Mechanical Engineering

Well, I have succumbed again to the lure of great mechanical engineering design.  And the likely groundless hope that I will be getting into some sort of shape.

I bought a new bicycle.  And this time I didn’t shop around for the best deal, but rather ignored the hefty price tag and plowed ahead.  Of course it isn’t the latest carbon-fiber miracle of weight savings with titanium fittings.  Nor is it a rough and tumble quarterhorse-like mountain bike with hydraulic suspension.  Neither is it a sedate single speed beach cruiser that harkens back to childhood days.

It is, though, rather special.  And below is an animation to show you why.

It’s called a Brompton and it is still made in England to a design that is about 40 years old now, with few major changes.  They got it just about right back then and have made just detail improvements since then.  And though I look a bit like a trained bear at the circus riding the thing, it actually is a pretty good bicycle.  The folding wonderment is just a bonus.

And now I have great fantasies about travels with the Brompton.  Taking trains to the hinterlands, unfolding the bike at remote stations and pedaling off to great adventures.  Perhaps I am too old and fat for that now, but I absolutely love it when great design and quality engineering and production can stir up those thoughts.  Thanks, Brompton, for all your efforts.

Published in: on March 24, 2013 at 8:51 pm  Comments (1)  

Keyboard redux

A while back I posted a review of some computer keyboards and talked about my search for the perfect one.  At that time I selected the Unicomp keyboard which is a reproduction of the venerable IBM Model M clicky keyboard (which you can still find on Ebay at good prices).  Well, recently I’ve been having hand problems so I thought a change was in order, especially at work.  I spent quite a while on various sites including http://geekhack.org/ where all things keyboard/mice are discussed to minute detail.  I learned a lot about the various switches used, activation pressures, otaku keyboards (no keys labeled), and best keyboards for gaming and typing.

I figured out that the Unicomp keyboard I had at work was really just a typical rubber dome switch board that resembled the clicky Unicomp that I was using at home.  I had bought it out of consideration of my fellow workers who might not like to hear the loud keyboard.  I switched that out for a MaCally icekey keyboard ($20 at Amazon, good buy) that has scissor switches (like some laptops).  That is a temporary fix for work, but wasn’t good enough for home.  Besides, I was in this to buy something good and the sudden obsession wasn’t appeased yet.  The good news is that there are a lot of good keyboards out there with very good switches.  The bad news is that there are few places to try them out before you buy.

So I ended up purchasing the TypeMatrix keyboard which is completely different setup with the keys in orderly rows.  You know, I thought I would plunge right into the deep end.

This is a small keyboard with pretty good key action (scissor switches), but I could not get past the backspace being in the middle.  The idea is to rely more on your strong pointer fingers rather than your weak pinkies, but for me the backspace is just too engrained in me to switch.  This keyboard went back.

After much searching, including looking at all kinds of ergonomic alternatives, I figured out two things.  1. Because so much time is spent with a keyboard it pays to get a good one.  and 2.  If you want a good one, you will pay.  As in probably too much cash unless you go the old IBM route which I would’ve done if I didn’t already have the Unicomp.

So I ended up with this:

It’s the Happy Hacking Pro 2 keyboard (not the Lite).  It has expensive topre switches (dome plus spring) and it is tiny — uses a function key to access things like the f-keys and arrows so it is only 60 keys instead of the usual 87 or 104.  The key action is just great; light pressure but still great feedback.  I’m still getting used to the arrangement of the keys; the backspace is the immediate problem, but I think I will get used to it soon since it is just one key down from where I’m used to having it.  I though I would miss the dedicated arrow keys, but I’m finding the Fn key combination to be pretty easy.  I’m also loving the small form of this keyboard.  Nice to have some real estate back on my desk, and it is small enough to pack with my laptop if I want to do some serious typing on the road (though I have a thinkpad which has a pretty good keyboard).

The HHKB has dip switches to change from nominal, to PC, to Mac configurations so it should work on most systems.  The keyboard arrangement is particularly good for Linux (I have Ubuntu on my laptop) since the control button is prominent above the shift (used often in Emacs etc.).

So for the moment I am happy with this keyboard.  The real issue with it is the cost.  I got it here: http://elitekeyboards.com/ which seems to be the only place to get it since it is made for the Japanese market (instructions are in Japanese only).  Yeah, it is really expensive.  But I figured if it helps these old fingers of mine, it will be worth it.  Still cheaper than some pots and pans (inside joke).

I’ll let you know how it works as I get used to it.

Published in: on May 6, 2012 at 11:11 am  Comments (1)  

It’s Back!

I must have been asleep in the past six months or so because I just found out that it’s back, for sale right now, and it is pretty darn good.  Hewlett-Packard have done a wonderful thing and have put into production a replica (or reproduction) of the wonderful HP-15C calculator.  The calculator that many credit with getting them through engineering school and then through their careers.  It is, to my mind, the finest engineering calculator ever produced.

Though made in China now, rather than the US or a few other countries like the original HP-15C, the reproduction, called the Limited Edition by HP, seems very well made and almost identical to the original.  It comes in a nice presentation box along with a printed owners manual that seems to be a reprint of the original.

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Here is the new one next to an original in good condition.  The only main visual difference is that the new one’s screen has a greenish tint to it while the original is gray (that doesn’t really show in the pictures and it is not a big deal).

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In operating the calculator, you do notice a slightly different feel with the keys.  The LE has slightly flatter keytops and the texture is slightly rougher – that might be just because I am comparing it to an original 15C that has had some use in its 30 year life.  The f and g keys also feel a bit wobbly compared to the original but they don’t seem to be as bad on mine as some people found on the first batch that came out.  The key action is just as good, or maybe even a little better, than the original.  And that is saying a lot.  It is a wonderful calculating experience.

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As far as I can tell, the LE does everything the old one did, in the same way (except for the diagnostics check), and, because of a new processor, does it much, much faster.  I guess there was some price gouging in the Fall, but now they seem to have settled down some.  Amazon has it for $129.99, but you can order directly from HP (http://www.shopping.hp.com/webapp/shopping/product_detail.do?storeName=storefronts&landing=calculator&category=HP&a1=Type&v1=Scientific&product_code=NW250AA%23ABA&catLevel=2) for $99.99 with free shipping.  I got two and they arrived in just a couple of days.

Any of you who lost their 15C, or want to gently retire theirs, or who always wanted one but couldn’t afford it at the time (me), I highly recommend purchasing an LE.  I think it is still the best calculator an engineer can have at his side that can also fit in his shirt pocket.

By the way, this is a great site for all HP calculators:  http://www.hpmuseum.org/  The forums are active and filled with interesting calculator nerds – a lot of engineers, in other words.

Published in: on April 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm  Comments (2)  

Design in Engineering or vice versa?

Okay, so maybe design isn’t always considered part of engineering, but it can have the same implications so I may, like today, talk about it.  I’m looking at five keyboards for my iMac piled up in the corner of my office.  They all work, they all put characters on the screen, and a couple of them (those from the design people at Apple) are gorgeous to look at.  So why are they all there in a pile and what am I using to write this post?

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Because I don’t like them.  Not from an engineering perspective–they all do what they were designed to do–but from a design point of view.  And that spells the difference between something being functional and something being functional and satisfying, pleasurable, and fun.  Of course the important thing is the concentration of the design effort.  The keyboard that came with this iMac is a slim, aluminum piece of art that actually works pretty well if you were raised on the flat keyboards of laptops that have little movement and very little “action”.  There is no doubt that it looks fantastic sitting in front of the big screen iMac, but after a while it just wears on your fingertips and I get annoyed how easily you can slip off the home keys and suddenly br dsuomh dp (you get the picture).  So that thing was designed for beauty and for younger hands, I guess.

The next was a non-Apple keyboard that had the flat keys but better action.  This one didn’t last long on my desk for the same feedback problem and lack of key travel.  Looked nice, though, and was perfectly fine for occasional typing, but not for a book or anything.

Then comes one that is almost as nice looking, but with real keys and some action.  This one came with my old lamp iMac and it was pretty good for a while.  But it didn’t provide much feedback and I got tired of it.  Could be I’m just fickle, I guess.  The next looked almost like that one but it was far more expensive and was touted as the best keyboard because of the spring mechanism and the old clicky sound (Matias).  It was better and I liked the feedback and the action.  Except that at some point the key would suddenly bottom out and this didn’t do much for long term, reliable typing.  So this one was less of the pretty and more for the functional — a better balance of function and design.

The penultimate one (are you sensing the dramatic buildup?) was a Logitech wave keyboard that was more suited for a PC than a Mac.  But it worked fine and I actually liked the more ergonomic keyboard shape.  Too bad the key action isn’t great and the travel of the keys is shallow.  But it suited for a while and I thought it was a good buy. It managed to look okay and do a good job, so the balance between design and function was pretty good.

But today I just unwrapped this great thing.  Course I am still in the enthralled stage, so take these comments with a grain of salt.  But just a grain, because I think this one is a keeper.  The IBM Model M keyboards were legendary and were patterned after the famous Selectric typewriters.  Well, you can get them on Ebay for some amount of money, but you can also buy brand new ones from Unicomp.  They call them their Customizer line, and they look, feel, and sound like the old IBM keyboard.  Apparently they purchased the design and rights and they produce keyboards that are almost identical to the old ones, with some features like USB cords to bring them up to the present day.  I don’t think they are as heavy as the old ones, and I do hear something rattling around inside (but hasn’t affected the working any – probably just a piece of plastic), but oh my gosh is this thing nice to type on.

unicomp keyboard

Yeah, it is noisy, but not as loud as the Matias.  And the action on this thing is just great.  No bottoming out and just the right amount of push-back to make typing pleasurable.  And the keys are set like the old Selectric with the banks measurably higher than each other so your fingers don’t have to travel as far and you are far less prone to making mistakes.  But it isn’t pretty.  It is black with beige keys and is just functional looking.  So outward design took a back seat on this one.  But design of the key mechanism obviously ranked high, as did the durability for which the Model M was famous (we’ll see if this replica stands the test of time).

So design, of a type, was emphasized here, and so was functionality.  So we can have both?  Yes.  But it will cost you.  These aren’t cheap at about $70 to $90 bucks, but at least they are made in the US (I don’t mind foreign goods, just poorly made foreign goods) and will likely last for a good long time.  And I don’t mind spending the money if the quality is there.  Is this the best keyboard out there?  Not sure, but its the best of the ones I have, by a long shot.  And at the moment I am quite happy.

What do you think is the best keyboard out there, past or present?  Drop us a comment.

Published in: on October 30, 2009 at 9:55 pm  Comments (1)  

Product Review: HP 11C Emulator for Iphone

11c

I wrote about the HP 35S calculator a while back and even though that is my current favorite, I have to say that this HP 11C emulator is pretty darn good.  I use it on my Ipod Touch (1G) and it looks and performs exactly like the classic calculator.  It is a little bit smaller, overall, than the calculator: the original is about 128 X 80  mm and the emulator is about 80 X 50 mm.  The biggest difference is, of course, the keyboard.  There is no way that the ipod’s touch screen can hope to compete with the legendary feel of the HP’s keyboard, but the one on the ipod is fine considering.  The keys are large enough not to make many mishits, the keys light up when you hit them and there is a sound very much like the old calculator associated with the key strike.  Both of these provide ample feedback that you’ve hit the right key. One nice feature is when you press either the f and g function buttons the alternate legend brightens up over (or under) the keys making it that much easier to find the key you need.

The emulator works just like the old calculator, though I have to say that I have not tried to do any programming on it yet.  I have also not been able to run it side by side with an 11C but my impression is that the ipod version is much faster.

If you don’t like the classic landscape orientation, just turning the ipod touch (or iphone) will flip the display into a portrait mode.  I’m not sure why this mode is needed, but some people may like it. See below.

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There are currently two 11C emulators on iTunes right now.  One is by R.L.M. (http://www.rlmtools.com/iPhone/11C/Detail.html) and goes for ten bucks which I think is a great deal.  The other one is from Thomas Fors (http://code.google.com/p/hpcalc-iphone/wiki/InfoHP11C) for fifteen dollars.  I haven’t played with that one, so I can’t say how the two stack up against each other.  The latter also have an HP-15C emulator for 20 bucks as does HP itself for a pricey 30 dollars.  I’m not sure I will put out the cash to evaluate those, but if anybody out there has tried them, post a comment.

There are other RPN calculators for the iPhone/iTouch, and I have tried some of them but I just can’t seem to get used to their keyboard setups.  However, there is another emulator out there that I like a lot: the HP-41CX+ by AL software (http://alsoftiphone.com).  This is a full emulation of the 41 CX, even down to the kind of strange digit display that the original had.  There are two versions out there, one at 8 bucks and one with a printer for 15 bucks.  The “printer” is a separate screen that shows a strip printer.  The roll of “paper” can be saved to the iphone’s photo album.  Like the others, I haven’t gotten a chance to do any programming in this calculator – I never had a real 41 so I’m not up on the programming, but I remember my friend using it a lot for some pretty sophisticated engineering problems.  From the comments on iTunes it seems like this emulator can do anything the old calculator could do.  Pretty impressive.

hp41

So bottom line, these iPhone/iTouch emulators do a really go job at providing most of the HP calculator greatness at a fraction of the old or current price.  The originals still trump the emulators in terms of keyboard goodness, and I will still use one most of the time if it is handy, but in a pinch the iPhone apps work well and are keeping the RPN calculator world alive.

What do you think?  Post a comment below.

Published in: on October 4, 2009 at 6:48 pm  Comments (5)