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35 Keyboard Alternatives: Using a PC's keyboard on your workstation / compatibility issues


This article is from the Ergonomics and Typing Injury FAQ, by Dan Wallach dwallach@cs.princeton.edu with numerous contributions by others.

35 Keyboard Alternatives: Using a PC's keyboard on your workstation / compatibility issues

What kind of computer are you using? Macintosh, X terminal, NeXT, SGI, IBM
RS/6000, HP, Sun, serial port hacks, and other stuff.

Kinesis Corp. now has an adapter to make a PC keyboard connect to a
Macintosh. They'll happily sell you the adapter without one of their
keyboards. The price is around $100. Call 800-4-KINESIS.

A similar product is made by the Silicon Valley Bus Company, which
supports PC mice and keyboards. It's called the KeyStone and costs $99
plus $6 shipping.

o Silicon Valley Bus Company
475 Brown Rd.
San Juan Bautista, CA 95045

Phone: 408-623-2300 or maybe 800-775-0555
FAX: 408-623-4440

X terminals
A number of X terminals (NCD, Tektronix, to name a few) use PC-compatible
keyboards. If you have an X terminal, you may be all set. Try it out with
a normal PC keyboard before you go through the trouble of buying an
alternative keyboard. Also, some X terminals add extra buttons - you may
need to keep your original keyboard around for the once-in-a-blue-moon
that you have to hit the Setup key.

Often, X termainals will use a small DIN-8 connector rather than the
larger old-style PC keyboard connector. Have no fear! Many newer PC's also
have this new smaller connector, so you can usually find adapters at good
computer stores. I've also seen this adapter in a number of mail-order
cable catalogs.

NeXT no longer makes workstations, but the last batch of NeXTstations were
made with the Apple Desktop Bus. If you really need to be using NeXT
hardware, make sure it's the latest stuff, and you can use Mac keyboards
(or PC keyboards through an adapter).

Of course, you can also run the NeXTstep operating system on a PC, HP, or
Sun workstation, which are easier to adapt.

Malcolm Crawford <m.crawford@dcs.shef.ac.uk> recommends Kinesis users
remap their keyboard such that:
o Backspace = Backspace
o Delete = Command
o Caps Lock = Control
o Insert = Option
o And, in software, make Caps Lock settable with Command-Shift

Silicon Graphics
Silicon Graphics's newer machines (Indigo^2, Indy, and beyond) use
standard PS/2-compatible keyboards and mice. I don't believe this also
applies to the Power Series machines. It's not possible to upgrade an
older SGI to use PC keyboards, except by upgrading the entire machine.
Contact your SGI sales rep for more details.

For older machines, see if you can upgrade to Irix5 or later. The current
X server supports the XTEST extension, which allows a2x to function
properly. See "spoofing", below.

IBM RS/6000
IBM RS/6000 keyboards are actually similar to normal PC keyboards.
Unfortunately, you can't just plug one in. You need two things: a cable
converter to go from the large PC keyboard connector to the smaller PS/2
style DIN-6, and a new device driver for AIX. Believe it or not, IBM wrote
this device driver, I used it, and it works. However, they don't want me
to redistribute it. I've been told Judy Hume (512) 823-6337 is a potential
contact. If you learn anything new, please send me e-mail.

Several people have reported problems contacting IBM on this issue. Be
sure to bug your sales rep into doing the research. Again, let me know if
you learn anything new.

HP workstations
If you are using an HP workstation, you can buy a converter box that
converts the HP-HIL serial to PS2. The converter is made by Modular
Industrial Computers 615-499-0700. Apparently you can also get these from
Jon Simkovitz & Associates at 800-953-9262. At any rate, they're expensive
($400) because not many are made.

Newer HP workstations use PC-compatible keyboards and PS/2 mice! The
changeover occured in early 1995 with the model 712. You were planning on
upgrading your machine sooner or later, right?

Sun workstations
The only real solution is a hardware box sold by Kinesis (phone
800-4-KINESIS), for about $150 ($100 if you buy a Kinesis keyboard). The
adapter is compatible with all Sparc workstations. Plug it in and away you
go. The downside is the lack of Sun-specific keys. If you often use the
L-keys or other obscure keys, you're going to have to learn how to remap
your keys with xmodmap. For some info on this, check out
kinesis-sun-mappings in the typing injury archive.

Spoofing a keyboard over the serial port
If you've got a proprietary computer which uses its own keyboard (Sun, HP,
DEC, etc.) then you're going to have a hard time finding a vendor to sell
you a compatible keyboard. If your workstation runs the X window system,
you're in luck. You can buy a cheap used PC, hook your expensive keyboard
up to it, and run a serial cable to your workstation. Then, run a program
on the workstation to read the serial port and generate fake X keyboard

A number of programs can facilitate this for you. kt and a2x support ASCII
input. a2x-RawPC and serkey support raw PC scancode input. Also, the new
version of kt (kt18) additionally supports raw PC scancodes.

For more info about a2x, check out this URL:

a2x is a sophisticated program, capable of controlling the mouse, and even
moving among widgets on the screen. It requires a server extension (XTEST,
DEC-XTRAP, or XTestExtension1). To find out if your server can do this,
run 'xdpyinfo' and see if any of these strings appear in the extensions
list. If your server doesn't have this, you may want to investigate
compiling X11R5, patchlevel 18 or later, or bugging your vendor. X11R6
works fine, too.

kt is a simpler program, which should work with unextended X servers.
Another program called xsendevent also exists, but I haven't seen it.

a2x will work better, when it works, but it requires an extended server.
kt doesn't work with every application, but it's more likely to work on
older servers. Don't you love compromises?

a2x-RawPC, serkey, and kt18 can take input from a device such as the
Genovation Serial Box which converts a PC keyboard into a normal RS232
serial device, but otherwise passes through the raw PC scancodes. This
approach has several advantages: a Serial Box is only $150, whereas the
cheapest used PC you may ever find is over $300. A Serial Box could easily
fit in your pocket, while PC's tend to be much bigger. Most important,
however, is the ability to use all the keys of your PC keyboard with your
workstation, like the function keys. Unfortunately, Genovation no longer
manufactures this box. kt includes a DOS program which can make your PC
simulate one of these boxes, but that seems like overkill.

a2x, a2x-RawPC, serkey and kt are all available via anonymous ftp from

Other stuff
Some vendors here (notably: Health Care Keyboard Co. and AccuCorp) support
some odd keyboard types, and may be responsive to your queries regarding
supporting your own weird computer. If you can get sufficient documention
about how your keyboard works (either from the vendor, or with a storage
oscilloscope), you may be in luck. Contact the companies for more details.


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