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

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that you mention the IBM Model M, with its buckling-spring mechanism. IBM sold their keyboard, mouse & printer business to Lexmark, and when Lexmark exited the keyboard business, they sold the machines used to make the keyboards to Unicomp.

    Unicomp now sells a Mac-specific version called the SpaceSaver M. I've been using one for about 3 weeks now, and I really like it.

    I only wish I'd read your blog post first, because I might have saved myself about $90!