Typing in the Dark

Thanks to all who have weighed in on the previous posts, especially the "most useless features" topic. I've enjoyed following the discussion.

Typing in the dark -- we've all done it at some point. It might have been when you're giving a presentation. It might have been when you were on an airplane. However, most of the stories I've heard about typing in the dark are in the context of people sitting in bed doing email and their spouse is trying to get some sleep. (I'm guilty as charged.)

Over the years people have come up with various ways to light the keyboard. A simple search using your favorite search engine will come up with lots of aftermarket keyboards with LED illumination. Here are some of my favorites. For notebooks, there are various USB-attachment dongles that you can plug in. While we were still IBM, we came up with the ThinkLight. (My colleague, David Hill, covered the origins of the ThinkLight here, if you are interested.)

Lighting the keyboard is important for everyone, not just hunt and peck typists. Even touch typists like myself need to look down from time to time to find Fn key combinations, or to make sure that I press the "end" key and not the "delete" key which is right next door.

Lighting the keyboard has also become more important now than ever before. In the good ol' days of notebooks, we had displays that were dim by today's standards. Today's standard displays are averaging 200 - 250 nits or more. Toshiba even has one that is a retina-frying 600 nits on one of its Qosmio notebooks. What this has meant is that even when you turn the brightness of your display down, the contrast from the bright display to the dark keyboard is quite high. This can cause eye strain and is far from ergonomic. Having a keyboard light evens out the brightness values and makes for less fatigue.

Generally the biggest suggestions we get from people when we mention the ThinkLight are:

  1. Market it better because no one knows about it.
  2. Eliminate it and illuminate the keyboard from underneath instead.
  3. Make it a different color.

The color thing is an interesting discussion for me. We use both white and amber LEDs for our lights. The white is generally preferred by many people and gives a brighter light in a color spectrum that most people are used to. On certain products like our R series and some Z series ThinkPads we use amber simply because it is available at a lower cost than the white. As was mentioned in some other comments to previous posts, red is out due to its connotation with "danger" and regulations in some countries. Green might work, as the human eye is most sensitive to green overall, but then some people like me might think they were in a photo darkroom and not working in front of a PC.

Lighting the keyboard from underneath has its own challenges. To enable this, the keys themselves have to change from an opaque color to a translucent plastic -- probably a smoke color so that dirt does not show up like on some white keyboards out there. Plus, a textured surface hides dirt better than a flat surface and does not look as nice on light colors. Then, we would have to find a way to pipe the light through the keyboard keys, keep it even, and also maintain the spill resistance integrity of the system. I'm not saying any of this is a bad idea, simply that it isn't as easy as saying "lets do it" and then it appears.