My first experiences with typing tutors were frustrating, and as a six-year-old, they were my nemesis. Sessions with the first program I tried often ended in me bashing my rather diminutive fists against the keyboard and screaming at the top of my lungs in frustration. Looking back on it, I realize I wasn’t the ideal age for learning how to type. But given a few years (and a few more typing programs), I became a competent typist. Judging from the latest version of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing from Software MacKiev, typing tutors have come a long way, and that’s a good thing.
At its core, Mavis Beacon is the same as any other typing tutor: see key on screen, type key on keyboard, lather, rinse and repeat. Sooner or later, after repeating that cycle a few hundred times or so, you should theoretically be able to type. Mavis Beacon performs admirably in that regard. There are multiple lessons, each focusing on a different set of keys, starting with the home row, and then branching out from there.
The lessons have been enhanced by using excerpts from literature and scholarly works. Instead of just copying mindless sentences, you’re copying chapters from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, as well as HTML documents and texts on subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology. If that vast variety isn’t enough, you can import text files and use them as practice material as well. Adding to its value for business users, there are also dictation and transcription practice routines included, which are handy.
If you’re planning on purchasing Mavis Beacon for your young kids, think again. It’s clear from the user interface that Mavis Beacon would be best used by middle and high school age typists. The user interface is dry and focuses on lessons, not games. The few games used by the software, however, aren’t the most sophisticated but do add a layer of fun. This edition touts a game networking capability, which allows you to play one of three games over a local area network with anyone else also using the Mavis Beacon software. After testing the network games in the Macworld offices, we thought that in a large classroom setting, the games would definitely add some enjoyment to the lessons, as well as incentive for users to improve.
The new menu bar utilities are useful, if somewhat quirky. The floating words per minute (WPM) gauge only judges by keystrokes, not actual words, so, it’s possible to get well over 100 words per minute by simply typing gibberish (I once reached over 70 WPM simply through backspacing alone). That said, for the honest typist, the WPM gauge can be a rather handy tool, though not necessarily the most accurate.
The Keyboard Viewer puts a small replica of the latest Apple keyboard on your desktop, complete with two semitransparent hands that show you which fingers to use while typing. While not useful for an experienced typist, novices will find value in seeing where their fingers should go on the keyboard.
This edition also boasts iTunes integration for playing background music, which is quite nice. You can choose any playlist or your entire library, and even shuffle tracks. The integration is seamless, and it’s easy to change playlists through the application’s preferences. The only feature missing is the ability to skip tracks in the playlist.
If you’re using Mavis Beacon on a Mac without access to an iTunes library, I highly recommend turning off the sound. The built-in music boasts several different styles, which implies a deeper library than there actually is-the soundtrack is made up of MIDI tracks that repeat endlessly. The effect of this is akin to hearing an annoying cell phone ring tone repeatedly: eventually, thoughts of forcibly and violently removing all audio equipment issuing forth the offending music.
One of my quibbles with Mavis Beacon is its lack of support for the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, which is supported natively by OS X. Dvorak was originally designed as a more efficient layout that places the most often used keys in the home row, which can ostensibly improve one’s typing speed. I’ve always wanted to learn Dvorak, but no modern typing tutors support it. It would be nice if Mavis Beacon took the plunge to fill that missing market.
There is also an insistence on 100 percent accuracy with many of the end-of-lesson quizzes. Should you miss just one character in the test passage, you’re booted right back for more practice. As far as I’m concerned, the Backspace key is on keyboards for a reason, and not just for removing rogue sentences. Error-free typing is great, but the program insisting you spend more time practicing just because of one stray character seems just a bit obsessive.
Macworld’s buying advice
While I certainly wouldn’t recommend Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing 2009 Deluxe Edition to my six-year-old self, I would definitely suggest it to 10- or 11-year-olds, teenagers, and adults. Its beautiful interface, iTunes integration, spot-on lessons and engaging practice material are perfect for learning how to type. It isn’t perfect, but it certainly is an excellent choice.
[Blair Hanley Frank is a Macworld intern.]
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