Friday, May 25, 2012

Favorite Keyboards

Years ago before I became a Mac developer I worked on keyboards at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) back in the Video Terminals era. Even at that time, getting keyboards that feel just right and keeping the cost down was a big deal. We did a number of studies to understand what people liked about different key switches and discovered something interesting.
The perception of keyboard feel is correlated with audio feedback.

Keyboards that provide audio feedback for each keystroke are perceived by users to have better tactile response. As a result, DEC keyboards had a built-in keyboard clicker. A few years ago some developer friends were complaining about the feel of their keyboards and this got me thinking. Maybe I could improve the feel of these keyboards by adding audio feedback.

While there were existing programs that imitate the sound of an old fashioned typewriter, they did not appear to be intended as a practical touch typing aid. To be most effective, the feedback needs to be subtle and non-distracting. So I wrote Keyclick to fill this void.

Many long time computer users have fond memories of a favorite keyboard. Perhaps it was the Apple Extended keyboard (saratoga) or IBM Model M. Replacement keyboards with premium mechanical key switches are still available and popular with some programmers (like the Matias TactilePro), but at $70 and up these keyboards may be more than desired. Keyclick is $7.99 and works on laptops. If you've ever longed for the sound and feel of an older keyboard, give Keyclick a try. You might be surprised how much you like the keyboard you already own.

Naturally people wonder what made those old "clickety" keyboards so satisfying? Is it just subjective, or is there something more to it?

I believe there were a number of factors which contributed to the overall experience. First,the Model M used a class of switch known as having a "snap-action". A spring would collect energy and then release it closing the switch contacts before the actuator reached the end of its travel. The sensation of the key giving way corresponded directly with the contacts closing and a snapping sound that provided feedback. A lighter touch could be used since you could release a key moving on to the next one before it bottomed out. There was never an ounce of doubt about whether or not you had properly struck a key. Not having to process this helped free up energy to type more efficiently.

On today's "mushy" keyboards, the rubber dome is designed to provide enough resistance so that when it collapses momentum will carry your finger to the bottom of the stroke where contact is made by pushing conductive material on the underside of the rubber dome onto a set of wire traces. There are two disadvantages to this. First, the sensation of the key buckling doesn't correspond to actual contact closure. On the 109-key Apple Keyboard, if I press a key slowly I can feel it give way without actually generating a keystroke. Second, at the point where the contacts actually close, there's no distinct feel at all other than being close to the bottom of the key's travel, so the tendency is push harder to make sure.


While this is interesting background, there's another wrinkle to this story. With little or no marketing, Keyclick has been moderately successful with over 1500 licensed users and continues to sell a few copies each week. It was highlighted as a "staff pick" on Mac OS X downloads. It was reviewed and recommended in "Apple-D User" which covers assistive technology for the Mac. Shortly after Keyclick was introduced, it uncovered a bug in the Alert sound playback system which Apple fixed in 10.6. Who else would load an alert sound and then play it thousands of times over a period of days or weeks?

Apple's Mighty Mouse includes an audio clicker to provide the perception of tactile feedback when you scroll. Apple's iPhone and iPad with their on-screen keyboards both provide audio feedback in the form of key clicks.

With the introduction of the Mac App Store last year, several users asked me to produce a Mac App Store version which I did only to have it rejected for not being "useful" or providing "lasting entertainment value". I appealed this rejection pointing out that Keyclick was a proven product with over 1500 licensed users. It seemed to me that customers should decide what is useful to them, and Keyclick had found a warm reception with some users. I have received numerous customer comments like this one:
"I'm so happy with Keyclick! Thanks so much for the obvious effort you've put into it, I was delighted to register it."

Never-the-less, my appeal was rejected. The underlying reason Keyclick is not a good fit for the Mac App Store is that the appeal is subjective and there's no way to try before you buy. Developers are prohibited from even mentioning the availability of a trial version in their Mac App Store listing.

So if you've read this far and would like to try the software that was "Banned in Cupertino", download a free trial of Keyclick and enjoy!

Related Links:

Introducing Keyclick

My Favorite Keyboard (Daring Fireball)

Justin Williams Reviews the Das Keyboard for Mac

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thoughts on choosing a backup disk

As a long time computer professional, I know backups matter and that hard drives do eventually fail. So how do you choose a good hard drive for Time Machine or other backup?

10 years ago, LaCie was a popular goto vendor for Macintosh compatible hard drives. After a few of my Lacie d2's failed, I decided to try a different hard drive case and found some pleasant surprises. The Macally unit below is the one I chose.

Macally Hi-Speed eSATA/FireWire/USB 2.0 Storage Enclosure for 3.5-Inch SATA Hard Disk G-S350SUAB2 (Silver)

Priced at $65, this is attractive for a high performance Firewire 800/400, USB 2.0, and eSATA hard drive enclosure. Compared to my LaCie d2's, I noticed several improvements.

It's fan-less which makes it very quiet unless the disk is active.

I like that it includes both Firewire 800 and Firewire 400 on the back.

The power supply is a standard 12v wall wart instead of a separate dual voltage unit (12v and 5v) that sits on your floor or desk and uses a custom DIN connector. LaCie had a run of bad power supplies, so I like that the power supply is such a standard part.

The internal design is actually simpler than the d2 since the drive mounts horizontally and plugs directly into a controller card with interface jacks on the back. The aluminum casing is thinner but not insubstantial and much lighter weight. As an external enclosure, there's no issue with voiding the warranty by opening the case. In the LaCie d2, the drive mounts vertically and needs a ribbon cable (or daughter card) to run from the bottom of the drive to the controller with jacks at the back of the unit. A "warranty void if broken" label covers one of the screws you need to open the case.

By choosing a separate case, you can pick any specific hard drive (and warranty) you like instead of taking your chances with whatever the vendor has on hand.

I tried a NewerTech Voyager S2 USB drive dock for a while, but it wasn't reliable enough for Time Machine backups. Every few days it would report some file access error and need to be hot plugged. The Macally case with included Firewire 800 cable has been flawless for weeks (using the exact same hard drive).

As for bare drives, I've had good results with Hitachi drives ordered from OWC.

What About RAID and NAS

RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) and NAS (Network Attached Storage) get a lot of attention for business critical applications. In my opinion, these are not a good investment for home office or small business backup. In theory, RAID allows you to hot swap a failed drive without disrupting your storage array, while NAS can be used to backup several computers from a single convenient appliance. In practice, these are embedded computer systems (typically running Linux) with their own set of software compatibility and upgrade issues. When things go wrong, and they sometimes do, the added complexity makes it much more difficult to recover.

My preferred approach is to make sure any important data is backed up on at least two separate hard drives, with the most critical data also backed up off-site or in the cloud.

Drive capacities are growing so quickly that the current generation large capacity hard drive will often exceed the capacity of a drive array from only two years ago. Unless you need all that capacity on-line now, it's simpler and less expensive to buy a bigger drive any time you are running out of space. If you want the convenience of network attached storage, it's easier to configure an aging Mac as a storage server, than maintain a Linux based network appliance.

By investing in a flexible moderately priced drive case, you can simply upgrade your drive mechanism every few years, and deal directly with the drive manufacturer for any warranty issues.