and can't report that I ever will at this point. However, following the advice of Willner and the user community, I've achieved what I initially thought would be impossible. I can readily average 40 WPM on the AG-5 and use it with comfort leaning back in my office chair with my arms resting comfortably in my lap.
The AG-5 is quite at home for common office productivity tasks. Commonly used keys/buttons are placed in almost obvious places and even obscure keys like the function keys are easy to find. It won't feel a natural part of your computer experience until you've had 40-60 hours of practice. Give it the time your brain needs.
While the AG-5 looks like a game controller, it may not fit every user's need for a gaming keyboard. It is fairly easy to translate in-game keystrokes to the AG-5, but I do think that this will depend highly on the user and the game. We are World of Warcraft fans and quickly found that a user had contributed a key-binding (available on AlphaGrip's site) for the massively popular game. This is most likely where gamers and AG-5 fans should turn. With a little work, the AG-5 can replace the keyboard and mouse in most games. I have to be honest, though. I still gravitate to my QWERTY keyboard when I sit down for a gaming session. This an action that may change over time, but it's still my comfort zone for now.
The AG-5 can increase efficiencies on portable, handheld devices that require your thumbs to type text. A common average for thumb-typists is 12-15 WPM (I'm actually closer to 10-12 WPM) and my 40 WPM using the AG-5 is an incredible gain in productivity. We didn't use the AG-5 connected to a portable device, but this is really where the true strengths of the product are. It is small and lightweight making it easy to carry and the expansion port should make connections to compatible devices a simple feat.
Stability and Reliability
The AG-5 is solidly built and gives an impression of a high-quality input device. It works immediately when attached to a workstation or laptop and never presented us with an issue practice couldn't overcome.
We should point out that AlphaGrip makes no claim to any ergonomic benefit to using the AG-5. However, we found a more natural hand position and the ability to sit relaxed at our desks a big win for AlphaGrip.
AlphaGrip has entered a market already marred by many failed input device alternatives. The flawed designed of the QWERTY keyboard is practically entrenched in our daily lives and computer users have developed a dependency on its flaws that is difficult to change. However, the AG-5 is a big step in the right direction.
AlphaGrip realized early in the engineering cycle that computer users were accustomed to the QWERTY layout. In initial designs, users would need a 15 minute "re-learning" period when switching from one keyboard style to another. To address this, AlphaGrip re-arranged button assignments into an Enhanced QWERTY layout that makes moving from the AG-5 to a traditional keyboard painless. This Enhanced layout also puts more of the commonly used buttons in locations for quicker access. It is vastly easier to learn than the Dvorak layout and its portable design offers so much more.
The best comment I can offer is that I wrote this entire evaluation using the AG-5. That includes formatting pages using Macromedia Dreamweaver and formatting pictures using Adobe Photoshop. I never once considered the AlphaGrip AG-5 an obstacle. If you are interested in an alternative input device, consider the AG-5 and take the time and invest the patience required to learn to use it. You may wince at the thought of using a QWERTY keyboard again.