As a person who spends at least eight hours, five days a week in front of a computer, choosing the correct keyboard is not an easy task. Your hands spend about eight hours a day touching and typing on it. Probably, while you are thinking, your fingers fiddle with the keys without pressing them. The office's background noise is those of keys typing. We could say that at least two of your senses highly notice your keyboard for a huge part of your life.
Most people work with cheap 20€ keyboards, but for those interested, there is a huge gamma of keys and keyboards.
I have been following forums and pages about mechanical keyboards for some time. However, it was Steve Losh's A Modern Space Cadet which finally convinced me that I needed a better keyboard. To decide on one, however, is a path full of enlightenment, reading about key switches, historical keyboards, highly biased commenters, and the utmost fear of spending 400€ on an device you won't like for some reason.
I was just about to buy a Topre 104 when I thought I should give myself more time before paying that much. After all, what if I were to buy one and decided it just didn't feel right?
After about a month of reading on forums, this article from Thomas Brand and a podcast with John Gruber and Dan Benjamin brought this 20-year-old keyboard to my attention. It was highly praised, seemed to be very robust, and had Apple's 'command' and 'alt' keys.
There are usually some for sale on Ebay, and I needed a really cheap one, since the shipping to Spain would account for at least 50€. Furthermore, that keyboard also needs an ADB cable and the Griffin Imate to convert ADB to USB. Plus their shipping, too. The total could easily account for 100 Eur or maybe more, for a really old device.
Apparently there's another factor to take into account. There are at least two different models, a good one, with Alps switches, and a not-so-good one, with Mitsumi switches. To make matters worse, there is no clear way to distinguish them. However, looking at the label can help. Here are the labels of Apple keyboards with Alps switches.
You should look for the "Made in the USA" and the bar code ending in M3012. My advice is to always ask the seller for confirmation, it is a matter of removing one keycap and looking for the 'ALPS' label on the top of the key switch.
When the keyboard finally arrived, I tried to type on it, and unfortunately I didn't like its sound at all. After a month reading about clicky keyboards, watching Youtube videos and remembering an IBM Model M I had at college for some time, the AEKII had muffled, plain, boring keystrokes.
Here's an audio recording what I mean for 'click' (first sound) and 'clock' (second sound)
It is also worth mentioning that the Caps Lock key is a two-step button. That would have been amazing for a Caps Lock key, but since I use Ctrl instead, that would defeat its purpose.
Now there are two options: stick with it, as is, or open the keyboard and see that could be done. Since I had opened and repaired my laptop, my old Gameboy, and almost every object that had fallen into my hands, why not a keyboard? I might learn something as a collateral.
How on Earth does a keyboard make a clicky sound when a key is pressed? Reddit user ripster55 helped me a lot with both his pictures and his comments
This animation depicts how the sound is produced. It seems to happen when the rightmost leaf hits the plastic walls. However, the AEKII has this kind of nonclicky leaves which stay fixed in place and don't hit the plastic enclosure back.
Just as I was starting to think that the AEKII keys would never click, I noticed that some of the keys produced a very light click, in comparison to the silent majority. This was a very subtle hint: the home row keys and the most used consonants were the ones which clicked the most. Could it be that the AEKII isn't meant to be clicky after all, and that sound was actually caused by years of usage?
This guide explains how to open Alps switches, and more importantly, how to assemble them back. Please note, the black plastic part doesn't seem to be reversible, so remember which way was it facing when you remove it.
Once I had some keys fully disassembled, it was time to debug their tune. Why was there a difference between the clicky C and the dull F15? There must be something different on the inside.
Here's the reasoning: Originally, the keys didn't click. After 20 years, the most used ones do. The clicking sound is produced by a metal leaf hitting a plastic. The AEKII leaves have legs which make them stay in place. We can conclude that normal use has made some of those leaves to wear off, so they move inside the switch and click.
The Extended II leaves have four legs, but they can be disabled easily. On silent keys, the leaf was stuck in place by the force of the legs. Slightly angling them, from the original 90 degrees to about 45-60 degrees from the base, made them loose and allowed the leaf to freely slide in and out of the keyswitch.
That was enough. Slightly bending the four legs of every leaf made the reconstructed key produce a clicking sound. One can adjust the exact tune of every key by means of this angle. The looser the leaf, the clickier the key.
What's the point of making an AEKII artificially old and worn?
The good news is, the process is reversible. Just angle the leaves' legs back to 90 degrees and they will stay in place and produce a muted sound again.
I hope this little hack can be useful for people who would like to generate an 'old keyboard' feel on their new or well-conserved AEKII, and also for those who don't like the chirp of their old keyboard and would like to restore its original sound. It might also be applied to other mechanical keyboards, not only the AEKII.
As a last step to restore an old keyboard, it seems that there is a way to whiten a yellowed plastic, using a simple peroxide-oxy mixture, called retr0bright. I am planning to use it sometime soon.
Update: I used retr0bright and it is as magic as you can read on the wiki. Actually, I bought a bottled product which was 6% peroxide with oxy, advertised as a regular cleaner, and it did the trick.
I mentioned above that the Caps Lock key on the Extended II is actually a two-state button, and that's terrible for remapping into a Control key. Fortunately, it was very easy to change the key mechanism into another one, and make Caps Lock a regular key again.
Unfortunately, another problem arose. If it was a two-state key, how come it didn't get stuck in a KeyDown loop when pressed? It so happens that the hardware is set to produce both a KeyDown (press) and a KeyUp (release) event when the key is actually pressed, and then again a Down+Up when it is released. That way, setting the switch in the 'on' state actually simulates a regular CapsLock event as in other keyboards.
This means that remapping Caps Lock to Control on the AEKII makes it produce a KeyDown and KeyUp very fast, when the key is pressed, and it makes it unusable as a modifier. Pressing Control-C would send the Operating System an Control(Down)-Control(Up)-C, which is interpreted as a regular C key press.
Having used the incredible KeyRemap4Macbook for some time, thanks to Losh's blog post, I hoped something could be done to reprogram the key. By asking on the forum, Fumihiko was very nice and provided a couple solutions, the best one remapping Caps Lock to a virtual 'Control Lock'. That way, the Control Down+Up events are transformed into a single KeyDown event.
Just in case the message is deleted, the solution is as follows:
<item> <name>CapsLock to ControlLock</name> <appendix>For the AEKII</appendix> <identifier>private.pc_application_to_controlLock</identifier> <autogen>--KeyToKey-- KeyCode::PC_APPLICATION, KeyCode::VK_LOCK_CONTROL_L</autogen> <autogen>--KeyToKey-- KeyCode::ESCAPE, KeyCode::ESCAPE, KeyCode::VK_LOCK_ALL_FORCE_OFF</autogen> </item>
My regular setup while at home is to work with my Macbook Air with the lid closed, connected to an external display, the AEKII and a mouse.
The iMate maps the power button to the shutdown dialogue in OSX. Instead of that, we will remap that key to sleep. It is very convenient, as the laptop will wake when any key is pressed, and we can make it sleep easily.
Maybe there is a better way to do it, but a quick method is to use PCKeyboardHack to remap the ADB power button to, say, F19. Then, using Keyboard Maestro, map F19 to 'Sleep'. As simple as that.
Update: The same effect can be achieved with KeyRemap4Macbook. Add this to your private.xml:
<item> <name>Sleep key on the AEKII</name> <identifier>private.sleep</identifier> <autogen> --KeyToKey-- KeyCode::F19, KeyCode::VK_CONSUMERKEY_EJECT, ModifierFlag:: COMMAND_L | ModifierFlag:: OPTION_L </autogen> </item>
I am very used to have the right option key next to the space on my MBA, which is handy because I write in Spanish using the US keyboard, and that right option lets me do accents and other latin letters. I had the idea of switching the right command and option keys to have option_r closer to my thumb, but Unfortunately the iMate sends all modifiers as 'left' keys, i.e. right command is sent as left command, and there is nothing we can do about it.
One last thing I'd like to mention is that KeyRemap4Macbook allows itself to store groups of settings in a profile, and that profile can be changed via the command line. This allows the use of ControlPlane to detect the presence of the keyboard and automatically change KeyRemap's profile to take advantage of the double-capslock hack, and disable it when the keyboard is disconnected, since that setting breaks the MBA's regular capslock-to-control mapping.
I hope that my little experiment can help people to tune their keyboards to their liking, and what's more important, to disassemble and restore those which might be too old and worn for a comfortable use.
Personally, I think that the manual skills required to disassemble keyswitches are not high, especially for hardware people, but it needs some time and patience, since breaking a key mechanism might be fatal.
As a final thought, remember that besides customizing your hardware, it is always a good idea to remap your keys to make your work more efficient.
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it!
CC by-nc 2012-2013, Carlos Fenollosa. Contact: twitter or mail. Last modified: Thu 13 Dec 2012 12:20:25 CET
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