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The following article appeared in the Winter issue of our newsletter. Kate Crohan teaches accessible technology at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and Steve Dresser is a long-time computer professional with his B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Connecticut.

Kate Crohan and Steve Dresser

A few years ago, one of our new students joined my class with a laptop that his parents had just purchased. I was trying to teach him to use the laptop keyboard, and honestly, I could hardly type on it myself. The keys had virtually no spaces between them, and the function keys were set to the default multi-media keys, to name just two aspects of the laptop’s keyboard that made it very difficult to use. Thankfully, the student’s parents purchased a different computer, and I decided that we needed some guidelines to offer. Although it is possible to adjust to small changes that a laptop might bring with it, some things just don’t work well. Without naming specific brands, here are some of the most important features to consider when buying a laptop.

SD Card Slot and USB Ports

Students will use SD cards constantly with the Victor Stream and other notetakers, so having a built-in SD card reader is more than just a convenience. Alternatively, an external reader which connects via a USB port can be used. However, this adds yet another device to the things you have to keep track of, and it ties up a USB port that might be better used for something else, such as an external CD drive. Many other external devices, including headsets, connect to the computer via USB, so having more USB ports is definitely better.

DVD Drive – Or Not

Today’s laptops often eliminate an internal DVD/CD drive to reduce the size and weight of the machine. In the past, having an internal drive was essential because nearly all software companies shipped their installers on CD. Today, most software can be downloaded from the manufacturer’s website, which makes having an internal drive much less necessary. Still, there are situations, such as performing a clean install of Windows, where an internal drive is essential, and you should consider whether smaller size and less weight is worth sacrificing the built-in drive. As previously mentioned, external CD drives are available, but carrying one around in your laptop bag will add weight to your load.

Sound and Video

With the popularity of programs such as Skype, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a new laptop that doesn’t have a built-in microphone and camera. Because students may be taking courses on line, where talking to the teacher is a requirement, it’s important to find out how well these two items work.


For some students, key spacing and positioning is an important factor in their success with a laptop keyboard. "Island" keyboard construction offers small spaces between keys, similar to the key spacing on a desktop keyboard. However, you’re less likely to find such keyboards in smaller laptops where real estate is at a premium.

Numeric Keypad

A numeric keypad on the right side of the keyboard (again, more likely in larger laptops) provides access to screen reader functions as well as an adding machine style keypad when using the Windows calculator. Screen readers usually have a “laptop” configuration option which uses another key such as the shift lock to get the screen reader’s attention, so unless your student plans to use the calculator, having a numeric keypad may not be essential.

Arrow Keys

Many students may benefit from well-defined arrow keys, not embedded in a configuration with the page up/down or other Keys. If your student’s spatial sense is good, this doesn’t matter as much, as she can place her fingers on the group and figure it out, particularly if the left- down-and right-arrow keys are a little below the keyboard.

Function Keys

Function keys on the top row with spaces between the groups of four. In the event that you can’t find that design and the laptop has everything else you want, bump dots can be placed on every fourth key if needed.

ion of Control and FN Keys

In addition to the familiar Control key, many laptops have a key labeled FN which, in conjunction with other keys, allows control of laptop-specific functions such as controlling volume, muting the sound, and enabling/disabling Wi-Fi. These two keys are usually next to each other, with the Control key in the lower left-hand corner and the FN key immediately to the right of the Control key, but not always. Some students have more difficulty with the keyboard when these two keys are reversed.

ext (Applications) Key

Some companies eliminate this key as a means of making the keyboard a little smaller. Though convenient, the key isn’t necessary as shift-f10 does the same job.

Disabling the Touchpad

Though convenient for mouse users, a touchpad can be very frustrating for those who prefer to operate their laptops strictly with the keyboard. Located below the spacebar, the touchpad is where your hands often land accidentally on their way to finding the keyboard, with sometimes disastrous results. For this reason, it’s important to have either a button or key combination that turns the touchpad on/off.

rolling the Sound

The last thing you want when you’re using a screen reader is to have everything go silent because you accidentally bumped the Mute button. Ideally, this button should be easily distinguished from other keys, and not easily activated. One that is on a touch-screen and can be accidentally activated is a very poor choice. On some laptops, muting the sound is accomplished by pressing FN along with another key, which virtually guarantees that it won’t be pressed accidentally. Alternatively, you can mark the Mute button, but if that can be avoided, all the better.

On the other hand, the volume control should be easy to find so that if the ambient noise in the room changes, the volume can be raised or lowered quickly and conveniently. On most machines, if you’ve accidentally muted the sound, you can bring it back by adjusting the volume control.

d State Drive (SSD)

Because a solid state drive has no mechanical components such as rotating platters or moving read/write heads, it operates much faster than a typical hard drive, and is viewed by many as a way to speed up a laptop and give it a more “snappy” feel. However, the speed increase may not be as significant as it first appears. The faster performance will be most noticeable at startup when the operating system is loading and disk access is at maximum. But once the operating system is loaded, disk access decreases significantly, and other factors come into play. Although SSDs have increased in storage capacity and have come down in price, they still hold less than mechanical hard drives and cost considerably more. In most cases, the more cost-effective alternative of installing more RAM (random access memory), will speed up the laptop and further cut down on disk access.

Bottom Line

While portability is an important factor in the purchase of a laptop, it is by no means the only consideration. Depending on the needs of the student, you may have to sacrifice portability in favor of a larger keyboard, as well as other features discussed in this article. Whatever you decide, your goal should be a laptop that provides the most comfort and efficiency for your student.

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