Unicomp Endurapro: Quite a Clacker Sunday, Jan 17 2010 

As promised, I wanted to share with all of you my experiences with my new toy.  Part of the reason why I was posting so little in the last few weeks was because my Lenovo multimedia keyboard began failing.  I first noticed the problem when I was trying to input an address around the Christmas holiday.  Every time I hit a key in the second row of the number pad, the number or the symbol would not register, a problem I could easily work around for the short-term.

But I also noticed, and I thought this was quite odd, that my semicolon and right arrow keys were also malfunctioning.  Now these routinely bothered me.  The semicolon is a fairly common punctuation in the English language, and, although it isn’t as common, its key mate, the colon, also gets some regular play on my keyboards.  And I use the arrow keys quite often to navigate documents and webpages.  So in order to use either key, I would have to take my hand away from my keyboard tray and reach up to the top of the writing surface of my desk to hit the corresponding key on my Thinkpad.  (Yes, I know I could use the keyboard on my laptop; however, my TP sits pretty high on my desk and because of that, isn’t very comfortable to type on.  Besides, I’m a creature of habit; I like to do things a certain way.)

The funny thing was that I was thinking of replacing my Lenovo keyboard anyway.  Although there were many things I liked about it, I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t make all of the multimedia keys work with Ubuntu.  I kept trying to remap the keys; however, wasn’t able to.  What’s the use of having a keyboard with email, internet, and app shortcut keys if you can’t use them?  Luckily, the volume and the page forward and backward buttons worked fine.  I got the idea of replacing my Lenovo keyboard when I saw a rebadged Logitech keyboard on the ZA Reason website.  (By the way, the ZA people seem very nice.  I spoke to someone there, and she was very polite, patient, and helpful.)  That particular keyboard, the Logitech Internet 350, didn’t require special software to make the multimedia keys work with Ubuntu–plug-and-play right out of the box.  The ZA people also added a nice touch–Ubuntu logos and keys.  Yes, that’s right, no Windows keys to mar your FOSS aesthetics.  But once I calculated what it would cost to send the keyboard to me here in Hawaii, forget it.  The shipping was almost the same price as the keyboard itself.

So instead, I went to the local Walmart (we don’t have many choices when it comes to tech purchases on this island) and bought a Logitech keyboard there–not the 350 mind you.  I got a really good price for it and was initially satisfied.  However, when I got home, I realized that I forgot to take one thing into consideration.  My mouse has always been connected to a USB hub on my keyboard since the day I got it.  So I was faced with a couple of problems.  First, I use a Logitech travel mouse, and the cord is fairly short.  It would have been impossible to reach the USB port on my TP from the keyboard tray.  That meant I would have to place my mouse on the desk surface separate of the keyboard where it would be uncomfortable to use.  The second, and more important problem, was that I only have 3 USB ports on my TP T61P; I didn’t want to dedicate two-thirds of my USB ports just to facilitate the use of a keyboard and mouse.  Strike one.

So I was left with a couple of choices: 1. Buy a USB hub to connect the keyboard and mouse to a USB port without removing either from the keyboard tray, which would leave the other ports open for peripherals, or 2. Get another keyboard that had a built-in hub, or that was wireless and came with its own mouse.  So I returned my initial purchase and bought another Logitech board from the local K-Mart.  This one came with a wireless keyboard and mouse.  I spent about three times as much, but hey, I needed it.  When I got home, I found that the wireless dongle had two cables coming out of it–a USB connection (for the keyboard) and a PS/2 connection (for the mouse).  PS/2?  Who has PS/2 ports anymore?  (Well, my old Dell laptop still has a PS/2 port, so I guess I still do.)  Strike two.

I returned that keyboard to K-Mart and decided that I would need to order a keyboard from the Net instead, which was okay considering places like Amazon usually have options for free shipping.  But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.  I began searching my options and kept coming up with 60 dollar keyboards that would cost me 80-90 bucks by the time it got to me.  Strike three.  If I was going to pay a premium price, I wanted a premium product.

So I decided to research.  As with many of these searches, I began with the ubiquitous Google.  I got many hits for “best keyboard,” however, the most common names that kept coming up was the Das Keyboard and Unicomp (or Model-M).  So after researching both manufacturers’ sites, I thought I would go with the Das.  Their board had a modern look.  It also included a USB hub built in, multi-media keys, Linux support, and it used old school mechanical switch technology for key input.  Yep!  Click, click, clack….  No quiet, mushy rubber dome stuff here.  But before I made my purchase, I did a few more searches and found that some people were claiming that their Dases required a lot of power and were rendering other USB ports on their machines unusable when the boards were plugged in.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I like having USB ports, and I don’t want them being tied up by a keyboard.  So I went back to Unicomp to review their lineup.

Now, to understand who Unicomp is, you have to know that they bought the design for the OG IBM Model-M keyboards from Lexmark, who was (maybe still is) a subsidiary of IBM.  If any of you remember the Model-Ms, they were those keyboards that were big, heavy, and had those really long cords with the coiled ends.  They were solid and well-built.  Granted, they don’t quite have the same flair and styling of modern boards, but they’re built like tanks.  In fact the original Model-Ms, those with the four or five function keys on the left side, had a metal plate at the bottom which prevented flexing.  Metal plate=tank!

Unicomp’s lineup sticks to the roots of the Model-Ms, so they look like throwbacks.  They use buckling spring switches, so they have that terse feel of those old boards.  They have added in some of the newer IBM keyboard designs so have models with built-in stick mice and smaller space-saving designs too.  What I was most impressed by was that Unicomp offered the ability to order some of their keyboards in Linux friendly layouts–I’m guessing for programmers.  They also allow you to customize their keyboards.  I even found out that for you pomaceous fruit users, you can request, although it isn’t listed as an option on their website, Command keys to take the place of those offensive Windows keys.  There were a couple of problems with the Unicomp lineup though.  First, their keyboards don’t include built-in  USB hubs (some models that use PS/2 connections have an additional port on the side of the keyboard).  The second problem, it would be costly to ship the keyboard from Kentucky to Hawaii.

But because I was getting sick of a dying keyboard and didn’t want to settle for a cheap rubber dome one again, I bit the bullet and bought a Unicomp.  The Endurapro with the built-in pointing stick and mouse buttons to be exact.  Initially, I thought I could forego an external mouse all together, but realized that I do need the mouse when I edit photos or images.  That meant I was back at square one.  I had an awesome keyboard coming, but I was going to have to tie up two USB ports and would have to place my mouse where it would be uncomfortable to use.  I knew I had to get a hub or something that would allow me to keep everything where they were, and to keep my ports open for other peripherals.  Luckily, I was able to buy a cheap port replicator that had powered USB ports.

When my keyboard finally arrived, I was very happy to find that it worked well with the port replicator.  The mouse also plugged in fine and was recognized.  Another nice perk with the replicator was that I was able to plug my external speakers into it instead of the jack on my laptop.  That meant fewer cables cluttering my desk.

Another nice touch was that I was able to get a couple of blank keys for my Endura.  So guess what?  No more waving flags on my keyboard!  I was amazed how easy it was to change the keys.  I used a dull butter knife with some paper towel wrapped around it to pop the original keys off.  I slid the knife between the bottom of the key and the top of the lower casing.  I then gently twisted the knife and jiggled it to get under the key.  Without too much force, the key popped right off.  I took the blank key and centered it over the spring inside and pushed it back on.  Beautiful!

As for performance, the keyboard is great.  It has a very nice feel.  Firm key presses are needed to get the characters to register, and you get clear audio feedback.  Some will find the noise a little irritating, but I’m sure it’s something you’d get used to after awhile.  If you have sensitive people around you, tell them to wear ear plugs.  The sound has has a kind of machine gun like quality.  Because there isn’t a metal plate like the OG Model-Ms to dissipate the sound of the key presses, the Endura sounds a little hollow.  I think the sound reverberates inside the plastic casing of the keyboard and hence that hollow sound.  Nonetheless, the keyboard is awesome.  If I had known I was going to use a port replicator from the start, I probably would have ordered the Space Saver instead of the Endura.  It’s kind of cool to have the pointing stick there on they keyboard should I need it; however, I find that I will accidentally hit it when I type.  No big deal as long as it doesn’t break.

I’m a happy camper.  I have a great keyboard and no more Windows keys, and in actuality it didn’t cost me that much more than a modern wireless keyboard/mouse combo would.  I know.  I don’t have all the multi-media keys anymore, but heck, I’ll learn the keyboard shortcuts instead.  Either way, I have great setup once more!  Time to blog!

The Nook E-Book Reader with Ubuntu Saturday, Jan 16 2010 

Hello blogosphere.  It feels good to be back.  I got caught up in a new semester and all the work that goes along with it and haven’t been able to write.  I have good news though; my Nook e-book reader arrived yesterday.  I was quite surprised.  It wasn’t even supposed to ship until the 15th.  Imagine my happiness when it arrived at my door instead.

I had been neglecting my family recently because of semester preparations, so I couldn’t open the package right away.  Instead, I put it on my desk and waited a few hours.  When they went they went for a walk, I tore in.  It was kind of anti-climatic when I did.  When I got the shipping box open, I was happy to find everything inside.  It comes in really pretty packaging; however, that same packaging, like the ones they love to use these days (think toys…they come in that heat sealed plastic with wire twist ties, and plastic zip ties), is horrendous. It took me almost 20 minutes to cajole my Nook out of its package.  First you have to fight through the hermetically sealed plastic, then the lexan-like box, and finally the plastic tray the Nook is cradled in.  It really is pretty; however, overkill considering what it takes to get the Nook out.  Once I did though….

The Nook is beautiful.  It has a sleek look, rounded corners, beveled bezel with a continuous smooth look (even where the page advance buttons are), and don’t forget the color touch screen at the bottom.  Once I put it into the green Italian leather cover I bought…forget about it!

First things first, I chose the Nook over the KIndle for a few reasons I discussed here.  To save you the trip, I’ll briefly review them.  First, I liked that the Nook allows users to expand the memory by installing micro-SD cards.  (You can go up 16GB.) I assumed the Nook engineers were smart enough to put the card slot in a highly accessible place like at the bottom of the unit or on the side.  Unfortunately, I quickly found out after I ordered mine, that the card slot is actually located under the back cover where the battery is located.  I was greatly disappointed with this because I was planning to save documents onto SD cards and them plug them into the Nook to read at my convenience (mostly for student essays and other written work–after all, the Nook supports PDFs natively–see reason two).  But putting the card slot under the back cover put that plan to rest.  I am not going to remove the back cover every few days to get my SD card out.  Ultimately, the back cover isn’t designed to be taken off regularly and takes some effort to do so.

The second reason I chose the Nook, was because it supported PDF, ePUB, and MP3 formats natively.  Unlike the Kindle, you don’t need third-party software to convert files to make them render or play on the Nook.  This was important because I did not want to be forced to buy all my books exclusively from B&N.  I like having choices.  In fact, and this leads into my last reason for choosing the Nook, my initial plan was to read and reread many of the classics (and other texts) that can be found on Google Books and in the public domain free of charge; a service that comes with the Nook.  I guess choosing Android gave them access to Google’s collection.  Don’t get my wrong though, I’m not against buying books and probably will purchase my share.  However, I do plan to read what’s free most often.

The Nook has gotten mixed reviews so far.  Many find the touch-screen interface laggy and slow.  I’m not much of a touch-screen kind of guy, so I’m almost certain the lagginess won’t bother me too much.  As long as I can use the interface, download books, and read them, I’ll be happy.  So far, so good.  I have already downloaded five books and am about 70 pages into one of my favorites, Don Quixote, already.

The one thing I was most concerned about up until this morning was the Nook’s ability to connect and be managed by Ubuntu.  Because my original plan to swap SD cards regularly was dashed by the placement of the card slot, I had to bank on the Nook working with my Linux boxes.  B&N has software downloads for MS and Mac that allow both systems to download, render, and mange eBooks from B&N.  Unfortunately, they don’t offer similar software for Linux users.  I was a little concerned that the Nook would need such software to allow management from a computer terminal.  Luckily though, I can confirm that I connected my Nook to my Thinkpad this morning and Ubuntu recognized it as a mass storage device.  A file manager dialog opened as soon as I plugged in the USB cable.  I could see the individual folders on my Nook.  I was able to move two PDF files from my hard drive to my Nook without a hitch.  One file had a lot of pictures and the other was basically a text file I created in OpenOffice and converted to PDF.

The first file opened; however the formatting was not correct.  The captions under the pictures moved and the alignment of the photos changed.  The pictures rendered, and they looked like photos in a black and white newspaper–nothing spectacular, but acceptable.  The second file also opened without a problem; however the formatting also changed a bit too.  Text that was center aligned on the original file moved to the left, and the numerals in the header did not render at all.  Although many would be disappointed by this, I wasn’t.  The main reason I would be opening a PDF on my Nook would be to read a student essay during times I was not sitting at a terminal.  My plan was never to do a lot of editing and commenting while on my Nook.  When I grade student essays, I like to read them at least a couple of times.  Being able to convert them to PDFs and render them on my Nook will allow me to read them while I wait for my kids or wife in the car or while I commute to work in the morning.  I will be able to do a lot of my first reads during these times, thus allowing me to do the more involved readings sooner.

I did not move any music files, but when I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.  Unfortunately, many of my favorite music files are in OGG format, so I’ll have to convert them to MP3 first before they have any hope of working on my Nook.

I feel fairly confident that I’ll be happy with my purchase even after the fabled iTablet is released in the next couple of months. My electronic arsenal will still be free of panes of glass and forbidden fruits!

By the way, I received another cool product recently; in fact, I’m using it right now.  I’ll be writing about my impressions of it soon.  (I’ll give you a hint; my Lenovo multimedia keyboard began failing about four weeks ago, and I went old school!)  Happy new year!