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!

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.

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.

Building Custom Jigs With Alfred

note: I’m giving away some Alfred licenses!

Because I love Alfred so darn much, I’m giving away Alfred Powerpack licenses to some lucky readers. 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 you’ll double your chances.

I’ll pick winners next Wednesday, September 2, 2020!


I like to watch experienced craftspeople do woodworking from time to time, and the more I watch good ones doing their work, the more I realize it has a lot in common with software development as a craft.

One such similarity is that woodworkers will often see opportunities to make themselves more productive by building little custom tools for themselves such as jigs to help hold a piece of wood in place, or to help make consistent cuts when doing some repetitive work.

Here’s a common enough use case: I have a projects folder where I keep all my programming projects. I very commonly want to just open one of the folders in that projects folder with my editor of choice.

Alone, Alfred makes this not too difficult:

alfred accessing a project folder

That isn’t bad.

But we can do it faster with a workflow.

This workflow has two components: a script filter input and an action that runs a script.

This is the script filter:

script filter

The code for the script filter:

I’m not that good at Bash scripting and I lifted this code from some other Alfred workflow years ago. But to customize it, you’ll want to change the directory where it says cd ~/projects to match the directory you keep your projects in. You can also customize the text to say whichever editor you plan to have projects open in.

The action script is set up like so:

script action

The script reads simply /usr/local/bin/mate ~/projects/{query}. Your editor will be a different binary. If you use VS Code and you’ve set it up to launch from the command line the path to the binary will be /usr/local/bin/code instead.

With everything set up, let’s see how it looks:

alfred script filter workflow in action

Not bad!

Alpha Lima Foxtrot Romeo Echo Delta

Ever been on the phone with customer service and you need to spell something out, and you think “man, I wish I actually knew that NATO alphabet so I could spell out letters using words and sound like a military badass”

Alfred lets you be that badass. You’ll need a third party workflow for this. Download it and add it to Alfred, and once you do, just type nato into Alfred followed by the phrase you want to spell to the person on the phone. And if you press Enter it will display in large type.

demonstrating using Alfred to display Nato alphabet words

I don’t always need this, but when I do, it’s useful. And if I ever do need it, it’s just a couple keystrokes away.

Now, go forth and look for an excuse to say “niner” to someone.

Want an Alfred license?

Because I love Alfred so darn much, I’m giving away Alfred Powerpack licenses to some lucky readers. 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, @harpaa01 and DM me to say you want a PowerPack
  • Subscribe to icanthascheezburger’s email newsletter
  • Subscribe to the RSS feed, then also leave a comment with a way for me to reach you (comments are moderated and I won’t publish it)

To double your chances, share a link to this blog post on your Twitter account (mentioning @harpaa01). And if you have over 100 followers your chances are tripled.

I have gotten zero takers so far on this, so an Alfred Powerpack literally could be there for the taking!

Searching the Web Far and Wide with Alfred

This is a use case that got me addicted to application launcher style apps before Alfred even existed (back then Quicksilver was all the rage).

It doesn’t take that long to Google something; you just go to an open browser window and type something in the address bar and hit Enter. If you’re savvy with your keyboard shortcuts you’ll know that ⌘L will focus your keyboard on the address bar so you don’t even need to lift a finger from the keyboard.

But that still takes a second, especially if you’re not in a browser right this minute.

Alfred’s got you covered. Look no further than the Web Search feature:

alfred web search settings

The best part: this doesn’t just work with Google; you can search just about any site on the web that supports search. You can jump right into a Google Image Search, for instance (my shortcut for that is gim), or search Amazon for something.

performing an Amazon search with Alfred

Instant Bookmark Access with Alfred

I use a lot of different web apps throughout my work day, and I can’t be bothered to navigate to them all the time.

Using Alfred to launch apps on my Mac is great but it’s too obvious a use case to be worth a blog post.

However, Alfred does integrate with major web browsers to give easy access to your bookmarks.

Alfred Web Bookmarks settings

(looks like Firefox isn’t supported out of the box but you can install an Alfred workflow to make these work).

From there, all you have to do is invoke Alfred and start typing the name of the bookmark and you’re off to the races.

I have a few different GitHub-specific shortcuts, such as one that takes me to my notifications page (I named that one ghn), one that takes me to the issues I’ve written (myissues), and one that shows me my current pull requests (myPRs). Alfred will automatically suggest the best match in real time so I usually just have to type the first few letters and then hit Enter.

Protip: If you work at a company that uses Okta single sign on, I recommend that you copy Okta links to each of your apps and make bookmarks of those. That way, if you’re not signed into the app, it’ll take you through the Okta sign-in process first:

copying URLs for Okta

Depending on how effectively use your bookmarks this might save you only a couple seconds, or it could save you several if you were pretty inefficient before. But over time, if you’re opening up bookmarks all the time, this adds up to decent time savings over time, and it keeps you in your flow state. Plus, the satisfaction of being able to open arbitrary bookmarks with just a couple keystrokes is incredibly satisfying.

Get a free Alfred License!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m giving away some Alfred Power Pack licenses because I love Alfred so darn much.

If you use macOS and you’re interested, just follow @harpaa01 on Twitter and DM me to let me know you’re interested. If you want to double your chances and you’re willing to shamelessly plug me on Twitter for it, mention me with a link to this post on Twitter. And if you have 100–999 followers, your chances of winning will be tripled. Yes, that’s right, tripled! This offer also valid on my micro.blog account (but I don’t think micro.blog has DMs so just mention me)

Not a Twitter user? No problem, subscribe with your email address and you’ll be entered. Using RSS? No problem, comment on this post (make sure you leave your email) and show me a screenshot proving you’re subscribed (I won’t approve the comment so your email won’t be public).

No purchase necessary, void where prohibited, bla bla bla.

If you are actually reading this far into the blog post, your chances are pretty high; I know there aren’t many of you; I see the analytics.

The Moonlander Keyboard – First Impressions

When ZSA announced a new keyboard a couple of weeks ago and said it was in stock and ready to ship immediately, I managed to last about five minutes before clicking the Order button. ZSA, makers of the Ergodox EZ and more recently the Planck EZ, have stepped things up with a new keyboard that is an entirely new design (the Ergodox and Planck EZ are based on open-source keyboards).

I was interested in the Moonlander primarily as part of my initiative to experiment with keyboards that are Planck-like but have some extra thumb keys to make things a little easier for me. The Moonlander has an extra row on top, which makes it more similar to a Preonic with extra thumb keys.

But one thing in particular caught my eye about the Moonlander: the thumb clusters are on a hinge and adjustable. Being someone for whom the thumb keys often either are in my way or are a real stretch for the thumbs to reach (looking at you, Keyboardio Model 01), this seemed quite promising.

Fast forward to today (well, yesterday), and my friendly UPS driver drops off a surprisingly compact box on my doorstep. I open it up and find it has a beautiful unboxing experience, and the keyboard comes with a nice little carrying case.

Moonlander box with Planck EZ on top for scale

Moonlander keyboard in its handy carrying case

I immediately got to work adapting my own keyboard layout to this keyboard (That’s right! I’m giving it my own custom layout. This keyboard is fully programmable so its layout can be whatever you want it to be. More on that in a bit). Instead of using the layout it came with, I am instead making this layout a superset of my Planck layout, which is what I’ve been doing with all the ortholinear-layout keyboards I use. They’re all at least as big as a Planck, so they contain a Planck inside of them.

Onions have layers, keyboards have layers

When using a relatively compact keyboard like one of these, you will find the need get multiple keys’ worth of mileage out of each individual key on your keyboard, and one easy way to accomplish this is with layers. You can assign keys to let you switch between layers. They can either work like a standard modifier key where you’re on the other layer as long as you hold the other key down, you can have the key toggle the layer on/off, or you can even have a one-shot layer switch, where you tap the key quick, then the next key you tap is on that layer and the keyboard automatically switches back. You can even have a key that lets you hold to momentarily switch layers, but will toggle the layer on if you tap the key.

Your computer traditionally is none the wiser about these layers; all the computer knows is that the keyboard sends keypress events to it and it processes them, and the fact that there are layers is not really known to the computer. But ZSA have made a clever feature in their keyboard configurator called “Train” that allows you to actually explore your keyboard layout in real time, and it gives you visibility into the layer keys you’re pressing. Let’s have a peek at that now:

animation of training mode

This goes beyond a traditional typing tutor application because it also provides visibility into the layers you have on your keyboard and it indicates which is active and what keys are available on that layer. If you’re new to the whole concept of layers on keyboards this is a really valuable learning tool, and even an experienced curmudgeon like myself enjoys this as a testing/debugging tool.

And if your keyboard layout turns out to be unusable? No worries! You can just reprogram it and re-flash it.

Keyboard features and quality

tl;dr: It’s a quality keyboard. Nothing to worry about here.

The keyboard itself is surprisingly thin when unfolded. It’s just over half an inch thick. It can be used flat (which is how I’m using it currently), or you can tent it at whatever angle you like. Actually getting the tenting situated looks a little bit fiddly, but there’s a helpful YouTube video demonstrating how to do it.

The key caps it comes with come in a DSA profile, which means that the height and angle of the keys is the same on every row. If you don’t like this, there is a cottage industry of small makers selling their own third-party key caps for mechanical keyboards. You might have to buy some add-on kits to get enough caps for this keyboard, but for most key cap sets a base kit plus an ortho kit will probably be just fine.

The keyboard has RGB LEDs under each keyswitch, and the firmware for the keyboard comes with a variety of fun animations built right in. The LEDs’ brightness and hue can be adjusted on the keyboard, and they can be turned off entirely for those who hate the whimsy. And the keyboard isn’t just a visual delight; it also has a built-in PC-style speaker which can even be used to play little tunes if you’re into that kind of thing (and the speaker can also be turned off if you don’t want it making a chirp when you connect it to your computer).

The build quality is absolutely fantastic. The keyboard is made of plastic but it has a decent amount of heft to it (something I can’t say for ZSA’s Planck EZ which is so light it feels cheap).

As any good modern mechanical keyboard, it uses a USB-C connector on the back, and the switches aren’t soldered onto the board; they are instead hot-swappable, so if you change your mind and want a different type of feel to your keyboard you can just pop out the switches and put in new ones.

The keyboard comes with a 2 year warranty as well, and I can say that all of my interactions with their support team are spectacular. They helped me troubleshoot a pretty gnarly issue last year with my Planck that ended up being caused by the animation code using up too many processor cycles and causing my keyboard to not respond correctly in all cases.

The switches

I chose Kailh Box White switches for this keyboard. ZSA offers a decent selection of switches with their keyboards, but one thing I really wish they and other keyboard vendors would offer is an option to buy a keyboard with the key caps but no switches so I can pick exactly the ones I want later, because these wouldn’t have been my first choice.

My first choice would probably have been Kailh Box Jade or Box Navy switches, which are part of their “thick click” series. They’re… so luxurious to type on. But I digress.

The Box White switches are nice and clicky, and have a bit more of a “chonkier” sound than, say, Cherry MX Blue switches, often the default keyswitch people think about when they think about a loud and clicky keyboard.

The click from these switches is lower in pitch compared to an MX Blue.

Let’s hear these compared to a couple other of my favorite switches:

In person the differences between these sounds are quite different (in particular the Box Royal switches are much quieter in person than the recording would have you believe). And if you don’t really need or want a loud and clicky keyboard there are plenty of much quieter keyswitch choices available to you, although they often have a more dampened tactile feel to them as well when you type on them.

A… nonstandard configuration

I got used to the layout of this keyboard pretty quickly, but one thing kept driving me nuts: as a long time Planck user, that top row of keys felt superfluous and the keys were getting in the way.

I initially worked around this by making the top row of keys do the same thing as the second row of keys in most layers, but it still felt clumsy.

Then I realized: It’s a totally customizable keyboard with hot-swappable switches; I can do something about this!

So… I just took the top row of keys out entirely.

blinded by the light

It looks silly and I am getting blinded by these extra LEDs while I figure out how to make some plastic placeholders to go in place of these keyswitches, but it works pretty well!

Of course, if ZSA makes a compact Moonlander that drops that top row I’m totally dropping another few hundred bucks.

I also might explore trying to find a super low-profile MX-compatible key cap that can go on that top row so that I can retain those extra keys, but without them always necessarily being in my way. I might even look into 3D printing some miniature caps that go right over the stem but don’t cover the rest of the switch, leaving the keys accessible, but not in a way I’m ever going to mistake for a regular key. I might also put in a row of artisan key caps on that top row.

Verdict: should you buy one?

Yeah, if you want one! It’s a great choice of keyboard.

If you’re currently using a standard keyboard layout, you need to give yourself time to adjust to this one though, because it’s pretty radically different. It’s a split keyboard, for one thing. It also uses a columnar (aka ortholinear) layout, which is going to feel unnatural to someone who is used to staggered rows of keys on traditional keyboards. And if that’s not enough, you have to get accustomed to the fact that there’s not a space for all of your symbol keys in the normal spot on this keyboard.

You’re not going to be typing at full speed on this keyboard the day it arrives on your doorstep like I am (unless you happen to be adapting a very similar keymap from another similar keyboard like I did)

And I think ZSA is a great little keyboard shop and they’re very deserving of your business.

Verdict: will it unseat my Planck as primary keyboard?

It could.

One thing that I really love about the Planck is how accessible every single key feels on it. I necessarily can’t get that same experience with these bigger keyboards because, well, they have more keys and when you add more keys, you’re eventually going to end up with some that are a farther reach.

What I can say so far is that once I got my layout on here, I’ve felt completely at ease and at home on this keyboard. It makes for a great keyboard for my desk, and it has a very good chance of becoming my daily driver.

Of course, when you have the massive collection that I have (that keeps getting larger), you can end up with an awful lot of daily drivers!

The Dunning-Krueger Years

I’ll periodically get these flashbacks to moments in my career where I can now realize that I was way out of my element and didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Having worked at an early stage startup I ended up in a role where I was managing other engineers and I was not yet experienced enough to realize just how unqualified I was.

On one of these occasions, one of the engineers on my team was struggling to get some work done in time for an upcoming deadline.

And since I was presumably this clever and brilliant manager I figured I’d be able to swoop in, work my magic, and get this engineer back on track. There was a company-wide outing coming up that week, and I told him “hey, let’s both stay back at the office and we’ll knock out these issues together.” For me, this was perfect because I considered the event to be a waste of time anyway and I also got to be the down to earth, hands-on manager who rolls up his sleeves and gets shit done.

So we stayed behind to hold down the fort while the rest of the company went to this fun outing. In practice, I was of little use to him because I wasn’t intimately familiar with the codebase he was working on, and despite him working primarily in JS, he was perfectly proficient in Ruby and didn’t really have any need for 26 year old me’s sage advice as an expert Rubyist of… probably a couple of years at the time.

So I mostly spent the afternoon dicking around on the internet, not really helping with much, and I guess he got to chip away at his issues for an extra afternoon, and an extra afternoon wasn’t make or break. In retrospect, this was mostly a dick move. Instead of singling this lone engineer out and keeping him from a bonding activity with peers, I should have been monitoring the project more closely so that I could have directed some help his way weeks prior, when it would have mattered. And I would have been a much more down to earth manager had I been a good sport and attended this outing.

This engineer’s life has since then taken a dramatic turn; he eventually left tech entirely and according to his Facebook profile he teaches yoga and practices healing through sound baths and meditation. And to be honest, having worked in tech now for a little while, that does sound like it would be a refreshing and fulfilling departure from the shenanigans people like past me subjected people to.

I’m glad that I’ve grown enough that I can look at my past self and facepalm so hard. I’m not proud of whatever collateral damage I’ve left in the path I took to get here, and I hope I still have enough growth ahead of me that I can look back at even this post and think “wow, I was insufferable.”