Price: $339 (in 2004).
The first keyboard I ever connected to a Macintosh was the Apple Adjustable Keyboard, back in 1993. Little did I suppose that it would prove to be one of the more conventional keyboards I would use over the years. In my time with ATPM, I’ve reviewed the Kinesis Advantage Pro and the even stranger Datahand Professional II, but oddly enough I never reviewed the keyboard that I have been using regularly for the last eight years: the FingerWorks TouchStream LP.
Let me be up front about this: the TouchStream is no longer being made. FingerWorks stopped selling it (along with all its other products) in 2005, when Apple bought the company. Occasionally a used one will come up on eBay or elsewhere; expect to pay at least double the retail price cited above. If you have a TouchStream that needs help, the fingerfans forum is the best place to find support.
Though the TouchStream was never more than a niche product (with, as is often the case, a small but enduring following), its descendants have risen to world-wide fame. So in this final issue of a great but never enormously popular publication, I’d like to pay tribute to a great piece of technology, one which is still very much in my present, and which in a way is in all of our presents and futures as well.
Taking the term literally, keyboard is not the right word for the TouchStream: it hasn’t any keys at all. Rather, the TouchStream is a pair of the largest trackpads you’ve ever seen, each with half a keyboard’s worth of “keys” drawn on in straight columns (like the Kinesis Advantage Pro). The trackpads are connected with a very short, very wide cable, at a slight angle; the distance and angle of separation are not adjustable. They rest on a metal frame with comfortable wrist-rests and a slight tenting bend in the middle, allowing typing hands to be held in a more natural position than the traditional palms close, parallel, and flat down.
While the angles from which the typist’s hands approach the TouchStream help make typing more comfortable, the touchboard’s greatest ergonomic advantage comes from the absense of keys: typing is not merely low-impact but zero impact. However lightly I care to touch a letter, the touch activates it. Go ahead and try it: hold your hands at your keyboard in typing position, but merely touch the keys, without depressing them. Imagine typing like that all the time. It makes a real difference.
Well wait a minute, doesn’t sensitivity like that kind of become a disadvantage? What if my hands get tired and I want to rest my fingers on the keyboard, I don’t want a long steam of random gibberish invading my document. Not a problem; the TouchStream is smart. If you rest your fingers, it rests too.
Another common objection to the TouchStream’s design is that it offers no tactile feedback. This isn’t just important for knowing when a key is activated, but also for knowing where the keys are without looking, and for keeping fingers oriented during a long typing session. Indeed, when I type I look at the screen, so I have to rely entirely on muscle-memory to know where to tap for each letter. Even with years of practice, I make mistakes. But again, the TouchStream is smart: if I’m a little bit off, it can usually figure out what I mean. It uses an English-language dictionary to make educated guesses when I touch between one key and another, sometimes even backspacing to correct a bad guess as I continue typing a word. (Which looks strange, but I’ve gotten used to it.) Typing non-words is still possible, of course, but can require slightly more careful aim to avoid being corrected: the TouchStream has many times settled a draw between O and P by directing me to atom.com.) Overall it’s fair to say I can’t type as quickly on a TouchStream as I could on a good quality keyboard with tactile feedback, but I don’t mind trading a little speed for comfort and other advantages.
If zero-impact and clever compensation for not having keys were the only magic in this cat’s bag of tricks, the TouchStream would be an awfully hard sell (even if it were still on sale). But when I said it’s made of two trackpads I wasn’t merely making an analogy. One of the TouchStream’s halves (the right by default) doubles as a mouse. Dragging two fingers together—right over the “keys”—moves the mouse pointer. Add a third finger to move the pointer with the mouse button down (to select a group of icons, for example). Drag four fingers to scroll. And of course tap two fingers to click (or three to double-click).
Yes, the other side of the TouchStream does something too: it moves the cursor. Two fingers work like very fast, precise arrow keys; just as with the mouse pointer, add a third finger to select as you go. I had to look up what four fingers do (yes, I still have all the original documentation): Home and End, Page Up and Down. Though there are dedicated arrow keys I almost never use them, much preferring their gestural equivalents.
In practice, I do keep yet another piece of long-outdated tech sitting on my desk: a Kensington Expert Mouse Pro, which I use for the majority of my mousing. But when I’m typing or editing a document I’ll often use the TouchStream for navigation rather than reaching for the trackball. It just feels faster. The presence and convenient locations of both Backspace and Delete keys also help make the TouchStream an ideal keyboard for editing documents.
But navigation is just the tip of the iceberg. There are standard and intuitive gestures for Cut/Copy/Paste and Zoom In/Out, for example, and Forward/Back/Reload gestures for use when browsing the Web. Though these things can also be done with a mouse or with standard keyboard shortcuts, gestures are often the most comfortable and convenient way. Additional, more purpose-specific gesture sets can be enabled on demand, e.g. for gaming or word processing. I’d expect the latter to appeal to me but in practice they never took off: there is no such thing, for example, as an intuitive gesture for italicizing something, and that’s not something that I do often enough for muscle memory to learn “swipe left thumb and first two fingers to the right.”
Ah, but now I’m going to tell you about my favourite two features. I use them frequently, every day, without even thinking about it; they are completely natural. When typing on any other keyboard, I miss them terribly.
First, there is a gesture for closing windows. Thumb plus three fingers of the right hand rotated clockwise a bit, pivoting roughly about the thumb. This gesture is beautiful because it feels exactly like a dismissal, like I am royalty waving away some trifling matter, like saying goodbye. Pfft, the window is closed. I’ve long since forgotten the Open, Save, and New gestures, which do not hold for me this graceful elegance.
Second, there is a chord for holding down Shift. What? Why? Look at the picture; the TouchStream has Shift keys. They’re in the traditional spots, right where your fingers expect them. Why on earth do you want an alternative for that? But it is so fast and convenient: drop four fingers anywhere on either side, type a letter. If I’m typing several capitals, some on each side, no problem: as long as I hold some fingers down, I can release one as needed to get a capital on that side. I never reach for the Shift keys.
The winter before last, my TouchStream seemed to be showing the effects of age, sometimes losing responsiveness altogether. Unplugging and reconnecting it worked as a temporary fix, but I wished I had stocked up years ago when I had the chance. That was when I found the fingerfans forum, and there, a firmware update which I’d never known about or applied. I didn’t think it was likely to help, but I gave it a try and it seemed to do some good (the problem may also have been the terribly dry air we had around that time). At any rate, I can say something about the TouchStream that usually can’t be evaluated in reviews: it has impressive longevity.
Of course the best measure of the TouchStream’s longevity is not the life of its body but that of its spirit. Its multi-touch technology, once available to the general public only in obscure, niche devices, is now in regular use by millions of iOS users, people to whom typing on a keyboard with no tactile feedback has become commonplace.
Similarly, I hope not only that the articles and reviews on ATPM will remain useful long after our site contains only back-issues, but also that our staff members will go on to aid and influence our small cadre of loyal subscribers and millions more who never heard of ATPM, as they begin or continue writing elsewhere. Best wishes to all; it’s been a great ride.