A week or so ago I was bashing away at my keyboard when I suddenly began producing g’s that looked like this — ‘g — and h’s that looked like this: -h. Having spent a fair amount of time working with computers I knew there were various reasons why my keyboard might suddenly become possessed, none of them even remotely exciting. Because those multi-character glitches were crippling my ability to type, however, I quickly set about diagnosing the cause.
Occasionally, when my mind is firing faster than my fingers can move, I’ll accidentally enter a key combination that performs some automated feat I did not intend to perform. Worse, because I don’t know which keys I hit in which order, I won’t know if some preexisting configuration was altered that will trip me up later. If I’m lucky the result will be something obvious, as happens from time to time with Google Mail, which seems to delight in auto-sending messages before I’m through with them. And of course there’s the perpetually irritating StickyKeys feature, which, as far as I know, exists only to remind me that my left pinky is loitering on the shift key while I’m thinking about what I want to type.
Because there are so many default key combinations that come with any word processing software, to say nothing of the keyboard software itself, and because it’s possible to invoke such macros by accident — including changing the output of specific keys — my first diagnostic act was to uninstall both Intellitype and the keyboard driver to see if that solved the problem. Which it did not.
My next concern — which grew rapidly — was that the errant behavior I was seeing was the result of a virus or malware. After running scans for both, however, my machine was deemed clean, which meant, almost certainly, that I was having a hardware problem.
My keyboard of choice is the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 (MNEK4K), which also has, I believe, the longest name in the history of keyboards. The model flaking out on my desk was the most recent incarnation of the same split-board device I had been using for close to twenty years, since just after the MNEK4K debuted. It was at least six or seven years old, had seen regular use almost daily over that time, and given how loose and clicky the keys had become I wasn’t particularly surprised that it might have reached the end of its useful life. (Conservatively, total key presses on that board easily topped ten million, with the bulk taking placing on the most-used letter keys. Speaking of which, years ago the A, S, D and arrow keys lost their labels due to repeated use, and the M key only displayed the upper-left corner of that letter.)
As with any keyboard, from time to time a key had gotten stuck, so that was my first thought in terms of mechanical failures. Close inspection turned up nothing obvious, however, so my next idea was that six or seven years worth of wayward hairs, lint and food debris might be causing trouble I could not see. And that meant I would have to open up the board.
Now, if you’re not used to taking things apart, the idea of opening up a keyboard may seem fraught with risk. Fortunately, I had two things going for me. First, I’ve taken a lot of things apart over the years, from computer tech to automobile engines, so I have some familiarity with the procedures and practices involved. Second, my keyboard had been out of warranty for years, meaning I could hardly make things worse. If I didn’t open it up I would have to by a new one, and if I broke it by opening it I would have to buy a new one, so there was literally nothing to lose other than time and a little DIY dignity.
No Guts, No G Key
Did you know there are twenty-one screws on the back of the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000? Me neither. Twenty-one!
The good news — and when disassembling any device this is always good news — was that the MNEK4K did not use any clever, hidden, plastic-on-plastic latches that could only be separated with a precise and judicious application of pressure and leverage. Unfortunately, until you know how such latches work, which you can only know after opening them, usually using more force than technique, you inevitably fracture a few critical prongs no matter how careful you are. (Seriously, you have no idea how refreshing it was to open an electronic device using a garden-variety tool instead of brute-forcing some proprietary mechanical trickery.)
After removing all twenty-one screws the keypad was almost free, but I could feel that the board was still being held together near the spacebar. When I removed the wrist wrests I found two more screws I needed to remove, but the front was still being held fast. Having some working knowledge of the mechanisms holding the keys in place I carefully pried up the spacebar, revealing four more hidden screws holding the front to the back. (If you were really gung-ho, as I was at that moment, there were another five silver screws you could pull, which you would later learn did not need to be removed, along with a half-dozen dull metal screws that also didn’t need to be pulled, which I thankfully left alone.)
When I finally separated the front from the back I congratulated myself on the carefully segregated groups of screws on my desk, which would profit me when I was buttoning things back up. Looking at the innards I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong, either mechanically or in terms of an electrical short. What I could see was a disgusting accumulation of hair, lint and food dirt, most of which was thankfully still hidden behind clusters of key mechanisms. In order to remove the keys I could have pried them out as I had the spacebar, but looking at the plastic prongs that held them in place from the back I decided to use a pair of needle-nose pliers to pop them free. While it took a little practice at first, and I bent one prong, in short order the keys were falling free as fast as I could move from one to the next. (If you ever dig into a keyboard yourself, long keys like the shift keys may use a metal stabilizing bar as part of the mechanism. There are a number of such keys on the MNEK4K, and it’s important to be aware of the bars when you’re removing the keys, and to position the bars correctly when they are reinstalled.)
When all of the keys were free nothing looked amiss. Gross, yes — but nothing looked broken, or as if it was being impeded by the accumulated crud. While I was limited in my ability to diagnose any electrical problems, I did disconnect, inspect and reconnect the two connectors that powered the board and keys, in the hope that simple oxidation might have weakened the electronic conversation taking place in the board. After that all that was left was to man up and clean the thoroughly disgusting trays under the keys, one of which looked like a rats nest, and then it was time for reassembly. Which is when I found myself stymied by a truly embarrassing problem.
Despite having used the same keyboard model for close to twenty years, when it came time to put all the keys back in the correct order I found myself looking at keys I’d never seen before. Really — there was a Spell key on my keyboard? Where did that come from? (Oh, wait — it probably goes next to the Fwd‘ and Send keys, which I also did not remember seeing before.) Fortunately, because the MNEK4K is still being sold it was easy enough to find online images that showed the proper layout, including particularly the twenty-one keys on the number pad, which I never used and would never have been able to replace in the correct order.
Once that problem was solved the next step was considerably easier. All I had to do was mate the front to the back, screw everything together, and boot up my machine. Speaking of which, did you know that three of the twenty-one screws on the back of the MNEK4K are slightly larger than the other eighteen? No? Me either.
Fortunately, that’s one of the helpful tidbits I picked up from online videos after I realized I didn’t know where ten or twelve of the carefully segregated screws on my desk actually went, even though it had been less than an hour since their removal. Between said videos and various online photos, and my own dedicated study of the myriad available screw holes on the back of the key assembly, I was eventually able to figure out what went where, but for a while it was a genuine (and genuinely embarrassing) puzzle.
In the middle of that process I also had one of those generational moments where I realized I could have solved all of my problems — indeed, would have enjoyed doing so — had I used my point-and-shoot digital camera to document the disassembly. Having grown up with film that had to be snail-mailed for development, however, that procedural thought never entered my mind. (And probably won’t the next time, if things hold true to form.) The silver lining was that because I didn’t think to use my camera I also didn’t take any gross images of the crud I found under the keys, which I would have felt morally obligated to post for your benefit.
Putting the K Back in Sukcess
When everything was back together I powered up my computer and voila — the keyboard worked! Pressing g produced a ‘g’, and pressing h produced an ‘h’.
Three days later my K key died. Forearmed with the necessary knowledge I quickly took the board apart again and repeated every potentially restorative step I’d followed the first time…but no luck. Nothing I tried would bring my K key back from the dead. Which meant there was nothing left to do but order a new keyboard, which ordinarily wouldn’t have been a problem, except my name is Mark, meaning having a functional K key was germane to the online checkout process. (Yes, in retrospect it would have been smart if I had ordered a new board as a backup as soon as I got the old board working again, but I wasn’t interested in being smart. I was interested in being proud, and you know what that gets you.)
I quickly realized, however, that I could use my mouse to copy and paste any information I needed whether it included a ‘k’ or not. That workaround allowing me to order a brand-new MNEK4K, along with a new back-up mouse because my venerable Logitech G5 had been intermittently dying for close to a year. (In that case, however, I came to suspect that my operating system was turning off USB ports that were in fact in use, which is why I recently instructed my OS to power every USB port in North America until I say otherwise.)
In order to avoid having to copy and paste k’s until my new board arrived I borrowed an old 101-key keyboard (with a PS/2 connector, no less), which solved one problem and introduced another. While I no longer had trouble producing k’s on demand, it turned out I had been using a split keyboard for so long I literally could not type on the cramped inline keys. Worse, in only minutes I started to feel the stings of carpal tunnel pain that originally prompted me to use a split keyboard lo those many years ago. (It really is incredible the difference it makes for me. Angling my wrists only a few degrees in order to type on a straight keyboard produces burning nerves in mere minutes. If I use a split keyboard I feel nary a twinge no matter how much typing I do.)
After a three-day wait I am now typing this post on my brand-new MNEK4K. It’s a bit stiff, which is to be expected, but on the positive side I now have legible labels on all the keys. What hasn’t changed is how good the layout feels, and how comfortable I am pressing keys in that configuration. A few years from now I’m sure it will feel like the old friend I just lost.
Speaking of which, we spent a lot of time together, that keyboard and I, including some of the most important moments I’ve ever been through as a writer and as a person. As is ever the case, however, nothing lasts. Speaking of which, did I mention I just ordered a new monitor?
— Mark Barrett