Typing made simple;Hardware

14th May 1999 at 01:00
You'd no more teach someone to drive in a Formula One racing car than give them their first flying lesson at the controls of Concorde. Why then, when it comes to acquiring typing skills, are children let loose on expensive desktop computers with complex operating systems and a host of distractions?

Given the ubiquity of computers in schools and the growing realisation that keyboard aptitude is an essential part of information and communications technology (ICT), one would have expected some enterprising techno-boffins to have designed a low-cost dedicated keyboard which focuses attention solely on typing skills.

Well, they have - and it does. The Keyboard Wizard from VTECH is described accurately enough as a "portable, interactive typing tutor". Essentially, it's a laptop-sized computer keyboard with an LCD window (7.5cm x 1.5cm) and control panel with nine buttons set above the top row of keys.

The unit is powered by either four AA batteries or an optional nine-volt mains transformer. Unlike many digital devices which seem to drain juice faster than a famished vampire, this keyboard - with only the LCD display to power -is not going to send the ICT budget into orbit. ABLAC, the educational supply company which distributes the VTECH Wizard, is currently commissioning tests, but previous models in regular use only needed a battery change once a year.

The obvious attraction of such a unit is its simplicity. There are seven lessons in seven parts and, to start typing, you press just four keys - "On", "Lesson", and then whichever lesson and part is required. The early lessons are intended to establish familiarity with the home keys and are well-paced and forgiving of mistakes. Ten keys hit incorrectly in sequence brings the mild reproach: "Let's Try Again". The final lessons are blocks of text copied from an accompanying manual and incorporate all the letters and numbers on the keyboard, as well as upper and lower case. Two other function keys enable users to assess their speed in the traditional WPM - words per minute - and accuracy, which is represented as a percentage. Additionally, there are three games, the most addictive being Letter Attack, a sort of one-line Space Invaders, where randomly generated letters scroll across the display, left to right, and are zapped by the user.

The light plastic body and retractable handle make for ease of use and portability, and the unit's underside has a pair of support legs that can be used to alter the keyboard's elevation. The keys are quite responsive, if a little calculator-like in construction and feel. Any minor quibbles would centre on the size of the LCD window and its proximity to the keys. More advanced learners could certainly cope with more than one line of text at a time, and the temptation for beginners to glance from display to keys could prove irresistible.

These cavils, however, are far outweighed by the positive attributes of a well thought out and engineered device. And consider this: at some pound;50 apiece, it would be possible to equip a whole class with keyboards for less than the cost of two desktop computers. Interested?

Hugh John

The VTECH keyboard is distributed by ABLAC. Tel: 01626 332233 email: educ@ablac.co.uk

Price: pound;49 for one, pound;450 for 10, or pound;1,200 for 30. Optional 9v transformer: pound;5. Optional case: pound;10. All prices are VAT exclusive

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