Why Programmers Should Buy Mechanical Keyboards

Five years ago I bought my first mechanical keyboard. I was using a generic low end Logitech keyboard for a while. One day, one of the feet broke. A couple days later some of the keys stopped working. Given that I type a lot, I also noticed that some keys felt a bit worn or “flat” when pressed as compared to the others. It was time to invest in a good keyboard. I ended up getting a Corsair K90 mechanical keyboard without knowing much about what I was getting into.

Fast forward to the present and I can’t stand typing on normal membrane keyboards. The best way I can describe using a normal keyboard is by imaging yourself running in ankle deep mud. You’re trying to get to somewhere fast, but the ground is just slowing you down. It’s frustrating, kills motivation and makes you wish you were doing something else after a while. 

That also goes for those overpriced Apple keyboards as well – they’re still membrane.

What is a Mechanical Keyboard?

Simply put, a mechanical keyboard uses individual switches for each key rather than a rubber membrane dome layer on top of a circuit board. There are a variety switches available on the market for modern mechanical keyboards, with the most popular produced by Cherry. Different types of switches offer a different tactile feedback for the user. Some switches are linear – which means there is no resistance when the key is pressed. Others offer a tactile bump or click when pressed. This gives the user a form of sensory feedback when he is typing. Types of switches are usually graded by color, with some popular ones being Cherry MX Blues, Reds, and Browns. We will get into the difference between these in a bit.

So why are Mechanical Keyboards a great investment?

Programmers, Software Developers, IT professionals all spend a lot of time behind a computer. The amount of actual typing time may vary by profession, industry and position. Personally, I can estimate anywhere from 2-4 hours of hand-to-keyboard contact per day. This includes everything from coding, writing emails, chatting with my team on Slack, writing documents, and searching the web. On average this is about 60 to 80 hours per month that your hands are pressing buttons.

Taking this into consideration, wouldn’t it be best to ensure comfortable and efficient typing? As a writer would invest in a great pen, or an artist would invest in a good set of oil paints, why not invest in a great keyboard? As far fetched as it may seem, typing on a nice mechanical keyboard can be motivational.

Advantages of a Mechanical Keyboard

It just feels really good to type on

That clicky and satisfyingly tactile feel just cannot be felt on normal membrane keyboards. It makes typing fun and addictive. There’s something oddly fantastic about hitting a key that is purely mechanical and simultaneously hearing and feeling the mechanism working together.

Mechanical keyboards last longer

While there’s a lot more moving components involved, quality mechanical keyboards with great build quality and reputable switches can last a lifetime when properly maintained. Switches made by Cherry are guaranteed to be fine for 50 million keystrokes. There really is no comparison to a thin film of formed rubber over a circuit board. 

Customization!

After getting into mechanical keyboards, I discovered an entire community and market of keycaps. Mechanical keyboards allows replacing the keycap with aftermarket sets. These come in a variety of colors and designs. Keycaps are usually molded in different choice of plastics, each offering a different feel. Additionally, keycaps come in different profile shapes. There are even kits available to build your own mechanical keyboard.

Custom keycaps on my Cooler Master Rapid Fire I

Different Layouts

QWERTY is the most popular layout everyone uses. When Christopher Sholes invented the typewriter in 1868, legend has it that he designed the QWERTY layout to slow down typists. This was to prevent his machine from jamming.

There are other keyboard layouts that are designed for typing and not for the mechanisms of a typewriter. A mechanical keyboard allows you to try different layouts as you can easily swap around the keycaps, or by having blank keycaps. There are a lot of keyboard layouts available with various studies done on the effect they have on typing speed. 

Image Source: Google Images

Interest factor

It’s nice to demonstrate a mechanical keyboard to people and see their reactions. I also like seeing the eye opening look on someone’s face when they type on a mechanical keyboard for the first time.

Disadvantages of a Mechanical Keyboard

As with anything there are certainly some disadvantages. I can think up the following that may stop someone from getting a mechanical keyboard.

Cost

A good mechanical keyboard is a solid investment that may cost a lot more than a regular run of the mill membrane keyboard. While cost is certainly a consideration, durability should be as well. A mechanical keyboard with solid build quality and Cherry MX switches (guaranteed 50 million typing strokes) should outlast a couple low end membrane keyboards. With that in mind, a mechanical keyboard can be considered an investment that pays off. 

Weight

Lets face it. Mechanical keyboards are heavy. Good ones weigh 2 pounds. Most mechanical keyboards contain a metal plate beneath the switches, with a fairly good durable outer casing. In this regard, weight is co-related to durability and may not be such a bad thing. A good hefty mechanical keyboard feels premium to me. 

Noise

This is subjective and can depend on the type of switch on the keyboard. I’m currently using one with Cherry MX Browns at work and no one is complaining. My Cherry MX Blue keyboard, however, is another kettle of fish. Because blues are both tactile and clicky, it will be heard across the room in an office.

Bluetooth

While they exist, Bluetooth enabled mechanical keyboards are rare. Why is this? My reasoning is that mechanical keyboards are already a very niche market. Bluetooth mechanical keyboards will be a niche market within a niche market – something with companies may not care about pursuing.

Wait, which type of switch should I choose?

Cherry MX switches are graded by color. Similarly, other brands of switches such as Gateron and Outemu follow this same color grading scheme.  A clicky tactile Cherry MX Blue for example, is comparable to a Gateron Blue or an Outemu Blue. 

In 2016, Go Mechanical Keyboard conducted a mechanical keyboard survey with roughly 1000 respondents. From this, Cherry MX Blue switches are preferred for typing purposes, while Cherry MX Browns are great for all purpose use. Both Cherry MX Reds and Browns are also the best choice when it comes to gaming. Personally owning three mechanical keyboards with Reds, Blues and Browns, its not hard to see why linear switches are good for gaming. Their smooth, bump-less feel offers the fastest response during intensive gaming. While I tend to make more typos when using Red switches, typing on Blues is quite the treat. 

Interested in buying a new mechanical keyboard? The iKBC CD108 is a cheap solid choice with great build quality and original Cherry MX switches. Go read my review on it here.

 

How to finish a thesis when you’re strapped for time

TL;DR: Writing a thesis when you don’t really have a lot of time is quite the challenge. With the right strategy it can be a breeze. Simply talk to your supervisor more often, keep a personal log on hand, skim and tabulate sources, and finally, get a few proofreaders. 

Doing a thesis is a daunting task. Especially if you’re working full time and have to deal with commute traffic. It’s the final boss battle in graduating, but it’s packing a punch. You’re getting beat left and right, and can’t seem to get in a hit. It’s reflecting all your moves and you’re low on HP. You’re running out of potions and this is a solo battle. You have no party members to tank this thing and it just won’t die. You’re flipping through your inventory to see if you have any rare item left to use on it – it’s the end of the game anyway, might as well use all your special items. Sad thing is you have none left. You wasted all of that in the last two courses because you decided to skip a few classes. Suddenly, it raises its ugly tangled many headed form and comes at you …

The good thing is it’s not as hard as you think. It’s quite a journey and you get to level up and even see some cool places if you get a paper published. I completed my MSc last year at the University of the West Indies in Computer Science and had quite a blast doing so. I even got to travel to Vienna, Austria to present a paper that I got published. So how can you finish?

 

Talk to your supervisor often

Some of my friends have been doing their thesis and would leave talking to their supervisor until they have completed a significant amount of work. I believe this can cause a person to lose focus in the thesis or sometimes even go off in another direction or area that was not initially part of the plan. When I wrote my thesis, having weekly meetings really helped push me to complete a significant amount of work in the week before our next meeting. Even if I didn’t have much work to talk about during our weekly meetings, we brainstormed, discussed ideas, and even talked about past work.

While this may not work for all cases, I think that having a 20-30 minute meeting every week on average helps in many ways. Setting a dedicated day and time for this also sharpens your focus and sets the goal for the week. The feeling of accomplishing your own weekly quota of work and finally presenting it is great!

 

Keep a personal log

Writing some weekly notes is a great way to tracking your progress. This also helps with the communication between you and your supervisor. Many times, my weekly update emails to my supervisor came directly from these logs. For logging, you can use anything you like. I opted for a Google doc. Here I simply listed the date, as well as anything that I investigated, worked on, or completed. I also pasted any interesting articles or videos, as well as any ideas, that I wanted to come back to later. I also noted any questions that I may have.

Sometimes when you’re stuck writing, reading over your log entries can help with motivation. You get to see how far you came and everything you did.

Each log entry usually was divided into:

  • Updates or work done
  • New ideas
  • Next steps
  • Interesting stuff
  • Questions and issues

Skim academic papers

If you work full time, then you’re usually spending about 8 hours a day at work, with an additional 1-3 hours commute depending on your job. This really eats away from your thesis time. What about if you’re not working, or you took vacation to do the thesis? Well then you’re lucky and should use all the time you have!

Most academic research papers have an average length of 3-6 pages. With limited time, you can’t afford to read an entire paper in detail before realising that you probably won’t mention it in your thesis. When reading, try just skimming the abstract, introduction and conclusion sections of the research paper. After this, you can make a decision about the paper – If it’s relevant, read it further and start making notes (see the tip below). If it has nothing to do with your research, then you can drop it and move on to the rest of the research you have waiting.

I usually did my skim reading during breakfast or lunch and sorted the papers into sections, depending on my research needs. Later, I would come back and expand any notes that I made on each relevant paper. For reading and managing academic research papers, I used Mendeley. This cross platform tool helped keep my research and notes synced across all devices.

 

Tabularize your literature

If you don’t keep organized, your work can become a big ugly tangle of notes, snippets, writings, and data. Eventually you’ll have to sift through all the rubble so that information can be extracted to formalize your thesis. To keep all my research notes and sources organized, I again opted for a simple Google Doc word document. I formatted it to be in landscape mode, with a custom (long) width. I then created a table and entered data on each research paper that I read. Usually, I would have the document open while reading so that I can note stuff on the fly.

The following is an excerpt of the research sources document that I used during writing my thesis.

 

I utilized different colors and formatting so that anything important can stand out at a glance. This helped immensely to keep tracking of everything. Want to know the best part? When you’re ready to write the literature review, all you need is this table!

Everything is neatly laid out for you to compare, and contrast research sources for the literature review as well as the discussion. When writing the literature review, I usually stated facts from the Points of Interests column. I mentioned any open areas or new areas of research as I noted in the What is missing from this paper? What does not make sense? column. Furthermore, I also commented on ways my research / idea was different as noted in the What makes my project different column.

 

Get people to proof read your drafts

Ok so you’re almost finished writing. You’re excited. You can’t wait to have this submitted so you can leave your cave and get back to life. You printed some of your writing to read to yourself. You end up taking some of it to work where you sit with a grin reading it. Suddenly, someone comes by, picks it up, reads it, and asks why you mentioned that word so many times in one paragraph. You blink. How could you miss that? Why would you even use the same word over and over like that! The words all stand out now, staring at you…

Proof readers help a lot. They read and find things that you cannot see. During your thesis writing, you’re working so close with the material that sometimes you just can’t see the big picture. Sometimes things read fantastic, but in reality it may not be quite clear to a typical reader at all. This is where your proof readers come in. Try and get at least 3 proof readers to go over your stuff and leave comments. You can print out excerpts for them to read, or even send them the entire thesis to leave comments for you – just make sure and thank each and every one after! Proof readers really are golden. They help shape your thesis into something phenomenal.