Adding Light to a Non-Backlit Laptop Keyboard

I had an Acer Aspire 5 A515-51-563W Core i5-7200U laptop. Its keyboard was not backlit — that is, there were no lights in its letters, to help me put my fingers on the right keys in dark conditions. This post presents my exploration of solutions.

Feeling Your Way. Of course, the Acer’s keyboard did have the standard tactile bumps on the J and F keys, and on the 5 key on its numeric keypad, to assist in blind orientation. But that was not usually helpful for keys far from the home row. As another possible aid, I could turn up the brightness on the display. But that would use more battery power. An extreme contrast between a bright screen and dark surroundings could also be uncomfortable to some eyes. A bright screen would also contribute to night blindness (i.e., being temporarily unable to see anything that wasn’t brightly lit), and, when working outdoors, it would tend to attract insects.

Headlamp. In the past, sometimes I had used a headlamp. It wasn’t necessarily uncomfortable, as long as I didn’t have it set too tight or too loose, wasn’t using a bulky one, and wasn’t using it in sweaty conditions. But, from my forehead, it would shine down onto the display, potentially producing glare back into my eyes (if the laptop didn’t have a matte screen) and washing out information displayed onscreen. Also, when working outdoors, the bright headlamp would attract insects to my face. In response to that last concern, Hunker (Jacobson, n.d.) noted that insects were especially unlikely to see red light. A headlamp with a red light setting would thus be a potential solution, assuming the red light did not interfere with the user’s work onscreen. It seemed that, in addition to not attracting insects, red light could help to reduce night blindness.

Gooseneck LED. More frequently, I had used a gooseneck LED light. My gooseneck light plugged into a USB port and would allow me to position it, so as to shine light down onto the keys. The LED was not very bright, not very bulky, not near my face, and could be focused toward the keys rather than the screen. It had also not seemed to attract many insects. ScienceAlert (MacDonald, 2016) reported that standard yellow bug lights were not necessarily effective, but that insects would be least attracted to a warm-toned (rather than cool blue) LED light. Possibly this LED was yellowish enough. If not, Techni-Lux (among others) offered a red LED gooseneck light.

Clip-On LED. The USB gooseneck would probably require a laptop USB port, rather than a port on an external USB hub, if I wanted it to remain stably directed at the keyboard. As an alternative, a clip-on LED might be attached to the top of the laptop’s display, and might be battery- rather than USB-powered. This could be an affordable solution: my LED headlamps would run many hours on good rechargeable batteries.

External Backlit Keyboard. Another workaround would be to buy an external backlit USB keyboard, especially if the external keyboard would work even when connected via a USB hub rather than being plugged directly into a USB port on the laptop. This would not necessarily be an option only when using the laptop at home or in the office: there seemed to be portable (e.g., foldable) backlit keyboards. Note that using an external keyboard on the desktop could entail the potentially fun option of a genuine mechanical keyboard.

Reflective Stickers. A search led to other possibilities. I was not surprised to find a discussion in which people seemed inclined against reflective stickers for keys. On the other hand, Kikuyumoja (2010) found them acceptable. (Note: for those considering UV stickers, ultraviolet light was said to be especially attractive to insects.) Among several choices, Amazon offered a set of large, glowing stickers that drew an average of 4.4 stars from 430 customer reviews. In response to a question about quality, several reviewers of that Amazon product said they had used their stickers for periods of at least one to two years with no problem. Critical reviews said that it was a pain to attach the stickers (requiring two hours, according to one critic), but they seemed to stay attached (assuming the keys were cleaned with alcohol before attaching the stickers, although some said they didn’t stay attached even then); that they required some trimming; that their glossy finish was undesirable; that they did not glow in the dark as advertised. There were also glow-in-the-dark keyboard covers (e.g., Viziflex Seels), but (a) I was afraid the plastic would get in the way and (b) they seemed primarily oriented toward Mac users, given the incomplete standardization of keyboard layouts in the PC world.

Electroluminescent Wire. As another possibility, Instructables (see also Popular Science, Hackaday) offered a photo of a keyboard brightened via electroluminescent wire, running between keyboard rows, but it was not clear whether that approach would cast light on the tops of keys. At worst, it would shine light into the user’s eyes without illuminating the keys at all. There were mentions of using fiber-optic cable instead of EL wire, but that seemed to have the additional drawback of delivering most of its light at the end of the cable. Note that methods that involved dismantling the laptop could void its warranty.

Replacement Keyboard. At least 1 2 3 4 5 6 posts and articles discussed the option of replacing the stock keyboard with a backlit one. The concept seemed to be that some laptops would come in backlit and non-backlit models, and that (assuming the same motherboard, or at least a similar one with the requisite light connector) it should be possible to substitute the backlit model’s keyboard into your unlit laptop. Within the Acer Aspire 5 family, there appeared to be no backlit keyboards (judging from the filters shown at the left side of the screen, and from manual review of nearly a dozen different models); and yet both HSN and PCMag claimed to have had their hands on Aspire 5 models with backlighting. Neither eBay nor Amazon nor Google Shopping seemed to have replacement keyboards for the A515. Those results were surprising. There may have been something wrong with my search.

Conclusion. Based on my information so far, as summarized in this post, the most viable options appeared to be to continue to use a clip-on or gooseneck LED. I could hold reflective stickers and a portable external keyboard as alternatives, and could also keep my eyes open for sources of replacement backlit keyboards.

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