What Am I Even Doing Here?

For a few years here icanthascheezburger was pretty light on new posts. From June 2015 to June 2020 I made a whopping eleven posts. I’m really happy that I got more talkative on here this year. Maybe it was the pandemic-induced quarantining leaving me with more time to think, maybe it was a subconscious desire to find some use for the $10k computer I bought in late 2019, or maybe it’s just an excuse to make my keyboards clack in my office.

But as I look at the eclectic mix of what I’m posting here and a lack of indication that I get really much of any readership (and I don’t for one second believe that the dozens of gigabytes of traffic a month Cloudflare tells me this site gets is traffic from genuine readers) I find myself asking “who am I writing for?” or even more generally, “What am I even doing on here?”

“What am I even doing here?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if I asked myself that same question back in 2015 and decided nothing I was writing was really worth sharing. It’s not that I stopped writing; if you look in my journal during this period I wrote quite a few posts. The world somehow survived without my posts. And the world wasn’t begging for me to write again this year; something just possessed me to do it, so I went for it.

I have been reflecting little bit about icanthascheezburger’s raison d’être.

I write when I feel like I have something to say, and I only post something when I like what I have written (and there are plenty of drafts that didn’t make the cut, and even a few mind maps that I didn’t feel like making into drafts). I’m not picking what to write based on analytics and page views, or even direct engagement like comments. I’m not just breathlessly writing up listicles filled with affiliate product links (though I do sometimes write about products I love and I post links to those products that are free of tracking or affiliate links). I just write when the mood strikes me. The word has ironically become a cliche due to the proliferation of influencer marketing, but when you’re reading on here you’re getting authenticity. My posts on here are some of my most deeply honest writing.

There’s no common theme to the stuff I write except for the fact that it’s about stuff that I’m into. About 85% of my posts can be generally categorized as “tech”, though there are definitely several distinct sub-genres in there. I like to think that when I post about issues like racism or social justice that I’m helping to broaden the horizons of regular readers here (if any) who are generally here for the nerdy stuff.

Part of this blog for me is an act of resistance against the direction that written articles on the web seem to be taking. As I keep seeing the world get dominated more by proprietary media distribution platforms on the web, icanthascheezburger proudly and stubbornly doesn’t change. I have it wired up to my Twitter (and Mastodon) account so new posts are announced on there, but this is an independently run site, through and through. It’s running on WordPress and it’s primarily meant to be consumed on a full-text RSS feed (though I reluctantly added an email newsletter option to get with the times). I don’t need to make a living from this site, so there are no ads. I used to have Google Analytics on here but I removed it.

But I think most importantly, I write these posts for me. I write because it feels good to create something. It feels good to have a thought I want to get out there, and refine the idea and keep chipping away at it and editing it until I think it’ll read really smoothly. I challenge myself to write something better when I know I’m eventually going to publish it out to the web for the world to see, yet conversely I can rest easy remembering that the internet is a vast place and I can be comfortable in my obscurity, knowing that I am probably not going to wake up the next morning to angry readers. I don’t put much effort into promoting icanthascheezburger, so I don’t know if my small readership is a sign that my writing is lousy, or that I don’t promote it, or that the subject matter lacks wide enough appeal. I’m okay to just keep honing the craft of writing, and even if my posts are about something very specific or obscure, that’s just yet another sign that this is the genuine article; you can rest assured I’m writing about something because I care about it, certainly not because I think that’s a thing a lot of people will find interest in.

And that’s what keeps me going. I’m not going to feel bad that my writing on here is a weird mix. Maybe you came for the Moonlander review but then you got to discover how great Alfred is. Maybe you know me AFK and I mentioned that i blog and you, the good acquaintance that you are, decided to check it out to get a further glimpse into my mind.

And that’s why in 2021, I plan to publish 100 posts to icanthascheezburger. You’ll be getting a few more posts out of me in 2020, but in 2021 I am hoping to commit to a relatively aggressive pace of about two posts a week. It should be fun, and I hope that in the end there is a body of work that I can be proud of.

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One Small Step For Apple

Craig Federighi looking wistfully at a Mac laptop in a darkened room
On Tuesday, Apple held a relatively quiet virtual event at 10am Pacific, during which they kicked off a massive transition for the Mac, the likes of which we haven’t seen since early 2006: you can now buy a Mac with an entirely new processor architecture of Apple’s design.

The History

Apple isn’t new to processor architecture transitions for the Mac. In 2005, when Steve Jobs announced at WWDC that Apple would be switching from the PowerPC archictecture to x86 chips made by Intel, the Mac was in a position of weakness. Relatively few companies made computers with PowerPC processors. Apple sourced chips from Motorola and IBM, but neither company was particularly good at making better processors for laptops, which were becoming increasingly important (long time Mac fans no doubt remember years of disappointing rumors that a G5 PowerBook could be coming as soon as “next Tuesday” only for said laptop never to surface).

When Apple switched to Intel’s Core Duo chips in 2006, it created a massive leap forward in performance and power efficiency for all of Apple’s computers. Suddenly Apple’s hardware was on equal footing with the rest of the PC market, and Apple laptops began selling like gangbusters. At my college help desk where I worked part time, Apple laptops quickly became the majority brand of laptop among incoming students (no doubt fueled by a great deal where Apple used to offer a free iPod with purchase of Mac computer in their back to school sale). Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign with John Hodgman and Justin Long helped tell consumers the story of the Mac’s selling points, like the fact that Macs can run Microsoft Office, the Mac’s reliability and ease of use, and even that if you needed to use some specific Windows app from time to time, you could install Windows on your Mac either via virtualization software or by dual booting your Mac.

Since Apple has been using the same x86 chips as everyone else all this time, Macs haven’t really fallen behind in terms of performance compared to their Windows PC counterparts, but instead, Intel has been disappointing the entire PC market. They’ve gone from having a tick-tock cycle of new processes and refinements, to having extra “tock” generations while they worked out their next-gen processes for making chips, to the point where there isn’t much advancement in CPU speeds to speak of.

Meanwhile, after acquiring PA Semi in April 2008, Apple started developing their own custom chips using ARM architecture. Their first one was the A4 that initially went into the first iPad, then the iPhone 4 later that year. Since then, Apple’s developed an astounding lead in chip development, with double-digit percentage increases in year-over-year performance every year. Their mobile chips are so good that in recent years, the latest iPhone can outperform just about every Mac in single-core performance.

Simply put: Apple has squeezed amazing performance out of tiny mobile chips that consume minimal power, and they’ve grown antsy to take that capability and apply it to the Mac.

What was announced

Apple announced a new MacBook Air, a 13" entry level MacBook Pro, and also a Mac Mini.

These computers look basically indistinguishable from their Intel-based predecessors; the differences are inside the computer, and you shouldn’t let the looks fool you: they are substantial.

It’s no surprise that they started with their consumer machines; those are the simplest to transition.

Apple’s first Mac-specific system on a chip, the M1, is very similar to the iPhone 12’s A14 SOC. It follows the iPhone’s lead of having a mixture of high-performance and energy-efficient cores (four of each). All memory is on the SOC, and it’s a single pool of memory shared between the CPUs and the GPUs, using what Apple has dubbed a “unified memory architecture”. If you’re old enough to remember when the term “integrated graphics” meant “lousy graphics,” this might sound alarming, but in modern times this gives us efficiencies. Without a discrete graphics card with its own bank of memory, there’s no need to copy data from main memory to the GPU’s memory for the GPU to manipulate or read it. In addition, Apple’s GPU cores perform quite well and very efficiently, thanks to Apple’s years of experience pushing pixels to Retina displays on tiny phones.

The SOC also offers Apple’s Neural Engine, which is optimized for machine learning workloads, which are becoming increasingly common in iOS apps, and with accelerated hardware support on the Mac, we can expect Apple to start pushing on Core ML and other developer tools that aim to make it simple to incorporate machine learning into an app. That’s really quite something; machine learning has gone from cutting edge stuff that only a few companies had access to, to becoming a commodity that even small developers can use, like my Sudoku app which uses AI to give me hints on solving puzzles. Mac app developers such as Pixelmator have taken note and are no doubt excited to have even more ML capability available to their apps.

To the layperson, all you need to know is that Apple silicon Macs are substantially faster and can offer better battery life too. Apple is advertising battery life of “up to” 18 hours for the new Air, which I suspect is nowhere close to realistic, but I would also not be surprised if someone could get close to a full 8 hour day of realistic work on one of these machines before reaching for the plug.

Oh, and the MacBook Air has managed to achieve another milestone that would make Steve Jobs proud: It contains no fans and so it will operate completely silently. The MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is air-cooled, which makes sense, as pro users are expected to demand sustained high performance, which generates some heat.

What about the Pro machines?

These machines are very much consumer grade. Notably, none of them offer more than 16 gigabytes of memory, and they appear to be limited to 2 terabytes of SSD storage. Those are regressions from the Intel computers they replace (the Intel 13" MacBook Pro supports up to 32 gigs of memory, and the Intel Mac Mini allowed for up to 64 gigs). That memory limitation makes machines like these a nonstarter for a pro user like myself. In fact, if you bought one of each of the new Apple Silicon Macs, the machines combined would have less memory than my Mac Pro (also you’d spend a few grand less 😩).

These current memory and SSD limits are probably just limits of these early SOCs, and Apple is no doubt working on some higher end ones that put even the highest-end Intel machines to shame.

But overall, it looks like Apple’s making its lower end Macs in a very similar way to how it’s making its iPhones: by packing almost everything onto a single SOC.

But what is Apple going to do on pro machines? Just last year Apple finally answered high-end pro users’ prayers by releasing the Mac Pro, a highly modular and expandable system that embodies none of these principles. Just about everything on the Mac Pro is modular and expandable, and Apple is forward thinking enough that they knew Apple Silicon Macs were coming when they designed this Mac Pro. I see a few distinct possibilities:

  • The Mac Pro remains almost totally modular. There will be an Apple-designed M processor that serves as CPU and will also have things like I/O, the Secure Enclave, and the Neural Engine, but memory and GPU will be on slots external to the SOC. The SOC might retain some integrated high-speed memory also used as L2 or L3 cache. I can also imagine a scenario where the SOC ships with onboard memory but there are slots for people who want more (Apple laptops were often configured like this)
  • the Mac Pro will contain an M SOC, and this SOC will also include a decent integrated GPU for users who are fine with a base configured GPU. This GPU would share memory with the CPU, and the RAM is all on slots so if you install 1.5 TB of RAM, your built in GPUs can use all of that. You can retain the option to install discrete graphics cards into MPX modules and they would have their own memory
  • The Mac Pro has discrete graphics cards you install would actually not have memory of their own; everything would use a unified memory architecture. In this scenario Apple probably would be making its own video cards. This might even require faster communication speeds between the MPX module with the video chip and the bank of memory on the machine.

Another thing I wonder: if Apple is indeed going to have consumer systems with totally integrated SOCs and pro systems that offer modularity, will that modularity be exclusive to the Mac Pro? Or will it go into other systems too? I’m pretty certain even the pro laptops will have everything on the SOC, but will we see a new generation of iMacs and iMacs Pro with expandable RAM or even room for an upgrade card or two?

Seeing Apple put this level of attention into the Mac really excites me. As resistant as I am to identify myself by the products I use, being a Mac user is admittedly core to my nerd identity.

In the early 2010s, when the iPhone was exploding in growth and Intel wasn’t putting out many new processors, Apple let the Mac languish a bit. But as iPhone has matured, and its growth has slowed, Apple has been able to put renewed focus on the Mac, and in the process they are reminding us that they, too, are die-hard Mac users just like we are, and as they build the Macs of tomorrow, they are making the Macs of their dreams. And now, with Apple’s industry-leading penchant for making fast and efficient chips, we’re fast approaching a world where if you want the fastest computer possible, it’s going to be a Mac and only a Mac.

I’ve never been more excited for the Mac’s future.

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Walk the Planck

If you know me you know my collection of clicky keyboards has been steadily growing since I bought my first one in April of 2012 (a Das Keyboard, if you were wondering). In recent years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for a specific subgenre of keyboards: keyboards that are 40–50% the keys of a full-sized keyboard that are ortholinear. One of the most popular of these keyboards is the Planck, an absolutely adorable little grid keyboard with a 4×12 arrangement of keys.

When I’m recommending a mechanical keyboard for a friend who is relatively new to the game, I don’t want to throw someone into the deep end with a keyboard that also comes with such a dramatic learning curve; typically I aim to provide a soft landing in the mechanical keyboard world with a pretty standard looking full-size or tenkeyless keyboard that is laid out pretty much like a keyboard your computer might come with. That way, I give them a fair shake at getting to love the much better feel of the mechanical key switches without a ton of frustration at having to re-learn how to type.

But lately I’ve been inclined to push people more toward something like the Planck as their first clicky keyboard.

Just look at it:

planck

It’s cute! It’s just 47 or 48 keys (depending on whether you opt for a double-wide spacebar). That’s super approachable, especially compared to something like the Ergodox, which is full of these clusters of keys of different sizes:

source: ergodox EZ

When you first lay your hands on a Planck you’re going to quickly feel like you have a grip on the keyboard; in the top three rows every single key is can be reached by moving a finger no more than one position from home row. And instead of being overwhelmed, you’re actually likely to be asking “Hey, where are all the keys? Don’t I need more?”

And you don’t! The Planck’s clever firmware makes fantastic use of limited keys by making each key do more. Modifier keys like Shift and CTRL can be dual-purpose; for instance, when I tap my CTRL key quickly, it’s treated as an Escape key, but when I hold it, it’s a Ctrl key.

And, of course, there are the layers. So, while you’ll notice there is now row of number keys, they’re actually right there, in the top row, on a different layer. You hold the key to the right of the spacebar to access this layer:

Layout of planck layer

When you factor in how easy it is to reach each key, you’ll find it actually feels quicker pressing 2 keys to press a number than it would have felt to reach up 2 rows to get to that number row. And because the keys are in a perfect grid, your fingers will love how easy and unambiguous it is which key is which! How often do you hesitate for a split second while you try to guess by feel whether you’re hitting the 2 or the 3 key in a staggered layout? With a grid, it’s never in question!

Your Planck will typically come pre-configured with a standard layout that works quite nicely, but you aren’t forced to live with that. The Planck is a fully programmable keyboard. That means its layout can be changed at the firmware level (which also means you don’t need to install special software or hacks on your computer to customize your keyboard’s layout, and you can plug your keyboard into any computer and it works just as you expect). This is my base layer’s layout (I’m a sucker for arrow keys in an inverted-T layout):

My Planck's base layer layout

The Learning Curve

My first keyboard in this category was a Preonic, which is like a Planck but with an extra row of number keys on top. I thought the extra row would make for a smoother transition, but eventually I realized the layers were plenty powerful and the extra row was an unnecessary crutch, and I rarely am using my Preonic anymore.

As a programmer, I’ve found that if I try to dive face first into a new type of keyboard at work, I will get frustrated really quickly. Instead, I spend time becoming proficient in more conversational typing first. I’ll type text conversations with people on it, or write up some blog posts with mostly prose and not a ton of special characters. Then, when I become proficient, I’ll try to gradually introduce more typing that involves the other characters.

If you choose a Planck EZ, they offer a graphical online layout configurator that also has a training mode, allowing you to see your layout in real time as you are holding different layer keys. I haven’t tried this yet myself (it was added after I was already pretty good with the keyboard) but I really like the idea of this.

And speaking of layout configuration, as you are learning the keyboard’s layout, I encourage you to make layout changes early and often! If you keep mistaking one key for a different one, why not just change the layout so that it matches your expectations? Are you finding that you keep hitting the Enter key in inopportune situations? Move it somewhere else or put it behind a layer to avoid accidentally sending a message prematurely!

Customizing

If you haven’t already gotten the hint, Plancks love being customized! After all, the whole keyboard design is open-source from the start, so it was made to be tinkered with; it’s not a black box you’re expected to enjoy as-is. Two popular Planck versions (Drop.com’s and the Planck EZ) have circuit boards where you don’t have to solder the key switches on, meaning you can try out different kinds of key switches to your heart’s content.

Since it’s such a small keyboard, you only have to buy 48 switches to have a full keyboard’s worth, making it cheap to try new kinds out! For the same reason, Plancks also make a great kit (the drop.com version is a kit, for instance). Even if you buy a version that needs soldering, soldering a Planck together is not nearly the undertaking that a full-sized keyboard is).

And, of course, you get to enter the world of customizable key caps! Most custom keycap sets offer a variant to make them compatible with the Planck (look for the “ortho” key set). For the most part it’s not too hard to just take some existing key caps from an existing keyboard and put them on your Planck, but for the bottom row you’ll have to get a little creative since most standard keyboards’ bottom rows don’t have 11–12 single width key caps.

A keyboard that is truly yours

Philosophically the Planck warms my heart. The Planck is a community-designed keyboard, and it is open to its core. When you buy one, you aren’t buying from a big, faceless corporation; you are buying from a cottage industry of small keyboard makers. Hell, you don’t even have to buy one from someone else if you don’t want to; you could build one yourself by hand and hand wire it if you wanted.

The keyboard will give you years of service, but it’s also a simple enough product that it is highly repairable. If an individual key switch stops working, you can replace just that switch. If a component on the circuit board fails, you could replace just that, or have a friend with some know-how replace it. It’s a refreshing departure from so many of today’s electronics.

And most importantly, you aren’t stuck choosing an inferior product just to get something built with these values; the Planck is objectively a better keyboard because of its openness, not in spite of it.

A keyboard for all

The Planck’s birth may have been among some passionate keyboard enthusiasts, but I firmly believe that it’s a keyboard suitable for the mass market. As friendly as the keyboard is to being customized and endlessly tinkered with, it’ll serve you just as well if you set it up just the way you like it and never change anything again.

The keyboard is a very intimate part of the computer. It is the most tactile part of it, and it’s the part of the computer you use when you want to precisely express your thoughts. It’s a peripheral that’s essential to people who work at a computer for a living, and if you’re like most computer users you’re just using the one that came with your computer without giving it a second thought. Believe me, it’s worth exploring better options, and a great keyboard is a solid quality of life improvement!

Reflections on the election this week

This has been a deeply stressful and mentally draining week in the icanthascheezburger household. For us, an election like this is consequential. Being queer we had the great fortune of witnessing a vast expansion of our recognition of equal rights, but these are precarious and are already getting whittled away. In a sense, these elections are a referendum about how the country feels about us existing.

While I woke up to hearing that AP finally called a Biden victory, that was indeed a great relief, but I still don’t feel genuine joy over it. Joe Biden was able to mobilize a record number of votes for him, true, and we overcame blatant attempts at voter suppression, and yet Trump also made massive gains in voters this year. Voters have seen the direct result of Trump’s unique blend of incompetence, corruption, and a team of deeply evil people, and many decided “yep, I’d like four more years of that.”

Let me be clear here. This is a president who is a pathological liar (and that list only goes up to June 2019). He made fun of Obama for frequently golfing, but plays more golf in office than any other president, and he does it at the taxpayers’ expense. His campaign had a cozy relationship with foreign governments looking to interfere with the election, and he was impeached over it, but his party (the party that was deeply concerned with President Clinton merely lying about a sexual encounter with a woman in the ’90s and impeached him over it). With Mitch McConnell’s help he has filled the courts with extremist and inexperienced judges, aided by McConnell blocking Obama from hundreds of judge appointments and leaving vacancies.

And perhaps our biggest moral failing as a country (in recent history, at least): Trump signed off on a plan masterminded by Stephen Miller to separate immigrant families at the border (families who, by the way, are often legally entering the country to seek asylum), as a means of deterring them from coming here. There are hundreds of children right now that are to this day separated from their parents.

And if you forgive all of those things, Trump completely dropped the ball when it came to COVID. When he privately knew it was serious, he dismissed it in public as a hoax. Instead of taking a lead, he left it up to the states. He consistently took action way too late on everything and continuously kept making the wrong calls. He even caught COVID himself, and now as the US is leading the world in COVID cases and deaths (by far), he wants to let the virus run rampant so that we can build “herd immunity”.

Even if, for some reason, you forgive all of that, Trump, with help from the Republican party that did nothing to stop him, decided to launch a full-scale attack on the voting process itself this summer. He loves hinting that if he loses the loss is not legitimate, but his win would be legitimate (hell, he was saying that back in 2016 and that should have stopped us from electing him in the first place). But he ramped up his attacks even more. Seeing that voting by mail would grow, his appointee to run USPS (a man with no experience with USPS, but who is, in fact, someone who owns stock in other shipping companies so he’s incentivized for USPS to lose) engaged in a blatant campaign to sabotage USPS during a pandemic, deliberately slowing down mail service and destroying essential sorting equipment. Trump spent the weeks leading up to Election Day saying he was going to use the courts to try to stop the counting on votes on Election night with the assumption he’d be ahead on Election night but once everything got counted, it’d be a Biden win.

This should have been a landslide. And now that votes are counted it’s clear this is a decisive popular and electoral vote victory, it shouldn’t have even been close.

But it was very close in important states for the electoral college victory, and that’s the America that people have to wake up to every morning. Queer and Latino people in Iowa wake up each morning surrounded by people who vote for people who don’t acknowledge their right to exist. The guy with the American flag decal on the back of his pickup truck with MAGA bumper stickers is driving around proudly, saying he’s for America but apparently not particularly interested in fundamental American values like, say, democracy.

Polling data this year was again skewed far more heavily toward Democrats than the actual electoral data showed. In 2016 we can chalk this up to a statistical anomaly or some modeling issues, but when it happens two elections in a row, we have to start asking tough questions to the people we rely on for polling data.

Democrats will be controlling the White House and the House, but it looks like a long shot that the Senate will have Democratic control (runoffs in GA will determine this). Having seen Mitch McConnell’s history of blatant obstructionism and cynical opportunism, there is no reason to think he won’t take every advantage of this possible, possibly preventing Biden from being able to enact any of his legislative agenda (or possibly get his appointees filled).

And of course, we are left with a Supreme Court that is heavily conservative now. Neil Gorsuch should not have Scalia’s old seat, but in 2016 McConnell refused to hold a vote to confirm Merrick Garland, citing that it was an election year. This year, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in an election year, McConnell invented some bullshit excuse as to why it was essential to hold a vote to confirm a replacement even though he said the opposite four years ago, and now the court is heavily skewed with extremely conservative justices. And I don’t entirely blame Trump for that; there are three other conservative justices on that court that other presidents elected, but without a majority in Congress we have no chance to restore balance. Republicans have been exploiting the letter of the law to maintain a lot of power in government despite not having had the support of the majority in the US since 2004. That’s a serious problem and it’s very difficult to fix.

And finally, although I’m relieved to not have to constantly worry about what stupid thing Trump will do or say next, and while I’m sure Biden will do a fine job as president, I am deeply skeptical of him and the Democratic party establishment.

It was progressives and the mobilization efforts of people of color that won Biden this election, and Biden has spent the last several days emphasizing what a good president he is going to be to the Republicans and how we need to be united. But this isn’t rooted in reality. Republicans aggressively united around Trump; the handful of news articles you read about Republicans who chose Biden are a statistical footnote; 93% of Republicans picked Trump in 2020. Meanwhile, I’m worried that communities that did the legwork to get Biden elected are going to be cast to the side now that he’s in office, and the policies and reforms they demand will get little more than lip service as Democrats keep focusing on centrist politics.

So yeah, as I wake up this morning, I will say it’s a victory. Incumbent presidents tend to get re-elected, and we overcame that. Trump got more votes than in 2016 and we overcame that too. The electoral college gives Republicans an advantage and we overcame that too. Trump made petty attempts to destroy valuable services like USPS and abused the courts this week with baseless legal claims to try to stop counts in places where he was ahead, and to keep counting in places where he was losing, and we overcame that.

But I have said it before and I’ll say it again: Trump is not the problem. It’s easy to put everything on him because he’s so crass, but alone, he’s just one random (maybe) rich asshole. He was as destructive as he was because he had a team of people that helped him. He has the backing of an entire political party, not just the elites, but its voters as well. And Trump will be gone from the White House soon, and he’ll be dead probably in a few years here, but all those people that enabled him and were enthusiastic toward him will still be around.

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The iPhone 12 belongs to the ages

The last phone I reviewed on here was the iPhone 5 back in 2012. I generally get a new phone each year, but I suppose I’m not religious about posting stuff on here.

Looking back at that review, I remarked primarily on two things: speed, and the transition from the 30-pin connector to Lightning. While it might have seemed silly at the time to spend 928 words on a port transition, Lightning has nonetheless been on every phone since and continues to ship on phones to this day (though there are rumors that its days are numbered). I guess it was time well spent!

I don’t plan to be reviewing every iPhone, but I do think it’s worth taking time to write up thoughts on the iPhones that are particularly distinctive. If I had been patient and bought the iPhone X in 2017 it probably would also have earned a review; it was Apple’s first major rethinking of what the front of the iPhone should look like and it will likely be used for even longer than the original vision that incorporated a home screen button.

The iPhone 12, overall, strikes me as a phone that is teeing Apple up for a new years-long era of design (and 5G).

The Phone

I bought a blue one with 256 gigs of space, on the Verizon network. One note: the blue is not nearly as bright as the marketing pictures would have you think; they’re photographing these in insanely well-lit environments.

Industrial Design

When you pick up the iPhone 12 in your hand, something strikes you about its fit and finish. It’s difficult to rank things on a scale of niceness, but I would have to guess that my iPhone is quite possibly the nicest thing I own. It’s not the most expensive thing I own (that is a recognition my house enjoys), but perhaps with the exception of my Mac Pro, the iPhone 12 is my nicest possession. When you hold it in your hands, it has just a perfect amount of heft to it so that you know it’s substantial. It was built to incredibly tight tolerances. It has just a few buttons, but they each feel a nice satisfying and firm “click” when you press them. It feels like a device that belongs to the ages.

Apple’s industrial design for phones has a few distinct eras:

  • The first three phones, during which Apple was still figuring out how to actually make mass market phones. The very first design was only used for a generation, followed by 2 generations of phones with this rounded plastic shell that was really kind of inelegant
  • The iPhones 4 through 5s (and original SE), which fell into line with the rest of Apple’s hardware design language, primarily incorporating glass and aluminum, and going to flat sides and back
  • The iPhones 6 through 11, when Apple started experimenting with more phone sizes. They made the sides rounded, possibly to make them feel slimmer or easier to hold the larger sized devices. Aluminum remains the primary metal, while going to stainless steel for the more high-end devices

And with the iPhone 12, we enter a fourth era, which looks a lot like a refined version of that second era. We’re returning to flat sides, and the chamfers of the iPhone 5 are instead gently rounded as the sides transition to the front and back. Apple has settled on using glass on the front and back, a trend they moved away from briefly in the third era in an attempt to reduce the amount of material that could shatter, but Apple’s gotten wiser about their glass and shattering is less of a concern that it used to be.

And that to me is really what the iPhone 12 feels like. When Apple released the iPhone 4 there was this sense that the iPhone 4’s overall look and external design was the Platonic ideal of what an iPhone should be. It was flawed (the glass front and back were prone to shattering a ton) and there was demand for phones to start getting bigger. Apple inched in that direction with the iPhone 5 (which also removed the glass back) but when it became clear that Samsung was eating Apple’s lunch with their gargantuan phones, Apple radically changed the industrial design of the iPhone to make bigger phones. And finally, after years of iterating on that general look (and possibly lingering on it a couple years longer than they should have), it feels like Apple is coming home again to a design that is quintessentially classic iPhone, but scales all the way from a mini-sized phone to their biggest phone yet.

Display

The displays in this year’s standard iPhone model got nicer. They’re all OLED (last year, only the Pro models had this distinction), and on the 12, pixel density has been increased. The display looks beautiful.

5G

Another first of this phone that mirrors the iPhone model I last reviewed on here: it is the first to offer 5G support.

Despite rumors to the contrary, every (US-based, at least) iPhone has support for both sub–6GHz and mmWave 5G.

mmWave 5G is insanely fast (like, 2 gigabits per second speeds fast), but it uses very high frequencies to get these speeds, and it thus has very poor range (a closed door might cut off a 5G signal). For cities to be blanketed in mmWave 5G would require enormous investments on their part, buying an order of magnitude more equipment to get the same levels of coverage that would probably only work outdoors. mmWave 5G has its place and could be handy in dense areas like stadiums or crowded urban centers where there are lots of people using up bandwidth, but we’re far more likely to be using sub–6GHz 5G for most part in the near future.

Sub–6GHz 5G is an incremental improvement over LTE. I’ve struggled to actually hear any wireless providers provide actual speed numbers you might be able to expect, and early reviewers say that’s mostly because this 5G is often performing worse than LTE in the same location.

It’s also noteworthy that when LTE was first deployed, not that many people had LTE phones, and if you were one of the few to have one, you’d get incredible speeds of up to 100Mbps, and now that networks are saturated, real-world performance is more like 20–30 Mbps on a good day, and because sub–6GHz 5G is mostly piggybacking off of existing LTE signals to provide slight improvements, while 5G might be faster than LTE today, the speeds you’ll see on it are actually slower than when LTE was new to the scene.

And in reality, this sounds kind of dreary, but it’s not that bad. The speeds we get are really just fine, and although I can no longer get really great numbers running speed tests on my phone, as long as I have a decent signal I can generally do what I need to do. If anything, I think that it’d be nice for wireless providers to look to improve 4G and 5G signals in their existing footprint, and only really worry about mmWave in the most densely packed of areas.

MagSafe

As Apple is wont to do with their trademarks, they have resurrected the MagSafe brand, this time equipping iPhones with a magnetic back (prior art: they repurposed the iBook brand name with their e-book store).

This time, instead of being a clever little laptop connector that won’t send your expensive computer sailing into the air when you trip over the cord, MagSafe refers to an array of magnets embedded in the back of new iPhones, which you can use to connect magnetic charging pucks or other accessories like cases, Popsockets, or even wallets.

Apple loves tactical deployment of magnets in their devices, and this is a great use case. Qi chargers are great, but you have to have them positioned just so for your phone to charge, and it’s really easy for the phone to get jostled out of alignment, causing you to wake up with a dead phone.

I haven’t purchased any MagSafe accessories yet; I’m holding out for the perfect nightstand accessory, but I am excited about this concept and I look forward to seeing what kinds of MagSafe accessories come of this.

Environment

This year, Apple’s taken the opportunity to ship fewer things in the box with their devices. This year, the iPhone no longer ships with earpods or a wall charger, and the USB-A to Lightning cable has been replaced with a USB-C to Lightning cable.

The rationale is that most people already have a wall charger, and the amount of material that goes into putting one in every box is substantial. Also, by removing these standard accessories, the iPhone box shrinks and more iPhones can be packed onto airplanes to ship.

That’s all well and good, but the message got muddled by the switch from USB-A to USB-C for the included cable. It’s been awkward that Apple had been for years still shipping iPhones with a USB-A cable, given that none of Apple’s laptops even have a USB-A port, and rumor for years was that Apple was going to start shipping iPhones with a USB-C charger. And while premium models last year did get a USB-C charger, Apple decided to do away with chargers entirely, but people whose old cable was worn out found themselves either needing to buy a new cable too, or needing to buy a new USB-C charger.

The pro-environment message was further muddled by the fact that iPhones this year have an entirely new charging system available in MagSafe, which will surely tempt some people to buy new MagSafe charging accessories.

I suspect that overall this change results in a net savings of materials; I don’t think 100% of iPhone 12 buyers are also buying a USB-C charger or a MagSafe puck; a solid majority are probably going to stick with the charging equipment they have. And I’m sure the percentage of iPhone owners who will be buying some Lightning EarPods with their iPhone 12 is vanishingly small. But of course, Apple mostly comes out of this looking like they’re less altruistic about the environment, and more like they’re nickel and diming. Also worth keeping in mind: this change surely added a much needed reduction to the iPhone’s bill of materials, which increased quite a bit because of the now-standard OLED screen.

Should you buy it?

I didn’t write up a review of this phone in the typical sense of reviewing a phone, where I am trying to give you a recommendation as to whether you should buy it. Apple is solid at pushing out year over year updates; they aren’t likely to be pushing out a dud.

My buying advice: If you are in the market for a new phone, and you have the budget, buy one of the iPhones 12, and pick based on size, or opt for one of the pro models if you are serious about phone photography. If you are more price sensitive, it’s still a fantastic time to buy the new iPhone SE; it contains the very capable A13 chip and sells for half the cost of a 12; it’s an incredible value (and if you’re wearing a face mask, the SE has an advantage over the new phones in that it still has Touch ID).

If you update phones infrequently, this is a good year to make an upgrade. If you are still using an iPhone with a home button and you aren’t ready to make the switch, buy the SE instead; it just came out this year, it rocks a respectable A13 processor and decent camera, and it’s about half the price of an iPhone 12.

Parting thoughts

One of the things that I find most impressive about the iPhone as a piece of hardware is that not only is the iPhone an exquisite piece of kit, these are a truly mass market product.

This is a delicate dance Apple plays when designing its phones. This is the first year Apple switched to OLED screens for all of its phones. Until this year Apple was putting OLEDs in only the more expensive phones because even if they wanted the screens across the lineup, the manufacturing capacity to produce OLED screens that met Apple’s standards for color matching simply didn’t exist.

Apple is quite pragmatic in its industrial design choices; they don’t put out a phone with entirely new external look every year; they repurpose existing tooling to make phones of similar design and size, and they keep around tooling from older models to make budget models like the SE. Even when the iPhone X was released Apple didn’t change too many aspects of it; it still retains the overall shape and rounded edges of its predecessors.

Apple executes incredibly well at a lot of things, and lately there are a lot of things they struggle with. But the iPhone as a physical product stands out to me above all of Apple’s other products. Every year, almost like clockwork (and a little late this year because of COVID), Apple mass produces a new phone that manages to make impressive year-over-year speed and camera improvements over its predecessor, and without fail, the phones manage to be consistently high in physical quality. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; it is of course Apple’s largest source of revenue by a long shot, but the sheer consistency and reliability is something to marvel at.

Local bookstores and the missed opportunity

As I watch small, independently owned bookstores continue to desperately cling onto their customers for survival, I can’t help but feel really angry that Amazon cornered the market on e-books for no better reason than these bookstores decided they didn’t want to be a part of it.

Now, e-books haven’t taken over the market in quite the same way digital music supplanted physical media (for reasons I’ll actually get into in a minute), so bookstores are still hanging on by a thread and telling you that it’s your duty to shop at local bookstores because otherwise they’ll fall prey to behemoths like Amazon. When you give these nominally for-profit bookstores your money for some dead trees, you’re made to think that you’re practically giving to charity.

Let’s indulge ourselves in a fantasy about an alternate reality where things went a little differently:


When iPods started flying off of shelves in the early 2000s and music lovers started buying music from iTunes instead of record stores, a group of small bookstore owners got together and asked themselves: what if this happened to books?

Bookstores needed a way to adapt to the modern world of e-books. Even though the simple transaction of buying and distributing the e-book itself can be performed without having to interact with a human, the bookstore is still a great place for community. It’s a place for book enthusiasts to gather and interact. Bookstores are small businesses with well-educated and thoughtful employees and clientele. They are small, local businesses worth supporting.

E-books were also an opportunity to democratize publishing of books. Without the large fixed costs and complexity of printing books, e-books could be a viable way for smaller, niche authors to distribute their work. Instead of just a handful of big publishers controlling everything, perhaps we would see a new world where lots of smaller publishers would spring up. By having retail space and direct relationships with local customers, local bookshops could provide the critical connection to these customers.

But for this to work there would have to be some standards set. There would need to be a standardized file format for the e-books, otherwise customers would grow frustrated with having to use different software for every book they want to read. Companies would need to develop e-book readers that people could read their books on, and software to run on those e-book readers and support standard formats.

Partners got on board, and before they knew it, a thriving industry was born. Hundreds of local bookstores started offering e-books from a plethora of publishers. You could sample and purchase e-books right at the book shop, as well as on the bookshop’s web site. The e-reader makers soon developed e-readers that could connect to the web, and it became possible to buy books right from the device you read them on.

Because the e-books were all in a standard format, you could buy books from any bookstore and use them on any reader you want. E-readers were available from several companies. Because e-books were all interoperable, you could pick your e-reader of choice based on its merit alone, not the library of content it came with. Before long these companies were developing all sorts of useful features, like letting you scribble virtual notes in your books and easily sharing passages with friends to discuss.

Before too long the major publishers followed suit. They initially tried selling copy-protected books on proprietary platforms of their own making, but customers found it all too confusing and inconvenient, and they got on board with the standards everyone else was using. Bigger bookstores like Amazon also started offering e-books. Amazon grew to become the biggest seller of e-books by market share, but because there were so many bookstores selling e-books, their market share was still well under 10% of the market. And although customers would sometimes buy a book or two from Amazon, local bookstore patrons still loved buying from their local bookstore.

E-books, being digital rather than physical goods, could be sold a bit more cheaply than paperbacks, and customers took advantage of this and bought more books than ever before.

Because people were now accustomed to the practice of buying electronic reading material, print periodicals followed suit. Newspapers started being delivered to people’s devices directly, and the practice of literally printing new newspapers every single day on paper, putting them on trucks, then bikes, then delivering them door to door became a quaint memory. And although local newspapers no longer brought in revenue from classified ads, the operational savings of electronic delivery combined with a healthy subscriber base allowed them to thrive, alleviating fears of dozens of struggling local papers getting acquired and consolidated into bigger companies.


Bookstores didn’t get on board with this, though. At some level I understand; distributing digital media wasn’t their core competency; moving physical books was. But before computers and the internet existed, this was nobody’s core competency; it had to be invented by someone. Of course, this was a job far too big for any single bookstore to take on, but it’s disappointing that a group didn’t band together to try to build a solution, especially after seeing the writing on the wall when iPods became ubiquitous in the early 2000s.

Instead, we live with the hegemony that is Amazon. They largely rule the world of selling e-books. The Kindle is nice and their store has a great selection at low prices, but you can only read the books on Amazon-made apps and devices, most of which aren’t that great (seriously, have you tried using the Kindle app for desktop Mac?). Apple has an offering of their own in the iBookstore, but you only get to read the books on their backlit screens which isn’t that easy on the eyes. Barnes and Noble has the Nook, and there are a couple of other e-readers on the market, but each one can only be used to view books purchased in their own ecosystem. Now that I’ve bought a Kindle, the idea of buying a Kobo and having to start a new collection of books from scratch is a nonstarter.

There are some other e-book sellers. A few e-book stores are actually foolhardy enough to try to sell copy-protected books, and I’ve even been to a couple local bookstores with ways to buy e-books that you read read using software that’s exactly as shitty as you imagine it would be.

I do luckily get most of my technology reference books from sites that sell the books DRM-free, where I can usually download in a variety of book formats (I often choose PDFs because they are laid out exactly like the printed book, but if I want I can also choose EPUBs or MOBI files to read on my phone or Kindle, respectively). And there are some smaller publishers that sell self-published books in a non-copy protected format. A handful of authors care about this enough to sell DRM-free materials too, like Cory Doctorow.

But these are far from the mainstream, and if I want to read mainstream e-books, I am relegated to reading them on Amazon. Meanwhile, I love visiting Powell’s in downtown Portland; it’s an incredible bookstore in its own right, but overall when I’m shopping in most bookstores I feel more like I’m doing them a favor by helping them keep the dream afloat.

I’ll keep hoping for a better e-book future, and in the meantime I’ll keep hounding book authors to offer DRM-free e-books if they don’t already, and I hope enough people are doing that that in a few years, you’ll be able to get a good chunk of e-books (and audiobooks) this way. 🤞

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Unpopular opinion: Ring’s drone camera is unjustly maligned

photo of ring drone

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was a relatively early employee of Ring. I had equity in Ring and made money when Ring was acquired by Amazon, and then I made money from the Amazon stock I bought with said money. I have a variety of opinions about Ring and having been on the inside has left me with more criticism than praise, but I’m not immune to having bias, so take these opinions with a grain of salt.

There were plenty of takes on Twitter this week about Ring’s newly announced indoor drone that will fly around inside your home patrolling it. It’s their most ambitious hardware project to date.

At some level I get it; the concept sounds so wild that it immediately invites criticism. A massive tech company designed a drone that flies around your house recording things. Also, tech companies at the scale of Amazon should be subject to incredible scrutiny in everything they make.

But my reaction to the product itself was the opposite: finally, an indoor security camera I wouldn’t feel weird having in my house!

I’ve been interested in indoor security cameras for awhile, but I don’t want cameras in my home that are always able to see things. The drone cleverly addresses that; when it’s docked the camera is covered. And when it’s recording, you’re going to know. It’s a drone, so it’s going to be making some noise, and when it’s flying around it’s bound to catch the eye. And critically, I could configure the drone to only record when I leave home and arm the security system. (And sure, I could configure the non-flying cameras to do that too, but I can rest assured that the drone isn’t going to get hacked and start recording me without me knowing).

Of all of Ring’s cameras, this is perhaps the least likely device to non-consensually record people (who didn’t break into your house). I’ve carefully configured my doorbells’ and outdoor security cameras’ motion detection zones so that movement has to be on my property for them to start recording, but even then there’s no guarantee a passerby won’t be recorded because it’s possible the camera might happen to be on for another movement when they happen to pass by.

Furthermore, I’m encouraged to see that Ring is stepping up privacy by enabling end-to-end encryption for videos on doorbells that can handle it (I’m hoping this includes the Pro doorbell and isn’t just exclusive to devices that connect to 120V). We’ll have to see how meaningful the encryption ends up being (if it’s E2E encrypted but Ring has the keys, then what’s the point?) but a step like that shows me that Ring is beginning to understand customers aren’t going to trust them just because they say “trust us”. The hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of Ring cameras watching the area around Ring customers’ homes might well add up to one of the biggest surveillance camera operations in the world. It’s been eating at my mind for years that the company has all of these video files sitting there, unencrypted and viewable by anyone in the company that can get to those files. E2E encryption being an option helps me rest a little easier about that situation.

Bottom line: this drone improves on indoor security cameras in some really clever ways but that all got lost in the noise because of collective knee-jerk reactions to the thought of drones, and instead people are thinking of it as reaching new heights of privacy invasion.

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Thoughts on the loss of RBG

There is an alternate reality where she died where I can reflect on her life with the awe and admiration that her life and career deserved.

In that reality, I’m not super torn up about her death. She had an incredible run and her legal decisions have had ripple effects on law and justice in the US that reverberate throughout the rest of its history.

And in that reality I can acknowledge that she wasn’t perfect. Liberal as she was, she fell short of overcoming racism. In her entire career she only hired one black clerk, and her comments about Colin Kaepernick (for which she did later apologize) demonstrated that even trailblazers have blind spots, and that it’s important to always be welcoming in the next generation of trailblazers because for all of us, there will be a day when we will start getting in the way of progress.


But that isn’t the reality we get to mourn RBG in, is it?

Instead I am stuck worrying about Mitch McConnell applying a double standard that we could tell from miles away he was going to apply, and indeed he came up with a doozy of a bullshit reason for why it was okay for him to not hold hearings for Merrick Garland in 2016, but how he will indeed hold confirmation hearings for whomever Trump nominates.

In Portland we only just today got a break from the incredibly smoky air from the nearby wildfires that were keeping us holed up in our houses. And that’s just shortly after we were gearing up for the possibility we’d need to evacuate because of those wildfires and heavy winds. And that’s in addition to the general long-term threat caused by the climate change we’ve been letting happen for decades without trying to address with urgency.

And of course all that is in addition to the fact that we’ve been living in a pandemic for most of the year and the US is handling it worse than just about every other country in the world.

Also, the US is being pushed to reckon with centuries of racist history, and we’re struggling to do anything about it.

And most of the US agrees with me that we should do something about these issues, and presumably as a democracy that means we’d have leadership doing something about it, but we don’t, because of a mix of gerrymandering, the electoral college, and the fact that in the Senate, every state gets two senators, meaning that California, a state that if it were its own country would have the fifth largest economy in the world, gets as many senators as Montana. 37 times as many people, but the same number of senators.

It must have been such an incredible burden for Justice Ginsburg to bear, knowing that the court, already ideologically shifting further right, was somewhat being held in balance by her, and that she needed to stick it out until after Trump left office to avoid the court shifting incredibly far-right. To stay on the bench not because it was her ambition (which it was), but to soldier through illness after illness while continuing to work because there was no other good option.

The context makes all the difference.

And it’s in this context that the news of her death leaves me feeling so much despair. RBG’s death in itself isn’t the despair; it’s more the sprinkling of salt that brings out the flavor of despair in everything else we’ve been experiencing in recent history.

I look forward to a hopefully not too distant future where the wounds of today have healed and we can look back at RBG’s life and feel the inspiration I wish I could feel today.

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Clipboard History with Alfred

Note: this is your last chance to win a free Alfred Powerpack!

If you want to enter, you should own a Mac, since you’ll need one to actually use Alfred!

To enter, do one of the following:

  • follow me at @harpaa01
  • Subscribe to icanthascheezburger via email
  • Subscribe via RSS at the link above and leave a comment with your email address (I won’t publish the comment)

If you also mention one of these posts on Twitter or Mastodon or Micro.blog (and mention me so I can see it) you’ll double your chances.

Winners will be randomly selected on Wednesday. I don’t want to reveal too many numbers here, but let’s just say you’d have really good chances of winning if you entered.

homer simpson saying he likes those odds


Copying and pasting is a nice little productivity boost that you get when using a computer, but the fact that you can only ever have one thing in the pasteboard at a time is kind of limiting.

With Alfred, you don’t have to feel limited in this way: enter Clipboard History.

alfred clipboard history

This is the kind of feature where you first hear about it and your reaction is an unenthusiastic “hmm, neat.”

But I promise: once Alfred is keeping your clipboard history and you actually get used to it being there, it’s liberating.

It’s easy, just invoke Alfred, type in the keyword to get to the clipboard viewer (mine is c) and hit Enter, and you’ll be greeted with recent Clipboard items.

“What was that URL I had a few minutes ago? Oh, no worries, I’ll just grab it quick.”

Ever feel a little bit hesitant to delete some text from your document? Just ⌘X and you can cut it with confidence that it’s right there if you change your mind, even if you copy some other text to the clipboard later.

Got a list of different things you are going to copy from one file to another? Don’t keep cmd-tabbing back and forth; just copy them all in sequence, then use Alfred to get the one you need, right when you need it.

The clipboard history is searchable, so even if you don’t 100% remember when you copied something, or even if you don’t quite remember exactly what the text was, you can quickly find it.

If you copy images to the clipboard, Alfred handles that too!

By default, Alfred won’t keep sensitive items in the clipboard history, like things copied from your password manager or the Keychain.

But wait, there’s more!

Keeping recent clipboard items is great, but what if you just have some snippets of text that you frequently want to include in documents?

Alfred’s got you.

Enter snippets!

alfred snippets

You can give snippets of text a name, and then when you’re searching the clipboard history, you can search for the snippet of text by name.

And if you want to use Alfred as a basic version of TextExpander, you can also add the ability to automatically expand snippets when you enter the keyword.

These snippets are highly useful, and you can import them from the web. I’ve imported a collection of emoji by name, for instance.

You should use Alfred!

This is my final post in this Alfred series. I’ve shown you how to do a variety of things with Alfred, and it’s still hard for me to describe exactly what Alfred is for, because Alfred can be used for anything you really can imagine setting it up to do.

But at the end of the day, Alfred buys you back some time in your day, a few seconds at a time. Sometimes when you use it, it buys you back a few minutes. But it helps you do things without effort and without thought.

And when you’re in “the zone” and Alfred can keep you in the zone by making it possible for you to do something like type in the glyph for ⌘ without having to dig into the character viewer, Alfred just gave you back more than just that couple seconds.

I don’t spend tons of time using Alfred (and you shouldn’t!), but I invoke it many times a day:

CleanShot 2020 08 31 at 18 39 51 2x

And if Alfred kept track of my usage across every device I’ve used it on, it would no doubt tell me that I’ve used Alfred at least fifty thousand times since I first installed it 10 years ago, almost to the day.

Thanks, Alfred!

Keyboard Projects: Iris

Over the past year I’ve developed a periodic habit of going on keeb.io and just ordering up a kit for a keyboard just to try it out. Like with most mechanical keyboard supply shops, you have to keep a close eye on when things are in stock, but they have some fun and relatively simple keyboard kits.

I recently embarked on trying to find an answer to the question “what if I had a keyboard that was like the Planck, but had just a couple more keys on it?”

There are a couple Planck-like keyboard projects out there that kind of fit the bill of what I was looking for, but I noticed the Iris kit on keeb.io and decided to give that a shot.

It’s a split ergonomic type keyboard with an ortholinear layout. Each half has 28 keys; a 6×4 grid, plus space for 3–4 thumb keys on the corners of each half.

Now, its default layout is set up not quite like a Planck; it’s actually using the top row as number keys, like this:

Iris keyboard layout (default)

But this is a fully programmable keyboard, so I don’t need to concern myself with such limitations!

Instead, I decided to lay mine out as though it’s a Planck, just with some extra keys added:

my Iris keyboard layout

Switches and Keycaps

Once you’ve picked what kind of keyboard you’re making, the next most important set of choices are going to be which switches you’re going to use, which will in turn inform which key caps you can use. The switches, if you’re not familiar, are the component that goes beneath each key cap, and it’s the “mechanical” part of a mechanical keyboard; it actually has mechanical components within it that are responsible for actuating when you press a key, and are also responsible for a good chunk of the clickiness you feel when you are typing on a mechanical keyboard.

The Iris PCB, luckily, is quite flexible! It supports three main types of switches: Cherry MX-style switches (by far the most commonly used in modern mechanical keyboards), ALPS switches (very popular in the 80s and 90s with some die hard fans still today), and Kailh Choc switches (a thinner switch that enables you to build a low-profile keyboard with less key travel and less thickness).

I initially decided to lay mine out with ALPS-style switches made by Matias. Because ALPS-style switches use a different plastic stem shape, that severely limited my key cap options, so I just bought a set of blank key caps from Matias.

Obstacles

Building the keyboard is pretty straightforward. The latest PCB is basically all pre-made; you just have to solder the switches in, then screw the case together. It’s a good beginner project, too, because there are only 56 contact points you have to solder on each half.

Once I had the keyboard together, and once I ported my layout over to it and flashed it, I gave it a whirl. But the thumb keys proved to be a problem; they were basically blocking the two keys they’re in front of.

So, I decided to try something experimental: what if I bought a few low-profile Choc switches, and used those for the thumb keys instead?

That’s got to work, right? The PCB supports both types of switch.

It was a little janky, and the PCB wasn’t built to have more than one variety of switch in it at once, but with a little flexing, I got the Choc switches (Jades, if you were wondering) soldered in and they worked!

PCB flex

Show me the keyboard!

It came out looking pretty cool. Note that despite my stint living in Wisconsin, I’m not as much of a Packers fan as the key caps let on; the supplier I got the key caps from included some color key caps as freebies.

Iris glamour shot

close up of the Iris keyboard

And of course, you’re probably wondering how it sounds. Well, I am delighted to say that the ALPS-style clicky switches are some of the clickiest you can get, and these are nothing short of really satisfying to listen to:

Mind you, with this particular choice of case and plate and keycaps, I am ending up with a somewhat different sound than these same switches produce on another keyboard. Let’s hear these ALPS switches on my Ergodox Infinity, for instance:

The difference is more pronounced in person, but the sound is deeper than on the Iris.

Also, the four thumb keys are using “thick click” Kailh switches, which also have a lovely little sound and feel to them:

I think if I could do it over again I’d have picked the slightly stiffer Navy Blue Choc switches.

Parting Thoughts

Whenever I’m using a Planck or similar 48-key keyboard, I’m always thinking to myself “if I just had a couple extra keys here that’d be just perfect.”

And so I give myself a few extra keys with the Iris, and I realize it’s not the productivity boost I thought it’d be.

The issue: With the Planck, everything is within super easy reach. The thumb keys on the Iris are just far enough away that your fingers second guess themselves when you try to use them. That slows me down more than you might think. So even if this gives me some new dedicated keys I can now hit without a layer switch, it’s still actually just faster for me to hit the equivalent key on the Planck, even though hitting that same key involves two keystrokes.

I’ll give myself more time though. This keyboard is still a lot of fun to type on and I really do like how rich and clicky it sounds. Also, the switches are still a little stiff and would benefit from a little more time to break in as well as a bit of lubrication.

This is a great quarantining project too. Material costs are $100–150 depending on what components you pick out, and the soldering work is pretty easy. Hit me up if you have questions about it.