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My next keyboard: Razer Lycosa?

Posted by james on Nov. 9, 2007

Every once in a while I get into a phase where I want to find a better X. Sometimes it's a mouse, or a cell phone. Right now, it's a better keyboard. I've been typing on a cheapo $15 Microsoft keyboard, which has medium-profile membrane switch keys but a better feel than most, and it's ok for now. But I definitely need something better, especially now that I'm starting to do more actual typing.

The tactile key feel is the most important thing, so I've been looking at scissor-switch keyboards recently. Those are the keys that are on laptops; they're very short, don't have much travel, are relatively soft to press but have a very definite feel. They're more durable than normal keyboards and are hit or miss with personal preference; some people like them, others don't. I do like some of them, and I'd prefer them over the mushy keys they throw on most desktop keyboards... even the nicer ones.

I have a Razer Diamondback mouse that I love, it's one of the best I've used. It's very smooth and has immediate tracking on the screen, doesn't give me that millisecond-delay feeling I get with some other mice. It's also a great flat shape, and has really big easy press keys and a good scroll wheel. It also has extra programmable side-keys, but they're small and hard to press, so they're useless to me. Thankfully I do mouse gestures and so the lack of usable extra keys doesn't matter anyway. Razer also has a couple of keyboards out that have gotten pretty good reviews. They're "gaming" keyboards, but not in the Logitech way of "Throw lots of extra keys on and an LCD display". Just a little backlighting, a simple layout, good key feel, etc. However, the backlighting is not for every key and the layout is non-standard. I really they would burn every non-standard keyboard, it really is my second biggest peeve (after mushy keys).

But Razer has announced they're latest keyboard, the <a href="http://www.razerzone.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=2_21&products_id=76">Lycosa</a>. This I really think might work for me. First off, sometimes you just look at a product and from first glance you irrationally just want it. That's true with this one; it just looks great. A bit angular with the spider-fang palm rest, but I don't mind that. It's backlit, which is actually a great thing when computing in the dark (and really, when is a programmer really not in the dark? Give us a dark cave, good music, some pop...). As far as I can tell, it's got low-profile scissor-switch laptop-style keys (could be awesome) and most of all.... a *standard* key layout! I can't say how many times I've found a keyboard in my research that I would love to have, if only for the incredibly awful non-standard layout. Thank goodness that Razer has seen the light in this regard.

It was announced last month, and is slated to be released this month (November). As none of the retailers in my area even carried the first Razer keyboard, I can't imagine any will carry this one, so I pre-ordered it online. This is the first time I've pre-ordered anything, especially something without any real reviews and without seeing one. I can always return it, but this really is my best shot at keyboard nirvana. I'm setting myself up to be severely disappointed and disillusioned, I know, but I can't help it. I've tried this "holy grail keyboard" hunt before with lame results, and it's time for round 2 (or really, 3 or 4).

The worst part? Amazon estimates the ship date as January 1. I really do like Amazon and I'd hate to go with someone else less reputable, but once it gets released I really think I'll be scouring for anyone that offers it online. Now I know how beanie-baby and Harry Potter fans feel. Except it's a cool keyboard this time, not some lame book or toy. This is way* less dorky. Yeah...

New features: Ask RocketMonkeys

Posted by james on Nov. 1, 2007

That's right, the website has actually gotten an update. It's only been about a year or so, no rush. The new section is right below the "Pictures" link, and it takes you to the "Ask RocketMonkeys" page. You can ask anything you like, from questions of your personal life (Why do I always get sad during Autumn? / Where am I?) to things of global importance (What is the meaning of life? / What shall we have for Dinner?). Questions will be selected and answered at random. You can ask anonymously (so that no one reading the site will know your embarrassing interests) or proudly keep your name attached (so that everyone will know your embarrassing interests). Feel free to ask as many questions as you want.

Let's begin.... now.

Buttons buttons buttons

Posted by james on Sept. 6, 2007

Recently on Buzz-out-loud, CNET's podcast of approximately 50-minute length, they talked about how Steve Jobs has a <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118532502435077009.html">phobia of buttons</a>. He wants as few buttons on his devices as possible, to the point of ridiculousness. This has been one of my complaints about Apple products; their near-irrational aversion to buttons or anything complicated. I guess the problem here is the misapprehension that complicated things are bad.

Granted, Apple has been successful partially (or perhaps mostly) because of their stubborn adherence to simplicity. I admire how their gadgets "just work" and are usually high quality. But there's almost always a tradeoff between simplicity and efficiency, and in this arena Apple has shown itself to be uncompromising. If you look at professional-level specialized physical interfaces (like multi-track studio audio mixers, POS registers, or even just keyboards) they often have a great deal of complexity... lots of buttons! Modern cash registers always amuse me because sometimes there's a button for each food (McDonalds) or for each individual action (return, exchange, gift card, etc). With a simple device, you can learn it more easily (assuming it's well-designed) and get up and running quickly, compared to a more complicated device. However, there's also an upper limit for these devices for their top efficiency. A way to think about it is my iPod. I have a 3rd generation, which means it has 4 buttons (previous track, menu, play, next track) a scroll wheel, and another select button. Great, looks simple, and it's easy to use. But I always wish it had a "random/shuffle" button. I'd love to be able to play through my songs randomly and then turn off random so I can just play whatever album it landed on. That's how my old carputer did it (more on that in a later rant).

Another poster child for Apple's stubborn simplicity-religion is the apple mouse. For the longest time they've had a one-button mouse, and even in the modern era they stick to it. It works for the most part, but the problem is that you really do have to right click sometimes. OSX has many places where you need to right-click to get to something, and it's very useful. Granted, you can Command-Click to simulate it, but that's a horrible idea from an efficiency/human-computer-interaction (HCI) point of view. You can think about it like this; say you have a computer and someone gives you the option of either a 2 button mouse where each button does a different thing, or another mouse where you have one button and have to press other keys on the keyboard at the same time to do different things. Which one sounds simpler?

The Apple model works if you like the appearance of simplicity, or if the user is simply a techno-simpleton that will rarely if ever investigate the whole "right-clicking" thing. For everyone else, it's a step back. The problem here is that it's not truly simpler. There is a shift in complexity, not a straight out reduction of it. In the iPod example, you can turn shuffle on/off by clicking the Menu button (a few times till you reach the main menu, since it's also a Back button), scroll down to Settings, scroll down to Shuffle, click the Select button a few times to turn it on/off, then click Menu, then scroll down to Now Playing, and click the Select button. On my carputer, you clicked the Random button once to turn random on, and again to turn it off. In the button example, you have one button that can do dual-duty as two buttons once you add in a keyboard. The complexity is not gone, it's hidden. That's great if you don't need extra functionality and/or are intimidated when looking at buttons. It's bad if you are comfortable with technology and like to do more with it.

Of course it's a compromise one way or the other, and of course it's personal preference that has more to do with your personality and usage traits than with the objective "goodness" of any given product. But Apple is a good example of being a bit too far in the hidden, simplistic, simpleton-friendly fashion.

Most of this is a bit obvious. The new part is that the wall street journal article vindicates my feelings that Apple sometimes has a subjective and illogical attitude towards buttons and complexity. My next mp3-player will probably not be an iPod. I want to be able to do more with my player, and I want more convenience. I don't need a device with tons of buttons... just the ones that make sense.

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