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Articles: Keep Your Eyes On Your Screen

Sometime during the last decade, the era of traditional touch-typists began to wane. It's ironic because more people interact with a keyboard now than in any other time in history. Perhaps it's because some of our keyboards are not standard QWERTY keyboards. We use cell phones and smart phones that use thumb typing. Or we use a standard keyboard but with one hand resting on a mouse. Unlike the text-driven days, we click the mouse button almost as much as we click keys on the keyboard. Whatever the cause, we know the vast majority of us are not true touch-typists, and that means we are looking at the keys when we type. Why else would Apple make a laptop keyboard that lights up in the dark? In the interest of getting your eyes back to where they belong, I have two products the will keep your eyes on your screen and not on the keyboard.

Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing Learning to touch-type is like eating right, going to the gym, and changing your motor oil every three months. If there is any chance of continued success, it will take vigilance and a real desire to keep with it. So this solution to helping your typing has the same challenges, because it relies on the user more than the program.

I am not a touch-typist, and until a few weeks ago, my fingers couldn't find a single key in the dark. But with only a few lessons with Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing 17, I can type the entire alphabet without looking at the keyboard. Everything above was touch-typed, although it was written slowly. This is related to the reasons why I'm a bit overweight and the oil in my truck is over six months old. I have not practiced enough with the Mavis Beacon program to outpace my old style of typing. Right now I am as good as I was after the first three days. Those were the three weekend nights that I gave myself to start. As soon as I sat down at work, and things started to get busy, I ditched the slow touch-typing. But I'll get back to it, and then I'll be able to touch-type with greater speed than my current faster scheme allows.

Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is the highest-ranked typing instruction available for the computer. For over 12 years it has been the dominant offering in typing instruction. There are some alternative typing lessons, but most are for children. Teaching children to type is great, but there are many adults that have never learned. Mavis Beacon has settings for kids, teens, and adults, making it an easy pick for everyone eight or older. Mavis Beacon suffers from the drawbacks inherent to a lack of competition: its software development has not advanced as quickly as those with more competition.

The Mavis Beacon application looks like an OS 9 application. It runs in OS 9 through OS 10.4 on any G3 or higher processor, Intel Macs included. Mavis Beacon is certainly deserving of being designated "for everyone," Windows or Mac. It is however, bland to look at and the main window is restricted to a small size. On my 20" display it only occupies a quarter of the screen. It was never intended to be a visually entertaining program, but I would like to see a little more eye candy. However, for less than $20.00, I really shouldn't be too disappointed.

There are some technical annoyances and problems with the application. The main annoyance comes from the placement of the installed application. The installer places a "Broderbund" folder in the applications folder. Inside that folder is another folder called "MBTT" and inside that is the application, which is cryptically titled with the program's acronym: "MBTT17." When you find it, just add it to the dock because hunting it down is a pain. The real technical problem of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is that it doesn't work properly in Standard user account. In the Mac OS you can have Administrator accounts and Standard accounts. A user with an Administrator account can do almost anything, but a Standard user can only change their own settings. If you have a child on your computer, it's a good idea to make their account a Standard user account. It's also a good idea to teach them to type.

Many people have been frustrated by Mavis Beacon's Administrator account restriction. The limitation is caused by a bad choice. The programmers of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing decided to store the user data in the Shared directory of the Users folder, instead of giving each user their own preference file in their Home Library folder. Storing individual preferences in each user's own home directory is the way Apple expects programs to be written. Even with the non-standard preference file location, it would have been OK if they had written the folder's permissions properly. When the files are written to the Shared folder, they have the permissions of the Administrator account. No new students can be created in Mavis Beacon from any other account except the Administrator account.

I dislike problems like this and I think Mavis Beacon is a program everyone should have the ability to use, so I created a fix: log into the Administrator account that you installed the program from and navigate to the preference folder. It's located in Your-Hard-Drive/Users/Shared/Broderbund. Right click or Control click on the "Broderbund" folder and select "Get Info." In the Info window look in the Ownership & Permissions section. In the Details subsection are five pull-down menus. You may have to click on the gray triangle to the left of each section heading to see all the options. Change the "Others" pull-down menu to show Read & Write. Finally click on the "Apply to enclosed item..." button and enter your password when asked. That should make it possible for all accounts on your OS X Mac to use Mavis Beacon.

Even with all the flaws I found in Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, I still recommend it as a great teaching program. It is just not a great software application; Broderbund has just been lucky that they have the best methods of teaching typing.

But if you type frequently or are just tired of your neck hurting from looking at the keyboard, order a Standard copy (we stock it). It will be the best $20.00 you spend on educational software.

Adesso's Easy Cat USB Touchpad

Telling you what the best mouse is for you is akin to telling you what music you should like. Both are very personal decisions. In my IT days, I had trackball fans throw a mouse back at me as if I had just given them, well, a dead mouse.

Most desktop Mac users have a preference, but Mac laptop owners mostly have had to just become used to the trackpad. It is a good standard of Mac computing, and its placement below the spacebar makes it easy to return from mousing to the home keys. Your ability to return your fingers to the home keys is the foundation of touch-typing. Switching back and forth from my PowerBook to my desktop, I noticed a distinct difference in typing performance. Using the trackpad in my PowerBook allowed me to work faster because my hand had less distance to travel back to the home keys.

To get this same advantage to my desktop, I needed a trackpad for desktops. Fortunately, Adesso makes the Easy Cat USB Touchpad. Imagine a trackpad cut out of a laptop with a long USB cable attached, and you essentially have the Easy Cat USB. It is a 3" diagonal surface with the right and bottom edges reserved for scrolling. Unfortunately, only the vertical scrolling works on the Mac. It has two buttons that support regular clicking and right clicking. If you tap the surface it will register a click and if you tap in the upper right hand corner, it sees that as a right click. The Mac OS treats this is just another two button mouse with a scroll wheel. It works in all versions of the Mac OS that support USB mice, but in pre OS X versions of the Mac OS, it only acts as a one-button mouse. There are no Mac drivers on the supplied CD and none are needed. The Mac OS knows what to do with this device when you plug it in.

The Easy Cat is designed to fit at the bottom of your keyboard. Its USB cable comes out of the right edge, instead of the standard placement of the top edge. Unfortunately, it's in the center of the right side so you sometimes brush it with your palm. It would have been perfect placement if the cable was in the top right right edge. That would let the USB cable tuck under the front edge of your keyboard and be out of the way. Another detraction is its weight. It's very light, and because of that it can unintentionally move around on the desk. A little piece of tape (or the gel pads that hold cell phones on your dashboard) takes care of any movement issues.

The tracking surface is mounted in black textured plastic and the bottom edge is split into two buttons. Both buttons are reminiscent of the PowerBook 3400c trackpad button, which can actually be a welcome experience. There is something about a button click, that actually clicks, which can be extremely satisfying. The Easy Cat is sturdy for being so light and the perfect addition for those of us that bounce back and forth between a desktop and portable Mac.

With a small investment in these two productivity tools and a large investment of your time, you should be able to type away while only looking at your screen. Sore necks and full sentences of accidental ALL-CAPS can soon be thing of your past. But you'll still need to change the oil in your car.

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