Posts from January 2019

  • Handwired Alpha - First impressions and retrospective

    First impressions: Overall, fantastic!

    Now, it ended up being a fair bit thicker than I’d planned, which means the keys are higher than I’d like, and that leads to slightly annoying ergonomics (though after comparing to a couple of other keyboards I have on hand, in reality, my wrist placement doesn’t end up changing much, so I think it’s fine). And the stabilizers rattle a fair bit, a problem I plan to remedy with a little grease (and as an aside, that fix wouldn’t be possible that I not gone with a hotswap build, as lubricating stabilizers requires switch removal… so… yay!)

    Edit: I greased the stabs under the Space, Enter, and Backspace keys and man, what a difference! The keyboard has a nice, consistent sound, now! And, as a side benefit, I got to see how easy it would be to hotswap the switches on this thing, and as expected, it works great!

    But man. It’s solid as all heck, with a nice heavy thock with each keypress. The Kailh Hako Violet switches are fantastically smooth and have just the right amount of tactility. And the keycaps turned out to be very nice.

    Ironically, at nearly the exact same time I was finishing this build, the Keycool 84 2s that I picked up on Massdrop arrived, and now, comparing the two, I can’t help but be a little disappointed with the Keycool. The general feel of the Alpha is so much more sturdy and solid compared to the plastic on the Keycool. Oh well!

    The two biggest challenges with the layout are the control key position (which I’m slowly getting used to), and the exclusion of the function row, which leaves some of the keys less accessible. Now, if this board was going to be a daily coding driver that’d be a problem; the biggest challenge is the fact the tilde key is buried under the ESC key in a function layer. But coding isn’t the primary use case for this keyboard, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem in practice.

    So, all things considered, for a first build, this thing has been a fantastic success!

    Of course, these are just first impressions.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this keyboard fares at work with a solid week’s worth of mileage on it. At minimum, I could see needing to alter the firmware a bit to optimize the key mapping. Fortunately, QMK is so darn flexible I could make this thing do anything I wanted.

    And the switches are a very different animal from the Browns I’ve been using day-to-day at work. The tactile bump requires some additional force to overcome, and the spring weight definitely increases on the down stroke. So it’ll be interesting to see if I find this board fatiguing in the long run (though, again, if it turns out the Violets just don’t work for me, I can always replace them!)

    As for the project itself, I gotta say, it really was a surprisingly rewarding experience. The feeling when that first key press worked exactly as planned was incredibly difficult to describe; I suspect I felt the same way when I wrote my first working computer program.

    So, while it definitely wasn’t the cheapest of projects (oy… not by a long shot), I do think it’s been a heck of a fun challenge to take on! Now here’s hoping I get years of mileage out of this thing!

  • More Mechanized

    If you couldn’t tell in my Mechanized post, I’m a big fan of mechanical keyboards1.

    Well, unsurprisingly, it turns out I’m not the only one.

    In fact, the mechanical keyboard community, which is well represented on Reddit, is a thriving little niche community of total keyboard nerds. And within that community, there are numerous sub-cultures: the keyboard collectors, the artisan keycap fans, the switch hackers, and–and this is the subject of this post–the builders.

    Yes, builders–those slightly crazy people who take great pleasure in constructing their very own customized, personalized keyboards.

    When my good friend Jas first opened my eyes to this concept, I was fascinated. I joked that this was the nerd equivalent of building your own lightsaber–a right of passage from padawan programmer to master hacker. And, at least initially, the joke ended there.

    For context, understand that, in addition to the WASD that I had purchased for myself, I also picked up a Keycool 84s during a drop on Massdrop, with the intent of using the keyboard at work. As a result, I was hardly in need of yet another keyboard.

    But the idea got stuck in my brain. I just couldn’t shake the fascination with building my own board.

    Now, within the building community there’s a few routes.

    First, it’s important to understand the essential bones of a keyboard. A typical build requires:

    • The switches
    • Keycaps
    • A controller
    • Some mechanism to wire everything up
    • A switch plate
    • A case, in which to put everything

    The simplest route to fulfilling all these requirements is to buy a kit, which typically includes a PCB, which is used to wire the switches together to a controller to form the essential bones of the board, and the case, where everything lives. The kit might also include switches and keycaps, or they might be sourced separately. In either case, the builder then mounts the switches on the plate, solders them to the PCB, and then puts everything together.

    And if it’s a hotswappable build (meaning the switches can be easily replaced), then even the soldering can be avoided!

    The more adventurous might have a PCB manufactured, either from an existing open source design or buy designing it themselves.

    More adventurous still, one might also have a case custom manufactured, again with either a new or existing design.

    And finally, for the most masochistic, one can forego the PCB entirely. Instead, the builder buys a controller (typically an Arduino of some kind), sources or builds a case, and solders the whole thing together by hand with wires and diodes.

    Each route has its own pros and cons, trading off cost with effort and flexibility.

    As the idea of building a keyboard took root in my brain, I knew one thing: if I was going to do this, I was going to wire it by hand. I wanted the infinite flexibility of a custom PCB with none of the hand holding!

    But, of course, I wasn’t actually going to do this, right?

    Yet, I found myself playing with different key layouts, trying to find that perfect, unique arrangement that would combine ergonomics, my own usage patterns, and personal aesthetics.

    And the I found something I liked, and I thought, well heck, why not send out for some quotes to see how expensive getting a case built would be?

    The next thing you know I was filling a shopping cart on Digikey with parts and equipment.

    And before you know it, well damn. Apparently, I was committed to building a keyboard.

    Let the games begin!

    1. And if you read that post, I can confirm that I still love my WASD Keyboard! Those Cherry Blue switches are just… delightful!