Before Bluetooth, this wireless keyboard used infrared light

Before RF dongles, before Bluetooth, your keyboard could beam text to your Macintosh Classic with light—just a little slowly.

wireless adb keyboard primary
Credit: Christopher Phin

There is nothing new under the sun. Or nihil sub sole novum, to give it in Latin, which always imparts a kind of bulletproof authority to any aphorism. Or if you’re feeling particularly fancy, אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ, to give it in Hebrew; it is a line cribbed from the Bible after all.

Let me introduce you, by way of illustration, to my latest eBay find, a wireless keyboard for vintage Macs. While modern wireless keyboards connect over Bluetooth, or using a little RF dongle that you slip into a spare USB port, this one communicates with the Mac using infrared light pulses, with the signals received by a chunky IR receiver that plugs into an ADB port.

wireless adb keyboard 01 Christopher Phin

And there is something peculiar about booting my Macintosh Classic II and using it with a wireless keyboard, simply because to my mind at least “a wireless keyboard” is something that belongs to today, not yesterday. I didn’t even know this thing existed before I spotted it while browsing eBay—did you?

The good news: it doesn’t seem to need drivers. That’s not especially surprising, of course, since I guess as far as the Mac is concerned it just has a vanilla keyboard connected to its ADB port. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if it hadn’t worked, since a lack of standardization in the early days of computing often seems to mean hardware peripherals require driver software.

Even more delightfully, there’s actually a mouse built into this keyboard—and it works too. Actually, “pointing device” would be more accurate.

wireless adb keyboard 02 Christopher Phin

That rocking button up at the top right controls the mouse pointer—a bit like that red nipple (correctly a “pointing stick”) so beloved of IBM ThinkPads—while the buttons at the top left are the clicking mouse button. I assumed one would be left- and one right-click, but depending on the system I connected it to, either both did the same left-click or only one would register a click at all. Maybe drivers would solve this, or since I believe this Acer-manufactured keyboard was offered in PC as well as Mac variants. So maybe there was a right/left click for PCs but since the Mac eschewed right-click for so long, both were just made to act as interchangeable left-clicks on the Mac.

So to the bad news, and let’s stick with the mouse to start. When you start using it, the cursor seems to move with all the youthful alacrity of a tectonic plate. But as is apparently standard with pointing sticks, you quickly realize that applying firm pressure speeds up the movement. And that’s great, except you’re then trying to do the pat-your-head-and-rub-your-tummy thing of moving that control in X and Y to position the cursor on screen and controlling it on the Z axis—that is, pushing it in and releasing it—to adjust the speed of the X/Y positioning. And all with murky physical feedback.

I will acknowledge the possibility that with enough practice this system would become fast and efficient, in the same way as I must acknowledge both the possibility that Donald Trump would be a moderate, kind, and statesmanlike president, and the possibility that the comments below won’t degenerate into partisan bickering as a result of that throwaway gag. But even after a few hours’ use, it felt like trying to aim a gun fitted at the other end of a ten-foot foam pole. On top of a speeding car. While drunk.

Worse, after years of using trackpads, the mental gulf between one hand doing the pointing and one hand doing the clicking is huge—though not as huge as the gulf your hands have to span in order to hold down Command, say, while dragging some files.

wireless adb keyboard 03 Christopher Phin

The small size of the Command key doesn’t help, either. Indeed, the non-standard key shapes and layouts play merry hell with your muscle memory. All of this might be forgivable, though, in the interests of using a keyboard that beams your words to your Mac using invisible light, and certainly the keys themselves feel just fine. They lack crispness by modern tastes, but they’re decently responsive.

But a few hundred words in with this keyboard, and either it or my patience is about to be destroyed. The biggest, most egregious problem is that I type too fast for it. I don’t know if it’s the circuitry in the keyboard itself that’s struggling to keep up with keystrokes in close succession, or some artifact of the IR connection—perhaps the pulses of light for each keystroke take so long to broadcast that pressing a second key while the first blast is still being sent just means the second gets ignored. But no matter where or how close I position the receiver, writing this has been deeply, wildly frustrating. Either I spend time correcting mistakes and filling in missing characters as I go, or I force myself to slow down. And given that my fingers can never keep up with my brain at the best of times, neither option appeals.

I’ve also had the error detailed here where I’ll get a repeated “aaaaaaaaaaaa," apparently a problem caused by certain lighting conditions. IR, at least in this implementation, isn’t secured or paired in any way, so in theory it’s wide open to interference—as indeed my experience proved. At one point, it happened just after I’d selected all the text I’d written, replacing it all with “aaaaaaaaaaaa,” which sent me lurching for that tiny Command key, shouting vague but poisonous imprecations against this keyboard, its creator, and indeed the electromagnetic spectrum itself.

wireless adb keyboard 04 Christopher Phin

Reviewers also noted that, because of technical limitations, there wasn’t a power key on this keyboard that could boot your Mac—man, I loved that feature—so if you didn’t have an old Mac with a rocker switch at the back or a laptop with its own power button, you had to keep a wired keyboard connected as well anyway. You could do this even with only one ADB port on your Mac because the IR receiver has a pass-through port into which you could plug other ADB peripherals.

Despite its myriad problems, though, had I known about and been able to afford this back in the day, I absolutely would have owned one, and I would doggedly have put up with all its problems just for the sheer futureyness of having a goddamned wireless keyboard. A wireless keyboard is literally a Bond gadget, and my homework would have been at least twice as awesome for having been typed on one.

And happily, because I typed at half the speed back then, it wouldn’t have been as full of bloody typos as the first draft of this was.

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