Wordpress.com Now 57% More Expensive!

Worpress.com Personal has skyrocketed in price from $35.88 to $48.00 plus an additional $15 for the domain name that is no longer included. So $63 annually for what was $35.88 just a couple months ago. All prices in Canadian dollars.

Yeah, I’m out. Too rich for my blood.

Allow me to also take this opportunity to complain about the forced change to the incredible pile of shit WordPress calls their Gutenberg Editor that is coming down the pipe from WordPress.com. That thing is an abomination, yet according to the replies I have received from the WordPress.com staff, it will indeed be forced upon all subscribers in the near future. Given that I do this whole website thing for the joy of doing so, it stands to reason that I shouldn’t completely hate the act of editing it. As such, I was already considering moving Semi-Nerdly.ca to another hosting. If you think I am over-reacting to this editor, by all means read the reviews for it. You will find that I am not alone!

Anyway, I’m going to pack it up and call it quits with this whole website thing. I can’t justify the expense and I can tell from the stats that very few people read the site anyway. My WordPress.com Personal subscription ends on June 23rd, 2019 and the domain name ends October 17th, 2019. I’ll delete the blog in June to prevent it from showing ads and I’ll redirect the domain name to my GitHub page until domain name expires. After that, my content will exist only on GitHub, Google Drive, and YouTube.

Ah well, one less thing to think about.

New Keycaps for My Keyboard

About a year ago I bought a Razer Blackwidow Ultimate 2016 from BestBuy to replace my Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000 keyboard that I had used for the better part of a decade. It took me a while to get used to it and I darn near returned it, because of the growing pains I was feeling due to the difference in key spacing between the two keyboards, but eventually I ended up liking the Blackwidow Ultimate. However, as with anything there were a few things about it that bothered me.

Most importantly, I knew that eventually the rubber paint would wear off the stock keycaps, just like they did for this person, leaving me with a mess long before the key switches themselves gave up the gusto. Then there were the secondary legends on the keys that were not backlit, which made them hard to read. And finally, with the other two cool looking Commodore keyboards I have at my desk (a VIC20 with PET keycaps and a C64c with white keycaps), my Razer looked boring and uninspired in plain black. I wanted something for my main PC that looked as interesting as those old machines, but I didn’t want to go crazy and spend hundreds of dollars on a custom mechanical keyboard, so I did the next best thing: I bought some aftermarket double shot PBT keycaps for my existing keyboard.

My Choice
There were several options and I came close to getting the all grey version, but in the end I went with the white/green combination, because it matches the green backlight of the keyboard and it’s semi-retro looking. Grey and green would have been ideal, but the white is nice too. I would have preferred spherical (SA) key tops, but I wasn’t able to find a set that has the correct sized keys for this model of keyboard. Too bad, because that shape is really what makes keycaps look retro and feel awesome, but these are nice too.

Packaging / Purchasing
This was my first time buying anything on Ali Express and it proved to be painless and simple. Shipping to Canada was waaaay faster than I had imagined it would be; I ordered on Nov 8th and the package arrived in Canada on Nov 15th. Unfortunately it took Canada Post two weeks to move the package from BC to my PO Box in Ontario. The packaging is excellent: A simple card board box with two layers of plastic sheets full of sockets for each keycap, plus lids for each of the sheets. This is enough to protect against normal shipping abuse and it was also a handy place to store my original keycaps.

Build Quality
When compared to the Commodore 64C and the PET keycaps on my VIC20, these new PBT keycaps are kind of crap. That’s just how good they used to make keycaps! However, when compared to the stock Razer keycaps, these thicker, more durable plastic PBT keycaps make the ones provided by Razer feel like cheap junk. That said, they must not be tested for consistency when transmitting light through the legends, as some can only be described as unacceptable. Flat out “bad” in the case of the Print Screen button, though I suppose it doesn’t help that the LED is at the top of the switch and the light needs to travel through the translucent key post to reach the bottom row of letters on the key. Overall, they are very good for the price (I paid $29 CAD).

Pros
– Clean, clear traditional font and legends on the letter keys. The secondary characters are backlit, unlike the original Razer keycaps.
– Matte finish and texture looks and feels nice (especially compared to the slimy texture of the stock Razer keycaps).
– Looks fantastic!
– Doubleshot legends made from PBT plastic mean that the legends will not wear off. This is a big plus, given that the paint wears off the stock caps, leaving blobs of color where the legends used to be.

Cons
– Thicker plastic catches on the front of the metal stablizer of the backspace key, making it bind/jam and not trigger a key press. Update: I fixed this by using a sharp carpet knife to shave a very small amount of plastic off the inside-front of the key (hold the blade perpendicular to the surface and scrape back and forth gently).
– Legend on some keys do not shine through properply, most notably on the green keys (CapsLock, Shift, Enter, Windows Right Click, Alt, B, F6, F8, Prnt Sc, Scr Lk, Pau BK, Num Lk, Numpad /, Numpad *, Numpad -).
– No Media Key legends (this is a key set that is specific to the Razer keyboards, so it would have been nice if they were there).
– Second Windows key rather than a FN key.
– Macro keys have a smiley face *-* legend. Not an issue for me, as my Blackwidow doesn’t have them, but I’d venture a guess that many folks would prefer a blank cap or an M1, M2, etc legend.

Rubber O-Rings
– They successfully remove the “clack” sound of the keycap hitting the the switch when “bottoming out” the key.
– Easy, yet time consuming to install.
– Does not appear to effect the back lighting.
– Kit was good for $11 CAD, but the packaging seems a little overboard/wasteful.

Unboxing and Typing Comparison Video

Wave form comparison between the original keycaps without o-rings and the new keycaps with o-rings.

Picture Slideshow Video

Upgrade Process
All together, it took me about three hours to complete the process (breaks and documentation included). I used the wire style keycap puller that came with the keycaps to remove the caps, rather than the circle style puller that came with the o-rings, because it was a bit easier to put around the keys and it felt more stable. The most difficult part of the process was putting the stabilized keys back on the board, especially the plus sign on the numpad – that bugger just did NOT want to fit on the switch stem! The other difficult aspect of the stabilized keys came from having to remove and re-seat the two guide do-dads on each keycap.

The black part in the middle and on the top left, along with the wire are used to stabilize the longer keys.

To get those pieces out, I slowly and carefully slid a thin flat head screw driver between the top of the key post and the bottom of the black piece and turned the screw driver slowly. This popped the part loose enough to pull it out by putting my finger nails under the circular bottom plate of the black do-dad. I had to remove the glue residue (with my finger nails) from the black do-dads before they would fit into the key posts of the new keycaps, but they popped in with a bit of force placed on both sides of the round plate using my thumb nails. Tricky and slow…

Apart from the stabilized keys, cleaning out a Sasquatch worth of hair and putting 105 o-rings on key posts was the majority of the time spent doing “actual work”. Take a look at this,

Hair… so that’s where it went!

I tell ya, it makes me wonder if balding middle aged men should come with a hairnet as a matter of public safety lol… Seriously, that’s a lot of hair and misc gross for only a year of service on my desk. Ah well, it brushed out well enough using a 4″ paint brush and the tiny brush that was included with the o-rings.

While I was under the keycaps, I noticed that my T key had some white junk on it in such a way that it could only have come like that from the factory. Sure enough, when I paid attention to the way that key feels and sounds when being pressed, its “clicker” is indeed not functioning properly. It still clicks a bit, but it feels more like a linear switch than a clicky switch. I’m thinking that this board must have been a factory refurb, even though BestBuy sold it as new stock (which may explain why it has real Cherry MX Blue switches rather than the Razer Green switches found in other 2016 models of this keyboard). Ah well, it works and if ends up bothering me too much I can take the keyboard apart and replace the switch.

Pardon the hairs… The obviously “repaired” switch for my T key.

Final Words
I’m still getting used to the new feeling of the keys. They feel pretty weird with the o-rings after a year of using them without and I am not 100% sure I like it. I can feel myself bottoming out harder than I need to, especially now that the travel distance is shorter. Hopefully I will get used to pressing the keys down only to the actuation point, rather than all the way down – something I definitely did not master after moving from the rubber dome Comfort Curve to this mechanical Blackwidow Ultimate. All in good time, I guess! One thing that I really like about these new keycaps is how their texture makes the keys feel slightly on the rough side of normal, which feels neat (and matches the texture of the chassis). Overall, I think I made a good choice. Here’s hoping the whole unit lasts a long time!

Yes, I did put the O and the P in the wrong order at first. Hey man, I was just going row by row based on what was in the package (see the slideshow video for proof!) Someone in China messed that one up for me! 🙂

RocketTux: Download and Play Like a Normal Program!

Yup, you no longer need a master’s degree in Compu Fu to play the game! How about that, eh? 🙂

Thanks to the mighty kind folks who created Node JS and NW.js, I was able to package the open source Chromium web browser along with the game, allowing it function like any other Windows or Linux program. Simply download the zip file, extract it, and run the game from its folder!

20MB of game data, 185MB of web browser based “game engine”…

It’s important to note that I am still very much developing the game, so I have yet to implement all of the features and functionality. That said, I have completed the collecting of coins and items, and all the level themes are unlocked for testing, so there is fun to be had. There’s a video at the bottom of this post where I demonstrate playing this part of the game. If you have a GitHub account, feel free to post any issues you find with the game, otherwise you can share your feedback in an email.

Download and Play
Windows 7/8/10: 64 Bit, 32 Bit
Linux: 64 Bit, 32 Bit
Previous Releases

Installation & Requirements
Download the file for your operating system, extract it, open the created folder, and run RocketTux.exe or RocketTux, as you would any other Windows or Linux program. The game should play well on any recent PC/laptop/Chromebook that has hardware accelerated graphics, 2GB RAM, and a dual core CPU. To give you an idea, it’s a little slow my old Core2 Q8200 quad core desktop that has 8GB of DDR2 RAM and a 1GB Nvidia Geforce 450 graphics card, yet it plays great on my Intel based Chromebooks. See this document for help with running RocketTux on a Chromebook.


Currently I am working on completing all of the level sections for bump up to version 0.5.0, as I just recently completed the sprite sheet (save for room I left for minor details I may find I want later. I can be so OCD…). These are actually really fun and easy to create using the Tiled editor, so time and inspiration are all that are holding up release 0.5.0!

I will create a new download zip file for each major “point release”, while the master branch of the GitHub repository will remain in step with my development. You should be able to clone the repo and build an up to date release at any time, as I intentionally won’t push commit changes that break the game. Along those lines, there won’t be any further changes to the file structure of the game, apart from adding new music and possibly new/different sound effects, so it should continue to “just work” for all of us. Yay! 🙂

Enjoy!

Recent Video:

Older Video:

Yay, Windows 10 doesn’t suck anymore!

“There’s always something that pisses me off!”, was the most common thing I would say about GNU/Linux in the decade between 1998 and 2008. So in that time I used Windows 98, 2000, XP, and 7 as my primary operating systems, because to be honest, they “just worked”. I appreciate that about Windows, I truly do.

Windows 7 was fantastic, from beta all the way up until I finally deleted it the other day. It’s not that I resisted Windows 10 up until now, it’s that each time I put it onto my computer it presented deal breaking issues that made it annoying and problematic to use. Given that 7 still worked great, why then would I put up with the problems in 10?

I can’t remember now if it was 2016 or 2017 when I threw in the towel and went back to using Win7 instead of Win10 (for the few things I still did in Windows, which was primarily playing Windows games and developing game mods). But, it was earlier this year that I decided to give it a whirl again and, thankfully, a lot has changed for the better. Enough so that I’ve decided to flip back to using Windows as my primary operating system!

My time with Devuan (Debian 9 minus system d) was short, while my years with Linux Mint 17 were long and glorious. To make a long story short, everything other than DirectX games worked flawlessly for me in Mint 17 for years. It made my computer seem like a super computer and the only time it gave me trouble was when I deleted some package that almost everything else depended on (which was easy enough to fix with apt-get). Unfortunately my experience with Devuan was different. I encountered two deal breaking issues and several significant annoyances. The big issues were:

1. The mouse would randomly immediately left click after right clicking on items in Thunar, Filezilla, and other programs that make up the bulk of the user experience. This would cause random right click menu actions to fire – one of those actions is “delete forever”. Others have reported the issue as well and unfortunately none of us were able to solve it. This is a deal breaker, because I can’t live with being a right click away from accidentally deleting something important. Also, it was annoying as hell!

2. The video drivers still aren’t as good for my card as the now unsupported Catalyst drivers. I was happy to see that AMD was kind enough to finally add proprietary support again for my R9 270, but the truth is, it sucks. Some applications require disabling compositing in Xfce to avoid horrible screen tearing (to then only have somewhat annoying screen tearing), while others need it to be enabled to mostly fix screen tearing. Meanwhile in Mint 17 with the Catalyst drivers, all I needed to do to enjoy a perfect experience was open Catalyst Control Center and put a frickin check in the box beside “Tear Free Experience”…

Always something!

Look, I love the spirit of open source and I will forever be thankful to those who generously give their time to creating and maintaining open source projects, but the bottom line when it comes to my daily computing experience is that I’m going to use what doesn’t annoy me. And you know what, that’s fine.

As with anything, Windows 10 has its problems. For example, I still can’t use the audio inputs on my TV tuner card to record with Audacity in Windows, while they work just peachy keen in Linux. Kudos to open source driver developers! That particular issue I decided to resolve by keeping a dual boot of Mint 17.3 explicitly to use for those rare times I want to record something with my microphone. That said, the biggest issue I previously had with Win10 has thankfully been resolved – they finally allow people to disable their Bit Torrent uploading of Windows Update data, an anti-feature of Windows which would kill our “Wireless 5G” internet dead.

Previously Microsoft offered little to no control over the update features in Windows 10. This, combined with the laws of physics and our ISP’s throttling of Bit Torrent traffic, would cause our internet connection to become literally unusable while my computer was on. Not poor or even bad, but “I can’t even ping the DNS anymore” unusable. After a while I found some ways to mitigate the issue, but it wasn’t until one of the most recent patches where Microsoft finally allowed us to actually turn it the hell off. I can unequivocally state that before when their UI said it was off, it most certainly was still on, sucking back our (slow, data capped, and expensive) “rural broadband” internet like a kid who’s about to experience brain freeze for the first time as he sucks back a Slurpee on a sweltering summer’s day. Anyway, THAT (obviously) was a deal breaker for my use of Windows 10 in the past, so thank digital jebus it’s been fixed.

Why should I be thankful? Why couldn’t I just keep using Linux Mint 17 and Windows 7 forever? Why do I even need to think about other operating systems anyway? Because “computer security”, that’s why.

That’s right, possibly the biggest “non-subject” of them all is the very thing that dictates the context of my everyday computing experience itself. I loathe “computer security”, because not only is uninteresting, but the entire reason it exists is simply because some people can’t help but be assholes. All software is the fruit of the “completely arbitrary imagination tree” that humans planted years ago when they invented computer science. As such, it’s inherently flawed, so of course people will find problems with it. Sadly what that means in practical terms is, assholes will steal your credit card numbers and bork your life without a care in the world, so you can either keep your computer systems up to date or you can not connect those computer systems to the internet. Yay, how positively fantastic! 😐

Anyway, after considering the ways in which I have used my desktop over the years and the pros and cons of using a dual boot system, I determined that it was…

A. Mentally exhausting to run a dual boot system where I was doing more than just playing games in Windows (I did all my development of Legend of Hondo in a Linux VM and Windows-only tools in Windows 7).

B. Honestly, all the software I actually use in Linux runs just fine in Windows anyway. With the exception of that blasted TV tuner card! Lol…

Is Windows 10 perfect now? No, but is a lot better than it once was and being completely frank, it does “just work” where several “modern Linux distros” have failed me; various “little things”, like working perfectly when transferring files from my Galaxy S8 (as apposed to taking forever while also having to disable thumbnails for pictures and video in Linux MPT connections) and the simplicity of having all my files and programs immediately accessable.

Firing up a purpose built Linux virtual machine in VirtualBox from my Windows desktop gives me the best of both worlds. I can work on mods for a Star Wars Galaxies or World of Warcraft personal server while also running the client, a web browser, and listening to music, all at full speed and full functionality, with no pains in my ass at all. What’s not to like about that?

I’m sure the many “FOSS” purist of the Internet would be happy to troll me for using Windows at all, let alone for not using GNU/Linux or FreeBSD as my main operating system, but man people like them are nutcases! Seriously, some folks take things way too personally and a little too far… Me? I’m going carry on with my efforts to use open source software to create fun open source stuff too, because that’s what makes me happy. I’ll just be doing it from Windows 10, except when I need to use that microphone… 🙂

Slumping Computer Sales: I Guess I’m Part of the Problem

Having a look at this sales chart on Statista.com, it’s clear that computer sales have slid since I last upgraded my desktop PC back in 2013. The uptick in sales this year is probably due to AMD becoming competitive in the CPU industry again, as they have dramatically increased the number of cores/threads per dollar, especially in the common desktop and laptop market. I mean, there’s very little the average home user can’t do with a $100 USD AMD Ryzen 3 2200G APU. Indeed, with everything except RAM, Nvidia graphics cards, and many Intel CPUs, value for the dollar has gone through the roof. 500GB of storage on a solid state device for less than $200 CAD? Crazy! 1TB desktop hard drives for $50? How I cry thinking of the $250 I once paid for a 20GB hard drive… Also, laptops break and people tend to buy less powerful laptops than what they end up needing down the road, so that helps drive the sales in this chart. Looking at this chart, we can see that laptops outsell desktops 2:1, which is an eye opening divide considering that these sales figures include office PCs.

All things considered, it’s not a bad time to buy a new computer.

So as a “semi-nerdly” computer enthusiast, why haven’t I? Obviously the whole “I’m a grown up with responsibilities”, and “I’m not going to go into debt to do it”, factors at play, but the major underlying reason I haven’t upgraded ye o’l desktop is because… I don’t need to.

When I look at everything I actually do with my desktop, turns out it does all that stuff just peachy keen. And when it comes to things I would like it to do, “MAKE BIGGER PICTURE!” was about all I felt it needed. Having already replaced my aging keyboard, my broken mouse, and my disk drives as part of regular maintenance, and having picked up 4GB more RAM when it was on sale, the smallish screen was about the only aspect of my desktop that I felt needed attention. Now that my lovely wife has given me a 24″ 1080p IPS monitor for our 13th anniversary, I can thank my old 20″ 900p Samsung monitor for its decade of excellent service and gleefully frolic in the land of “full HD” for years to come.

Tangent: I tried a 27″ 1080p screen, but it was strangely “too large”. I think 27″ would have been fine at 1440p, but upgrading to a 1440p monitor would also mean either buying an Nvidia 1070 class graphics card or running games at lower resolution than the native 1440p (which tends to make user interfaces in games blurry). Honestly, I would rather go the other way and downgrade my GPU to one that doesn’t require a fan or to an APU so the “graphics card” can share a giant, quiet aftermarket cooler with the CPU. I value silence more than frame rates in the few games I still play.

Update: I returned the monitor today. At the risk of sounding old, “they just don’t make them like they used to”. From my research after noticing the problem (the instant the desktop loaded), it so happens that the panel of the 24″ Acer SA240Y was manufactured (by LG) with red and blue sub-pixels that are thinner than the green sub-pixels, which causes vertical lines in all shades of orange, yellow, and blue. Not only was this distracting, but as a content creator the issue made it impossible to correctly judge the colours I was creating. Can’t have that! Ah well, maybe I’ll use this perfectly excellent looking 20″ Samsung Syncmaster 2033sw for another decade – honestly, I just wish it was 1080p and a little bigger…

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I think that’s just the plain truth of the matter for a lot of people. Most people have a smartphone that allows them to achieve a significant amount of their computing tasks. A good amount of homes already have a computer that is less than ten years old, which is good enough for pretty well all productivity tasks as well as most games, even the latest games at low details. There just hasn’t been enough growth in the software industry to necessitate having a more powerful computer in every home than what’s already there. Is faster better? Sure, provided that “faster” is being achieved by simply throwing more hardware and electricity at the issue (as we see in with graphics cards and high-end desktop CPUs). But, how much of a practical improvement does that “faster” actually make? Is it worth the effort and the money? For me, it’s not, because my old machine is still roughly the same as an new entry level gaming desktop.

Happily coasting through the digital cosmos with my ancient PC,

A picture of stuff and junk

My semi-nerdly hovel…

For some much needed context, here the specs of my desktop and a list of things I use it for…

System:
CPU: AMD FX-8320 @ 4GHz
GPU: AMD R9 270 2GB GDDR5
RAM: 12GB DDR3 1600MHz
Motherboard: ASUS M5A97 R2.0
SSD1: 120GB Sandisk SATA (Linux, Devuan 2.0)
SSD2: 240GB SK Hynix SATA (Windows 10 Home)
HD1: 500GB Western Digital (Windows 7 Home)
HD2: 1TB Western Digital (Linux Storage)
CD/DVD: Samsung DVD-RW
A/V Input: KWorld PCI TV Tuner card
Power Supply: NZXT 650W
Monitor: ACER 24″ IPS LCD
Keyboard: Razer Blackwidow Ultimate 2016
Mouse: Logitech M510
Case: Heavily modified AT server tower

Purposes:

  • Boring computer stuff, like reading, web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, media playback, etc.
  • Playing games like Guild Wars 2, Torchlight II, Elite Dangerous, Star Wars Galaxies, Banished, WoW Mania, AstroMenace, Alien Arena, SuperTux2, SuperTuxKart, Frogatto…
  • Program games using C/C++, Lua, JavaScript, Python, virtual machines (VirtualBox), Blender, Tiled…
  • Create and edit raster graphics using GIMP…
  • Make songs and sound effects using Sunvox, Audacity, Rebirth, and my sound board / TV Tuner setup for recording guitar, etc…
  • Manage our family’s picture and video archive…
  • File and software management, zipping/unzipping/installing stuff…
  • Some basic video editing (not really my cup of tea)…

Of the things that I do regularly, about the only noticeably poor experiences are when my frame rate tanks in Guild Wars 2 when the local area is very busy with other characters (which happens even on better machines) and when booting Windows 7 from the hard drive that it is activated on. Transcoding/encoding video and applying filters to very large images in GIMP are also slower than I’d like, but I do those things so infrequently that it doesn’t matter. I’d have to buy a $210 CAD CPU (+RAM +MB) to see a real improvement in the editing and a $350 CAD GPU to improve the performance of 3D games, but it doesn’t feel to me that I need to do so. The downsides to this computer simply don’t bother me enough to make me feel like upgrading.

Sure, I have spent countless hours pouring over tech websites and online shops, looking at ways to upgrade my desktop, but the reality is that I don’t need to upgrade. Yes, the large core count and excellent performance for the dollar of the AMD Ryzen line of CPUs (especially the R5 2600 CPU and R5 2400G APU) are temping, but it’s just money I don’t need to spend, because ultimately I don’t need the extra performance either. The breakneck speed of computer hardware and software growth of the 70s, 80s, and 90s is over. Today we live in a time of “samey” software and incrementally improved hardware that does little entice people to upgrade their existing systems.

I used to think that one day something would come along that my computer couldn’t do and that I just couldn’t live without, because that’s how it always used to be. However, I am starting to think my next big “computer purchase” will end up being a gaming console like the Wii, with all its crazy family exercise related accessories. Wait a minute… we sold our Wii, because we were only using it for Netflix… OK, ya got me, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel the need to buy a computer better than the one I already have!

Let’s Talk About Home Computing Form Factors

When I say “form factors”, I’m talking about the general ergonomic thing we humans mash our meat mitts upon, as apposed to what the Wikipedia entry for the subject entails. In my estimation, there are ten form factors, each having their own benefits and drawbacks, but for the most part today’s computing world has really been honed down to just three. Let’s start by having a look at all of them, starting with my favourite!

Commodore 64c with Samsung LCD TV

Computer Inside the Keyboard

Commodore PET 2001

Desktop All-In-One

IMac G5 Rev A - Photo By Matthew Welty (fiveaside) from Sacramento, USA - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Computer Inside the Monitor

ATX/mATX/Slim Tower

Horizontal Desktop

Laptop/Notebook

Tablet with Keyboard

All-touch Smartphone

Smartphone with Keyboard

Single Board Computer

If you’re alive in 2018, you probably already know that the top three form factors are:

  1. All-Touch Smartphone
  2. Laptop/Notebook
  3. ATX/mATX/Slim Tower

Let’s look at why this is the case…

All-touch smartphones, especially the large “phablet” ones, absolutely are the most common home computers, even though their form factor is significantly different from all of the others. People are now able to carryout all of the same type of tasks on their all-touch smartphones as they are on any of the other platforms, with the biggest differences being the human interfaces and the software capabilities.

Where the all-touch smartphone fails to meet people’s needs, most often in the areas of entering large amounts of data and using specialized software that isn’t available on smartphones, the laptop/notebook form factor easily comes to the rescue. This design has the benefits of being ergonomic to use, all in one, and easily portable, making it probably the best overall computer design for average home use (or human beings in general). Most laptops are able to connect to external keyboards, mice, and screens as well, which dramatically increases their potential to meet the user’s needs, unlike the vast majority of smartphones which remain limited in this regard. As a result, laptops tend to be the most popular home computer systems for everything other than playing modern 3D games and extreme/niche productivity applications.

Finally, where both laptops and smartphones fail the user, the common ATX/mATX/Slim Tower (aka “Desktop PCs”) swoops in to fill every imaginable niche. Being that there are several standardized sized for the towers and only a handful of complimentary standards for the hardware components that go inside, people are able to mix and match components to build home computers that meet their specific needs – provided those needs do not include being effortlessly portable. It’s this versatility, along with the high requirements of hardware to play to modern PC-exclusive 3D games, that keep desktop PCs in homes. As game consoles become increasingly more powerful though, the need for “desktop PCs” will continue diminish, as nearly all the other home user’s computing needs can be satisfactorily met by laptops and smartphones.

Where does that leave all the other form factors?

With the exception of TV connected media player style computers that somewhat resemble Horizontal Desktop computers (yet are most often operated by remote controls or a combined wireless mouse/keyboard), the only remaining form factor of note for home computing is that of the Single Board Computers. The interesting thing about both media player computers and single board computers is that the diminutive size of their components and the low processing requirement of their software generally mean their form factors can be as large or as small as the user would like. In fact, many media player computers are indeed built using single board computers, such as the Raspberry Pi; In many respects, as far as home computing goes, they’re one in the same. Of course, single board computers are small enough to also being useful as hobby devices which can be integrated within robots and other electro-mechanical devices within the home. And with those exceptions behind, let’s look at why the other form factors have fallen out of favour with home computer users.

Computer In the Monitor
I’m sure Apple would disagree, but I think the truth here is that apart from people who like the specialized Apple ecosystem, most home computer buyers are leery of tying the heart of their computer purchase to the size and quality of the screen. If they want something bigger later, they’ll have upgrade the whole system. If the screen breaks and the warranty is up, chances are it would be cheaper to buy a new system – but if they had a tower, with its separate monitor, they could even go so far as to make due to a used $10 monitor. And perhaps the combination of laptop level performance, limited upgrade options, and lack of portability just makes this style of computer less attractive to the average home computer user.

Desktop All-In-One
No one has made this style of computer, with the screen, keyboard, and computer all built into a single chassis, for a very long time. This is probably largely due to the reasons I mentioned above. Indeed, if one part breaks or simply no longer suits your needs/desires, you’re likely facing the decisions to replace the whole unit rather than fixing or replacing the one aspect that needs attention. I’m not surprised this design fell out of favour relatively quickly (by the early 1980s). Still, as we can see with the Commodore PET line, the concept is capable of creating some very handsome and inspiring machines!

I think I’d also consider the “luggable” computers, such as the early Compaq, Commodore, and IBM machines, as all-in-one desktops, rather than laptops/notebooks. None of those machines physically operate in a manner similar to how laptops operate (like the front and back covers of a book) and all of them are as heavy or heavier than your average modern PC tower. So yeah, the luggables of yore are effectively all-in-ones too.

Computer in the Keyboard
I really like this design, probably in large part due to nostalgia, but it does have a number of practical merits as well. Firstly, the keyboard mechanism is far easier to replace than a screen would be, so provided the person likes using it, the having the keyboard built into the computer isn’t a big deal. Again, provided the keyboard isn’t made such that the computer is uncomfortable to use, having all of the computer parts inside the keyboard that’s going to be sitting on the table/desk is pretty handy. Really, a modern laptop is essentially the same thing when it’s built in screen is removed, which truly is a testament to the portability of the “Computer in the Keyboard” design. I like the concept, because it puts everything right where my “monkey tools” are interacting with the machine, thereby making the whole experience more tactile and personal. Yes, I am looking up at the screen, but I am always touching the keyboard! That said, it was the advent of the cheap rubber dome keyboard that caused this style of computer to fall out of favour in the mid 1990s. It just made more sense for OEMs to put the expensive parts into a cheap generic tower so they could plug in cheap (and easily replaceable) keyboards and mice, and so that’s how the industry evolved over the years. It’s a crying shame, because when you look at the variety of units that were made by Atari, Acorn, Sinclair, Amstrad, Commodore, Amiga, and other companies from the 1970s to 1990s, there’s just so much inspiring industrial design and personality to touch and feel and love! I really wish this form factor would make a comeback!

Smartphone with Keyboard
It seems that Blackberry is the final holdout in the smartphone with a keyboard market. Unfortunately, in my personal opinion as a former Blackberry Bold/Curve/Q10 user, I think their current products completely miss the target. What made the Bold 9900 such an excellent device was that it could be used with one hand – literally every function could be accomplished using only my thumb! I miss that so much that I would honestly trade my Samsung Galaxy S8 for a Bold 9900 that had an updated camera, because as a communications device, the Bold 9900 is perfect. These new “Key” branded devices on the other hand are so tall that they are unwieldy, meaning you’re really better off to just use an all touch smartphone with an on screen keyboard. It’s not like the on screen keyboards are as tiny and inaccurate as they used to be. I think eventually Blackberry will stop making phones with keyboards, because the devices they are making are for a niche of an already niche group, rather than being targeted explicitly towards busy people need a quality device that excels at calls, SMS/MMS/BBM, email, and pictures.

Horizontal Desktop
As much as I do like the cutesy looks of the IBM PS/2, Commodore 64D, and Apple IIGS horizontal desktop computers, I think they fell out of favour for logical, if mundane, reasons. People got used to looking at the 4:3 LCD monitor that was plunked on their desk as work. I know I did for a few years, until I decided to prop my monitor up on a box in the hopes that it would help me stop slouching (it has helped!). Putting the “computer box” on the floor meant people had more room for stuff on their desk. That said, I imagine the single biggest factor in shoving the desktop computer to the floor was that hard disk storage capacity displaced the need for removable media – people simply didn’t need to fiddle with storage media anymore, so the box may as well be out of their way! Again, this makes me a little sad, because I really like the physical and auditory aspects of using 3.5″ floppy disks. It’s too bad we don’t have anything similar anymore, but really, it’s not very often I need to plug my smartphone into the computer, let alone use a USB stick or CD/DVD. Yup, with so little reason to touch the desktop “box”, off the desk it went.

Wrapping Up
I think as time goes on we’ll see more of the tablet/laptop hybrid devices in people’s homes, as processing power increases, power consumption decreases, and software becomes more optimized for lower power devices. Eventually gaming consoles will be robust and cheap enough to cross the point where “gamers” won’t bother with the extra issues PCs bring with them. Instead they will, like most everyone else, do the majority of their communicating and data processing on their smartphones, while filling in the holes in their productivity with a convertible tablet/laptop style machine. Perhaps in as little as a decade the only computers resembling the “ATX Tower PC” will be the workstations that power content creation and research in the business and education sectors, with the most powerful home computers essentially being the laptops we’re using today. On the whole, I think that’s probably a positive progression for home computing, as the laptop/notebook form factor really is the culmination of all the aspects of computing that we humans enjoy. And hey, if the screen breaks at least you’ll have your very own modern-retro computer when you hook it up to an external monitor! 🙂

Two Very Different Retro Compaq Keyboards

Sure, rubber dome keyboards aren’t as alluring as an IBM Model M with buckling springs or as hip as “mechanical keyboards” with fancy switches, but some of them can provide a nice typing experience none the less. Take for instance the Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000 that I used for the better part of a decade, because its comfortable key spacing made it difficult to replace with a keyboard that had a standard layout, even after the darn keys starting binding when pressed. Binding is when the key shaft getting stuck to the side of the hole it sits in as the key is being pressed down, thereby failing to register a key stroke as the key wasn’t pressed all the way down. Yup, I loved the letters right off that thing!

Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000

But today I am not here to wax poetic about my favourite keyboard of yore. Rather, I am here to write about two other old rubber dome keyboards that I have kicking around the house. One is a Compaq RT101 from the early 1990s and the other is a Compaq KB-9963 from 1998 – 2001.

The RT101 is excellent, while the KB-9963 is… a keyboard.

Compaq RT101

Compaq KB-9963

Ignoring the obvious differences of the older keyboard missing the media and Windows keys, there’s not a whole lot to differentiate these two keyboards, until you pick them up. The RT101 is roughly twice as heavy as the KB-9963, thanks to its steel barrel plate and stiffer plastic chassis, making it immediately obvious that something is different about it than the other one. As you might suspect from the mention of a barrel plate, the RT101 uses a completely different system for its rubber domes than the KB-9963.

Individual rubber caps snap down onto the membrane to actuate the key strokes in the RT101.

Barrel plate of the RT101.

The steel barrel plate of the RT101 sits behind the black plastic sockets, helping sandwich the membrane between the key stem and the green rubber cups. This gives the keyboard a solid feeling when typing and were the keycap+stems not so loose in their sockets(thus very “clacky” sounding), the keyboard would have a very low frequency sound when typing. Believe it or not though, this is actually my loudest keyboard due to those clacky key stems, with the exception of the bassy thud of its spacebar. Seriously, when not pressing the keys all the way down, the RT101 is louder than my Chrerry MX Blue based Razer Blackwidow Ultimate (real MX Blues, not the Razer Greens) and that’s saying something!

Tangent: My quietest keyboard is the one on my Commodore 64c. Double shot PBT kecaps and big o’l springs FTW!

If we have a look at the KB-9963’s mechanisms, we can see that it employs the modern “cheap ass keyboard” design, where the membrane is sandwiched between the plastic bottom of the chassis and the rubber sheet that has the rubber domes built into it.

Membrane keyboards get a bad rap, but really they are a super smart design. Not the very best to type on, but not the worst either. This KB-9963 uses the modern “all domes on a single rubber sheet” style system.

For some reason, this style of rubber domes are invariable squishy, lacking any “sproing” or “snap” on the way down and very little feeling on the way back up. The green rubber cups on the RT101 on the other hand have a notable tactile “snap” on the way down, while somewhat forcefully returning to position under one’s fingertips on their way up. This difference alone makes the RT101 feel very pleasant to type on, having a better key feel than the rest of my non-mechanical keyboards.

RT101 key cap and post design

KB-9963 key cap and post design.

But the devil is in the details, they say, and nowhere is that more obvious than when pressing down the CTL keys on these two keyboards. As you can see from the images above, both of these keyboards have the key posts built into the key caps, but take note of their differences. The square shape of the RT101 posts does not cause the keys to bind at all, where as the round posts on the KB-9963 keys will bind even after I greased the daylights out of the of their posts! There’s just something about how the square shafts fit into their holes that makes them entirely superior. When it comes to pressing keys, it’s pretty much unforgivable when the key doesn’t actually go down and active – no amount of fancy Windows and media keys can make up for that shortcoming.

And the crazy part of all of this?

For a time, before I bought the Comfort Key 2000, I used the KB-9963 instead of the RT101, simply because it had those nifty extra keys! Back in the early 2000s, I just didn’t know any better. Heck, I let my kids darn near obliterate both keyboards over the years, because I figured they were both something I could replace for a couple dollars. While that is true for the KB-9963, finding nice PS/2 rubber dome keyboards like the RT101 is getting harder and more expensive every year.

Having cleaned up my Compaq Deskpro 4000 computer last year, I wanted to have a matching keyboard for it. Originally I cleaned and lubed the KB-9963, but typing on it drove me up the wall enough to replace it with a thrift store sourced early beige Microsoft Comfort keyboard. I didn’t really like that keyboard either, because it didn’t fit well on the keyboard tray of my desk (I’m not a fan of keyboard trays either, but it’s OK for a secondary PC and it leaves the desktop open for the C64c), so I poked around the attic to see if I had anything else. Sure enough, the trusty Compaq RT101 was there waiting for me, having been retired from the kid’s room a couple years ago. The poor thing was… well, here have a look at this gallery of pictures where I took it apart and cleaned it!

And just in case you felt like peaking at my cleaning of the KB-9963, here’s a gallery of that action for ya. The kids had made that one almost as gross as the other one. Almost! 🙂

Bottom line?

If you happen to come across a Compaq RT101 keyboard that’s in good shape and it’s cheap, chances are it would make a competent companion for your retro PC. It’s simple looks, nice typing feel, and PS/2 compatibility are a good fit for the 486 and Pentium “beige box” desktop designs of the 1990s. Would a new buckling spring from Unicomp provide a nicer typing experience, while also looking just as retro? Sure, but they’re pricey even for residents of the USA, let alone we folks in countries like Canada and Australia, where everything from USA costs us around 30% more due to currency conversion. In the end, the value is 100% based on what you like to look at how much you’re actually going to use it. 🙂