Know everything they type, or stop them from typing at all!

Back in 2000, I reviewed the KeyGhost Security Keyboard, an apparently ordinary keyboard with a hardware keylogger hidden inside it. Later that year, I reviewed the KeyGhost II Professional, another hardware keylogger, this time built into an innocuous-looking keyboard plug adapter.

Those reviews have a special place in my heart, partly because I just love the sneakiness of these little things, and partly because someone ripped off my pictures of the guts of the Security Keyboard...

Keyghost unit

Keyghost unit side 2

Keyghost unit side 1 create an urban legend about hardware keyloggers allegedly being built into Dell laptops. (Or other makes of computer - the story's had a few mutations over the years.) Some people appear to have decided that the fact that the pictures and info about the hardware are obviously copied from my review means that I'm part of the conspiracy.

(KeyGhost now offer a Mini PCI keylogger, which actually could be hidden in a laptop computer with a spare expansion slot, or in a desktop machine with a Mini-PCI-to-normal-PCI adapter. I'm pretty sure they're not selling them by the million to the Department of Homeland Security, though.)

Anyway, KeyGhost don't sell those exact products any more. They've got better ones. And a new gadget with a completely different purpose, whose value it took me a little while to see.

The old Security Keyboard I reviewed had a memory capacity of half a million keystrokes, before new keystrokes would start overwriting the oldest ones. The KeyGhost Pro had a compression system that let it fit rather more keystrokes into the same amount of memory. And they weren't particularly cheap; the Security Keyboard version I reviewed listed for $US299, and the KeyGhost II Professional was a $US249 item.

Nowadays, you can get a 128,000-keystroke plug-adapter "External KeyGhost Home Edition" for only $US89, and for the price of the old Security Keyboard you can get the KeyGhost Professional SE Security Keyboard, with more than two million keystrokes of capacity. That's enough to hold, for comparison, Moby Dick plus the New Testament of the King James Bible).

All of the "Professional" KeyGhost loggers also still have 128-bit encryption of their contents. It wouldn't be very hard for someone who doesn't know the password for a KeyGhost Pro, but who does have some experience with hardware hacking, to dump the entire contents of the Flash memory chip - the actual dump would take almost no time at all, since you're only talking a couple of megabytes for even the top-spec KeyGhosts. But if there isn't some weakness in the encryption scheme, the attacker would then need cubic kilometres of sci-fi nanotech to decrypt the data.

As you'd expect, KeyGhost also now have USB keyloggers for people who prefer a 15-year-old keyboard interface to a 25-year-old one. The USB loggers are more expensive, starting from $US199; the flagship model is $US349. For that price, though, you get a keylogger that date-stamps keyboard activity, and records everything that's typed on any USB keyboard plugged into the computer, whether or not that keyboard's plugged in through the KeyGhost itself. It even works with multiple USB keyboards.

UPDATE: I misunderstood part of the USB keylogger product page. What that part actually meant was that the USB keylogger can be plugged into root ports or into a hub, and still work. It will also work with a keyboard that has its own built-in USB hub, provided all you have plugged into that hub is a mouse (many Mac keyboards are like this). But the USB KeyGhost only logs keystrokes from the one keyboard that's plugged into it.

And then, there's the new "QIDO". It's another little thumb-drive-shaped thing, but it doesn't log keystrokes - it changes them. Its name stands for "Qwerty In, Dvorak Out", and it does what it says on the tin - translates keystrokes from any ordinary Qwerty keyboard into Dvorak Simplified Keyboard keystrokes - and it supports a few different Dvorak variants, too. You activate and deactivate the QIDO by double-tapping Num Lock (or, apparently "Clear", on some Mac keyboards).

If you're one of the few, the proud, the Dvorak-keymap users, you'll be used to fooling around with keymap settings every time you sit down in front of a new computer, and whenever you want to make the computer usable for a Qwerty typist again. With a QIDO, all you need to do is carry the little USB dongle with you. It costs $US119 $US89 plus $US29 delivery, or less if you buy two or more.

The QIDO is a plug-and-play USB device, so to install it, all you have to do is unplug the USB keyboard cable and insert the QIDO between keyboard plug and computer (or USB hub) socket. Actually, because of the QIDO's thumb-drive form factor, I'd recommend you get a little USB extension cable to put between QIDO and computer, so the QIDO isn't hanging in the air, stressing its plug and the computer's socket. But it's still easy to install, and very portable.

The KeyGhost people asked me whether I'd like to review a QIDO, but I don't really see that there's a great deal to review in there. I can tell you now what my review would say: "I plugged the thing inline with a USB keyboard, and the keyboard continued to work normally, except when I tapped Num Lock twice, whereupon I couldn't type any more because I don't know Dvorak."

Ideally, QIDO would magically transform the keyboard's keycaps from "qwerty" to "',.pyf" when you switched modes, but you can only do that if you've got one of those incredibly expensive Optimus Maximus jobbies with a little OLED display built into each key. (The Maximus is apparently quite rubbish to type on, by the way.)

Having the wrong things printed on the keys is not actually a huge problem for Dvorak typists, once they've learned the layout well enough that they don't have to look at the keys for everyday typing, or have just built a mental lookup table of which Qwerty keys correspond to which Dvorak ones.

This isn't as hard as you might think, because standard Dvorak only relocates the alphabetic keys and common punctuation. So the lesser-used symbols of which people are most likely to forget the precise location - @, #, $, % and so on - are still where the keycaps say they are. And if you're learning Dvorak on a Qwerty keyboard you can, of course, just stick a picture of the Dvorak map on the wall and glance at it as necessary.

Since the QIDO can't change the keycaps, though, I was having some trouble figuring out what real advantage it offers over the free alternative - just changing your operating system's keymap.

It's easy to add a Dvorak keymap in Windows - or Mac OS and Linux, for that matter - and then you can switch keymap in a couple of clicks. The QIDO makes switching even faster, but by and large it didn't seem to me that it does anything that changing the keymap in the OS doesn't do.

But then I found this blog post from one Alex Eagle, which I shall now shamelessly plunder.

[KeyGhost now tell me that Alex Eagle is actually "the guy who came up with the concept for the QIDO", so it's obviously not coincidental that his blog-post wish-list so closely matches its actual features.]

Reasons why the QIDO's worth buying:

1: OS keymap control is imperfect. It's possible, for instance, to find certain modifier-key combinations that don't Dvorak-ify properly.

Windows XP (and maybe Vista - I don't know) does Dvorakification in a strange "application-by-application" way. If you add a Dvorak "Keyboard layout/IME" to WinXP, and then bring up the little Language Bar thing and select the new layout, you'll find that you're back in Qwerty mode as soon as you select any other application. This probably isn't what you want, but you're still going to have to separately select Dvorak from the Language Bar for that app, and for every other app you switch to. Each application remembers what keymap is selected, but they all seem to have to be told individually.

Windows Explorer itself counts as an application, here. So you have to select Dvorak after clicking on the desktop or a folder window, if you want to be able to press the-key-usually-known-as-R and have Windows highlight a file whose name starts with the Dvorak-layout P.

I don't think I've quite gotten to the bottom of this, either. The WinXP computer I'm typing this on is now slightly confused, after I switched the keymap back and forth umpteen times; it just switched to Dvorak spontaneously when I was in the middle of typing this document. I can definitely see the attraction of having a keyboard that sends Dvorak-mapped keycodes all by itself, and doesn't even dip a toe into this OS-mediated weirdness.

2: Some software bypasses OS keymap control and looks at direct keyboard scancodes, assuming them to map to the Qwerty values. Or, even more annoyingly, some software may sometimes look at scancodes, and at other times obey OS keyboard remapping. (From reading Raymond Chen's The Old New Thing, I know that just because an application has a user base of more than fifty million people does not mean it won't do boneheaded things like this.)

3: The QIDO lets you have a Dvorak keyboard and a Qwerty keyboard both connected to a computer, and working, at the same time, with no switch-over needed and no fooling with strange WinXP-type keymap selection. This isn't something that most people need, but if you do need it, you probably need it quite badly.

4: Remote computing. If you take control of another computer via VNC or Remote Desktop or whatever, you may or may not get the same keymap at the other end. Again, the QIDO fixes this problem altogether.

You can use the QIDO with any computer you can plug it into, regardless of whether that computer has software support for Dvorak keymaps; it will even work when the computer's not even running a normal operating system, like in BIOS setup programs (provided the computer accepts USB input in BIOS setup, of course) or the Splashtop quick-starting Linux environment. There's probably some allegedly-USB-supporting computer out there that won't work with a QIDO, but it's a standard low-power Human Interface Device, so it really ought to work with just about anything. I could believe it not working if you use it with an old high-power-consumption PS/2 keyboard (like my beloved IBMs), but I wouldn't be surprised if you just needed a better PS/2-to-USB adapter, like the one I mention here.

5: The QIDO doesn't just support Dvorak Standard and a Dvorak-Qwerty hybrid, but also the Single-Handed Left and Single-Handed Right Dvorak variants, for typing using only one hand.

(Certain jokes immediately suggest themselves, but single-handed keyboards of various sorts are immensely helpful for people who only have one hand to type with, because the other one's missing, or because the other one's busy with some other task, like steering their freaky computer-bike, or something.)

You select the keymap you want the QIDO to switch to by using a system taken from the KeyGhosts; type "keydvorak" into a text editor when the QIDO's plugged in, and a "ghost" will type out a menu for you and then await your selection.

Since the QIDO unfortunately does not magically rearrange your keycaps, I think it's likely that most people who'll want a QIDO will also want a keyboard with keys that match their Dvorak layout. It's not easy to actually find an ordinary, inexpensive off-the-shelf keyboard that comes with Dvorak-layout keycaps, but you can often just swap the keycaps around. This'll move the key-locating "pips" that most keyboards have on the F and J keys, and it's unacceptably untidy if your keyboard has differently-angled keys on each rank; if that's the case, you can just use stickers, or break out the sandpaper and permanent marker.

Switching your mind between Dvorak and Qwerty can be a lot harder than switching your keymap. If, for whatever reason, you're better at typing on a Dvorak keyboard than on a Qwerty one - which you'd of course better be at some point in the near future, if you're bothering with Dvorak at all - then you're probably going to need some way of Dvorak-ising any computer you're going to need to type on, lest you overtax your fading brain.

An expensive keyboard with a hardware Qwerty/Dvorak switch on it will solve this problem for you, provided you're happy to carry the darn thing to every computer you use. The QIDO isn't cheap, but it's not as expensive as any switchable keyboard I've found, and it's an awful lot more portable.

The only things it won't Dvorak-ise are computers that can't accept a USB keyboard for whatever reason, and laptops. But you'll probably be able to muddle along with operating-system keymap switching then, if you don't face these situations too often.

I, personally, have not the slightest need for a QIDO. But contrary to my first impression, it really does look like a useful little gadget. If you're using flaky OS keymap switching all the time and tearing your hair out, a QIDO for $US119 plus delivery could be a bargain - and, as mentioned by KeyGhost in the comments below, everybody now gets the $US89 bulk price, even if they're only buying one unit!

16 Responses to “Know everything they type, or stop them from typing at all!”

  1. Rek Says:

    Regarding the XP dvorak keymap weirdness: After adding the layout, the primary layout can be changed from a dropdown at the top of the dialog. That seems to keep everything switched. There's also a keyboard shortcut to switch between layouts - I haven't figured out what it is, but I know I've tripped it accidentally (and so have other people on computers where I've enabled the dvorak layout... lots of fun). The one situation where I could see this QIDO being very useful is for my PS3 - if I'm typing on there I usually have other things to deal with than which keyboard layout I'm meant to be typing on.

    I find mentally switching keymaps isn't too bad. If I end up thinking about which keymap I'm using things can go weird, but generally I just type and it comes out fine.

  2. alexlockhart Says:

    WhooHoo, DSK!! I've been using DSK for several years as my primary layout, and I'm not just one of the few and the proud, I'm one of the fewer and prouder who can quickly and easily switch between DSK and QWERTY. At first when I was learning, that was the hardest thing, but after using one for a few months and then another for a few months, and then using DSK at home and QWERTY at work for over a year, it became quite easy to just sit down and type in either layout. I even got to the point where I rarely thought about it - in one surrounding, I used one, and in the other, I used the other. I haven't used QWERTY for an extended period for about two years, but I can still sit down at someone else's computer and just start typing in QWERTY. Like being bilingual, you just naturally speak the correct language for the circumstance.

    I've never been too bothered by Windows XP's erratic keyboard layout behaviour. Whatever is the default keyboard is the one that gets assigned to everything when it opens, so if that's DSK, then everything is DSK unless you specifically tell it otherwise. It's really not a good implementation, but it's workable. So for me, that takes away one of the good reasons for the QIDO. Also, my only computer is a laptop, and it's easy enough to switch to QWERTY for someone else's computer that I don't usually bother switching their layout for the time I'm on their computer. I've also never felt the benefit of switching keys or writing on them; as you pointed out, anyone who's serious about DSK is going to touch-type anyway, so there's no need to have the keycaps changed. I even have gotten many keys memorized so I can just hit key combos, some of them when my hands aren't at home position and the room is dark and I can't see the keyboard. So for this dedicated DSK typist, the QIDO just doesn't have many benefits.

    If I had only one hand, though, I'd be using one of the single-handed DSK layouts, and that would be an entirely different story. Then, the QIDO would be incredibly handy. Its only other obvious use to me (besides the indisputable convenience) is for those who are stuck in DSK, as I was at first.

    Wow, this is the first time in the many years that I've been reading that I've felt the need to comment! But I've very much enjoyed your writing, and hope to continue for years to come.

  3. Steve H Says:

    Hardwired Dvorak keyboards are few and far between. Dvortyboards went under years ago, and since then I don't know of any hardware switchable keyboards. As you can see, there IS a need for hard wired Dvorak keyboards.

    I wish it weren't quite so expensive, then I'd get it in a heartbeat. In the meantime, I do have and use one of the last DvortyBoards. Once that breaks down or I get completely sick of it, I'll reconsider the QIDO.

  4. phisrow Says:

    By the look of the picture, the QIDO is exactly the same hardware as the USB keylogger. What do you want to bet that this particular product was born of out of a weekend's worth of hacking-for-personal-use by a dvorak user among the keyghost techies?

  5. PhilH Says:

    What i am after is something similar that will map just a few keys of the Apple keyboard to a Windows one. eg swapping the Option and Apple keys. This would avoid changing the registry, and allow a laptop's (PC) keyboard to still work properly. Heard of anything like this?

  6. Changes Says:

    What's your personal opinion on the Dvorak layout (other than, y'know, "I'm not using it")?
    I have a website and I work for a review portal. I also like to post in techie and gaming forums. These things add up to a whole lot of typing, enough to make normal keyboards uncomfortable. In order to prevent tunnel syndrome, and just to make my wrists feel better, I got one of those split keyboards (a shameless clone of an old-style Microsoft Natural Keyboard), which helped. Ideally I'd want a Maltron freaky-board, but I can't quite afford one (yet), so in order to make it even more comfortable I was thinking about going Dvorak, but I'm coming across widely differing opinions about the result-vs-expended-effort ratio. Some say it's a godsend, others that it's no different than qwerty. I'm not sure what to do.

  7. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I don't think there's actually any clear evidence that Dvorak is superior to Qwerty, generally speaking.

    It's plausible that people with strain injuries caused by typing may find relief if they switch to a different keyboard shape or keymap, but this could apply in the Dvorak-to-Qwerty direction, as well as the other way. Repetitive-strain injuries can be alleviated by any change to the repetitive strain.

    In the olden days, typists had to exert quite a bit of pressure to swing the arm for each key up into the paper, which meant that stuff like this was more important. Today, even heavy-push keyboards like the Optimus Maximus are not anywhere near as hard to type on than were most manual typewriters.

    I'm not about to declare that Dvorak Users Are All Fooling Themselves; the Qwerty layout was not created by an ergonomicist, and it's quite likely that some other key layout is better. I type a lot, though, and Qwerty on a nice clicky IBM keyboard is fine by me.

    If you're finding typing uncomfortable, and you're not currently using a fancy Qwerty keyboard, I strongly recommend you pick up a buckling-spring or Alps-keyswitch "clicky" keyboard on eBay for not more than the price of two movie tickets, and see what you think of it.

    If that doesn't help, then off you should go to Dvorak layouts, bizarre-looking ergonomic keyboards, and so on.

    I think it's very possible that a clicky keyboard with some oddball layout will be just as good as a $1000 ultra-ergo-board, though.

  8. tm Says:

    The USB KeyGhost only records the keystrokes of the keyboard plugged into it. The part on the KeyGhost website that says any USB keyboard means it'll work with any keyboard not that it'll record all your USB keyboards.

  9. Daniel Rutter Says:

    You're quite right, tm; I've fixed that bit of the post.

  10. KeyGhost Says:

    Hi Steve H, to be fair on everyone, we just adjusted the single unit price down to the bulk-buy price ($89). Our aim was to develop the ultimate Qwerty to Dvorak converter so we put quite a bit of effort into the custom firmware.

    Hi PhilH, we can only convert the keystrokes on an external USB keyboard, not laptop.

    Hi tm and Dan, the KeyGhost USB/HUB version will record off multiple USB keyboards, but the data needs to pass throught the KeyGhost. E.G. 4 x USB Keyboards connect to -> Hub which connects to -> KeyGhost USB/HUB device connected to -> PC/Mac.

    Kind regards

  11. Bern Says:

    Speaking of Windows keymap weirdness... a senior guy in my office got a new laptop a few years ago. About three weeks after he got it, he called me in to help because when he typed he got gobbledygook on the screen. Turned out that the keymap default had changed to Dvorak, despite nobody ever even having set it up on that PC.
    I'm fairly sure it wasn't a prank - this wasn't the kind of guy anyone would pull that prank on (it'd be like kicking puppies - some people enjoy that sort of thing, but we don't employ any of them).

  12. Alex Eagle Says:

    Thanks for the pingback, Dan.

    Theo sent me a prototype of the QIDO to test and comment on. I totally love it and I'll need to keep one on hand all the time. I'll write up my impressions in a blog post, but the short version is that it works exactly as you think it should, and I couldn't tell a difference between the QIDO and a real hardware Dvorak keyboard, including that when you plug it into a Mac, the OS says it doesn't recognize the keyboard type and asks you to press the key to the right of left-shift (just cancel out of it).

    One big advantage of the QIDO you didn't mention is that you can have Dvorak with you almost anywhere. Many times you don't want to mess with someone's settings, or maybe you're using a kiosk computer like at the library - now you can just plug in through the QIDO (if you can access the USB port where the keyboard is plugged in). As for having two people type at once, that's a programmer thing. It's a good practice to work in tandem with another programmer from time to time (pair programming) and there's no other way for Dvorak typists to do it than with a QIDO.

    I'm glad to hear about the price drop, that's been the biggest negative complaint I've heard from the Dvorak users at work. What about the $29 shipping though? Is it really that much from New Zealand?? Is there an American distributor that could help?

    As for the Dvorak vs Qwerty debate, I'm really glad I switched, but it was a long process so I don't recommend it to everybody. (And my wife gets very irritated about my rearranged keyboards!) The biggest advantage for me is in comfort. Most words just feel like they lie naturally under your fingers. I highly recommend the Das Keyboard for switchers, as the blank keyboard is the only way to force yourself to stop looking down at the keys.

  13. Daniel Rutter Says:

    What about the $29 shipping though? Is it really that much from New Zealand?

    Via FedEx, yes. That seems to be the only option KeyGhost offer.

    If I were them, I'd offer registered mail or even plain old untracked air mail, which for a thumb-drive-sized thing of course costs very little.

    The problem with this for dealers who sell ordinary sorts of computer products is that scam artists will order a widget (or several...) via air mail, pay for it with a credit card, then say they never received it and reverse the charge, whereupon the seller is boned.

    (Or they'll order lots of stuff with stolen credit-card details, which amounts to the same thing. This kind of scammer is easier to detect, though, because they're usually someone with very poor English from a third-world country, who's asking for 25 top-flight CPUs.)

    But the QIDO seems to me to be enough of a niche product that it shouldn't attract fraudsters. No credit-card spammer is likely to want a QIDO, even if they can get it for free.

    It's easy for me to say this, of course, because I'm not the one who has to implement it. KeyGhost might also be well-advised to stick with expensive tracked shipping for their keyloggers, because those have a certain obvious appeal for scam artists. Even if no consumer is very interested, scam artists could sell them on to all of their scam-artist friends :-).

  14. violet Says:

    Was I the only one expecting the QIDO's Real True Purpose in life to be plugging it into, say, library computers, and befuddling the hell out of the patrons?

    "Your Internets are broken."
    "How's that?"
    "The keys don't work on them."

    Of course, then the librarians would either kill you or buy you a drink. Or, perhaps, kill you with drink.

    I turn my left caps lock into another left control, and switching either the keyboard's layout or my brain's is so aggravating, I can't even imagine the suffering of remapping every single letter. (Of course, even once I find the control key one way or another, my troubles aren't over. I will not-uncommonly hit C-a C-k to delete the line I'm editing, only to find that I have selected all the text in the document and replaced it with the letter k. Which is usually not what I wanted.)

  15. frasera Says:

    theres no real evidence that dvorok is any better. its one of those old geek myths, much like the advice to put keyboards in dishwashers lol:) dvorok had a financial interest in getting his keyboard setup adopted by the military or something, and he totally gamed the "test" to show that his version was superior. its amazing how this simple fraud has made countless people spend their time trying to adopt a dubious typing system:P
    reason magazine goes deep into it:)

  16. magetoo Says:

    And for the opposing viewpoint, Marcus Brooks has a pretty thorough critique of Liebowitz & Margolis here.

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