I'm a big man with big, goony hands. And if there's one thing I've learned from testing laptops for PC World, it's that a good keyboard and trackpad on a laptop is kind of like a toilet. You take it for granted until you're stuck with one that doesn't work so well. Read on for a list of keyboard-and-trackpad complaints, from yours truly and some of our readers.
The Page Up/Down--Arrow Key Turf War
Samsung, Acer: I'm putting you on notice. Samsung's Go, NC20, and N120 as well as the Acer Aspire One 751h all put the Page Up and Page Down keys to the left and right of the Up arrow. These keys are already small; keeping these two by the arrows makes for a navigational nightmare for anyone with slightly larger hands.
Pro tip: Keep Page Up and Down as alternate functions for the Up and Down arrows instead. The Toshiba Satellite U505-S2940 gets props for putting Page Up/Down close enough to the arrow keys to be convenient but not easily confused.
Wide Spaces, Small Keys
With the HP Mini 5101 and the Sony VAIO X series, the keys are barely larger than the spaces between each key. Why? Who knows. Maybe it's supposed to make you feel like you can afford to waste keyboard space. Or maybe they're not meant to be used by people with adult-sized hands.
One Trackpad Button
I'm more than familiar with single-button mice thanks to years of Macintoshes, but if you're going to use one trackpad button for right and left click, make sure the middle of the trackpad isn't a useless dead zone. It may look prettier to have one button instead of two, but I'd gladly take the two if it meant that I didn't hit the middle of the trackpad button in frustration half the time. The Samsung netbooks and the Acer Aspire One 751h were the most egregious offenders here.
Miniature Function Keys
Function keys can make work easier unless you hit the wrong one. Full-sized keyboards indent between the number keys and the function keys as well as between groups of four function keys to make it easier for a person to find the one they want without looking at the keyboard. The HP EliteBook 2530p and Toshiba Satellite U505-S2940, however, line them up without any useful indentation whatsoever.
Number Pad Problems
Number crunchers @KNKNIGON and @somethinggeeky told me via Twitter that they absolutely need a number pad on their laptops. It's not enough to just have one, though--if there's no divider bar to tell my fingers I'm wandering into number land, I'm not going to use it much. (I'm looking at you, Gateway NV5807u.)
Awful Trackpad Button Angles
I was kind of astonished at how many laptops gave me problems with their trackpad buttons: between the Dell Inspiron 1470, Gateway NV5807u, Samsung NP-Q320, Lenovo G530, and Toshiba Satellite U505-S2940, I had some variant of the same issue. The best way to describe it is that I have to press more or less straight down on the trackpad button for it to register an input, which cramps my style (as well as my hands). It's usually because the button is so indented that I can't hit the button from anywhere other than directly above the button without my fingers running into the bezel instead.
The Inspiron 1470 actually went above and beyond the call of failure in this respect by allowing the button to push down so far that it kind of "trapped" my finger, making a simple double-click feel laborious. Oddly enough, the humble MSI Wind netbook managed to solve the problem by using a really cheap button that feels like it's going to break off at any moment. Take a cue from the MacBook and Lenovo ThinkPad buttons, which rise above the laptop surface to maximize hittable angles.
Odd Navigation Button Placement
There's plenty of ways to mess up the navigation buttons besides placing Page Up and Page Down next to the arrow keys, and laptop designers have found them all. The Acer 3935 and Dell Inspiron 1470 both line them up vertically along the right side of the keyboard; the HP EliteBook 2530p sticks them next to the mess of function keys on top; and the Lenovo S12 just parks the Page Up/Down keys next to the arrows while putting Home and End up top somewhere.
Poor Keyboard Quality
Laptop makers, do not cut corners on the keyboard. RAM and hard drives can be upgraded, but a keyboard cannot. What constitutes a cheap keyboard? Personally, my first indicator is an excessive amount of flex; if typing a sentence feels like I'm tickling someone's belly fat, I'm not going to like it.
Other Layout Gripes
Via Twitter, we got plenty of additional gripes: our Aussie counterpart (@PCWorldAu) dislikes loud keyboards, "bouncy" keys, and swapped Control and Fn modifier keys. Even Macworld's @jsnell chimed in: Half-sized period and comma keys on netbooks give him nothing but run-on sentences.
Let's hear your own gripes in the comments!