Thursday, October 17, 2019

Quotations

"...although we don't get to choose the way we die, we do have a big say in the way we live." - Dick Van Dyke on having a positive attitude

"Don't ask me for the answers, I've only got one: that a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son." - Larry Norman Only Visiting This Planet

"To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself." - Anne Rice

"[We have the freedom, but] We have no right to pursue the lusts of the flesh ...we have no right to waste God's time or resources." - Joe Focht

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" - Albert Einstein

Saturday, October 5, 2019

What I've Learned Part Three

Knowing that I need to find a modern, in-production switch that replicates the feel I am looking for and determining which switch this is has been quite a challenge. Determining the best switch for my needs is not something I have been able to accomplish. Determining a good way to go about figuring this out is something I am much more educated about today than I have been in the past. This is a great thing if only because in this arena education provides the means to reduce expense.

That's going to sound like a really ridiculous statement in a little while, after I get into the specifics of discovering and procuring the best possible keyboard given the options available. I am going to talk about things like hipster "bespoke mechanical keyboards" which cost in excess of $2000.

Yes, that's not a misprint. If you go far enough down the custom keyboard rabbit hole, a single board can cost over two thousand dollars. Furthermore, this money isn't simply wasted. Much of it goes directly to craftsmanship in both the materials and the handling of the materials and I'd even propose it can be considered money well spent (if you have that kind of money to spend) as opposed to money needlessly wasted on wealthy frippery.

Depending on your personal preference there are a lot of specifics that can be involved with your ideal typing experience, from lubrication to fit and finish along with color, shape and sound along the way. I am getting ahead of myself, but it should be recognized that there is a degree of legitimate complexity inherent to this pursuit. While some of these concerns can be assigned to the "ignorance is bliss" category, others are concerns that you actually have right now in your typing experience and you simply haven't had the mental space or verbiage to elucidate them. At least, that's how it has been for me.

So, to what end do I proclaim that having this extra knowledge is going to save me money? First, to be plain, I am not rich enough to be involved with keyboards costing in excess of thousands of dollars. This kind of luxurious specificity is well out of reach for me. Second, a caveat: languishing in ignorance is actively costing me money as I desperately search for a solution I have lacked the means to describe. Therefore, my experience may well be very different from that of others in that this problem actually is costing me money and is therefore financially worthy of addressing. I know many people for whom their keyboard frustrations cost no money at all and for whom said frustrations will never cost any money. For that kind of person, of course, knowing more about how to solve the problem is more likely to cost them more money than it is to save them any. Third, arriving at the solutions I've been seeking will absolutely cost me a lot of money. There is no version of this endgame which is not costly to some degree. I am simply looking at spending less money in a blind search. Lastly, an up-front acknowledgement that I am searching for something tenable and moderately affordable, not something as inexpensive as I can possibly make it.

Here's the reality: I've been buying several keyboards each year for quite some time now. I haven't given it much thought. I haven't really made a point of sharing the fact with others. I haven't been generally willing to view the habit as any sort of problem. As stated already, the reason for this is that I am perpetually searching for some esoteric typing experience heretofore undefined. The cost of it (nowadays) is over a hundred dollars per keyboard. I've been doing this for over eighteen years. In this context, I'd like to take a moment to recognize that I've already spent in excess of five thousand dollars on keyboards alone, simply because I haven't wanted to define it as a thing worth investing in and therefore have kept it as this back-alley habit which slowly and secretly drains money away. But just think about five thousand dollars. If I had purchased one of those fancy two thousand dollar keyboards and been happy with it for eighteen years I would have saved a considerable amount of money. This is the level of insanity I am operating at.

That's a lot of preface, so let me just restate what I've already gone over in my previous posts. I want a keyboard that is reminiscent of the way I remember my brother's Apple //c keyboard feeling and sounding to type on. This is a matter of approximating both a key feel and a key sound. Try as I might, I can't really separate the two, though I will say the shape of the key is the least important factor. But let's get down to the details of what I've learned.

Key feel and sound are determined by a wide variety of things. In this context it might seem reasonable to assume that there is a product on the market which replicates the feel and sound I long for. After much searching, I am comfortable admitting that there is not. Short of simply finding and purchasing a new, old-stock Apple //c keyboard using Alps SKCM Amber switches, I am never going to replicate my memories. Perhaps this is truly the only solution. However, it's a very depressing solution because some day, possibly before I die, there will be no more of these unicorns to hunt. They are, even now, rare enough to command an exceptionally high price on the open market. So, I am going to move forward in this journey accepting, for now, that I will not be finding or using any product which satisfies any prerequisite specificity. I am going to search for something which presents an acceptable approximation but brings with it a reasonable cost and some level of modern convenience. At the moment, I am going to call this a happy medium.

What exactly determines key feel and sound?
1. The mounting mechanism
2. The housing
3. The switch
4. The keycap

When I write "mounting mechanism" I am thinking of the mounting plate where the switches attach to the keyboard and all of the concerns I am aware of surrounding this. Are the switches individual pieces or are they part of the plate? What material is the plate made out of? How firmly are the switches attached, if applicable? What is used to attach the plate to the rest of the keyboard?

When I write "housing" I am thinking of the portion of the keyboard which is visible and which might surround the keys and switches.

When I write "switch" I am thinking of the mechanical portion of the keyboard which actuates and transmits information about what the user is typing.

When I write "keycap" I am thinking of the (typically plastic) cover over the switch which is touched by the user while typing.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

What I've Learned Part Two

To review, what I know so far is that I like the classic Apple //c keyboard because of its low profile key caps, sharply tactile switches and distinctively sharp click sound. The next questions I needed to answer after identifying these preferences were
1) What switches were used in the Apple //c?
2) Can I get a keyboard with those switches?

In attempting to answer these questions, I've learned some interesting wrinkles. The Apple //c underwent many revisions and along with these revisions were changes to the key switches in use with the machine. The computer was paired with Apple's own hairpin spring switches as well as several variants of the ALPS SKCM line: white, blue, orange and amber. Each of these switches differs in the way it feels and sounds, so I was stymied in my search for this information until I was able to receive confirmation from my brother (who owned the computer) that the version he had was built late in the series and had the platinum housing. These variants of the //c always used the ALPS SKCM Amber switch.

While it was good news to know what kind of switch I was ultimately looking for, it was bad news to actually find out the identity of the switch. Alps, as a company, no longer exists and no longer manufacturs switches. Support for the style of switch produced by this company has been waning for quite some time. Some of the more expensive enthusiast products available on the internet do offer explicit support for Alps switches, however, these have dubious support windows since the switches are on their way toward disappearing entirely. What is left in their wake is the MX style switch supposedly pioneered by Cherry. Well, at least that's what I was being told.

I considered attempting to purchase some old or "new old stock" Alps SKCM Amber switches in order to build a custom keyboard from them. This seemed the most direct approach to the issue. However, as I started searching for old Apple //c computers to snap up, I quickly discovered that these units remain quite pricey even today. This is because I am not the only person who is interested in owning these switches. The relative rarity of Alps SKCM Amber switches seems to have driven up the price of whatever functional stock of Apple //c computers still remained available. To exacerbate this difficulty is the fact that when buying one of these old computers, one must be careful to acquire the correct model. This should be simple enough except that many sellers are either ignorant of the differences in the models or intentionally obfuscating those details. Therefore, when searching places like ebay for Apple //c computers you're inevitably looking at high-priced components with relatively little detail or assurance. You could end up spending $300 for a bunch of Alps SKCM White switches instead of the Amber ones you desire.

On top of the high-risk, low reward circumstances of attempting to buy old Apple //c computers is the fact that the keyboard attached to whatever piece of equipment you might end up buying may or may not be completely functional. Or functional at all. This is the nightmare of dealing with old stock component sight-unseen. It's a playground for the swindler and a big black hole for anyone looking for something very specific.

It is possible, on the other hand, to simply purchase Alps SKCM Amber switches directly. This seems the safer option. However, there are very few sellers of these, and they will only guarantee that the switch operates in an on/off capacity. Whether or not the device retains something approximating its original feel is a matter of luck. Even assuming all switches were in acceptable condition, the sellers posses varying levels of stock and sell it for around $4 per switch. this means a full-size keyboard project of 104 keys would cost a little over $400 just for the switches and with no guarantee of proper function. Added onto this is the fact that buying the switches separately means there are no key caps. To make matters worse, even the grossly overpriced key cap group buys that are available today won't ever be for caps that fit an Alps switch as they are all tooled around the popular (and still in production) MX style switch.

Add all of these things up and what do you get? A very expensive hobby with very little likelihood of success. But what have I learned?

1) What switches were used in the Apple //c?
Alps SKCM Amber

2) Can I get a keyboard with those switches?
No.

> My best option is to search for a modern, in-production switch which closely replicates the feel and sound of the Alps SKCM Amber switch.

Quite possibly the perfect keyboard

TKC1800

I'd get mine in Kryptonite green with a Purple mounting plate.
Currently, I'd deck it out in Kailh Box Jade, but that might change.
Not sure what keycaps would work best, but its already too expensive.

Sigh.

Ok, this is cool.

It is priced out of my reach, but it would be cool to have these caps. Better yet, it would be cool to send a custom keyboard to my friend ZAO bedecked with these caps. He'd truly appreciate them.

What I've Learned Part One

Trying to find the perfect keyboard typing experience is enormously complicated. This isn't really a bad thing, I think, but more a function of many good things mixed with some predictably pragmatic things. For instance, it is good that there are many different types of keyboard switches on the market. This suits the varying preferences of many different people (and everyone does have their own preference). It is pragmatic that when you buy a mechanical keyboard from a company like Logitech or Razer they will resort to the cheapest possible components which still deliver on their promises. It is good that there are many different groups which can manufacture keycaps customized to any particular interest. It is pragmatic that most people don't agree on the best keycap shape and legends, therefore the manufacture of sets which fit specific preferences is expensive and very limited. 

Some have suggested that we were all better off in the 1980s, when companies like IBM were invested in manufacturing exceptional and durable keyboards. It is tempting to argue that things were better when the quality was universally higher. However, it is also important to remember two overbearing downsides to that time period: 1) keyboards were incredibly expensive (to the tune of $500) and 2) if you didn't care for the few limited options of keyboards that existed, there was actually nothing you could do about it.

Today, it is theoretically possible to build a keyboard which suits any particular desire - for the right cost. Keyboards with extreme levels of customization can range into the several thousands of dollars expense territory. This sounds insane. It is very unobtainable for a person like myself who is living paycheck to paycheck. It can feel very discouraging to have a good idea of what you want, but no reasonable method of obtaining it.

I have been on a journey for well over a decade to find a great keyboard. At first, I began with a very vague idea of what I wanted and very little access to information about it. I used to walk through stores like Best Buy and Circuit City, fondling all of the keyboards on display and searching for something with a particular feel. I wanted a "clickiness" in my keyboard but I didn't know enough about keyboards, keyboard components, keyboard history or keyboard production to understand why I kept failing to find it.

One thing I knew with certainty: many keyboards felt just awful to me. Another thing began to happen: I was becoming the person who was spending too much money on computer accessories. In my early days of searching, I was far more invested in finding the perfect mouse than the perfect keyboard. Razer was the only company I could find which was building the kinds of mice I was most interested in (ambidexterous, comfortable, many programmable buttons) which naturally led to a high opinion of the company. 

Despite that, I had settled on a different aspect of keyboard design than the "clickiness" I would later determine I actually wanted. What I began lauding in keyboards (since I believed clicky keyboards no longer existed) was the low-profile switch and keycap combination. This brought me through several Apple keyboards. I also began to enjoy backlighting for the key legends. I know many people see this as a useless gimmick, but I have found great usefulness in being able to see the key legends in the dark. These preferences had eventually guided me to Logitech as my keyboard manufacturer of choice.

There were several interesting things about the Logitech keyboards I had purchased. One of them had extra distance between the keys (K360) while another had very low profile silent keys with subtle white backlighting (K740). Believing there was no option for a clicky switch, I thought these to be among the best keyboards in existence at the time. I have learned a lot about what makes typing comfortable and what kinds of preferences I actually have since.

This is partly due to the miracle of LAN parties. During such an event, I was helping my friends set up their systems and taking a moment to profess that I believed I had discovered the best keyboard I possibly could in the Logitech K740. It had loads of flaws, but given the options I thought were available, it hit the right high notes. Mid-sentence, one of my friends stopped me to point out his new "mechanical" keyboard. This was a term I had never really heard before, so I didn't understand the context of it. This video should help elucidate my initial confusion. However, I came to immediately understand his meaning in the label "mechanical" once I touched the keyboard he was using: a Razer BlackWidow. As esoteric as this definition might be, the keyboard itself had something that I had longed for for years, but never really knew how to define. It was clicky and tactile. I was jealous.

I didn't have to be jealous for long, as the very same friend purchased a Razer BlackWidow for me shortly thereafter. Very generous, I know. This gift started me on a new leg of a very long journey toward something I only recently began to attempt to define. So, what is it exactly that I am looking for and what have I discovered along the way?

After much reflection, it has occurred to me that the thing I am looking for is nostalgic in nature. I started writing on an Underwood typewriter, which I loved. However, as you might guess, typing speed goes straight out the window with something as sumptuously mechanical as an Underwood. In my youth, my mother purchased a word processor (there was a time when computers were too expensive for the average person to just purchase, so simplified machines like word processors were the stopgap measure to bring productivity into the home without highlighting how poor most people are). This had a nice key feel to it and it was worlds faster than the Underwood. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, my oldest brother acquired an Apple //c whilst away at college. I had the great pleasure of typing on this computer's integrated keyboard and I fell in love with it on a deep level that I've not really uncovered until very recently. 

But I owned a mechanical keyboard now, and a very expensive, premium one at that. What else truly needed to be discovered? This is a fair question in a lot of ways, particularly given the amount of money it would now take for me to explore the question of what I really wanted out of a keyboard. I don't have a good answer. I know that there are people for whom a keyboard is a keyboard and a pen is a pen. As long as both are utilitarian to the point that they accomplish their task reliably, then the ideal has been obtained. I am not that person. The Razer BlackWidow was unquestionably the best keyboard I had touched in the prior ten years. However, the click was soft, the feedback was weak, the color was monotone, the keys were too high, and the shape was uninspiring. So many complaints.

As I typed on my very nice keyboard, I couldn't help but think and think about the things that bothered me and the things that I truly wanted. Low profile switches and keycaps were still undeniably important to me. But why? Larger, full-travel keys were the thing which was giving me that elusive key feel I'd been chasing for years. Was there truly any middle ground? And, if so, what was the middle ground? I found that I had no tools to answer this question. I had no tools to even fully understand this question. Yet the question itself plagued me.

Reviewing my past loves in keyboards became quite useful in starting to understand this confounding query. This is where I started to understand how profoundly the keyboard of the //c had impacted me. This was a keyboard which had a very distinct click sound, a very sharp tactile feel, a low profile key cap and an interestingly compact shape. It had it all, and it was a revelation to me to realize this. Naturally, the next questions for me to ask were what switch did the //c use and is there anything like that switch which I can acquire today? The answers to both are not as easy as one might like to think.

So what have I learned?
> Tactile and clicky keyboards do exist
> I like low profile key caps
> I like sharp tactility
> I like distinctive clickiness
> My preferences come from my youthful experiences

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Plex on the cheap: Is the nVidia ShieldTV a good Plex server?

Like most things: it depends.

The nVidia ShieldTV is an amazing device. It is amazing in the wrong market for it to look amazing. I don't want to spend six paragraphs justifying the device, so I will suffice to say that the ShieldTV is a device which does far more than expected at a price point such features shouldn't be possible. However, it is marketed as a streaming device, in which category its price is actually a liability that turns people away and more's the pity.

That said, one of the amazing features of the ShieldTV is its ability to do double-duty as a Plex media server. Consider the fact that I've been running some form of a media server (not always Plex-based, though I jumped on the bandwagon pretty early in the Plex game) for close to twenty years. In that time, I've invested close to $5000 into the privilege of having this thing. That's a pretty good breakdown of time versus cost, but it should also highlight why having a device that sells for less than $200 and is capable of filling the same role is downright amazing.

So, the question is: is the ShieldTV good at being a media server? Yes. To an extent.

Qualifiers. The ShieldTV can stream music (particularly tiny files like .mp3) without any real strain. It can stream 480p content, again, without noticeable drain on system resources. It can transcode 1080p content like a champion. So, where's the downside?
1. The ShieldTV does not have the power to transcode more than 2 simultaneous streams. So, if three people try to connect and watch a 1080p movie on their cell phone at the same time, there's going to be a lot of buffering while the device struggles to keep up.
2. The ShieldTV does not have the power to transcode and perform other tasks well at the same time. You can still use the device while it is transcoding streams, but it will be noticed. The system gets a little sluggish and using Plex natively can become problematic.
3. The ShieldTV does not manage large libraries very well. If your library is somewhere north of 500 items, Plex is going to struggle with it on the ShieldTV. 

My conclusion, then, is that the ShieldTV is a more than capable device to run a Plex server for the vast majority of users. Think of it this way: you bought a device so that you could easily stream 4k content to your television. The ShieldTV is far and away the best option, so you spent a little extra to make sure you got the best on the market. Along with that industry-leading power and design you get the ability to share your own content with yourself anywhere in the world as long as you have access to the internet. That's a pretty great free extra feature.

On the other hand, if you're like me and you store all the music, audiobooks, comedy acts, movies and television shows for your entire family (parents, siblings) so that they will have access to it anywhere at any time, then the ShieldTV is not the optimal solution. I've spent a bit more so that I have a device that can handle 5 simultaneous transcodes and enormous libraries of thousands or tens of thousands of items.

Is the ShieldTV a good Plex server? Yes, for personal use with relatively small libraries (which should cover more than 90% of all users).