As the name implies, an On-Screen Keyboard (OSK) is a virtual keyboard that is displayed on the computer screen. It is used as an alternative to the physical keyboard, so people can "type" by using a mouse or other input device.
As a general rule, there are two main reasons why someone would want to use an OSK:
As a physical keyboard replacement:
- A user may not be able to use a physical keyboard - they may use accessibility devices such as switches and pointing devices or a touch screen
- A user may choose to use an alternative way of entering keystrokes - they may wish to use their native language on a foreign-language machine.
To enhance their security and protect against malicious software (like keyloggers):
- Security OSKs are often used to offer the user extra protection when using public, unprotected or potentially suspect computers (eg. at libraries and internet cafès).
- Security OSKs can help to protect against malicious software that may have a combination of the following features:
- Keylogging - where the physical keyboard activity is logged
- Screen logging - where screenshots are taken at regular periods or taken every time the mouse is clicked
- Clipboard logging - where the clipboard is actively monitored
- Mouse position logging - where the coordinates of mouse clicks may be captured; this is primarily used to defeat web-based banking OSKs
- A technique I call 'field scraping' - where the program may 'scrape' or 'grab' the value of a text box, even if the text box has a password in it and is covered by the **** password mask.
The good news is that there are some great free programs that will assist with these needs. However, I want to stress that people should use the right tool for the job. Accessibility OSKs do not offer any real protection against malicious software, just as security-focused OSKs do not offer much functionality as keyboard replacements. In addition, security OSKs should be seen as part of your overall security regime, to assist, but not replace other security software (eg firewalls, anti-virus, anti-malware applications etc).
This review covers accessibility OSKs only. For security OSKs, click Best Free Onscreen Keyboard for Security.
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Click-N-Type is an excellent free OSK that rivals many commercial OSKs in the accessibility space. It is highly functional and very customizable, but isn't terribly pretty and the breadth of options may be a little daunting for some users.
Like all the OSKs, Click-N-Type sends its button presses to the active application (the topmost one, the one in focus), just as if keys had been typed on a physical keyboard. To eliminate any chance of misdirection, Click-N-Type thoughtfully notes the name of the currently active application in its title bar. Before beginning, the user might see fit to set the text cursor to the precise desired position within that targeted application. Or you could simply employ the OSKs arrow keys to move around within a block of text, and the Tab and Shift+Tab keys to navigate among different entry fields within Click-N-Type.
The keyboard can be resized easily, and the fonts rescale automatically when doing so. This should suit many users of assistive technologies, and those who would like a resizable keyboard for use with a touch-screen computer. There are a number of different keyboard layouts to choose from; If you need those arrow keys then be sure to select a layout, from the File menu, that includes them. When first installed, the default layout will likely be set different from those keyboards to which you're accustomed. The one shown in the image above is their selectable "QWERTY101-short" layout, the one that most resembles the norm.
There are many language and keyboard layout packs available, and you can even download a free utility from their website to customize your own. Click-N-Type shows the correct characters for each language's needs - a Japanese language pack, for example, will show Japanese characters on the keys, regardless of what language has been set in Windows. This will be of great benefit to people wanting to use a native keyboard on a foreign computer.
Click-N-Type offers a predictive text engine (as a separate free download) that works exceptionally well. Power users can add and change words in that engine by editing the language file in a word processor or notepad.
An assistive feature they call Autoclick allows users to perform hover delay entry. This mode is especially useful for persons who have difficulty operating a standard mouse and so must rely on a joystick, headpointer or eyetracker. Delay and repeat times are very configurable. A real handy macro feature is also available, allowing users to record and later playback oft-used sequences of characters.
For those who lack the ability to wield a pointing device and rely instead on a signal button or use of a single key (eg the Space Bar), Click-N-Type offers entry by scanning. Their scanning method is arguably faster than that of others, like Microsoft's built-in OSK, because it employs a three-way scan or literally, triangulation. The user signals first to select from successive blocks of keys, then signals to select a row within the block, and lastly signals to land on the target. It might be a tad less intuitive at first than row-by-row scanning but it is nonetheless, a superior design.
Microsoft On-Screen Keyboard (MSOSK) is installed in Windows by default. It can be found in: Start/All Programs/Accessories/Accessibility/On-Screen Keyboard or alternatively from Windows key + U. It has a very clean interface and allows for switching between extended keyboard layout and the standard layout, in which the numeric pad and cursor-control keys are omitted to save space.
Operation is by clicking on the display or by two alternate entry methods, hover and scanning, to accommodate those with physical difficulties. When set to entry by hovering, a cleverly implemented progress bar is drawn on the targeted key to apprise the user of the trigger timing, which is configurable to any of six discrete choices, ranging from 0.5 to 3.0 seconds. Entry by scanning requires only a single button or key. The software highlights each row of the keyboard in succession and stops when the user signals. Then, each character within the chosen row is highlighted successively, until the user signals again.
It should be noted that except for the Windows 7 version, MSOSK cannot be resized, which presents a serious limiting factor for some users without fine motor control or users who want to use an OSK with touch- screens. For XP users who are desperate and struggling with the older unresizable MSOSK, they might derive a measure of relief with a little amateur utility contributed by Charlie Danger of Better Living Through Technology. Visit his page here where you will find the workaround that Charlie calls DOSK, short for Docking the On-Screen Keyboard. Be advised that DOSK is in beta (testing) phase, is not highly refined and that you'll be using it at your own risk. It provides no system tray icon so has to be relaunched in order to change or revert the arrangement. DOSK is of course completely free. At the time of writing this article, it doesn't work in Windows Vista.
Different languages are catered for in the MSOSK, when the operating system has that language selected. But here again, the Windows 7 version of the accessory excels. It automatically adapts the keyboard to the language selected in the application (the one in which the typed characters will be entered).
The redesigned Windows 7 version of MSOSK is stylish and improved. It now has a useful word prediction feature, with the ability to learn and anticipate your most commonly used verbiage. When this option is switched on, an extra row of eight dynamic buttons appears that offer suggested word completions as you type. This can make the composition of text go quite a lot faster. But alas, the word prediction feature is absent from Windows 7 Home Basic.
Free Virtual Keyboard (FVK) is an OSK that seems to have been designed with pen computing in mind, and should be of good value to people using touch/pen-screens and assistive pointing devices.
From this perspective, FVK is well designed. The OSK presents the standard keyboard layout (minus the arrow keys and number pad) and the keyboard itself resizes really well, with good font resizing.
FVK has a slider control that allows users to alter the OSK transparency from almost 100% opaque to almost 100% transparent. This is a great feature addition - particularly when there is a lack of screen space. One minor point on this; FVK can go very transparent - perhaps too transparent. On occasion it was a little hard to see the almost-invisible slider to make the OSK opaque again.
In comparison with other assistive OSKs, FVK does have some limitations; it doesn't support all languages (in my testing, English and French were auto detected, Japanese was not), and it doesn't offer any hover delay entry or scanning features. Still, when viewed from a pen computing perspective, FVK is worth considering.
I love how innovative Dasher is - it's an OSK, minus the keyboard. Let me explain. The team at the Inference Group at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, have developed a way for people to enter text by using alternative methods. From the Dasher website:
"[Dasher can be used] when operating a computer one-handed, by joystick, touchscreen, trackball, or mouse; when operating a computer with zero hands (i.e., by head-mouse or by eyetracker); on a palmtop computer; on a wearable computer.
The eyetracking version of Dasher allows an experienced user to write text as fast as normal handwriting - 29 words per minute; using a mouse, experienced users can write at 39 words per minute."
It takes a little getting used to, but I found that I improved quite quickly with a bit of practice. You 'steer' your mouse toward the next letter you need, and the letters 'fly' towards the cursor from the right of the screen. Don't click, don't drag, just steer or 'drive' to the next letter. And don't be afraid to cut corners or go back (you'll see what I mean when you use it).
All letters are in alphabetical order, top to bottom, lower case to upper case, but Dasher presents the next letter with a size that is proportional to the probability of your needing it. The software continually strives to anticipate and accommodate. You can see this concept at work in the screenshot above (click it for a larger image). Four or five of the most likely continuations of the prefix "pro", pertinent to the sentence being entered, are popping out at you. But if you want instead to compose the word "prolific", you would steer your mouse between "-ject" and "-mise", and the needed letters are guaranteed to arise out of the ever-changing flux. By the way, those little square shapes represent the space character.
Continuing the use of the driving analogy, when the letters are 'run over', they are registered at the top of the screen to build the words, sentences and paragraphs. This may be saved later as text files or cut and pasted into other applications.
Dasher supports many languages, and can also improve its predictive capabilities by learning the words you use often.
Related to Security and On-Screen Keyboards:
- Best Free Onscreen Keyboard for Security
- How to Improve Your Security When Using a Public Terminal
- Probably the Best Free Security List in the World
Other free programs worth looking at:
- Tapir is an assistive on-screen keyboard with an entry method similar to mobile phones. It has very good predictive text capabilities and was created by the same team as Dasher (Open Source).
Microsoft On-Screen Keyboard
Free Virtual Keyboard
On-Screen Keyboard, Assistive Technologies, Predictive Text , Security, Keylogger, Screenlogger, Clipboard Logger, Password Logger, Anti-malware
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