Posts tagged ‘keyboards’

The path of least resistance: we humans aren’t discerning enough sometimes


I came across a thread at Tedium where Christopher Marlow mentions Pandora Mail as an email client that took Eudora as a starting-point, and moved the game forward (e.g. building in Unicode support).
   As some of you know, I’ve been searching for an email client to use instead of Eudora (here’s something I wrote six years ago, almost to the day), but worked with the demands of the 2010s. I had feared that Eudora would be totally obsolete by now, in 2018, but for the most part it’s held up; I remember having to upgrade in 2008 from a 1999 version and wondering if I only had about nine years with the new one. Fortunately, it’s survived longer than that.
   Brana Bujenović’s Pandora Mail easily imported everything from Eudora, including the labels I had for the tables of contents, and the personalities I had, but it’s not 100 per cent perfect, e.g. I can’t resize type in my signature file. However, finally I’ve found an email client that does one thing that no other client does: I can resize the inbox and outbox to my liking, and have them next to each other. In the mid-1990s, this was one of Eudora’s default layouts, and it amazed me that this very efficient way of displaying emails never caught on. I was also heartened to learn from Tedium that Eudora was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s email client of choice (‘The most important thing I use is Eudora, and that’s discontinued’). I’m in good company.
   However, this got me thinking how most users tolerate things, without regard, in my opinion, to what’s best for them. It’s the path of least resistance, except going down this path makes life harder for them.
   The three-panel layout is de rigueur for email clients today—all the ones I’ve downloaded and even paid good money for have followed this. Thunderbird, Mailbird, the oddly capitalized eM. All have had wonderful reviews and praise, but none allow you to configure the in- and outbox sizes. Hiri’s CEO says that’s something they’re looking at but right now, they’re not there, either. Twenty-plus years since I began using Eudora and no one has thought of doing this, and putting the power of customization with the user.
   But when did this three-panel layout become the standard? I can trace this back to Outlook Express, bundled with Windows in the late 1990s, and, if I’m not mistaken, with Macs as well. I remember working with Macs and Outlook was standard. I found the layout limiting because you could only see a few emails in the table of contents at any given time, and I usually have hundreds of messages come in. I didn’t want to scroll, and in the pre-mouse-wheel environment of the 1990s, neither would you. Yet most people put up with this, and everyone seems to have followed Outlook Express’s layout since. It’s a standard, but only one foisted on people who couldn’t be bothered thinking about their real requirements. It wasn’t efficient, but it was free (or, I should say, the licence fee was included in the purchase of the OS or the computer).
   ‘It was free’ is also the reason Microsoft Word overtook WordPerfect as the standard word processor of the 1990s, and rivals that followed, such as Libre Office and Open Office, had to make sure that they included Word converters. I could never understand Word and again, my (basic) needs were simple. I wanted a word processor where the fonts and margins would stay as they were set till I told it otherwise. Word could never handle that, and, from what I can tell, still can’t. Yet people tolerated Word’s quirks, its random decisions to change font and margins on you. I shudder to think how many hours were wasted on people editing their documents—Word can’t even handle columns very easily (the trick was usually to type things in a single column, then reformat—so much for a WYSIWYG environment then). I remember using WordPerfect as a layout programme, using its Reveal Codes feature—it was that powerful, even in DOS. Footnoting remains a breeze with WordPerfect. But Word overtook WordPerfect, which went from number one to a tiny, niche player, supported by a few diehards like myself who care about ease of use and efficiency. Computers, to me, are tools that should be practical, and of course the UI should look good, because that aids practicality. Neither Outlook nor Word are efficient. On a similar note I always found Quattro Pro superior to Excel.
   With Mac OS X going to 64-bit programs and ending support for 32-bit there isn’t much choice out there; I’ve encountered Mac Eudora users who are running out of options; and WordPerfect hasn’t been updated for Mac users for years. To a large degree this answers why the Windows environment remains my choice for office work, with Mac and Linux supporting OSs. Someone who comes up with a Unicode-supporting word processor that has the ease of use of WordPerfect could be on to something.
   Then you begin thinking what else we put up with. I find people readily forget or forgive the bugs on Facebook, for example. I remember one Twitter conversation where a netizen claimed I encountered more Facebook bugs than anyone else. I highly doubt that, because her statement is down to short or unreliable memories. I seem to recall she claimed she had never experienced an outage—when in fact everyone on the planet did, and it was widely reported in the media at the time. My regular complaints about Facebook are to do with how the website fails to get the basics right after so many years. Few, I’m willing to bet, will remember that no one’s wall updated on January 1, 2012 if you lived east of the US Pacific time zone, because the staff at Facebook hadn’t figured out that different time zones existed. So we already know people put up with websites commonly that fail them; and we also know that privacy invasions don’t concern hundreds of millions, maybe even thousands of millions, of people, and the default settings are “good enough”.
   Keyboards wider than 40 cm are bad for you as you reach unnecessarily far for the mouse, yet most people tolerate 46 cm unless they’re using their laptops. Does this also explain the prevalence of Toyota Camrys, which one friend suggested was the car you bought if you wanted to ‘tell everyone you had given up on life’? It probably does explain the prevalence of automatic-transmission vehicles out there: when I polled my friends, the automatic–manual divide was 50–50, with many in the manual camp saying, ‘But I own an automatic, because I had no choice.’ If I didn’t have the luxury of a “spare car”, then I may well have wound up with something less than satisfactory—but I wasn’t going to part with tens of thousands of dollars and be pissed off each time I got behind the wheel. We don’t demand, or we don’t make our voices heard, so we get what vendors decide we want.
   Equally, you can ask why many media buyers always buy with the same magazines, not because it did their clients any good, but because they were safe bets that wouldn’t get them into trouble with conservative bosses. Maybe the path of least resistance might also explain why in many democracies, we wind up with two main parties that attract the most voters—spurred by convention which even some media buy into. (This also plays into mayoral elections!)
   Often we have ourselves to blame when we put up with inferior products, because we haven’t demanded anything better, or we don’t know anything better exists, or simply told people what we’d be happiest with. Or that the search for that product costs us in time and effort. Pandora has had, as far as I can fathom, no press coverage (partly, Brana tells me, by design, as they don’t want to deal with the traffic just yet; it’s understandable since there are hosting costs involved, and he’d have to pay for it should it get very popular).
   About the only place where we have been discerning seems to be television consumption. So many people subscribe to cable, satellite, Amazon Prime, or Netflix, and in so doing, support some excellent programming. Perhaps that is ultimately our priority as a species. We’re happy to be entertained—and that explains those of us who invest time in social networking, too. Anything for that hit of positivity, or that escapism as we let our minds drift.

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Posted in business, cars, culture, design, internet, politics, publishing, technology, USA | 2 Comments »

Farewell, Manhattan: switching to the Cooler Master Storm Quick Fire TK Cherry MX Brown


QuickFire TK
The Cooler Master Storm Quick Fire TK, with white case.

On Tuesday, my Manhattan keyboard, for which I gave a glowing review on Amazon, gave up the ghost. I’m not entirely sure why but through its lifetime, there were two things wrong with it: the first was that regular typing wore off the keys’ markings (not an issue since I touch-type, and they were in Arial, so it was a pleasure to see them gone); and the wiring was conking out, as it would disconnect itself from the USB for about five seconds a day.
   I tend to buy these things based on their practical value, and I’ve gone through my history of finding the right keyboard elsewhere. However, on Tuesday, I found myself needing one pretty quick smart.
   Now, I could have moved another keyboard from one of the less utilized machines, but, faced with the prospect of finishing a book chapter this weekend, I didn’t savour the prospect of typing on a membrane keyboard. Sadly, those are all that are left here, other than the scissor-switch one on my Asus laptop.
   As I headed out to town, there weren’t many alternatives. I looked in the usual places, such as Dick Smith and Noël Leeming, knowing that they wouldn’t have what I sought: a decent keyboard operated on scissor-switches, that was a maximum of 16 inches wide. (I can tolerate maybe an other half-inch on top of that at a pinch.) If anything, I only popped by these stores because they were en route from the Railway Station into town and I was using public transport that day. But, if there was a fluke and there was something that was the equivalent of the dead Manhattan, I probably would have got it.
   To save you clicking through to the old post, I dislike reaching for a mouse (and I’m getting progressively fussier with those, too), and the 16-inch width is something I found I was comfortable with after years of typing. I also need a numeric keypad since I type in European languages, and Windows wants you to use the numeric keypad, unlike Mac.
   I visited Matthew Sew Hoy at Atech Computers on Wakefield Street. He knew my plight because I had told him on previous visits: that’s the beauty of going to a smaller store and getting personal service. He remembered the story instantly. And he had just the thing: a mechanical keyboard for about 10 times the price of the old Manhattan.
   I have long been a fan of the Cooler Master Storm Quick Fire TK, which suits my requirements to a T. The trouble always was the price: I have seen them go for over NZ$200, and I’ve toyed with bringing one in on a business trip. However, Atech had two, starting from NZ$160.
   Over the years I had eyed the TK with Cherry MX Blue switches: the clicky ones. My Pinterest is full of blue-switch compact keyboards. This was familiar territory to me, and probably most people who are my age and up. Keyboards should make a little click noise as the keys are depressed: that’s the mechanical switch getting activated. This is the reason mechanical keyboards cost more: modern ones, the $20 variety you see at Dick Smith, don’t have individual switches underneath each key. They only have a sheet with a printed circuit and contacts underneath, sending electronic signals to the computer. This makes it wonderful for keyboard manufacturers, who can churn these out at low cost, but the typing experience is less than satisfactory, especially if you type a lot.
   Sadly, and this is a consequence of living in a small country, Matthew only had the TK with Cherry MX Brown switches, which need medium force without returning the satisfying click. However, to use, in terms of the strokes and strength needed, it would be roughly the same. I sampled it at the shop, decided it was worth splashing out, and bought it.
   For such an expensive device, the first one he sold me had a fault. The left shift key and the virgule (slash) both thought they were question marks, and the keyboard had to be returned. Matthew swapped it for the other keyboard, which initially was more expensive, without charging me the difference. I’m now the proud owner of a Cooler Master Quick Fire TK in white, with Cherry MX Brown switches, and it’s not quite the combination I had planned on when spending so much on a keyboard.
   But how is it to use? I’ll admit I still look somewhat enviously on those who bought their TKs abroad and managed to get them with blue switches, but I am definitely faster typing on the new one. And that is a good thing when you need for your typing to keep up with your thoughts. I’ve finished off more emails this week than I had done in a while.
   I am frustrated with the odd typo I make and I wonder if this is to do with the lack of familiarity. Because I touch-type, I am hitting the u and the i together on occasion, or the full stop and comma together, and making similar mistakes, and I don’t recall doing that quite as often on the Manhattan. I’m sure these keyboards differ in their positioning by a millimetre or two, leading to these errors.
   The unit is also higher than the very slim Manhattan, which means my wrists are raised. I haven’t found a position where they are as comfortable as they were with the previous keyboard, and the wrist rest itself is too low relative to the TK to make any difference. That is proving a problem.
   The reason for the height, presumably, is for the feature I don’t need: illuminated keys. I’m not a gamer and I’m not typing in the dark. However, for those who use their TKs for such purposes, I can see how they would be ideal. To fit in the lights beneath, I imagine the designers had to raise the entire keyboard by a few millimetres, making it less comfortable to type on.
   The final negative to the keyboard, and one which I knew I would confront, is how the numeric keypad and the cursor keys are all together. You have to take Num Lock off in order to get the cursor keys to work, much like in the old days of the early IBM PC compatibles. This has slowed me down as I switch between modes.
   In this respect, I have travelled back to when I began using IBM compatibles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, the keyboards were mechanical and the cursor and numeric keypads were all in one lot, and there’s a certain retro charm to this arrangement. Without the clicking noises, it reminds me of the mechanical switches on my first microcomputer: the Commodore 64. I really have gone back to the future, appropriate in a year when Claudia Wells (the original Jennifer Parker before she morphed into Elisabeth Shue) has been Tweeting about Lucire.
   I may be one of the few non-gamers to have invested in a TK, with typing efficiency and practicality as my main aims. When I posted pictures of it on my Instagram, I received plaudits from other serious gamers and geeks with expensive computers, calling me ‘Dude’ and making me feel very welcome as a fellow TK owner. Looking online, the white case is a rare one, so I wound up unwittingly with a keyboard that is slightly more cool than the everyday black one. I sense that Matthew prefers the white one as well, and that I didn’t know how lucky I was (although I am very grateful to him for knocking the price down and giving it to me as a direct replacement).
   Where does this leave me? I have a decent enough keyboard which is efficient for the most part, and from which I can expect a far longer life than the Manhattan (Cooler Master reckons each key is good for 50 million hits, five times longer than on the Manhattan, and ten times longer than on any membrane keyboard). I no longer put up with five-second daily outages. The way the keys are designed, I won’t have to worry about the markings coming off (the glyphs are etched). I have multimedia controls from the function keys, which are a bonus, and one reason I liked the old Genius scissor-switch keyboard that got me on this path to finding the right unit. As I type, I ponder whether I should invest in a higher wrist rest, or whether my seating position needs to change to cope with the higher keyboard. I imagine that as my fingers adjust to the minute differences, I can only get faster with my touch-typing, and I’m looking forward to the efficiency gains. But, there are those Cherry MX Blues on Amazon. The grass might look greener there, but apparently the white case puts me up there with the über-gamers and the cool geeks.

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Posted in business, China, New Zealand, technology, Wellington | 2 Comments »