Really Nice Keyboards

I tend to type a lot. I don’t write for a living (though sometimes when making time entries it starts to feel like it), but I am verbose (ask anyone I know, but make sure I’m not around or you may not be able to get a word in edgewise!) and I like to type. I’m not the fastest typist but I’m pretty darn good. Well above average, at least. After several tries I managed to hit more than 100 Words Per Minute (WPM) on a test in my teens, but 50-80 WPM is relatively normal.

When you type a lot and are decent at it, you can usually type well on most keyboards, but it’s a lot more pleasant and causes fewer mistakes (and possibly more speed, even if just from fewer mistakes) to use a high-quality keyboard with a good “feel.” Most laptops have really bad keyboards, most desktops come with cheap keyboards, and you can get a better-but-not-great keyboard for $20 to $40 if you want one. Some laptops have nicer keyboards as well, the pricier ones anyway, and especially business models. IBM’s old desktop keyboards from the ’80s (that’s when they started) were awesome (people still refurbish and sell them today! Also, Lexmark was an IBM spinoff originally formed to make their keyboards), and the IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad series is known for having excellent keyboards, for example, though that hasn’t been as true lately. Dell Latitude keyboards are ones I’ve generally been happy with, though they’re middle-of-the-road. Any keyboard on a sub-$500 laptop will probably feel like junk.

That brings me to the Surface Pro 3. I already pointed out in my review that the biggest shortcoming of the SP3 is, in my opinion, the Type Cover keyboard. It’s a marvelous feat of engineering and it’s bearable compared to, well, any other keyboard that thin, but compared to nice keyboards, it’s total junk. Keys occasionally type when they’re not supposed to, the travel is super short (for obvious reasons), and it’s on the cramped side of full-sized for a laptop. (And that’s just the keys. The trackpad is miserable as a mouse, though I generally dislike them except for Apple trackpads.)

So, this past week, the Woot deal site had a nice deal. A premium keyboard company called Das Keyboard (not only does a coworker have one of their keyboards, I’m kind of partial to the name being my initials!) makes mechanical keyboards that are very high quality with various Cherry MX brand mechanical switches (a company that’s been making keyboard switches since before I was born and is the main supplier of this kind of clicking mechanical switch). And Woot had one of their very nice keyboards, the Das Keyboard 4 Professional (and Ultimate) (Das sells it on their site as well and also has sample sounds of the various switch types available). Woot also had a secondary sale on a slightly different model keyboard of theirs, the Das Keyboard Professional Model S, for less but with a different key feel and sound (Cherry MX Red Quiet Key version).

Now, I didn’t buy these deals because I wasn’t ready to spend that kind of money on a keyboard I’d not really researched or tested, and I wasn’t planning on a keyboard purchase, even though the Surface Pro 3’s keyboard’s lack of quality has bugged me lately. I only work at my own desk zero to two days per week; if I was constantly at the same desk a nice keyboard would be a no-brainer (I currently have a Microsoft Natural Keyboard 4000 that’s served me well for years but is a little mushy). But the deals got me thinking, so I did some research today while procrastinating on my Ham radio license upgrade testing study, and I think I’ll probably get a mechanical keyboard soon, even if I don’t use it 100% of the time.

A quick aside; I’m not going to go into detail about the various mechanical switch types in nice keyboards (or the rubber switches in cheaper ones), that’s been done to death elsewhere. Das has a good guide, and The Keyboard Company has good details about Cherry MX switches in specific (Cherry MX switch types vary and are differentiated by color as to the feel and sound).

I could pick up one of the Das models, they do look nice and they get awesome reviews. And I was tempted, after ending up looking for cheaper options and finding mostly some knockoff brands along with some accessory makers that put Cherry MX switches in gaming keyboards, for in the $80 to $150 range (Corsair, Rosewill, and Cooler Master seem to be the big players in this game). I just want a keyboard that types, I have no interest in gaming, and the backlight options and macro keys many of the gaming keyboards have don’t interest me. That’s one reason Like the Das options so much, they’re for typists.

But, I did find that there’s another brand that appears to have nice Cherry MX-based keyboards, on par with the Das options but different. That’s the Filco brand of keyboards from Diatec, a Japanese company. I’m pretty sure I want the Cherry MX Brown switches, rather than the Blue, because it still has a nice tactile feel but is quieter, which my wife will appreciate (I reserve the right to change my mind after I find a way to try the various Cherry MX switches in person more rigorously), but there are Filco keyboard models with four different Cherry switch types. But I’m focusing on Brown here. Anyway, they have a keyboard called the Majestouch 2 that looks very nice, basic, and has the switches I want. It gets good reviews but is hard to find stock in the Brown switch version, though I could probably track one down. It’s in the Das Keyboard 4 Pro price range.

And I was leaning towards that Majestouch 2, when I saw in the Diatec product list the Majestouch Convertible 2 keyboard. Earlier, I had searched for wireless mechanical keyboards, almost just for fun since most serious typists wouldn’t rely on wireless when they’re more concerned about how many keys you can simultaneously press and if USB is even capable of transmitting enough of them (usually only 6 keys can send a once unless the manufacturer works around it at the driver level, which the Filco and Das keyboards generally do to allow up to all keys at once to be pressed and work, called N-Key Rollover or NKRO–and if they don’t do this via USB they usually have an alternate PS/2 connection option where this works).  But recall I have a Surface Pro 3, and although I do now have the dock, I also use the system around the house, and I’m typing this on my couch in fact. And, taking a Bluetooth keyboard in my car to work in one of our company offices, of which we have several, wouldn’t be out of the question for longer days with fewer appointments. So as I said, this Convertible 2 keyboard popped out at me, model number FKBC104M/EB2, and it supports both wired USB and wireless Bluetooth with battery operation, with up to 4 devices! So I could dock it, I could Bluetooth it with my Surface on the go, and I could even potentially Bluetooth it with my iPhone if I felt the need to type faster on it (although my thumbs are faster than many and I even do a decent job without looking at the screen, it’s no full-sized keyboard!).

So, I’m now relatively sure which keyboard I want, and I’m somewhat sure I want the model I mentioned above, with the Cherry MX Brown keys, but I suspect I’d be happy with the feel of the MX Blue option as well, though noisier. But I’ll probably end up with Brown unless I get a chance to test it and really dislike it. The only problem is, I can’t seem to find it anywhere to buy. Amazon has never heard of it, eBay hasn’t either, and general web searches link mostly to the manufacturer. I guess when they say “New” they mean it! I did find a listing for it at The Keyboard Company, but they are out of stock until the end of Feburary (maybe that’s first stock?) and they appear to be overseas since they’re priced in Euro (and their site says they’re in Gloucestershire).

While writing this, I actually also discovered through their Twitter feed that The Keyboard Company did a blog post about the new Convertible 2 in December. It does seem to confirm not only some operational details about the keyboard (all of which looks great!) but also that it is brand spanking new, and isn’t in stock yet. There was apparently an original Convertible keyboard like this that was Japanese only, hence the number 2, but nothing ever available in the USA. So, I happened to find this with both good and bad timing–good because it exists and I didn’t buy something else yet, and bad because it appears I have to wait at least some amount of time before this one hits the shelves. Fortunately, I can use that time to beef up the budget so I can buy one without an earful from The Keeper of the Budget (aka, my wife–and I appreciate her for doing so!).

This has been The Long Rambling Thoughts of David with Many Links and Much Verbosity for the night. If you made it this far, you probably like keyboards, too, so there’s that :-)

Google Hangouts Leaves Jabber Contacts Out To Dry

I’ve used the Google Talk Chrome extension for a while, and it’s pretty decent. I use it extensively to talk to coworkers who are using the Fonality HUD (Heads-Up-Display) chat function, which uses a jabber chat server. This morning I discovered that, tada, Google “upgraded” the Talk extension to Google Hangouts. In the process, they don’t even show my Jabber/Fonality contacts. Even logging into Gmail, where the contacts still exist in the chat sidebar, when I try to start a chat it doesn’t respond or open a chat window. So far, the Beejive Google Talk app on my iPhone still works but otherwise I’m stuck switching to another service with zero warning or options. Not a fan. I’m not opposed to finding alternatives, they exist I know, but I was happy and now the plan has changed with no real warning and now I’m scrambling. At least Beejive works. I’d definitely be open to switching to Lync, but that’s not Jabber compatible to talk to my coworkers where they already are, and the iPhone app stinks (can’t even stay signed in properly for long periods of time, among other issues). I could run an Openfire server of course, but I have enough work supporting customers that I’d rather not spend the time managing our own infrastructure as well, because I know there won’t be spare time!

Enough rant for now, but I haven’t really seen much out there about this, or anything that mentions the lack of Jabber support in the new Hangouts extension for Chrome, so I wasn’t satisfied just seeing others complain since they haven’t yet (I’m sure they will, give it time–they have complained a bit, just not about the lack of Jabber yet :-)

Ubiquity UniFi vs Open Mesh Comparison

I wrote about Open Mesh networking at my Church IT blog back in 2009, which at the time replaced a dying Meraki network originally installed in 2007 (using hardware they long ago discontinued, similar to what Open Mesh became) and has done well in that situation. I had a reader comment yesterday about my current thoughts, and my response was different now that Ubiquity UniFi is available. I’d probably try and do things differently if I could do it again, though maybe not in that original situation. Any more traditional “office” setting other than a campground I’d still steer towards UniFi over Open Mesh now. My issues have to do with hardware and software, and not necessarily as much “software” as the whole platform and how things are set up for each. I already commented once on my original post but I also wrote a further email reply follow-up; that’s what I’m republishing here with limited editing:

My issues with Open Mesh are probably with both the hardware and software, but more software. Hardware-wise they’re OK, but with only one radio the actual throughput is very slow. This may not matter in your situation, and you can actually throttle it as well (but you can with UniFi too) per client, which would help keep abuse by large download abusers to a minimum.

The Open Mesh APs are designed for placement near a power outlet, which is fine except people tend to mess with stuff at that level (I’ve had people unplug them because they were trying to be helpful and “cleaning up,” and that’s a best-case). The other option is to spend another $20 on a PoE injector adapter for them, but they aren’t really made for ceiling mounting, though you could put it inside a ceiling perhaps (if it were a drop-ceiling), or try to mount them up high. They do have covers that mount over a plug outlet that hide them OK, but you can’t put the larger antenna on them with the cover too (if desired) and it keeps the outlet from being used for anything else (covers up both outlets). UniFi gear is like a disc that looks like a large smoke alarm, is made (and comes with the hardware for) ceiling, wall, or drop-ceiling mounting, requires PoE via an included adapter (so it can be plugged into a closet with the switch and not wherever the AP goes), and in practice seems a lot cleaner and less messy solution overall, and their other directional stuff also uses the same PoE stuff and can be run outdoors too and mounted easily (they make cheap wall and pole mounts for it).

The Open Mesh software is actually a “cloud controller” as you may know. But it’s slow–once you change a setting, it takes at least 20 minutes to propagate to the access points. If they go offline there aren’t many ways to troubleshoot the problem, and the feedback you get on the dashboard, while useful, is quite delayed. And I’ve seen some pretty poor throughput numbers, even to the point of access points dropping out and back (not sure how much this is due to distance but the signal’s pretty good when it works for most of the APs I have), but you don’t have much in the way of troubleshooting options. The “cloud controller” idea is cool and it does work, but not nearly as well as I’d like to see. I’ve also had some issues getting an IP with a device on the network, and sometimes the connectivity through to an AP that has the DSL line on it is flaky so I’ll either get an IP and no Internet, or won’t even get an IP and get connected. I’ve not solved this problem; it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Hasn’t been ultra-reliable for me, but it’s better than the nothing they had before at the campground where I installed it. I have it in a related office building in the city as well for guest internet access, and it’s a little better there but not by a ton (it is a little more reliable), and there are only two APs not a huge mesh. I’d use UniFi for this office in a heartbeat; it wasn’t available at the time and I’m thinking about replacing it soon actually.

With UniFi, there’s controller software that needs to run on a computer. If you’re not doing a guest portal or RADIUS (per-user) authentication, the controller software doesn’t need to stay running after setup except for config changes and firmware updates The controller software is free and Java-based, will run on Windows (desktop or server versions) or Linux and doesn’t need a lot of power, an old cheap or free desktop would run it, or you can actually host it yourself in the “cloud” on a virtual server (any number of providers or Amazon’s EC2, or in your own office elsewhere with a port open). You do need to run your own DHCP server, though if you have an XP box as a controller there are some free DHCP servers available for XP. But changes with the controller are immediate, you can see the status of access points, map them on a floor plan or via Google Maps (similar options are available in Open Mesh but I find their mapping a lot more clunky, and it has to be Google Maps not a floor plan you provide), configure up to 4 SSIDs including guest/internal networks as needed (guest networks can share the same IP range and use internal firewalls on the APs to block traffic to the internal network), and if the controller runs all the time you can see statistics and users and optionally block users.

The UniFi controller features are similar in many ways to Open Mesh (though it only has one “staff” and one guest network available), but I find the UniFi configuration to be enjoyable, fast, and usable, and the Open Mesh controller is pretty until I want to use it and then I wish I didn’t have to deal with it and the time it takes and troubleshooting and time for configurations to take effect. I’ve also had APs that wouldn’t connect at all to the cloud controller and I had to manually re-flash the firmware on them, though hopefully they don’t have that issue with the present version of the firmware.

So those are my thoughts on the two; Open Mesh will probably “work” mostly, as I said, but I just haven’t been thrilled with them on a few levels after having actually used them. I haven’t really done much with them in a couple of years now (other than testing the Enterprise access points and being even less thrilled with the reliability there) so maybe they’ve improved some. I’d probably put together a more robust Ubiquity system with directional uplinks between buildings and UniFi for clients, though if buildings are close enough you might get away with the “wireless uplinks” feature of UniFi (unlike mesh you define the links manually, and each wired AP can only uplink to 4 others wirelessly).

Two notes to add to my above comparison:

  1. UniFi is still a lower-end solution with some very nice Enterprisey-features. It competes well in the right space, but places with a lot of interference and/or very high density requirements should look at something better, like Ruckus Wireless, which is excellent, pricier, but definitely has a place where conditions warrant. UniFi rocks but isn’t the answer every time, either.
  2. My dealings with Open Mesh are with the OM1P 802.11g access point (and some test units of their Enterprise MR500 unit while in beta). They now have a model OM2P 802.11n access point and the MR500 is in production, so some of my issues may have been solved. My original Open Mesh configuration was in 2009 and the Enterprise AP test was in 2011 and I have not re-evaluated them since. I still really love the way Ubiquity does things, regardless, but Open Mesh may be more of a contender with their new hardware and possibly firmware upgrades since my last use.

Microsoft Virtual Server inside of VMware ESXi virtual machine

Virtual machines inside of virtual machines like to sleep around.  But maybe I should give you some context!

I just moved an SBS 2008 installation from a physical server to a virtual machine. It’s a temporary thing until we rebuild the whole server in a couple of weeks, but it’s one of the steps. The physical SBS box had Microsoft Virtual Server installed on it running Blackberry software for Exchange (just for one user, but he’s the owner so it’s important that it keep working!). Once the virtual machine was up and running (hosted on VMware ESXi 5.0 free), everything seemed to be going fine until I took a look at the Blackberry server. I had to change the networking in Virtual Server to use the new virtual network card (instead of the old physical one). Then I booted the virtual-inside-virtual machine….and lost networking to the SBS VM!

I’ll save you the extended details of troubleshooting, which involved some reboots and reconfigurations and resets. The solution was go into the VMware vSphere Client, click on the host at the left, then on the Configuration tab, and then on Networking on the Hardware submenu. I clicked on Properties of vSwitch0, and then edited the vSwitch configuration. On the Security tab, I changed Promiscuous Mode from Reject to Accept, and OK’d my way out of all the settings screens. This is a great security feature but prevents the use of sub-virtualized machines that require promiscuous mode (now you see why I mentioned sleeping around?).

One thing I also did was add a second virtual network card to the SBS machine and unbind it from IPv4 and IPv6, but assign it as the physical card used by Microsoft Virtual Server for the Blackberry virtual machine. This gives me a little logical separation between the NIC used by the SBS system and the one used by Blackberry, though it doesn’t gain me much given the overall setup. It was more one of my troubleshooting changes I decided was worth keeping. You do still have to enable Promiscuous Mode for the Virtual Server to get network connectivity (a hint was that with the defaults, broadcast traffic worked because the NIC would get an IP via DHCP, but unicast traffic would fail; broadcast traffic was functioning even with Promiscuous Mode disabled!).

I’ve dealt with Promiscuous Mode before to get firewalls working in VMware, such as pfSense, which is why I though to check on the setting eventually. I’m happy that my past experience was able to help with my current one, and now I’ve shared with you and, hopefully, future Googlers looking for a solution to a similar problem!

IT vs. Web Design vs. Web Development – they’re different!

A friend of mine, Nick Nicholaou, just posted a blog post about Web Development and IT – Are They The Same Thing? I started to leave a comment to expound upon his (correct) answer a bit because this is an area where I’ve done a bit of thinking. And then I realized, my comment is way longer than Nick’s post; perhaps I should move it to my own blog?

In his post, Nick says, “While at a conference last week it hit me that those who are not entrenched in IT (information technology) often don’t know there’s a difference between web development and IT.” What a true statement! I’m not sure why this confusion exists really, beyond people not paying attention (a common problem everywhere), although there are some similarities between the two and often one person does both (or some of both). And you must have IT infrastructure underneath a website for the hosting at least, so they are related, though IT for most websites isn’t even hosted on most organization’s internal infrastructure!

IT, by the way, is an initialism for Information Technology. This should be obvious, but we’re talking here about not knowing the difference between IT and website creation, so I’m not going to assume (which, as you may know, is not a good idea anyway)!.

Nick goes on to say that IT is an “applied science” and web development is an “applied art.” I think that’s good, using science/art terms; one (IT) is a creative position that happens to use a lot of technology (both in the creation and then in the hosting/setup of the result) and the other, while it involves creativity as far as creating solutions to problems with technology, consists much more of a defined process to find a solution to a problem or create and manage a technology platform for others to use for their own disciplines, and not creating content for public (or even captive audience) consumption.

Confusion happens because there are people who cross disciplines (sometimes well, often horribly) and because, as Nick mentions, systems set up in the IT world are then used to do web development/design as well a host it (though the hosting infrastructure is often outsourced, another confusion).

And hey, an issue I run into even more often is the difference between web design and web development. Again, because people cross disciplines (again, often poorly!) and don’t understand what is what. Design = visual layout and content creation, and human-computer interaction decisions. Development = creation of interactive websites by programming in various tools, including server-side scripting/programming, database interaction, and client-side programming such as JavaScript and HTML5, and even Flash.

A good designer is not automatically a good programmer (for web and other programming areas!) and vice versa. In fact I think one reason so many sites stink so horribly is the tendency for one person to do it all when they really are terrible at one of the two. I do know people who are excellent at both but they are uncommon, IMHO. And they often get bored with designing and programming websites themselves because they’re very smart and move on to more interesting and advanced things (one guy I know like this is getting his masters in Human-Computer Interaction Design here).

So, I would agree with Nick and argue that not only should IT and website creation be understood as separate functions done by (usually) separate people, or occasionally as two separate functions and activities done by the same person at different times (I’ve done this myself in the past!), but web design and web development should be thought of as separate, but symbiotic, functions that are best done by separate people in the best case, and by one talented person in rare circumstances. (Alternately, and commonly, a designer will use a previously developed tool, such as WordPress or another Content Management System, not having a separately commissioned developer for a specific project. However, these tools were created by web developers!)