Category Archives: General Geekery

If it doesn’t fit somewhere else, but I felt like sharing it…

The World Doesn’t Need More Video Games

According to research by Jacob of Gaming Shift, roughly 1,181,019 games have been made for modern platforms (so excluding the many thousands of games from the 1970s to the early 2000s). Chances are that anything you can think of has already been done, but if you feel like making a game, go ahead and make it anyway. Just do it because you want to rather than out of some sense of duty towards humanity or whatever.

Maybe it’s just me, but I have the feeling that many others also suffer from the oppressive feeling that the things we do with our time must have some greater purpose or function than simply our enjoyment of the experience. And I think that pressure can be the catalyst for twisting something we enjoy into something we actively try to avoid. Personally, my best example of this is RocketTux, a game that I wanted to finish two years ago, which I honestly no longer work on, yet I regularly chastise myself for neither completing nor following up on.

So what went wrong?

Well, the initial purpose of RocketTux was pretty simple. I had just gotten a Chromebook and I thought it would be fun to use said Chromebook to make games that can run really well on it. The idea of “couch dev-ing” seemed pretty great after all those hours at my desk working on Legend of Hondo. So I did some research on Chrome Apps for ChromeOS and the various tools I could use for graphics and sound creation, which lead me to Phaser CE for Javascript game development and various online tools.

It only took a few months for me realize that working with Google’s Chrome App platform sucked. There were so many needless complications and constant changes that even with my crappy little app, I had to keep changing code I had already completed. If ever you’ve read my blog, you’ll know that I really fucking hate revisiting completed code due to, “like, changes man”. Meanwhile, I had written all of my game design on the premise that Chromebook hardware kinda sucks and the overhead/limitations of using the Chrome browser puts a lot of stress on the crappy hardware. As a result, the game I envisioned, the game I designed, and the game I ended up building were very different. Disappointingly different.

Eventually I threw up my hands and said, “screw it, I’ll make it a generic web app rather than a ChromeOS app!”. I had already moved the development over to my Desktop PC anyway and it was very easy to use NW.js to wrap a Chrome browser around the game…

So there I was, back sitting at my desk working on an open source game that I will probably never play so that I could learn… what? What exactly was the point of the exercise again???

Creating RocketTux was supposed to be a stepping stone, a way for me to learn how to use PhaserJS so that I could go forth and make other games with my Chromebook that struck my fancy (I already knew how to make games in C/C++/Lua/etc on a normal PC). But, somewhere along the way my mind twisted it into also being other crazy things, like “a gift to students and the open source community at large” or worse, “proof that I don’t suck and that I can finish what I started”. Over time the project morphed from a fun hobby into a tangible portion of my very self worth, yet it was also trapped in a crummy system with a design full of compromises, all of which was locked behind the “sunk cost” of having completed so much already…

I had lost my way. I felt bad about myself. I gave up.

But you know what?

The world doesn’t need me to make computer games.

It’s OK for our hobbies to be nothing more than stuff we do simply because we enjoy doing it, even if we’re not “good at it” or we never “make anything out of it”. I hereby give all of us permission to start knitting a blanket and turn it into a scarf three months later, because, wow, blankets are big! Yup, if you want to make crappy paintings on bits of cardboard with paints you bought at the dollar store, like I do, go for it. I even painted a yard gnome one day – he was looking shabby and you know what, it was fun! Truly, enjoying the process is what hobbies are all about.

I need me to make computer games, because I enjoy the creative process and the puzzle solving. However, I don’t need to make them in a way that isn’t fun for me; The world doesn’t need more video games.

Microcomputers of the Modern Age

In the mid to late 1970s many companies around the world, such as Apple, Commodore, Atari, Sinclair, and Acorn, began producing computers for use in homes by the general public. Some of the most popular examples would be the Commodore64, the BBC Micro, and the ZX Spectrum. Almost all of these devices presented the user with a text interface that allowed the user to control the machine with a set of simple DOS-like commands as well as some form of the BASIC programming language. Collectively these devices are what is most often meant when people refer to “Microcomputers”.

Here in the year 2020 however, one could soundly argue that our smartphones are the microcomputers of our time, given their diminutive size and their computing prowess. However, in my mind there are two major problems with smartphones being considered in this way,

  1. The human interface devices are all wrong – a touch screen is a whole other paradigm than the “keyboard with a monitor/tv at a desk/couch” setup.
  2. Cost. Except for the cheapest and most limited options, smartphones are considerably more expensive than the microcomputers of yore.

To me, this Lenovo Ideapad 100e (Gen1) that I am typing on and similar laptops with 11.6″ screens, are what I consider to be the microcomputers of the modern age, because their properties are very much in the spirit of those old home computers. They’re small self contained units that are affordable and extremely capable for their price point and design. In fact, be they in either their Chromebook or Windows 10 formats, these 11.6″ laptop computers are a way better value than any of the original microcomputers, even after the heavy discounts those machines saw by the mid 1980s. And all the while, these modern machines are capable of much more in terms of productivity, entertainment, and connectivity.

Consider the following table detailing the important components that are included with the purchase,

Model Name Keyboard Pointer Screen Sound Storage Operating System Price
Ideapad 100e Yes Trackpad Yes Speakers 128GB Inteneral, MicroSD & USB Windows 10 Pro $270 CAD
Commodore64 Yes No No No None Included MS BASIC 2.0 $350-$150 USD
BBC Micro Yes No No No None Included BBC BASIC $235 GPB
ZX Spectrum Yes No No No None Included Sinclair BASIC $125 GPB
Tandy 1000EX PC Yes No No Speaker 5.25″ Floppy Drive MS DOS 2.1 $1000 USD
Amiga 500 Yes Mouse No Speaker 3.5″ Floppy Drive AmigaOS 1.2 $600 USD

Not even considering currency conversions or inflation, it’s immediately obvious that the 100e is the best deal given that it comes with all of the components one needs to use the device while also being very inexpensive. Even the Tandy 1000EX and Amiga 500, which were some of the most affordable and capable computers of the late 1980s, can’t even come close to the value of the Lenovo 100e, because they are far more expensive while also lacking several important components, such as…

  • A screen!
  • Internal data storage.
  • A battery (that lasts for 10+ hours).
  • A modem or network interface device.

The same is true for all of the affordable 11.6″ style Chromebooks and Windows 10 computers, though I would argue that the Windows 10 devices are a better deal, because they can do everything that a Chromebook can do while also allowing the user to easily run any x86 based software.

Tangent: Having used an x86 based Chromebook for a few years, I can confidently say that’s way more of a pain in the ass to use Linux on it than it is to use Linux, FreeDOS, or Windows on my similarly spec’d 100e that came with Win10Pro. Truthfully, my HP Chromebook 14 was $100 more expensive than my Lenovo 100e, despite the Chromebook having half the RAM, half the amount CPUs, 8 times less storage, and no Windows license. I suppose the HP 14 did have a 14″ screen, but our 11.6″ HP Chromebook is similarly inferior to the Lenovo 100e (it has 4GB RAM rather 2GB like the 14″ Chromebook). If you want to install a full Linux ditribution, run Windows software, or use software emulators or virtual machines, buy a Windows computers rather than a Chromebook. At least that way you can easily use whatever you’d like, including a legit copy of Windows, without having to do anything weird to the machine, such as installing a third party BIOS or opening the chassis to remove a “restraining bolt“. That said, Chromebooks running only ChromeOS are excellent computers just as they are, especially for students and folks who do most of their computing in a web browser anyway.

Given that it’s possible to run pretty much all the old software from the original microcomputers (and DOS/Windows 3.1/95/98 and game consoles!) by way emulators, one can sit down at one these 11.6″ style laptops and feel like they’re using an old computer from times gone by. And my personal favorite part is that we’re able to do so with the seamless integration of battery backup – its awesome to use a computer all day without having to plug it in and it’s even more awesome that the computer is completely silent while doing so!

Having sung those praises, I will happily admit there are also some downsides to the laptop form factor when it comes to the nostalgia of ergonomics and visual appeal. For instance, despite the chassis of my Lenovo 100e sporting the same black plastic of a ZX Spetrum or Commodore Plus/4 microcomputer, its design language is positively boring by comparison. I mean, that’s OK, because I actually really like this chassis (though I do prefer the Gen2 design, but I couldn’t find a Windows version available in Canada…), but it’s definitely obvious that the older computers had way more style. And of course, poking away at this “chiclet” keyboard is not the same as squishing a Specy’s rubber keys or placking an IBM’s bucking springs, nor does staring at this 16:9 ratio LCD screen bring about the nostalgic musings that can only be delivered by photons fired into one’s eyes from the phosphoric end of a cathode ray tube. However, it is possible to turn this modern machine into a retro inspired “micro” by attaching a custom mechanical keyboard (a new Unicomp Model M) and using a powered HDMI to SVGA adapter (with 3.5mm headphone jack) to connect one’s preferred CRT monitor. Heck, a crazy person might even hook up an old TV with a composite adapter while using a VIC20 + Keyrah as keyboard for the full effect of 1980s computing. Anyway, what I am truly saying here is that you have plenty of options to mitigate the downsides of the machine, while still benefiting from all the positives it has to offer.

What I find totally crazy though is that these small, inexpensive Chromebooks and Windows laptops are “low-end computers” that many people probably feel are junk. Yet with the exception of playing modern 3D games and using photo or video editing software for large projects, that assertion couldn’t be farther from the truth. The plain truth of the matter is that my 11.6″ screened, battery powered, portable machine with its 6W CPU and total lack of moving parts, has better computing performance than my desktop PC from 2008 with its 95W CPU, 450W power supply, and its assload of noisy fans. It was also five times cheaper. And really, for day to day tasks, such as browsing the web, watching videos, and doing office type work, this level of computing performance is perfectly acceptable – I am never annoyed by the performance of my Chromebooks nor this 100e running Win10 Pro.

So here is my microcomputer of the modern age,

I think it’s pretty damned cool! Can it play Crysis? No, but it can play Star Wars Galaxies and thousands of other games! Personally, I am enjoying puttering with QBasic and playing Stardew Valley anywhere I happen to feel like flopping my arse down. 🙂

Software Bloat Betrays the Raspberry Pi Zero W

I purchased a Raspberry Pi Zero W several months ago with the intention that it would replace the DOS/Windows functionality of my old Pentium 233MMX computer with equivalent Linux based software, while using waaaay less electricity! I also thought it would be a good idea to use the $14 CAD Pi Zero W for programming my Arduino UNO rather than any of my other much more expensive computers, because short circuits happen man!

The use case for my old machine is very limited, given that it exists only to satisfy my nostalgia for the first PC I bought myself. Of course back then I used that machine for all my computing needs, where as now I have a modern desktop and a smart phone to handle my “real computing”. So here is what I have been using my Deskpro for:

DOS: Word Perfect 5.1, Impulse Tracker, QBasic
Windows: Rebirth, Audacity, WinAmp, Wordpad, Notepad, MS Paint

It runs all of those things very well, to a point – it does not like to multi task (WinAmp playback will “skip” when computer is busy) and it very much prefers to run at 800×600 in Windows rather than at 1024×768, due to the low-end graphics card. But honestly, it is a totally usable computer that is excellent for hobbyist audio and game production. The only downsides are its physical size, the amount of electricity it consumes, and it’s cumbersome connectivity to the outside world (which in practical terms is its single rear USB port, as I don’t have any other computers that can read Iomega Zip disks or 3.5″ floppy disks).

Let’s compare the specifications of the Raspberry Pi Zero to my Compaq Deskpro 4000 desktop…

Compaq Deskpro 4000
– Intel Pentium 233MHz CPU with MMX
– 96MB of 66MHz SDRAM
– S3 Virge GX 4MB SVGA graphics
– SoundBlaster 16 audio
– Windows 98 SE / DOS 6.22 / FreeDOS 2.0

Raspberry Pi Zero W
– ARM6 BCM2835 1,000MHz CPU
– VideoCore IV 64MB HDMI graphics
– Some audio codec for sound…
– Rasbian Lite (Debian 10 ARM)

Architecture differences aside, it’s pretty obvious that the ARM6 CPU performs much faster than the older Intel CPU that is clocked 4 times slower. If it could run the same software, this ARM CPU would be roughly equivalent to an Intel Pentium III 600MHz, which is impressive given that the surface area of the whole Pi Zero “motherboard” is smaller than that of just the P3 CPU!

I’ve been using GNU/Linux since 1998 and I have installed and configured countless flavors of both Linux and Windows in that time, so it’s not like I had crazy expectations when going into this project; I knew that my desired functionality was available via native GNU/Linux software and all of those functions worked well on much lesser hardware, so what could go wrong!

Well, after testing every light weight system for XWindows and huge amount of software, the following is what would run acceptably…

DOS Program => BASH Program
Imulse Tracker => MilkyTracker => Nano
Borland C => GCC
QBasic => BaCon

Windows Program => Xorg Program
Windows => WindowMaker (JUST WM!)
Windows Explorer => Xfe
Audacity => Audacity
MS Paint => MT Paint
Winamp => Audacious
Netscape => Dillo
DOS Prompt => Xterm
Notepad => Leafpad
Wordpad => Nothing – even Abiword sucked!

I was really sad that IceWM, JWM, and Fluxbox all had problems of some kind, be it IceWM’s memory leak that brought the system to its knees after a few minutes or just being CPU heavy in the way that LXDE’s Lxpanel program is. Likewise Schism Tracker, which is based on the actual source code of Impulse Tracker, was completely unusable. Thankfully MilkyTracker worked great, provided it was run from a TTY and the XWindows session was not running in the background. The full GNUStep suite of software ran like a dog with three broken legs (as did LXDE, Xfce, and Mate), but its WindowMaker window manager ran quite nicely.

The performance of Abiword and Gnumeric (spreadsheet) was thoroughly disappointing, because they are the best light weight Word/Excel replacements for GNU/Linux, yet they were both slow enough to be completely obnoxious to use. Even going from an empty document to one with a few lines or cells was laggy and annoying. The same can be said for Geany, Mousepad, and literally every other graphical text editor in the Debian repo. Of course, Nano was fine and while I don’t use Vi, Emacs, or the text editor in Midnight Commander, I assume they would perform perfectly fine when run from a TTY (and probably fine when run in a terminal emulator).

On the upside, plain old Xterm ran so much better than any other terminal emulator, which was great as it’s also able to be customized to look similar to the fancier programs. Using WindowMaker as a little weird, as its UI paradigm was unfamiliar to me, but it was hands down the fastest windowing system to load, move, resize, refresh, and close programs. And bless its heart, Xfe was quick and feature rich file explorer that was a pleasure to use, though even the Windows 98 SE version of Windows Explorer is faster and more polished. Yes, LXDE’s PCManFM does work on the Pi Zero W, but it’s slow in that, “man this fucking sucks!” kind of way which is just not acceptable for everyday use.

Compiling small C programs in DOS and GNU/Linux felt the same, which is important when using BaCon (BASIC to C converter) rather than QBasic, because ultimately it compiles C code. GCC is a little slow in general, but it wasn’t any slower than compiling C programs in DOS 6.22 or FreeDOS 2.0 on the old machine. I would imagine that compiling a very large project would favor the Pentium 233MMX due to the optimization of the Borland compiler and the speed of the IDE Compact Flash storage, but it would really depend on the project. I was just farting around with Ncurses games on the Pi similar demo games on the PC.

QEMU and DOSBox both ran Impulse Tracker like crap and I didn’t even bother trying to run Rebirth with Wine, because there’s no just way that wouldn’t have been a shit-show.

On the whole, using the Raspberry Pi Zero W as a replacement for my old Win98 PC sucked, a lot. So much so that it’s really not even worth doing.


Because GNU/Linux is bloated as all hell and the Pi requires so much “magic kruft” just to boot that it’s not really possible to slim the system down much further than what the Raspberry Pi Foundation has already done in Rasbian Lite. The Linux kernel is bloated. Most GNU software is bloated. Binary blob drivers that do weird shit (like use the GPU to run boot code!) that requires the system to be configured in a specific manner… It all culminates into a poorly performing system that is overly complicated and underwhelming to use.

It’s just not a nice experience, especially when compared to the simplicity of the PC BIOS and installing/using either DOS or Windows on a PC. Heck, even Slackware 7 is more usable on my old PC than the very best setup of GNU/Linux on the Pi Zero and using XWindows in Slackware 7 is right bloody awful compared to Windows 95, let alone Win98 SE!

The sad thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s entirely possible to make a simple, FAST, and useful desktop operating system for single core ARM6 CPUs with 512MB of RAM and a basic graphics adapter with OpenGL ES support. RISC OS Open would be a good example, were it not for the lack of hardware support that prevents it from working properly and the lack software that accomplishes the required tasks; At least the software that does work in RISC OS works very well and the OS itself boots instantly! And so it bloody well should! If the Pi Zero W wifi, bluetooth, gpio, and audio (it’s too quiet) were fully functional in RISC OS Open that would absolutely make for a perfect, fast desktop OS on the wee little computer.

The Raspberry Pi Zero hardware is no slouch, but the software they give you for it fucking sucks.

Sadly, the Pi Foundation doesn’t care. I’ve seen forum posts by their engineers that say the Pi Zero isn’t meant to be a desktop and it’s not much of a conspiracy theory to say that they do this to sell you a more expensive Pi. You know, a Pi that is fast enough to cover up a lot of the problems inherent to modern GNU/Linux software. Why would the Pi Foundation write excellent software for their cheapest product when they can slap together free stuff made by volunteers and call it day? Who needs to take pride in their work when there’s free labor to exploit! Cynical? God damned right, but I’m also not wrong.

The Pi Foundation could easily put together a GNU/Linux based OS image that instantly boots the Pi Zero to a form of BBC BASIC which is capable of using all the Pi’s GPIO, camera, and other functions, and comes with a usable desktop that runs a WYSIWYG text editor and the Dillo browser for Wikipedia and forum access. They just don’t and that’s a crying shame.

Alrighty, I suppose this concludes my grumpy ramblings about the couple of months I spent dicking around with my Raspberry Pi Zero W. I could say a lot more, delving into great detail about various aspects of the experience, but I don’t feel like it. Sorry. It’s just not worth my time and really, it’s not worth your time either. Maybe between now and the end of life of the Raspberry Pi Zero w in 2026 we will see a renewed effort by the Pi Foundation on the software front, allowing we mere mortals to get more out of the machines, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Until then, my interest in the Pi Zero will remain as something I can accidentally blow up when programming my $8 micro controller without breaking the bank.

I know this may seem like a pretty damning assessment of GNU/Linux itself and to be honest, it is. GNU/Linux peaked for me with Linux Mint 17.3 – everything after that is just worse in one way or another, be it regressive bugs, “change for the sake of change”, or outright unusable garbage in some instances. On the flip side, Windows 10 has improved tremendously, even to the point where I really don’t have any problems with it beyond it being ugly. That’s saying a lot, considering that I hated it a few years ago. As such, I basically use Windows 10 for everything other than audio recording, for which I still use Mint 17.3, because it “just works”. I have no desire to partake in the flavor of the month chasing, convoluted “that sounds cool, let’s do it” funk that has become of so many GNU/Linux distributions and the Linux kernel itself. I mean, you know it’s bad when it ends up being a better experience when using older GNU software in the latest version of Windows than it is when using the latest GNU software in the most up to date Linux distributions… I’m done, I no longer care; what I already have works just fine for me!

As for what I am going to do about using my old PC for nostalgia, I’m just not going to “do it” at all. The system took up way too much space at my desk and frankly I can just fire up a virtual machine from Windows when feel like using the old software.

Raspberry Pi Zero & Arduino UNO in an old DVD Player Chassis

Well, it’s not really at all like prototype kids electronics computer station thing I made a render of in Blender last year, but it’s kind of cool and definitely helps my desk stay uncluttered, which is nice.

Nice and tidy Pi Zero and Arduino UNO setup

The keyboard is a particularly kick butt off-brand mechanical deal, with Cherry MX blue style switches and double-shot PBT keycaps built on a thick metal plate, that I bought on sale of less than $24 CAD. That was one hell of a deal considering that I paid about the same for my all plastic Microsoft ComfortCurve 2000, with its bendy chassis and rubber dome keys, in the early 2000s. Moving on, I also included a powered USB hub, a breadboard for electronics tinkering, and hand-made mount that allows the Pi Zero W to sit mostly inside the plastic front bezel, leaving it beyond the metal chassis for better Wifi reception. Speaking of Wifi, initially I only wanted the $6 CAD Pi Zero, but I wasn’t able to find one in stock, so I bought the $11 Pi Zero W instead. All things considered, I suppose it is a lot simpler to use Apt on the network rather than downloading packages to a USB stick on a different computer and installing them that way. All of these parts I attached with a handful of screws and some wire I pealed out of an Ethernet cable; Threading the wires through holes in the plastic/metal plates was both sturdy and cost effective! Don’t worry, there is a piece of silver coloured plastic between the bottom on the Pi and the metal frame it’s mounted upon.

Anyhow, my primary use for the machine is to play around with programming in the C language in a command line only world that hearkens back to the 8 Bit days, in a way. Having spent a year with my Commodore 64c, I decided that I prefer puttering around with Linux, C, Python, Lua, BASIC, and all that jazz rather than futzing with Assembly on the C64. I very much enjoy the combination of the “limited” Pi Zero, with its single core CPU and 512MB RAM, and the meager Arduino UNO, because the combo is not only crazy powerful for character graphics programming (Ncurses library), but I can accidentally blow up either of them when working on an electronics project without worrying too much about it. Always a little freaky plugging that Arduino into a computer! Finally, I love that the whole system uses less than 2 Watts of power under full load – it makes a whole lot more sense to do use it for command line based programming that my electricity sucking desktop, that’s for sure!

That said, I don’t really have any projects on the go with it at this time. I already have a bunch of other projects I am not doing as it is lol… Seriously, I need to find the passion to finish RocketTux, basically for the sake of doing so at this point… And with that said, I do have some crazy ideas which will no doubt show up on my GitHub page in due time. Think Commodore PET style games and software, only it’s Rasbian (Debian) Linux rather than Commodore BASIC…

Here are some more pictures of the setup.

This once was Daytech DVD-868V50 DVD player.

Powered USB Hub, Breadboard, and a plastic bottom with plenty of space for misc parts to dangle around!

I made a custom rear panel out of plastic. Could have done a better job with the Arduino hole…

This is a terrible picture. My main desktop keyboard is backlit, while the one for the Pi in front of it is not. Split screen command line thanks to Tmux.

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).

– 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.

– 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! 🙂

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, 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…

CPU: AMD FX-8320 @ 4GHz
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


  • 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


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. 🙂

Bored? Make a Board Game!

Entertaining one’s children all summer on a shoe string budget can be daunting, especially when one lives in a place that doesn’t have any public transit. Escape to greener pastures isn’t always possible, but there’s plenty we can do right here in our house/yard. One such thing is making a new board game to play!

Yes, there are plenty of existing games we could play, but there’s just something magical about making one’s own game. I remember making board games and the like as a kid, usually trying in vain to convince peers to play them, but having great fun with the process none the less. Anyhow, this is the second or third board game I have made with the girls (admittedly I designed this one on my own last night while I was laying in bed not sleeping…).

We came up with the name “Deck or Die” tonight, because the game is played with a partial deck of cards and one die. I created a page for the game on my site, which you can view by using the link in the “My Games” menu or by clicking the link below. All the details on how to make a board and play the game are there.

It’s a pretty fun game that can accommodate about five players. Let us know if you make your own game board and enjoy it!

Final version of the Deck or Die © prototype.