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Category: Hardware

Why mechanical keyboards

Why mechanical keyboards

In recent years mechanical keyboards have seen a resurgence in popularity, mainly because of enthusiast and professional gamers. On Amazon, a search for mechanical keyboard reveals a plethora of gaming keyboards with back-lighting and special multimedia/game-ready features testifying to their popularity. My own interest in mechanical keyboards began in or around 2010-11 when I discovered the legend of the venerable IBM Model M keyboard the original buckling spring keyboard, which has unmatched typing characteristics compared to even modern mechanical key switches . Thanks to my brother, I got my hands on a used German layout Model M a few years ago, so I can attest to the Model M being unique. The Model M’s base clacking noise can be a bit loud even for those tolerant of regular “clicky” keyboards.

Though I’ve mostly used my laptop over the years and not regularly used a mechanical keyboard, I also own a TVS Gold keyboard with Cherry MX Blue switches[1].

Recently I’ve had occasion to start using my mechanical keyboards on a regular basis once again. To those who’ve never typed on a mechanical keyboard, it can be quite a revelation to start using one. The normal “membrane” keyboards[2] have a mushy feel to them, where you need to press the key fully to be sure that it has registered. The lack of tactility in rubber dome/membrane keyboards mean that your fingers never get the actual feedback of key actuation. But not all mechanical keyboards are tactile, clicky or both. In fact, there are also mechanical key switches that are non-tactile (linear) and non-clicky and yet they offer different advantages to the clicky and/or tactile kind.

There is a lot of literature on the internet about the advantages and disadvantages of mechanical keyboards and the wide variety of key switches available, so I’ll restrict myself to personal experience. Here are my own thoughts on the advantages of tactile, clicky mechanical keyboards, meaning those with mechanical key switches that offer a tactile “bump” on actuation, and also a physical click sound which gives audible feedback of keystroke registration

  • Much pleasanter typing experience overall – the overall experience of typing on a mechanical tactile keyboard cannot be described. It has to be experienced. I can type several pages of long form content using a mechanical keyboard and still not feel my fingers start to tire or ache. Of course, the pleasantness of clicky keyboards may not be appreciated by those who don’t like the continuous rattling noise especially in a quiet office atmosphere.
  • Less finger fatigue – yes, despite the soft feel of membrane keyboard buttons, typing on them continuously can get tiring on the fingers especially since one needs to exert enough pressure on each keystroke to bottom the keys out, since there’s no actual point at which you are sure that the key stroke has registered. I’ve used both Cherry MX Blue and the buckling spring keys of the IBM model M and I think both are excellent for typing long form text.
  • Greater typing accuracy – I’ve found that using a mechanical keyboard has not only increased my typing speed but also increased my accuracy, mainly because I don’t accidentally double press keys or sometimes miss keystrokes for lack of enough pressure on the key.
  • Sturdier construction – mechanical keyboards are more expensive, but are also solidly constructed. Of course, nothing beats the IBM model M for sheer weight and sturdiness, but most mechanical keyboards are built to last much longer than their cheap membrane counterparts. Even the TVS keyboard, which is less expensive and built with cheaper materials compared to premium mechanical keyboards, feels quite well-built and durable compared to the ultra-cheap garden variety membrane keyboards manufactured these days.

To me typing long form text on a membrane keyboard feels painfully awkward these days, particularly laptop keyboards and I do prefer to hook up a mechanical, full-size keyboard to my laptop whenever possible. While I understand that most people won’t appreciate the benefits of mechanical keyboards, particularly the ones considered too “noisy” for regular use, luckily there is still a large enough market for them thanks to the large segment of enthusiast and professional video game players.

Finally I leave you with an old video of me testing out the IBM Model M keyboard:

and another video, wherein I type on the TVS keyboard (note the not-so-subtle difference between the sharp click of the MX switches and the distinct base clack of the buckling springs):

If you are somebody who spends a lot of time typing, a suitable mechanical keyboard may well be an excellent investment.

  1. at least back then, the TVS-e keyboards shipped with genuine Cherry MX switches. These days, I understand that they use Long Hua, a Chinese clone of the blue switches. I can attest to the fact that TVS did use genuine Cherry Blue switches earlier and in fact, my own TVS keyboard is a genuine Cherry MX Blue keyboard, and the confusion arises because a few years back TVS have stopped using them[]
  2. which also include those scissor-switch keyboards in laptops as well[]
Alternative touch screen device input methods

Alternative touch screen device input methods

smartphone

I am not a big fan of touch screen devices for input. I may be old school, but I think touch should not be a primary mode of input for any reasonably complex computer with a small display area (which most smart phones/tablets are). Touch input is best used for simple menu based information retrieval systems where the screen has a grid of large icons and at best, require simple numeric input occasionally. Unfortunately the smart phone revolution has ensured that touch input has become the norm on mobile devices. On-screen text entry methods are not ergonomic and quite inefficient for typing large amounts of text by design, because these devices are primarily meant for voice/video communication, portability, and consumption of information and entertainment, not content creation.

But using a powerful smartphone/tablet just for communication, information or entertainment consumption seems to be a gross under-utilization of their computing power. As I pointed out in an earlier post, apps like Collabora Office allow mobile devices to become reasonable productivity devices. Both Android and iOS have a wide variety of productivity apps for note taking, photo-editing, digital painting, music composition and much more.

There are, of course, some common alternatives to touch input on mobile devices. In this article, I’ll explore some of their advantages and limitations.

Passive styluses

Passive styluses are simple, cheap alternatives to using a stubby finger on small screens. But they are just that: finger substitutes. They need a reasonable contact area with the screen which makes them not quite accurate for touching an exact point on the screen. Besides, stylus touch is not recognized as any different from using bare finger/hand touch, so if you plan to draw or write using a stylus, then you have to make sure your palm and fingers are off the device surface to avoid unwanted input. To me, styluses are a fairly comfortable alternative to using bare fingers for basic user-interface functions like swiping, scrolling, mark-making and on-screen keyboard input on smaller screens for fat-fingered folk.

Advantages: very cheap and usable on all capacitive touch screen devices.

Disadvantages: almost as inaccurate as using finger for touch input; not distinguished as a distinct input type by the device.

Active pens

“Active” pens are a more recent technology as far as touchscreen mobile devices are concerned. The most famous examples are the Apple Pencil (1st and 2nd generation) and the Samsung Galaxy S-Pen. Of course, there are quite a few third party active pens for supported Android tablets and Apple iPads. The distinguishing feature of active pens are that their input is treated as distinct from actual touch input thus allowing for touch rejection/palm rejection when they are in use. They are usually battery powered and use bluetooth/NFC technology to communicate with the devices. Their biggest advantage is that they are small-tipped and allow accurate and smooth writing on the screen, meaning that they are practical for note-taking and also doodling/drawing.

Of course, with some active styluses like the Apple Pencil and Samsung’s S-Pen you get extra features like pressure-sensitivity and tilt-sensitivity, making these pens useful for digital painting and artwork with apps like Procreate[1] and AutoDesk SketchBook[2].

Advantages: very accurate, allowing for short note taking and doodling/drawing apart from substituting for the basic touch operated functions; treated as distinct input from touch allowing for additional features like touch/palm rejection while in use and pressure sensitivity and tilt sensitivity.

Disadvantages: usually expensive; specific to devices that support them only; battery operated and thus require recharging from time to time; pen tips are subject to wear and tear and may require replacement after prolonged usage.

External Keyboards

External keyboards for mobile devices fall into three categories: wireless (bluetooth), wired and proprietary. Bluetooth keyboards are less expensive, more common and made by numerous third parties and work with Android, iOS and even Windows devices. Compact wired USB keyboards that can be plugged into Android devices with USB ports are available, but these are rarer these days. Specialized keyboards with proprietary connectors made for specific hardware like the Apple Smart Keyboard which work only for Apple iPads are quite expensive. The best choice in my opinion is bluetooth, since bluetooth works with most devices. In this segment, there are quite a few external keyboards which come with integrated protective cases for specific model of tablets which make them convenient to put away safely with the device when not in use.

Advantages: allow for more comfortable typing than on-screen keyboards, making longer text entry more ergonomic and efficient for things like e-mail composition and shorter documents.

Disadvantages: are quite cramped compared to full sized desktop or laptop keyboards; bluetooth keyboards require pairing and consume battery power, so require regular recharging; external keyboards, however small or lightweight, make mobile devices just a bit less portable.

Voice input/dictation

Voice input/dictation mode has become popular with the increasing computing power of mobile devices. But having used voice input a few times, I can say that voice recognition is still a bit faulty and voice input is unsuitable in noisy environments and also environments where you are not expected to disturb those around you, like open office environments. I personally haven’t much use for voice input, but I think it’s a convenient method both for recording short snippets of information in the form of voice memos or for dictating short e-mail messages or SMSes. A third common use for voice input is voice commands using tools like Siri and Google Assistant for common tasks.

Advantages: No external physical device required, hence zero cost; convenient for voice commands for common device actions and dictation of short e-mails/messages.

Disadvantages: Unsuitable in noisy environments and in environments where speaking aloud will cause disturbance to others.

Final thoughts

While I’ve covered the common methods of input in mobile devices, I believe heavy-duty input is still a big issue in mobile devices, with or without external accessories. Long form text entry is the biggest issue and only external keyboards resolve the issue to some extent. While text input through touch can be slightly improved using third party apps to replace the in-built traditional QWERTY layout on-screen keyboards, having to use touch itself is an ergonomic problem that cannot be resolved in software.

If at all you plan to use a tablet or mobile device for regular long form text entry, the best choice remains a cheap external bluetooth keyboard. Passive styluses are best for fat-fingered people who just want a more elegant touch input method. Specialized and more expensive devices such as active pens make no sense for long form text entry despite text-recognition technologies like Apple Scribble. Their use case is taking short handwritten notes, marking up PDF documents and doodling/painting.

  1. paid software, iOS/iPadOS only[]
  2. free, available for both Android and iOS/iPadOS[]
The limitations of mobile photography

The limitations of mobile photography

Of late, I’ve been doing quite a bit of photography with my mobile, earlier on my old iPhone 5s and now on my new Samsung Galaxy M31s, a decent mid-range Android phone. Though I appreciate the advances in mobile photography in recent times, it’s obvious that there are quite a few limitations with mobile devices, some of them practically impossible to overcome. But before getting into the article, here are a couple of photos I’ve recently taken with my Samsung M31s from which it’s obvious that mobile photography has come a long way in terms of photographic quality as well as creative control.

Solanum Torvum
Macro mode on the Samsung Galaxy M31s – a dedicated macro lens allows for some creative control otherwise not possible on mobile cameras
From the terrace
64 MP primary camera test – the ability to capture so many pixels allows for a fair bit of cropping

As you can see, mobile phones these days come with extra lenses (and sensors) for additional creative control, like dedicated macro and wide angle lenses. With increasingly higher megapixels, techniques like pixel-binning are being used to increase image quality. Some years ago, such features would be almost unimaginable from a mid-range mobile phone. With effects like artificial blurring of backgrounds for the (not quite as natural) bokeh effect, auto-HDR, and creative instant filters and you’ve got a pretty decent package.

But coming to the main point of this article: what are the limitations of a mobile camera as a photography device; or to put it differently, under what circumstances would I not consider using a mobile camera?

Lack of optical zoom

This is the most obvious drawback of mobile devices — lack of (optical) zoom[1]. While a few very rare mobile models with an optical zoom barrel do exist, the fixed wide-angle lens on most mobile cameras makes it almost impossible to get clear and well framed shots of distant subjects. While prime-lens enthusiasts may disagree, zoom is a versatile photographic technique, the lack of which cuts out a whole range of subjects and creative control.

Poor low light performance

Despite so many advancements in image processing technology, one cannot get past the fact that minuscule sensors paired with tiny lenses can only capture so many photons. It’s obvious that mobile cameras, even the high end ones, struggle with low light performance because of this factor, the two biggest problems being high-ISO noise or softening of detail due to aggressive noise reduction applied by the camera processor and blur caused by camera shake due to slow shutter speeds. While it’s possible to get decent night shots with some mobiles, the quality is nowhere close to those captured with an APS-C DSLR/mirrorless camera, let alone full-frame ones. For people who love to photograph indoors or in low natural light, particularly past sunset, mobile cameras can seem very limiting.

Lack of manual controls

I know that there are camera apps which expose some manual settings in device cameras, but this is the second biggest limitation in mobile photography. While it’s nice to be able to shoot in Auto mode occasionally with a proper camera, what really makes photography interesting is the ability to experiment with settings like manual focus, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity etc[2]. With the small-sized sensors and fixed lenses, mobiles cannot do much even with such control of settings, but the lack of control takes away quite a bit of experimentation with, for example, depth of field, slow shutter speed, long exposures and so on. And even with mobile camera apps that offer manual control over settings, touch screen controls are just not ergonomic enough to use quickly and effectively.

Other drawbacks

There are other significant requirements which only proper (SLR-like) cameras can fulfill, like the ability to accurately track focus on moving subjects (for example, in Sports and wildlife photography), a much higher dynamic range, fast burst mode, ability to shoot RAW, using external flash, the versatility of being able to use different lenses for different purposes, using physical filters and so on. Of course, not everybody requires all features of a full-featured SLR-like camera, but most enthusiast photographers appreciate quite a large subset of the available features, even if they don’t reach out to use them all the time.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, particularly the physical limitation of small sensor-lens combinations, I think it’s next to impossible that mobile photography will significantly affect the popularity of advanced point-and-shoot and SLR-like cameras among the enthusiast crowd who find these limitations unacceptable.

The one significant reason for me to cheer the advancement of mobile photography technology is that mobiles are almost always with us while we cannot always carry along a camera wherever we go, and this allows us to take photos that we would otherwise miss. Capturing those moments in super-high quality is icing on the cake.

  1. The so-called digital zoom offered by many phone cameras is not zoom at all[]
  2. Even most budget point and shoot cameras lack fine grained control like aperture priority, shutter priority and full manual modes[]
The era of use and throw

The era of use and throw

In the last twenty or so years, things have changed a lot when it comes to consumer durable goods, particularly electronics. We’ve seen the transition from the fat CRT television sets to ultra-thin LED TVs. From analog to digital. From metal to plastic (and increasingly cheaper plastic at that). Even in the last decade or so, a lot has changed. For example, smartphones no longer come with removable/replaceable batteries — they are soldered into the devices, making it much harder to get battery replacements. The shift from desktop PCs to laptops to smartphones (and tablets) is a case in point. Even earlier in the day of analog electronics, repairing devices was the norm. Over time, it has become an increasingly rare exception.

In the past, when a component of your desktop system failed, you simply replaced that part alone[1]. There was a thriving market for replacement parts. Laptop parts aren’t so easy to replace, and with mobile phones and tablets it’s almost impossible to repair or replace individual components. Well, it is possible to “repair”, but the cost of the replacement components makes it a better (wiser?) option to buy a new device. You can see the same trend in almost every other household gadget. Things aren’t being made to last — they’re being made to be replaced once every few years and the environmental and social costs are heavy. Notice how most electronic gadgets, even the more expensive ones, come with a measly one year or, at best two years of warranty. And there is almost no incentive to repair old devices out of warranty — just chuck them away and “upgrade”. I notice that there are fewer and fewer technicians who offer repair services at reasonable prices — maybe it’s just not a profitable business any more or maybe the products aren’t designed to be repaired[2].

It’s not that technological advancements have made repair harder than replacement as much as the manufacturers would like us to believe. There appears to be a deliberate movement away from reliability, repairability and build quality:

That scarcity is by design. Manufacturers don’t want you to fix that broken microwave or air conditioner; they want you to buy a new one. Some even send cease-and-desist letters to people who post repair information online. Back in 2012, Toshiba told laptop repair tech Tim Hicks that he needed to remove 300 PDFs of Toshiba’s official repair manuals from his website, where he was offering the information for free. To avoid being sued, Hicks complied, and now fewer people have the guidance they need to repair Toshiba laptops.

Source: https://spectrum.ieee.org/green-tech/conservation/why-we-must-fight-for-the-right-to-repair-our-electronics

Not just in electronics: occasionally, when I get my hands on an old household item, even something as trivial as a plastic bucket made years ago, it seems almost amazing how the build quality has deteriorated in recent times. It seems that manufacturers now have made build quality and longevity a “premium feature”, to be paid for through the nose, rather than to be expected in any product.

  1. in fact, assembling a desktop computer was and still is an easy project[]
  2. I suspect that the latter has contributed to the former[]
What happened to the sub 5 inch Android phone market?

What happened to the sub 5 inch Android phone market?

smartphone

Is it just me, or are there other smartphone users who’d prefer a device that can be held and operated on one hand and a thumb?

Is there no market for such Android phones that you can operate from one hand? It appears that there are very few small form factor Android phones on the market these days. There are no decently specced models that are less than 5.5″ that I can find online. This is simply annoying because not everybody wants a large screen[1]. For me, and I suspect for a lot of people, operating a phone with two hands is an ergonomic issue. Even my Nokia 2.1 (which is a 5.5″ model) is hard to operate with one hand alone for some tasks. I frequently find myself switching the phone to my left hand to use the right forefinger for touch operations. On the other hand, my old iPhone 5s which its 4″ screen is still a delight to hold and operate. Yes, the keypad is too small, but still usable at that size. I think the 4.7″ to 5″ form factor is ideal.

I do understand the need for large screen smartphones, since some people want to use their phone as a mini tablet (especially with the monster sized 6.7″ screen phones), but surely there must be users who just want to conveniently hold the phone and operate it with a thumb. Besides smaller phones fit snugly into the trouser pocket.

The other issue with larger screens is that they draw more battery power and drain even powerful 4000+ mAh batteries in a short duration. So manufacturers have to stuff the phone with more powerful batteries just to get the same charge duration. I also find the overall weight of larger phones to be an issue.

Maybe the trend will once again change and soon we’ll have reasonably sized smartphones once again. In the meantime, the still somewhat pricey older iPhone 7 and 8 (with 4.7″ screens) seem to be the only options in the sub 5″ smartphone category.

Edit: There is a list of current 5″ smartphone models compiled by digit.in. And yes, the iPhone 7 is at the top of the list.

  1. some of us use phones as phones, not as video-watching devices[]