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It is usually possible for an advanced user to change keyboard operation, and third-party software is available to modify or extend keyboard functionality.
A computer keyboard comprises alphanumeric or character keys for typing, modifier keys for altering the functions of other keys, navigation keys for moving the text cursor on the screen, function keys and system command keys – such as – for special actions, and often a numeric keypad to facilitate calculations.
In many other languages there are additional letters (often with diacritics) or symbols, which also need to be available on the keyboard.
To make room for additional symbols, keyboards often have what is effectively a secondary shift key, labeled .
Some early keyboards experimented with using large numbers of modifier keys.
The most extreme example of such a keyboard, the so-called "Space-cadet keyboard" found on MIT LISP machines, had no fewer than seven modifier keys: four control keys, A dead key is a special kind of a modifier key that, instead of being held while another key is struck, is pressed and released before the other key.
The core section of a keyboard comprises character keys, which can be used to type letters and other characters.
Within a community, keyboard layout is generally quite stable, due to the high training cost of touch-typing, and the resulting network effect of having a standard layout and high switching cost of retraining, and the suboptimal QWERTY layout is a case study in switching costs.
Some keyboards have a key labelled “Compose”, but any key can be configured to serve this function.
For example, the otherwise redundant right-hand Keyboard layouts have evolved over time, usually alongside major technology changes.
An alphanumeric key labeled with only a single letter (usually the capital form) can generally be struck to type either a lower case or capital letter, the latter requiring the simultaneous holding of the key is also used to type the upper of two symbols engraved on a given key, the lower being typed without using the modifier key.
The English alphanumeric keyboard has a dedicated key for each of the letters A–Z, along with keys for punctuation and other symbols.
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The earliest mechanical keyboards were used in musical instruments to play particular notes.