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|Product: Avant Stellar Keyboard
||Company: Creative Vision Technologies|
||Phone: 888-770-0500 xt. 105|
|Platform: Windows 3.x (or better) to use the keymapping software
Street Price: same
|Cred Rating:||Special Award:|
First of all, let me go ahead and say it: US$190 is a lot to pay for a
keyboard, especially one that isn't split in the middle, or
shaped for less wrist strain, or otherwise configured to enable you to
avoid filing for Workman's Compensation. The Avant Stellar is not the
keyboard for everyone -- it *is* the keyboard for the typing enthusiast.
Before you laugh, let me offer a brief history lesson. Back when DOS
and WordPerfect 4.2 ruled the world, keyboards were really a big deal.
PC makers actually bragged about their keyboards in advertising.
These days, when you buy a PC, you get a plastic, mushy-keyed commodity
part that was made for $2 in some Far Eastern nation and emblazoned with
the company's logo. But back in the Golden Age, before anyone used a
mouse, keyboards were important. Gateway sold a programmable keyboard
that they advertised proudly, and IBM made fantastic keyboards with
industrial strength mechanical switches. Many diehard computer users still
swear by them.
The reason people were serious about keyboards is that you never took
your hands off of them. There were no mice or trackballs -- you could
do all of your word processing with your hands on the good ol' home
row. Wordstar devotees wore out their control key, and Word Perfect
fans actually needed all twelve function keys to get their work done.
These days, the mouse is used nearly as much as the keyboard, and there
are so many other ways that system builders can differentiate their
computers, that keyboards are seen as an area where they can save a buck
or two on the total system cost.
Anyway, back when times were better for typists, there was one keyboard
that ruled the industry: the Northgate Omnikey. I can still remember
reading Computer Shopper back when I was married to my Commodore
64, ogling the full page ads for the Omnikey, which not only
shipped with every system Northgate sold, but was available separately
as well. The Omnikey boasted the best keyswitches, the most powerful
keymap editing software, and other incredible features, like function
keys both across the top and along the left side of the keyboard.
Northgate slipped into obscurity; I thought it had gone out of business
completely until I saw Northgate systems being hawked on a cable
shopping channel one night.
Seeing the Northgate system on TV reminded me of the Omnikey,
even though I knew that the new Northgate now sells the same miserable
keyboards as everyone else. I decided to do a bit of Internet research
to discover what fate had befallen the Omnikey. I wasn't surprised to find that a small group of hardcore users were still working to draw more life out of their old Omnikey keyboards, and swapping tips on where replacements could be found. But what I was surprised to see was that there is a company out there carrying on the Omnikey tradition.
Creative Vision Technologies had the designers of the original Northgate
Omnikey design a keyboard that is basically its equivalent. I have to
admit that while I always lusted after the Omnikey, I never had
the opportunity to use one, so you aren't getting the benefit
of the experience of an Omnikey fanatic who has five of them
stored in the garage so that they'll never be without one again.
However, after using this keyboard for a month or so, I can tell you
that I'm now a true Avant Stellar believer.
I'm a fast typist, and I take typing very seriously. I've never been
happy with keyboards with membrane switches, I prefer the feeling of
typing on a noisy keyboard with mechanical switches. Having used some
of the original IBM AT keyboards, I had high hopes for the Avant Stellar
(it uses the same ALPS keyswitches as the old IBM keyboards). I was not
I knew that this was a different kind of keyboard as soon as I opened
the box. For one thing, the keyboard is heavy -- it weighs about five
pounds. The top of the keyboard is made of extremely sturdy plastic,
and the bottom is made of rigid metal. This is an
industrial strength piece of hardware. The other thing that sets this keyboard
apart is that it comes with a tool for removing the keys, something you
don't see every day. With the software that comes with it,
you can reprogram the functionality of any of the keys, and using the
tool, you can rearrange the keycaps to reflect the new layout.
Closer inspection and everyday use revealed even more nice touches in
the design of this keyboard. For example, the key labels for the keys
are actually molded into the plastic. If you look at the underside of a
key, you can see that the label is actually a separate piece of colored
plastic that was molded at the same time as the tan plastic of the key
itself. I've seen the labels disappearing from the tops of the keys on
lesser keyboards after relatively light usage; that will never happen
with the Avant Stellar. The fold-down feet on the keyboard are covered
with rubber so that it won't slide around on your desk (not
that a keyboard this heavy roams much anyway). Clips are built onto the
backs of the feet in order to hold the cable so that it lies on
the desk properly.
Unlike many retro keyboards, the Avant Stellar sports the now ubiquitous
Windows keys that were introduced with Windows 95. These keys are a
mixed blessing. Contrary to popular belief, they actually are useful.
For example, the Windows-E combination will open a File Explorer
window. On the other hand, adding new keys leaves less space for old
keys. Take a look at the narrow space bars on many new keyboards -- the
Windows keys forced them to slim down. On the Avant Stellar, the
Control and Alt keys on the right side of the space bar were downsized
to make room for these new keys. On the other hand, unlike many modern
keyboards, the backslash key is under the Enter key, making room for a
double-sized Backspace key and following the convention set by the
original IBM AT keyboard.
Overall, the Avant Stellar is a wonderful keyboard. I can hardly bear
to use my generic Compaq keyboard at work any more because the Avant
Stellar provides such a superior typing experience. I don't know of any
medical evidence that indicates that mechanical keyboards are good for
your hands, but mine are much more comfortable if I use the Avant
Stellar (or my Adesso keyboard for the Mac).
The downside is that this keyboard costs a lot -- the generic Acer keyboard that came with my home PC costs about eight bucks. To me, the cost is completely justifiable. As a writer, I do a lot of typing, and $190 isn't that much to pay for a keyboard that makes me a lot happier to sit at the computer. However, when I asked my employer to cough up the money to get another Avant Stellar for me to use in the office, he didn't seem too excited about it. So, if you take your typing seriously, and you prefer mechanical keyswitches, I would strongly encourage you to try out the Avant Stellar.
By the way, Creative Vision Technologies also makes another keyboard, the Avant Prime, which is identical to the Avant Stellar except that it doesn't have the second set of function keys running down the left side. It costs $150. Since function keys aren't as important as they were back in the DOS days, you may find this keyboard more to your liking, and you'll save yourself $40.
- Rafe Colburn [3/10/99]
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