Solving interference for the Microsoft Sculpt

The Microsoft Sculpt is currently my favorite keyboard, but it suffers a nearly fatal flaw: sometimes keypresses fail to register. This happens apparently at random, and often enough to make the keyboard unusable. My best guess at the cause is wireless interference, but the keyboard does not come in a wired version.

It stands to reason that the receiver might just need to get closer to the transmitter, so I might be able to solve the problem by making the keyboard semi-wired. Effectively, I would extend the receiver and tape it to the back of the keyboard:

Sculpt keyboard with receiver taped to back

This works flawlessly.

Better yet, taping the receiver to the keyboard is unnecessary: simply plugging the receiver into a usb extension cable lets keystrokes register without fail. I surmise that the extension cable becomes an antenna, but whatever the reason, keystrokes now register without fail and the receiver can be just as far from the keyboard as before.

Matias Ergo Pro: the review

Mechanical keyboards have gained popularity in recent years, but there is still a terribly under-served class: split mechanicals. The $200 Ergo Pro is a rare entrant that I very much want to like. First the good: it feels solid and the switches are very quiet for mechanicals.

Tragically, the rest is mostly bad.

Some faults are minor matters of taste: first, Matias may have sacrificed too much for quiet switches. I like my switches clickier and with a more noticeable point of engagement, but they feel soft on the Ergo Pro. Second, dedicated cut/copy/paste keys just waste space.

Layout

Slightly more problematic, it is difficult to adjust to some bizarre layout choices.

Ergo Pro layout schematic
Matias Ergo Pro

I don’t mind moving the home/end/etc. cluster but isolating the delete key makes the arrangement more unintuitive than necessary.

Next, right control migrated under the right index finger; it is easier to reach than normal and I almost like that choice.

By contrast, the escape key has gotten much more difficult to reach. The horizontal face of escape actually slopes down toward the back, away from you, and it moved far to the upper left. I guess we know what editor the designers prefer. This choice is extra perplexing because they seem to have shifted the function keys rightward to make room for a proper escape key placement, then, presumably, forgotten to move the key.

Pressing escape on this keyboard is the typing equivalent of outfitting an expedition to the north pole, crossing the key desert above the tilde mountains, trekking westward past the edge of where ordinary keys reside and finally pressing escape on your return journey.

Nonetheless, after a week of use, I was beginning to adjust to the strange layout. I had to abandon the keyboard for other reasons.

Ergonomics

Keyboard manufacturers habitually call any split or curved keyboard “ergonomic”, ignoring all but one factor in the dance that is ergonomics.

Despite being split and its name, the Ergo Pro is decidedly not ergonomic. It suffers a subtle but severe enter key misplacement: the enter key is in a straight line a full inch from the semicolon key.

Most split designs include curved rows of keys:

Microsoft Sculpt keyboard layout
Microsoft Sculpt uses curved rows

The Ergo Pro, however, does not curve the enter key toward to the right pinky, nor does it adjust the enter key inward. The Sculpt’s enter key is an eighth inch closer to semicolon, and closer the the palm by virtue of a curved row.

In total, this pushes the enter key half an inch further from where my palm rests on the Matias keyboard than on the Sculpt. Since my pinky is only two and a half inches long, this is a whopping 20% difference that causes, for me, severe strain after only a week’s use.

But isn’t this still better than the same difference on a straight keyboard?

No. On a straight keyboard, the unnaturally outward curved wrists incline you to rotate your hands inward when reaching for keys with the little finger. Consequently, your outside fingers naturally move forward when needed. This reduces finger-overextension at the cost of wrist strain. A split keyboard straightens the wrists, meaning that the pinky has no assistance when reaching for the outer keys.

Perhaps this does not matter if you rarely use the enter key, such as when typing prose, but I am a programmer so enter is my second most popular key. It probably didn’t help that I was using the Ergo Pro when developing Qwerty War. Though I wanted to love it, I had to abandon the Ergo Pro after a week due to crippling pain.

Quad-monitor Linux

The last time I ran multiheaded Linux, I was on Kubuntu 12. Since that time I’ve built about a half dozen machines with same or similar hardware: a couple dual-dvi Nvidia cards. They mostly ran Windows, but it’s 2016 and time to kick Windows out again.

Upon initial install, three of the monitors are basically functional and Kde display settings detect the fourth, but won’t let me enable it. A little research and I remember that I used to use Xinerama.

In 2012, Nvidia supported multi-head configurations on Linux with its proprietary X extension, Xinerama. It was a bit quirky, but worked well enough so long as you had a set configuration you didn’t want to change often.

So I install the binary blob Nvidia drivers, enable Xinerama and get only black screen plus a cursor shaped like the letter x.

It seems that Nvidia abandoned Xinerama and they now say to use something called Base Mosaic. After reading many instructions and questions about this setup and tweaking xorg.conf every way I can imagine, I conclude that Base Mosaic can only span multiple video cards when they are connected via sli, and even if I had cards with that capability, it’s not clear whether I could expect it to work for more than three monitors.

Essentially, I have the wrong hardware. So I abandon the hostile Nvidia and instead order two Radeon cards.

Ati used to ship binary driver blobs, but also made specs available that enabled development of more reliable open source drivers. In the last few years, Ubuntu dropped support for the binary blob “fglrx” drivers, reasoning that the open source drivers are adequate, so the the fglrx packages no longer appear in official repositories for Kubuntu 16.

Two Radeon cards go in and all four monitors come to life. It looks like progress. Unfortunately, though active, they are barely usable: my mouse suffers terrible jerkiness and screens briefly freeze from time to time. I spend the rest of the day trying different combinations of Linux and window managers: i3 on Ubuntu, Kde on Centos, Gnome 3 on Centos, Cinnamon on Mint. All suffer similar problems and the fglrx drivers from ElRepo just crash.

I observe that the the problems go away so long as I use only one card at a time. So, I reason that I still don’t have the right hardware. I order a quad-head card, the VisionTek Radeon 5570. Finally, five video cards, later, I start Kubuntu and everything just works.

Short story: for multi-head Linux in 2016, use a single video card and avoid Nvidia.

Unicomp Customizer

I am writing this on my brand new Unicomp Customizer. Since first reading Have Keyboard, Will Program, I wondered whether buckling spring hype was really worth it, especially since I have long loved the near-perfect1 Microsoft Natural 4000 layout.

Within an hour or two of receiving my keyboard and excitedly testing it on online typing tests and games like Qwerty Warriors, I realize this is the first keyboard that actually speeds up my typing. In that short time, my beloved Microsoft Natural has started to feel spongy and uncomfortable.

Finger exhaustion makes the difference. Five minutes full bore on another keyboard and my fingers feel tired. Tired fingers make more mistakes; I backspace more; I slow down. On the Unicomp, however, my fingers feel just as sprightly after the test as before. At test completion my fingers feel as if they have been jumping on a trampoline and their parents just spoiled their fun by telling them to come in for dinner.

Beside tantalizing finger pleasure, the Customizer adds visceral clattering spring charm. By practicing a soft touch, you can dull the sound a little, but passersby will always think a mini war zone surrounds your computer. And I thought even the Microsoft Natural’s space bar was a little loud in an office.

Regardless, those who regularly type long blocks of text might justifiably tell coworkers to suck it up. Even without an ergonomic layout, the reduced finger fatigue over just a five minute test makes up for every clicky keyboard comment. Sadly, the Customizer will probably not increase my overall work efficiency. My typing usually involves the typical programmer’s short bursts and frequent contortions for symbols.

So I probably will not use it in an office and I am unlikely to gain significant typing comfort or speed, but was it worth it? $80 to make typing fun again? I think so.

  1. I have only two gripes with the Natural’s layout. First, six should be on the right, but the peculiar left-handed six position may not have been Microsoft’s decision; it infects most split layouts, including the original Natural’s contemporary IBM M15. The second mistake, F Lock does belong exclusively to Microsoft.