overstrike mode

Greg writes:

> how about insert?  there’s a button on my pc keyboard, probably could
> find out how to on the mac if i tried but that’s what you are for.

Evelyn writes:

>insert? you mean paste?

Hillery writes:

>no, I think he means as opposed to “typeover”, yes, babe?

This is called overstrike mode. 95% of the overstrike mode commentary on the web concerns the issue that most of us associate with the insert key: we accidentally hit it and then what we type overwrites what’s in front of it, forcing us to undo what we just screwed up and turn off overstrike mode. After a couple iterations this becomes really annoying, and the presiding sentiment among most PC users who have given any thought to the insert key is how can I disable the fucking thing.

That said, I can see how overstrike mode could be useful, as it allows you to replace a word without having to take your hands off the keyboard. Thing is, the cursor has to be in front of the word you want to replace, which, unless you are right above or below the position in question, is faster to do with the mouse, so you have to take your hands off the keyboard anyway. Mac users replace words or groups of words by double-clicking on them or dragging over them, which requires a move to the mouse, a move to the keyboard, and then back to the mouse to put the cursor where you want it, and then back to the keyboard to resume typing. It’s a frustratingly slow process actually, and I would welcome a more efficient editing method. I thought I would use my PowerMate for this purpose  by having it slide the cursor back and forth, but it didn’t save much time and I like it better as an iTunes volume control. I remember a device from the early mac days that attached to your head and positioned the cursor on the screen wherever you looked, by tracking your eye movements through muscles on your temples. It came with a peripheral that attached to your keyboard and added two “mouse” buttons below the space bar. The ad ran in MacWorld in the late eighties under the banner, “Look Ma, No Hands!” and disappeared after a couple of years. Must not have worked, but what a cool idea. 

So. The insert key is not on macintosh keyboards, and overstrike mode is not supported in most macintosh apps. Microsoft Word features an overstrike mode, but, in typical Microsoft fashion, it is implemented exactly as it is on a PC, except there is no insert key on a mac, so the fastest way to activate it is to click on the status bar “OVR” button, which means you have to take your hand off the keyboard, so you might as well double-click the word you want to replace. Note that in many applications you can use the command or option key + backspace or delete to erase the entire word before or following the cursor, respectively.

It’s interesting that word processor editing conventions haven’t changed since they were originally conceived in the seventies. At that time, computer scientists were coming to grips with GUIs and the mouse, and while I’m the last to disparage these advances, which were largely responsible for bringing computers to people who didn’t care about computers, the keyboard is fast and the mouse is slow. I envision a mouseless editing mode that might work like this: You want to replace three words that appear in the paragraph above the one you’re working on. You hit the edit button on your keyboard, which would perhaps be on the other side of the caps lock key (does the caps lock key really need to be two keys wide? Who uses the caps lock key?). Hitting the edit key activates edit mode, where labels appear around the window such that each cursor position on the screen is mapped to a row letter and column number. You punch in the beginning coordinate and, if you want to select text, an end coordinate. Then you key in the new text to replace the selected text, hit the edit key again, the coordinate labels disappear, and the cursor is back to its original position. I bet once you got used to this system it would be fast as shit and, more importantly, wouldn’t interrupt your flow by forcing your hands away from the keyboard.

On the other hand, we now have a small but vocal group of computer geeks who advocate not for tools to make word processors more efficient, but for a return to the typewriter.

5 thoughts on “overstrike mode

  1. elliott

    The idea of having a super-edit layer as a mode above the word processor isn’t bad. But the specific implementation involving a coordinate system you mention I think would be too complex from a usability standpoint. Think about what the user would have to do and think to complete an edit: 1. Locate coordinates of the text in question visually along an x and y axis for both a start point and an end point; 2. Punch in the coordinates; 3. Edit; 4. Return to standard mode.
    The modal switch and the super-layer are cool. But can you think of a better interaction design than punching in some coordinates?

  2. reuben

    no, and I bet if done correctly it would be superfast and supercool. imagine a multicolored grid that appears over the text when you hit the edit key, we’ll call this part of edit mode ‘cursor mode.’ you hit the row number or column letter and that row or column becomes brighter than the rest. while in cursor mode, you can use the tab and ` keys to move forward and backward one column, the [ and ‘ keys to move up and down. when you’ve found the spot you want, you hit return. If you want to insert text only, you hit return again and type in the words you want to insert. if you want to replace text, you hit return only once, then hit the coordinates for the end of the text you want to select, then hit return again. this takes you out of cursor mode, and you can then type the text you want to replace the selected text with, hit the edit mode key again, and the cursor is back where it was before you hit the edit key.

  3. roy

    Dragon Naturally Speaking uses this grid concept for hands free navigation on the desktop. I haven’t tried it out, but it looks cumbersome. I agree with Ruebs though that it would become very quick with practice. The ultimate solution of course is a touch screen. You touch the word or words you want to edit (see iPhone) and say bye bye. (I just realized that when you guys wrote the above comments in 2006 the iPhone didn’t exist. Imagine what we’re going to have at our disposal in 2011).

  4. Rick

    Thanks for nothing. I hoped to find out how to disable the stupid fucking overstrike key and you link to bunch of gibberish. Useless freaks…..

  5. june

    I am a transcriptionist and would like to have the overstrike turned off and not come back on automatically when I do not want it on at all. When your fast and just need to edit part of a word, and it automatically comes on, it is the most annoying thing and you end up correcting what the overstrike did which has made things worse, taking more time to correct. When your paid for production, this slows things down for an experienced and fast typist.

Leave a Reply