This is a little guide to what to expect, and what to expect to pay, with the market being what it is right this moment.

1) Rock Bottom: At $20 to $30, you’re looking at keyboards that purport to offer “mechanical feel”. These are typically dome and slider designs. Essentially, these have a stabilized, separate top slider/plunger above the rubber dome. Yes, they type better than your average keyboard at this price range. Yes, they are louder. Yes, most of them are highly “gamer” in look. If this is all you have, in terms of capital, to throw at the project, this is going to give you a significant improvement over your garden variety ‘board. They all have some little annoyances.  Weird key layout. Lights and sirens. That sort of thing. These are quiet enough for most settings, and very light to type on, if you would prefer a soft typing feel. Expect a review of one. I’m typing on one right now. For GREAT SCIENCE.

2) Maximum Value Mechanical: At $30 to $60, you’ll find a significant number of keyboards from companies you’ll probably not recognize, coming straight from China. These will typically carry knock-off switches based upon the Cherry MX design. At the low end of the price range, you’ll find Outemu switches, with Kaihls, Zorros, and others just one step up in cost. At the upper end of the price range here, you’ll find Gateron switches. The good news here is that the knock-off switches are pretty darned good. They will sometimes have a bit more variation between batches than the legit Cherry switches, but they are quite serviceable. In some cases, the clone switches may actually be better (for a given taste) than the originals. The bad at this price range is that a lot of the ‘boards are pretty garish or gamer-centric. Some of them are as ugly as sin. If you’re willing to mod the ‘boards with different key caps, this can often be ameliorated. Except for some of the awful badging. For that, you might need a spray paint can and a dream. I’ll have some reviews coming on cheap ‘boards in this price range soon.

3) Mid Priced Mechanical: $65-$120. The bulk of these ‘boards have real Cherry key switches, and there are more tasteful designs available, if you have little interest in LED lights or gaming-specific design elements. Here you also see a few of the other key switches being available. Of note for the “seasoned” typists in your midst is the Unicomp line, which offers the same switch technology from the old IBM keyboards. These are available new, made in the U.S.A, and are built like tanks. They’re not the prettiest keyboards, but they will last you forever, and are a typist’s dream. If you don’t mind putting fort a bit of effort while typing, in any case. Pretty much any layout and form factor is available in this price range. Some, further up the price spectrum here, will feature premium key caps, often made of PBT plastic, which is the highest grade material for this purpose.

4) Premium Mechanicals: When you pay more than $120, you’re often, paradoxically, getting less, rather than more. Less light show tomfoolery. Less whiz-bang features. Less flashy stuff as a whole. Here, the rarest key switches make an appearance, such as Matias switches, and Topre switches. These ‘boards are, for the most part, aimed at the pure typist, though there are a few ultra-expensive, battle cruiser style gaming ‘boards afoot, mostly from Corsair, Coolermaster, and Razer. Please see my “key switch” article for full rundowns of all the switches that I mentioned here. I go into tiresome detail there, and you’ll be sick of me if you read it. I promise. It’s true.

The Short Course, for those TLDR folks: 

For the sake of not having to navigate to other articles, I’ll run things down a bit here at the end.

Switches with a light or soft feel:

1)”semi mechanical” dome and slider designs

2) “red” style switches, “brown” style switches.

3) Topre 35g switches

4) Matias silent switches.

Switches with a moderate resistance:

1)  “blue” switches from all manufacturers

2) Matias tactile and quiet tactile switches,

3) Topre 45g and 55g models

Switches with heavier resistance:

1) black, clear, and green switches from various manufacturers

2) Unicomp “buckling spring” switches.

Switches, from quiet to loud

Quiet:

Topre switches of all weights
(unconfirmed) Matias silent
(unconfirmed) Matias quiet tactile
Semi-mechanical switches

Kinda Quiet: 

Black switches
Brown switches
Red switches
Clear switches
<All above colors are similar in sound, and vary due to ‘board construction and back plate material. Also, all color-badged switches come from various manufacturers, and will vary a bit in sound, but not much.>

Kinda Loud: 

Blue switches
Green switches

Loud: 

Matias tactile
Unicomp buckling spring

All the loudest of the switch types have an innate click during the key travel that cannot be minimized with dampening mechanism or typing lightly. Some of the quieter key types will still make quite a racket if you type exceedingly hard. In a modern office setting, I would think very carefully before putting anything louder than the clear switch into a shared work space. It could cause distraction or contention with office mates. Certainly, people will poke their head around the cube divider to see what’s going on if you show up with a Unicomp.

Hope this helps you out, if you are considering the purchase of a mechanical keyboard.

Cheers, and happy typing!

The Settling In Phase

Posted: April 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

In the course of wet shaving mania, we have many points when we’re engaged in the wild accumulation of gear. We can’t do anything but comb through our favorite places to buy equipment and software. We aren’t happy unless we’re testing a new razor or lathering up a new soap. We are in the grips of Gear Acquisition Disorder.  Money takes wing and flies out of our wallets like each bill was a migratory bird. Wet shaving isn’t alone in this phase. It could be said that, in comparison to some of the other hobbies you could get into, this malady isn’t that costly. Good luck if you start collecting speed boats or vintage guitars.

Regardless of the severity and type of your purchasing psychosis, it will typically hit a particular point when you’ve purchased so much stuff that it takes a while for you to even try all your new gear. You simply have to stop, because you have such a large backlog of things to take out for a spin that you can’t even deal with it. You’re broken. You’re the kid who’s crying at Christmas, because it’s all a bit too much, and you just want to play with your one action figure for a while before looking at anything else.

Sometimes, in that refractory phase when you’re slowly trundling through your messy wonderland of stuff, you’ll find that you have no real impetus to frantically jump around anymore. You kind of want to run with a few things you like. You need to. You’ve overdone it. You need to return to base and relax.

I find myself in that phase now. I’ve run through and tested so many things that I will have enough reviews to last me months, even if I bug you guys all the time. I’ve had great shaves aplenty. I’ve cycled through the vast majority of my razor collection. I’ve used a great litany of blades. Soaps and aftershaves have propagated through my shave den like an endless tide of suds and good smell. It’s been a good time. It’s been a little crazy.

I’m tired now. I have been for weeks. I’m just loading blades into the Merkur Futur as needed. I’m going through and using my old soaps that I had before acquisition madness hit me.

Here’s what I found.

1) I hate how much I love the Futur. I don’t want to admit how good it is. It doesn’t conform to all the things I think I believe about how razors are designed. It works when my logic says that it shouldn’t. I get such good, easy shaves from the damn thing. It can be turned down to be safe enough, but it has more “headroom” for aggression than I’ve ever needed. It’s a beast. The Futur doesn’t care that much about what blade it has. I have a hard time finding fault with it.

2) For me, Razorock soaps are the answer. I always get a great lather, and I always get a great result. I know that many people differ on this. All the way from the Amici soap, that goes for three bucks, to The Dead Sea, they kick ass. At the low middle part of their range, their vegan formula with argan oil might be the sleeper of all of them. This soap, featured in the soaps such as the Essential Oil of Lime and Lavender, is really great stuff. It could not be any easier to work with. The scents in the soaps are very much to my liking. The types of scents that I could use every day. I have A/B tested this soap against stuff many times the price, and I had a hard time coming up with anything that the RR soaps weren’t doing that the more expensive soaps were. Allowing for “status” shaves, I suppose.

3) It’s good to have your remembrance of your favorite products confirmed after an absence. I’d been using various and sundry razor blades. Many of them good. One or two of them sucky. I finally went back to my beloved Astra SP the other night. Ahhhhh. So smooth. The Futur isn’t the most discerning razor, but there was that beautiful glide on the face that some other blades can’t seem to do. I keep testing them, and I keep saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, but it’s not quite the Astra.” I almost get tired of saying it. I’m glad that at least it’s true. There is no better razor blade at the price point. There are only a few that perform better, regardless of the price. Bold statement. I believe it to be true. Even price-no-object, my second favorite blade, only losing out to the Polsilver Super Iridium. With cost inclusive, easily my favorite. The Astra works in every razor I own. I will stop rhapsodizing at this point. I trust you get the message.

4) Media overload. Yeah. Such big thanks to all the guys who create the Youtube videos. I have devoured an absurd amount of hours worth of the content out there. You’re all great. I’ve picked up such deep and varied knowledge about the hobby, and I’ve grown to feel like many of the presenters are like old friends by now. Still and all, I have to take a rest. I have gone through times when I watched hours and hours of shave videos a week, and loved every minute of it. At this point, though, I am standing back from that, and only watching videos if there’s a particularly interesting product involved. And, because I’m not in an acquisitive mood, not that many new products are catching my eye. I’m sure I’ll come back, but for now, the shaving hobby has taken me down a different road.

5) There is no one perfect tactic. I’ve tried so many different “schemes” for shaving. From the orthodox three pass method, to a variety of other approaches. There’s no one perfect answer. Not even for a single person. It depends on the day, the week, the season of the year. Right now, I’m primarily doing two-pass shaves, with a three-pass thrown in there once or twice a week. It’s enough. With an efficient razor like the Futur, I’m always neat and tidy as I go off to work. Mostly, no one cares as anyway, but it helps me feel like I’m pseudo professional. The main thrust of this little segment is to say that I’ve relaxed a bit. I’m not chasing the perfect shave quite as hard as I was. That’s good, because I’ve had a lot of stress in my life this year, and sometimes, my system isn’t ready for anything challenging right at that point. Sometimes, taking it easy and just shooting for “good enough” is the best policy.

Well, that’s about it for my thoughts. I don’t know if any of the topics I talked about today resonate with you out in Internet-land, but I thought I’d share them in any case.

Cheers, and happy shaving!

Another short workout/health journal.

I have been lifting weights pretty regularly for a few months now, specifically getting into a real rhythm for the last two. Prior to that, I hadn’t been altogether out of the game, but my exercise had been sporadic and not really going anywhere.

Because I have lost a lot of weight, the results of any muscle building activity are more likely to be visible than they were. That’s kind of nice, really. In the past, I often seemed to start at big and flabby and end up at massive and bulky.

This time around, I can really see the difference in my physique as my workout program starts to get to the functional level. Probably the biggest places where I notice a change are in my triceps and my shoulders. They have really “awakened” again, which is nice. I had never really been a fan of seeing myself in a mirror, with totally square shoulders. That’s not how I am built. I have beefy shoulders and muscular arms. That, in any case, has always been the case when I’ve been working out.

And lo, it’s beginning to be the case again. I have a long way to go. I am going to have to take it slow, because you can’t snap your fingers and be twenty-three again. Especially when you’re going to be turning forty-three in a day or two. That said, it’s good, positive progress, and I’m pleased to see it. Especially because it hasn’t come with any weight gain.

Ideally, I’d like to carry on working out and get back to a spot in strength that I haven’t been for several years. The last time I started to get legit strong for gym exercises was in about 2010. The caveman stuff kept me pretty brutish for a few years, but I fell out of shape there for a while. This time, I really want to make it stick. I’d like to get down another twenty pounds or so, while still keeping the muscle packing back on. I’m not as obsessed with strength or mass as I once was, but I still want to be strong and functional. For me, I’m never going to be the pretty face that draws all eyes to me. I get that. I can build a hell of a set of shoulders, though. So, play to your strengths, right?

Those are my thoughts for the day.

Cheers, and happy lifting.

We’ve talked about quite a few topics thus far in this series. The basics of mechanical keyboards, the switch technology, the shape, size and layout of the various options.

But…yes, you’re right to be afraid…there’s more. Just as important as the shape of the ‘board and the mechanics of the switch, arguably, is the key cap. It is, after all, the point of contact between the organism and the machine. It’s where the feel of the keyboard is determined.

Let’s dig into the topic.

Key Shapes:

Square and Conical: This is the most familiar shape with modern keyboards. There’s some variation among this key shape, which tapers from the completely square base to a somewhat rounded or chamfered top. This variation is how high the key cap sits above the switch, how much space between the key caps there is when they’re in place, and the amount of dishing for your fingers to get a tactile feel of being “home”.

A significant number of newer keyboards tend to be pretty flat on the top of the key caps. This can allow them to be a bit shorter, with a slightly larger area of engagement for the fingertips, but it doesn’t quite give the same level of feeling in terms of being right on the key, rather than off into a corner.

Older keyboards tend to have taller key caps, more dishing, and slightly greater space between the face of the key caps. This gives them the look of having smaller keys, although this is not really the case. In my experience, you can adapt to different key caps, just like any other dynamic of the keyboard, but you’ll probably have your favorite, after some A/B testing. This will probably have a lot to do with what you’re used to, though preferences can change over time. As with any device, it’s usually wise to give a new keyboard some time to grow on you. I’ve had a few that were not to my tasted at first, but ended up being a favorite in the fullness of time.

Most “full stroke” keyboards will have squared conical key caps. These are equally found on membrane and mechanical keyboards, as they have long been the standard. Due to the constraints of mechanical keyboard construction, you can’t get altogether away from a high loft on the key cap. If you see a very low profile key set that differs from what would be “normal”, it is likely a rubber dome model. (Note: this is changing, as a few manufacturers are working on low profile mechanical switches. It has yet to be proven that this technology will provide a good typing experience.)

Sperical: Unlike the square-ish keys we are familiar with, these switches are round or oblong in their shape, tapering to a squared-off lower section, where they interface with the switches. These types of key caps are more frequently seen on older keyboards, but there are a few models that use them to this day. A fairly small group of keyboards will feature this key shape, however.

This type of key cap is often deeply dished, so that your fingertips almost nestle down into them if they are at rest on the home row. I haven’t typed on this type of key type that often, but the typewriters I learned on back in the day had this type of key cap.

Spherical keys are often fairly tall above the switch, and the nature of the shape will often cause them to have more mass than their square counterparts. Because a more rounded shape can often have a slightly higher torsional strength than a squared shape of the same mass. Rounded shapes tend to have less vibrational resonance modes, such that they won’t be as likely to add an odd overtone or unpleasant noise to the typing experience.

Something you’ll often see on a sperical key cap is that they have fairly large legends on them. These are typically centered. I think that this is primarily due to the simple fact that, in a round shape, having something off to one side tends to look poorly done to the eye.

Here and there, you’ll see keyboards with altogether circular keys, but they are not common. I have a small bluetooth keyboard with this sort of keys, and though I was initially concerned with this being a major technical hurdle, it turned out to feel just fine. They keys were, strangely, just where they were supposed to be. Once again, I was proven to be a poor oracle. Perfectly round keys are rarely seen on normal keyboards, however, because trying to institute them to good effect with the height and spacing of said designs can encounter some technical hurdles, both from the design and utilization perspective. They do exist, however.

Flat Top: In this day and age, it’s not at all uncommon to see desktop keyboards with fully flat keys. Some of them are traditional, low profile key caps, while others are essentially disembodied laptop keyboards, with a scissor mechanism over the top of a membrane matrix. If you are adroit with a laptop keyboard, these may be fine. Their quality is greatly variable. Some are absolute trash, some are usable. They are not, however, mechanicals, and so they lack the wonderful magic that we’re looking for.

There are also faux-vintage keyboards that use key caps that mimic ancient manual typewriters. I have not had a chance to try one of these, as they are typically somewhat expensive. I wonder if, in order to cleave to a stylistic choice, they give up a little in terms of utility. I’m sure, however, that you can get used to the feeling. Let us be honest. More than a little of this is in the heart and in the spirit. Feels may be somewhat more important than reals, when it really comes down to it. I should also mention that these faux-vintage keyboards are often created with rounded or oblong keys, the better to appear old-timey.

Key Cap Material:

The material that key caps are made from will have some impact upon how they sound in use. The material will also dictate how the keys behave under stress. The thickness and accuracy of manufacture is a large consideration, as well. Thus, there is disparity between keys made with the same material. In almost all cases, more material tends to yield a better product, with higher durability and a more pleasing sound in use.

ABS: This is the most familiar type of plastic used in key caps. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is a flexible, easy to manipulate thermoplastic that is very sturdy. The vast number of full-stroke keyboards use this material. It is inexpensive, and has as much durability as most keyboards of today require.

Most keyboards, even expensive mechanicals, use ABS in the modern era. It can be imprinted with most of the methods I’ll discuss below, and is able to, with the correct methodology, keep its key legend through a vast amount of use.

ABS does have a few disadvantages, however. The first of these is that the material tends to create a fairly slick surface. It does not typically feature a tactile surface texture that some other key materials do. Thus, if you tend to feel like you’re sliding around and don’t have as much surety in engagement as you’d like, ABS can be less favorable for you.

The second issue with ABS is that it tends to “shine up”. It is likely that you’ve seen an old keyboard around an office that has keys that give a high shine, especially where someone’s thumb acted upon the space bar. This is a hallmark of ABS key caps. The material, though tough under impact stress, is not very hard at its surface. That means that, as it abrades, your fingers will almost have the effect of waxing down below the normal surface, creating the shallowest of swales in the plasic. This becomes embedded with skin oil, and you’ve got a shiny spot. It can be slightly improved with a wash and a scrub, but the shine will come right back. Once the plastic is shiny, it has a bit of wear. Because of that ablation of the surface, some types of printing will wear away faster on ABS. Unless your keyboard is used with a great vigor, however, the material will likely last you for many years before siginficant degradation will take place.

Finally, ABS is not natively very UV resistant. It will discolor in the sun. If you’ve seen an old piece of computer equipment, nominally having once all been one color, but now sporting multiple different shades of dirty beige, that means that there are plasics of different compositions being used for the different pieces. The ones that are seriously yellowed are probably ABS. The better grade of ABS will be treated with some manner of UV resistant coating.

PBT: Often considered the best material for key caps, Polybutylene terephthalate is a harder but more brittle material, when compared to ABS. Most of the storied keyboards from the old days used this material. Today, the swankiest of the mechanical keyboards you’ll find still use PBT. In addition, key cap sets of this material can be purchased for the dominant key switches of today.

What is it that makes PBT favorable over ABS?

First, PBT key caps will often be manufactured with a nice tactile texture on the key tops. It gives the keyboard a feel and confidence that a slippery key cap just doesn’t provide. Because it is a much harder material, the texture that is typically present (they can be smooth, if the manufacturer wishes) will typically survive a vast amount of use without wearing down.

PBT is also highly resistant to getting shiny in use, so that an old, well-used ‘board can look almost new after being cleaned up.

PBT is not photosensitive, so there is no concern about the key caps yellowing with age. I should mention that black or very dark-tinted plastic of any formulation tends to be pretty color-fast. This is very possibly the reason that black plastic became the norm in the industry as the 90’s wore on.

Finally, it should be mentioned that PBT is much more thermally stable than ABS. If one puts ABS into boiling water, the keys will partially melt and no longer fit properly afterward. PBT does not have this issue.

Because PBT is more brittle, many makers tend to engineer a slightly thicker key cap. This will often result in a more substantial feel, and a different sound when typing. A significant amount of the noise in a keyboard is that of the key hitting the base plate and then returning to the top of its travel. A very thin material can result in a “cheap” or unsatisfactory sound at times. There are a number of thick-molded ABS keys, so PBT does not hold a lock upon this market.

POM: Polyoxymethylene plastic can be used in key caps, but is quite uncommon. I don’t know of any keyboard manufacturers producing a key cap of this material at this time. There may be a few out there, but they are not well-known.

You’re more likely to see POM in things like guitar picks, electronics and various other machine parts. I gather it’s an exceedingly tough plastic, but it may not be the best for keyboards. The usage cycle of a key cap man not benefit from some of the things that POM does well.

Printing:

It is likely that you’ve owned or worked with keyboards that have had an issue with the print fading, darkening, or completely coming off of some of the keys. That, without being too facile, is not the outcome we’re hoping for.

There are a number of ways to create the legends on the keys. They all have their place, and their set of assests and liabilities.

Pad Printing: This is what it sounds like. The legends are printed on the keys with a flexible printing head. It’s sort of like printing something on a T-shirt. This type of printing, because it’s simply a deposit on top of the key, can wear off, either with chemical etching (because of that hand cream you like so much), or because of mechanical wear. Although we don’t think about them in this way, our fingertips can serve to put a significant amount of abrating force on a tool, when we have our hands upon said tool for hundreds of hours. Pad printing can be the victim of such a grinding force.

The upside, though, is that it’s cheap, easy, and can be done in any color you like, with any legend you can imagine.

Amost every keyboard you look at, if it is less than fifty bucks or so, will have pad printed keys. They’re okay, but you know that you’ll have the chance of the key legends fading or otherwise having an issue.

Laser Etching: Here, we step up to a whole different level of durability. The legend, in this case, is actually burned into the key cap. This can take one of two forms. The first variant is a thermal process, where the shape of the legend conforms to the “burn” of the laser, and the color portrayed by the legend is created by the natural discoloration process of the plastic format (darkening or lightening). The second methology possible is to actually create a small trough in the shape of the legend on the key, then “in-fill” a contrasting material into that space. I assume that the in-fill material is some kind of plastic or plastisol material, though that isn’t clear to me.

Laser Etching can, under extreme circumstances, become little bit indistinct around the edges, but it won’t wear off altogether.

Dye Sublimation: Rather than burning into the key cap, this method utilizes an energetic process that allows a dye to be infused directly into the key cap’s molecular structure. This is done in such a way and to a depth that assures that there is no way to have the key legend wear away. I mean, provided you’re not using your keyboard with a bench grinder, anyway. Dye Sub printing is considered to be right up there with the best you can get. The vast majority of PBT keycaps are printed in this way.

Double-Shot: This is the absolute most rugged of all methods for showing a legend on a key cap. Why? Because it’s not actually a printing method at all. Two seperate pieces of plastic are actually fused to portray this legend, then the finish work is done to make sure the cap is the right size and shape. Basically, you have one color of plastic as the “underside” part. This is the color that the legend is going to be. The key top plastic is a contrasting color to this. The two parts are mated together, such that the legend is actually the material of the underside material being shown through the key top.

Most of the time, double-shot methodology is only employed with ABS, as it is easy to work with, and this is by far the most reliable way to make a durable legend, given ABS’s qualities. A company called Tai Hao is currently making double-shot PBT caps, however, so it is technically feasible. A few other brands are doing this, as well. They vary greatly in price, and I haven’t seen any but the Tai Hao brand, so I can’t comment upon the relative qualities of these offerings.

Backlighting:

While having an LED backlight beneath a key is not specifically something that will have any impact on the performance of the ‘board, a significant number of mechanicals do feature this technology.

Traditionally the province of gaming keyboards, backlighting can help to find your way to the correct key when the ambient lighting of your room is low. While touch typists endeavor to keep from looking at their keyboards any more than necessary during the typing action, locating the home row can still be made easier if the legends of the key caps are brightly illuminated.

As I alluded to, the backlighting on keyboards is provided by LEDs, which is to say, light emitting diodes. Some of these are capable of only one color, while the RGB style backlights are able to produce millions of colors. Some are on/off, others can light specific keys, as you see fit, and the most complex of them have a small processor inside the keyboard that can give you any number of patterned or reactive lighting schemes.

I have, thus far, not had any real interest in a backlit keyboard, but I may procure one at some point, if only to see what it’s all about, as it were.

As you might imagine, the key legends have to be transluscent in order to the light to shine through. This means that the key caps have to be made with a more complex process. My impression is that the most common method to create the translucent key legends is to use the double-shot technique, with the underside plastic being the bit that lets the light through. It is possible to mold the whole cap from a translucent material, then paint it, but that’s really cheaping out, and asking for a bad result.

On older backlit ‘boards, you’ll sometimes see models that have a backlight, but it will shine around the outside of the key caps, rather than through them. This is probably less expensive, as it can be used with any key cap style.

It should be noted that LED backlighting is not a new thing. Older keyboard generations ofen had an LED that shined through a cutaway on a keys such as the num lock and the caps lock keys.

Summing Up:

In the current age of throw-away keyboards, most examples will be designed to simply be good enough. They will last a year or two, and then go away, to be replaced with the new thing, which will also be thrown away soon enough. If you like to have your keyboard be your stalwart friend, with you through the lean times and the flush, outliving computer after computer, the differences in keycap technology will begin to become important.

I recently replaced the key caps on all of my older mechanical keyboards. Being Cherry MX equipped devices, it was easy for me to find replacement sets. For one set, I ordered the whole set directly off of Amazon. For the other two, I designed custom color schemes and legends at a site called WASD keyboards. After pulling all the key caps off of my old ‘boards, cleaning them thoroughly, and installing the new caps, they are almost new. In some ways, better than new, because they have more “personality” than they had leaving the factory. This customizability, this ability to disassemble, service, and repair your fondly-held devices, is another great advantage of the mechanical switch keyboard. It doesn’t have to be throw-away. It can be a keeper, and you can hot rod it as you see fit.

Well, that wraps up my series of articles on mechanical keyboards in general. From here on, I’ll be posting some reviews, thoughts, and updates as I learn more and find elements of this hobby that I think you’ll enjoy knowing about.

Cheers, and happy typing.

71DKHMXLKeL._SX355_

1) Sharpness: Good
2) Comfort: Great
3) Value: Good
4) Availability: Good
5) Country of Origin: Turkey
6) Passes “First Shave Test?: Yes
7) Longevity (# of shaves): 3
8) Notes: The topic of the Derby Extra blade is a devisive one in a lot of shaving forums. Some people love it. Many people hate it. The detractors of the classic Derby blade say that it is far too dull, and that it is not capable of a good shave. May as well shave with a soup spoon, some say. As for me, I was hesitant to try the Derby Extra at first, since many negative opinions where swirling around. I found that, in my usage, it turned out to work very well in some razors. For some of my stable, the Derby Extra has proven to be a sub-optimal choice, but there are a lot of blades to choose from. For a few of my razors, the Derby Extras work great. In the end, I found that I quite liked the blade, and its inherent value was enough to justify purchasing a pack of 100. For a very aggressive razor, the smoothness of the Derby Extra has proven to be useful. Also, its gentle nature is great if there is a concern about how aggressive a newly-acquired safety razor may be.

I was intrigued when I learned that Derby was coming out with another blade, the Premium. It is about $4 more expensive than the Extra for a pack of 100, putting it right in the middle of the road in terms of price. The description of the blade makes it seem that the components of of the coating are the same as the Derby Extra. Which is basically an amalgam of every steel coating known to man, it seems. I won’t list them all here. You can take a look elsewhere if you’re interested in the full chemical breakdown. The primary difference is the naming convention, packaging, and the “Swedish Steel” it purports to be made of.

Now, the Swedes are known to have some pretty darned good metallurgy. You’ve got Sandvik and Udderholm (sp?), who both make really great blade steels for the knife industry. In shaving, you’ll see that some of the new old stock straight razors from Parker, for instance, were made from Swedish Steel. I believe that other straight razors, especially those made in Japan, seem to favor the Swedish Steel. I would anticipate that it’s likely a Sandvik alloy of some kind. I have knives that use this type of stainless steel. and they’ve always served me well. There are a few DE blades that are made of this type of steel, the Rapira Swedish Supersteel, for instance.

What are we to make of all this? Is it balderdash? There’s only one way to find out. You guessed it. Science. Possibly Great Science. But maybe not. The funding for great science has been cut back in recent months. (Just kidding, the funding’s still there. It’s better known as my credit card.)

My first test blade went for a ride in my wonderful ’46 Gillette Aristocrat. It performed beautifully in the old miracle machine, and I got tremendous shaves over three passes, close as can be. No complaints at all. The Aristocrat likes a moderate blade just fine, so this wasn’t altogether unexpected. I did three shaves with this combination, and had no negative experiences. No palpable deterioration of the blade was obvious to me by the end of the run.

The second razor (with a new blade) was the Phoenix Artisan Accouterments Bakelite Open Comb Slant. Yeah. Totally different in every way from the Gillette. This razor has unholy amounts of blade torsion and blade reveal. It looks like you should sign a waiver before being allowed to use it. It is exceedingly efficient, but it’s safe enough. I just don’t find it to be terribly wise to go against the grain very often. I did do one shave in this way, and it was a little more aggressive than I prefer. Not the blade’s fault. It did the best it could. I just shouldn’t go against the grain with a slant. That’s just me.

The second and third shaves were two-pass affairs, and they went along swimmingly. The third shave came and went, with the blade performing like brand new. Through the first two blades, it seems that the Premium blades have good service life. I didn’t push it, because I typically don’t find that to be a wise or useful thing to do, but I believe that this blade, in my usage pattern anyway, has at least 4 shaves in it.

The last test razor was the Feather AS-D2, the razor that, nominally, is still my reference shaving tool. (It really hasn’t been for several months, but because the Feather had such a good run with the Derby Extras when I was testing that blade, it seems wise to give it a shot with the Premium.)

In the shaves I did with the AS-D2, it acted…just like one would expect for the big Feather. Very smooth, very easy shaves. Great handling charactaristics. Not the final word in efficiency or absolute closeness. As others may have pointed out, the Feather requires a more extreme angle of approach to allow the blade to address the whiskers to its best advantage. The Derby Premium blade did not let the razor down, nor hold it back it its task.

(I should mention that I used the Derby Premium in conjunction with the Merkur Futur for the remaining two blades in the first pack, and it did just peachy in that beast. The Futur is not the most discerning razor when it comes to blades, however. It seems to plow through the stubble in a similar way with anything remotely sharp.)

In recent times, I’ve taken to testing a blade more thoroughly than I did early in my testing phase. Over five blades in four razors, I felt that the Derby Premium acquitted itself very well. I never felt as if there was any roughness, nor was there a sense of futility in terms of cutting power. It got along well with four very different razors, and so I feel confident that there is a certain level of consistency and utility to be had. In terms of simply answering the question of whether or not it’s worth a try: that’s easy. Certainly worth a try, unless you require the very very last word in sharpness to be at ease.

Now to the harder question. Is the Premium blade significantly better than the Derby Extra? Hmm. I feel like they are a bit sharper, and also feel as if they keep their edge a bit better than their less expensive stablemates. Night and day difference? Perhaps not. Both are smooth. Both, in my experience, are pretty reliable to do what you think they’ll do. Both have nice packaging and are marked with a nice, even print. It is possible that I’ve been hoodwinked, and that there is no difference between the Extra and the Premium blade, but I don’t think so. I injected a few Derby Extras into the test to see if I could notice the difference on successive nights, and it felt like I could. All of these assertions are doomed to be slightly subjective, and confirmation bias can exist even after learning about confirmation bias, so who knows? I will operate on the assumption that they are, in fact different in more fundamental ways than packaging.

On to the value question. Is the admittedly small difference between the two Derby blades’ performance enough to warrant the significant price hike? That is a very tough call. At around $14 American (Winter 2017), the Premiums are costly enough to be in competition with a lot of great blades. Not to be repetitive, but I’d probably take the Astra SP blade over the Derby Premium. That said, I think that the Astras probably dull out faster than the Derbys do, so it’s possible that you’d get a few more shaves out of the Derbys, if you really pushed it.

Then again, all discussions of blade value may be semi-moot, as the blades are one of the least expensive elements of a shave. Do you really care whether it’s 9, 11, or 14 cents a blade? Is that margin you want to watch? I have long since abandoned the idea that wet shaving is primarily a money-saving venture. I do it because I like to. A few pennies here and there don’t really matter much. Percentage-wise, the Premium is significantly more expensive. In actual money, though, who cares? It’s a good blade. It does the job. For a segment of the shavers out there, it might be just the thing.

Cheers, and happy shaving!

For the most part, the wet shaving world is an a la carte sort of place. Find a soap, find an aftershave, so on and so forth. Mix and match. As you please.

That said, there are some makers that endeavor to provide you with a full “system” of products to shave with. In some cases, the company will go out of of its way to talk up the advantages of using their full line of products. I suppose that, if they didn’t it would be something of an oversight on their part. Ad execs are not known for the slow roll.

On the upside, doing this will typically give you a cohesive scent profile, and it is possible that dermatologists have been in on the game, trying to create a sensible approach in terms of PH balancing and otherwise taking care of your skin.

Downside? Well, it doesn’t involve a lot of agonizing, picking, choosing, and otherwise “metashaving” like we like to do. What shall we do with our time and mental processor cycles, if we’re not spending them all on the bits and bobs we’re going to use to shave that night? We may have to read a book or take up another hobby. The horror.

In the spirit of science, I picked a few brands and bought up a few of their products to give them a shot. Let’s see if this whole “system” business has anything to commend it.

The Body Shop:

The first product like I tried was from The Body Shop. I purchased the maca root-infused products in these three capacities: 1) Face Wash 2) Shave Cream 3) Post Shave balm (Razor Relief).

I used them together multiple times, and here are my thoughts:

Face Wash: This is a gel wash. It has a smell similar to the other products in the line, which I find to be mild and slightly floral. They smell okay. Nothing to write home about. I didn’t find the face wash to provide any unusual benefit later in the shave. It appears to be mild enough, but it takes a good dollop to function, and didn’t strike me as anything that I would go out of my way to use on a daily basis. There are a million face washes out there. This one will serve the purpose, no more.

Shave Cream: This is, far and away, the best part of the system. Very quick to lather, and probably the slickest shave cream I’ve ever tried. If it had a scent that I could hook into, it would be among my favorites. With a nondescript scent, it still ingratiates itself.

Razor Relief: This product is a fairly runny aftershave balm. I found it to provide no better post shave feel than, say, Arko aftershave, or simple Aveeno moisterizin cream. Both of those mentioned are far less expensive per ounce than the Body Shop brand. The Arko has much better scents on offer, while the Aveeno gets out of the way and lets your aftershave speak for itself.

Overall: The Body Shop products are all okay, though I would only recommend the shave cream. The other stuff is pretty forgettable, and probably significantly overpriced. You can match or improve the performance of the ancillary stuff elsewhere. The scent, or lack thereof, also doesn’t score anything in its favor for me. That said, it would serve men or women equally, as there’s no masculine component here to speak of. I should point out that I have no stand or orthodoxy in terms of what smell someone likes. Whatever you’re into, good deal.

What it’s missing: No post shave astringent/tonic. Some may not need it, but I just don’t feel like the shave has come off correctly without some aftershave splash. Sure, it isn’t strictly necessary, but to me, it feels like an omission. Also, the lack of something I would think of as a definable scent is sort of a miss for me. The smell doesn’t have to linger, but having something going on in that department seems like a minimum requirement.

Lucky Tiger:
The second product line I tried was from Lucky Tiger. This one featured these three products: 1) Face Wash 2) Liquid Shave Cream 3) Aftershave Tonic.

Face Wash: This product, as all the others did, has a nice orange scent to it, with a little undertow of other scents, like calendula and chamomile. Very pleasant, and very much appreciated by me. It would be applicable to men or women, I think, though it has no “foofy” element to it. Just a nice citrus tang. I found that the face wash felt nice on the skin and seemed to work just fine. It left my skin refreshed, and seemed to have reasonable yield per ounce. Not bad.

Liquid Shave Cream: This is really nice stuff. Lathers super quick, gives a good shave, and doesn’t require much to make it happen. Scent is a dead ringer with the rest of the products in the line, and if you like natural smelling orange, this will be right up your street.

Aftershave Tonic: I believe that, for Lucky Tiger, this is their core product. It’s easy to understand it, because this is a fine tonic. If you prefer a non-alcohol splash after your shave, this one is a winner. I would say that it’s certainly every bit as nice to feel on the face as, say, Thayer’s witch hazels. Soothing to the face, smells nice, and leaves the skin feeling clean, calm, and easy. This is not a moisturizing balm, however, so if you’re in need of that, you’ll need to provide it afterward.

Overall: This system works. It has a cohesive smell, and every product seems to hold up its end. Because the scent is much more enjoyable, and I find the peripheral products to all function, I would give it the win over The Body Shop. That said, I think that the Body Shop cream is possibly better than the Lucky Tiger stuff, by virtue of its slickness.

Lucky Tiger produces a moisturizing balm in this line, though it appears to be unscented, and seemed a bit pricey. I can’t say, then, that the line lacks that portion. I simply didn’t discover its existence in time to include it with this test. Because of the unscented nature of the balm, I would say that any balm that has a scent along the same or complementary lines would work as well. None of the Lucky Tiger products have a drying component to them, a balm would only be required if climatic and cosmetological reasons called for it.
Afterthoughts:

I think that it’s a noble effort to create a full line of products for shaving. For me, Lucky Tiger hits the mark just a bit better. With The Body Shop, really only the shave cream made a big impression. My sense is that there’s no compelling reason to “system up” your shaves, unless you just like to do so for your own reasons (scent, OCD, whatever).

For instance, neither of the face washes could hold Noxyzema’s shoes. The moisturizing balms, where tested, didn’t bring anything special to the party. Certainly, there are a lot of other great shave creams out there, with every scent known to humankind. No, I think that it’s still probably just fine to mix and match your shaves. Find the best part of multiple “systems” and you’ll have the best chance at a great shave.

Cheers, and Happy Shaving!

 

In this episode, I’ll take you through some of the most common keyboard layouts, formats, and form factors. I’ll even do a bit of historical meandering, just because that can be fun and educational.

Let’s get to terms.

Layout: This refers to the placement, size, and shape of the keys you’ll find on the ‘board. The most frequently seen layout in the U.S. is the ANSI layout. It is easily recognized by the rectangular “Enter” key that is one one row wide, and just a shade longer than the backspace. With this layout, the “backslash and pipe” key is one and a half units wide, and the backspace key is more like two units wide.

In Europe and some other locales, they prefer the ISO layout, which has an “Enter” key that is taller, but narrower. This displaces a few keys, and makes jumping from one to another a bit of a learning process. Typically, an ISO keyboard changes the shape of the right shift key a bit, and will move the location of the “backslash and pipe” key around to make room for the tall enter key.

Other places around the world have a few other layouts they use. Japan, for instance, has its own standard, the JIS layout. These layouts are often based upon the ISO or ANSI, but modified to fit the intricacies of the language in question.

In the past, keyboards have featured the AT and the XT format. These were early precursors of the formats we see now, and lacked such modern amenities as the Windows key and the Menu key.  For a time in the 90’s there was a phenomenon that has been referred to some as the “Big Ass Enter Key”. This was just as it sounded, with a very large enter key that was as wide as an ANSI version, and as tall as an ISO. It was kinda huge. If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember them. They did often cause the misfortune of featuring a backspace key of normal 1×1 size, which tended to bother those of us who sometimes make typing errors, and want to easily hit the backspace, not some other nearby, random key. Lots of people created a lot of unanticipated plus signs during that era.

These above all assume a QWERTY key layout. However, it’s not a given. There are multiple other methods to layout the keys, and some maintain that they are far better than the familiar QWERTY.

The most common amonng these alternative layouts is Dvorak. There is also Colemak, and a few others I can’t readily name.

Quick story time: The reason that the QWERTY layout was adopted was that the typing hardware at the time consisted of a typewriter. In traditional typewriters, the keys were attached to pushrods that caused an arm to swing upward, striking the face of the key against a piece of paper. Because there were a whole lot of arms that had to swing unimpeded and hit the paper, it was sometimes possible to hit the keys so quickly, in such a way as to cause the machinery to jam up. Two or more arms would get hung up with each other, and all work had to be halted to remedy the situation.

The QWERTY layout put commonly used keys far enough apart that they wouldn’t hang up as often. It also served to slow the typing speed down a bit, because all the most common keys were not right under your fingers. You had to reach for some of them. It caught on, and long after that mechanical concern became lost in the sands of time, we’re still typing on the same format. This is a great example of institutional inertia. It’s the same reason that cars and trucks and trains and the like still use the same track width that they always have. Changing the conception of how wide they are would take too much work. It’s fine. Leave it. Never mind that it’s essentially the same measurement we’ve been using since it was the standard axle width of Roman wagons. <end story time>

Dvorak and other layouts probably have some technical advantages. The only downside is that you’re not always going to have access to the same layout, because it didn’t take hold and become widespread. It’s sort of like knowing a really cool language that no one speaks. It has merit, but isn’t as useful as knowing, say, Spanish.

One final layout to mention, for lack of a better place to put the concept, is the ortholinear key orientation. Most of the time, you’ll see that the keys are graduated in a diagonal, leaning gradually toward the left as you go up the alphanumeric cluster. Because typewriters. Again. Ortholinear layout has them go straight up and down. Less reaching, less movement away from the home row. But. But trying to rewire your brain after years or decades of typing on a graduated ‘board doesn’t happen overnight, and it’ll probably mess up your technique on a regular layout. So there’s that.

Format: In the past, when there were a great many different computing platforms, they all had their own specialized keyboard formats, featuring keys that did specific things in that environment. Especially in the era of terminal computing, where you had giants like WYSE and that ilk producing a lot of the equipment used at data terminals and points of sale, the keyboards were formatted and tuned to the particular set of tasks and shortcuts. This typically had a minimum of impact on the primary alphanumeric part of the ‘board, but everything beyond that was up for grabs. Today, there really aren’t very many formats still seen out in the wild.

PC Format: The most familiar to a lot of people is the PC format, wherein you have keys for control, alt, Windows, and menu. There’s typically a function button layer on top of the alphanumeric cluster, and a set of word processing navigation buttons above a nav cluster (arrow keys) to the right of that. But, I fear that I may have wandered into the territory of form factor now, as the actual complement and number of keys included is more a function of that design choice than any other. It should be noted that Linux computers are set up to run with this PC format, by default. You could remap a few keys if you wanted, but it isn’t required.

Mac: The other one that you’ll see is the Apple Mac format. This format has control, command, and alt…or something. I am not a Mac guy, so I have to wing it when forced to sit at one. Sorry, a little light on the lingo for this segment.

Chromebook: Another format that some might confront is the Chromebook format, though this is less common, and a normal keyboard will work fine with this OS. The Chromebook format does away with normal Function keys, and instead has a variety of keys along the top row that serve particular functions in the Chrome OS. They can work with PCs, to a great extent, though you might find a key or two that you will miss, if you use one long enough.

Form Factor: This refers to the size, shape, and number of keys included in a particular keyboard design. Through history, there have been a ton of different form factors, from nothing more than the alphanumeric cluster on a very compact ‘board, all the way up to keyboards with as many as 160-some odd keys. (yeah, think about it).

Full Sized: This is far and away the most common and familiar form factor for desktop keyboards. Typically, somewhere between 104 and 108 keys are included. Full function row, navigation cluster, and a ten-key are included. (A ten-key is the same as a numeric keypad.) Usually, ANSI layouts have 104, while ISO has 105. The other few keys are typically media shortcuts. Turning the volume up and down, for instance.

“Battleship”: This is a rarely-used format, and the only one larger than full sized that you can purchase new today. Only a few companies make this size ‘board, but they were fairly popular for a few years. Typically, they have around 122 keys. The extras are generally another twelve function keys, and a few other special keys that might be useful to you in some situations. Some gaming keyboards probably fit into this form factor, as they have configurable keys that can be given particular tasks in a gaming scenario. Equipping a weapon, carrying out an attack, looting the corpses. Whatever the game calls for.

Compact Full: This form factor has the same number of keys, but has either squeezed all the dead space out from between the various clusters, or has elected to make some of the keys smaller to save space. Or, perhaps, both things. You’ll see this form factor on laptop keyboards a lot. For instance, they’ll put small navigation cluster buttons below the rest, saving some width. Coolermaster has an interesting take on this form factor called the TK, which is quite similar to the “navless” covered below, but with some clever alterations of the keys that carry out the navigation, to make it a bit more ergonomic to use.

Navless: Quite popular in the days of the XT computers, these would do away with the whole nav cluster and the keys that typically reside above it, allowing toggling between these functions and the numerics with the Num Lock key. This yielded a narrower, more compact presentation. This was an implementation that actually made the Num Lock key matter. Rarely seen today, I think that there’s a lot to be said for this form factor, and I’d be interested in trying a modern iteration, should a company decide to design one.

TKL: This form factor does away with the whole numeric keypad. TKL stands for “ten-keyless”. Roughly the same width as the navless layout, if not just vaguely narrower, this is popular with gamers, as well as with people who don’t find any utility in having a ten-key. The advantage, for a right-handed person, is that it puts the mouse nearer the midline of the body, and cuts down a bit on the wear and tear on your wrist and elbow over long gaming sessions.  For someone who uses the mouse with his or her left hand, there is no real ergonomic upside. The freeing up of a bit of desk real estate is still a viable rationale for selecting one. This form factor is also called the 87% or 87 key size. Other than the omission of the keypad, no other changes are made to key spacing or content.

60% (or HHKB): Some people just want their keyboard to be…smaller. There could be a variety of reasons, but the main three are portability, aesthetic concerns, and possible efficiency gains. An early adopter to the 60% format was the Happy Hacking Keyboard. Along with moving a few keys around (omitting the caps lock in favor of having ctrl in its place), it did away with the function layer, the nav cluster, and the numeric keypad. Thus, you have a much smaller keyboard. It is really just the alphanumeric block and the standard modifiers.

How do you access all the other functions, you may ask. I will tell you. One or more keys are included to allow secondary layers of functionality for the keys still present. Function keys are included in the layout of the keys. Pressing them, much like shift does, allows access to another “layer” of output. This means that each key on the keyboard can output three or even four possible commands, depending upon what is used to modify the keystroke. Fans of this form factor indicate that once you are used to the intricacies, your fingers are never off the home row. You’re faster, better than before. You may, in fact, be a secret government project that brings test pilots back from the grave. Who knows. These ‘boards usually have 61 keys or so. There’s a middle ground between this and the TKL form factor that conforms to everything I’ve said above, except for the fact that the arrow keys are still there, shoehorned down into the corner of the alphanumeric block. These are typically called “67%” format.

40%: Now, we’re verging on the realm of the absurd, at least to my way of thinking. This format takes it as a mission to be as small as humanly possible. Even the normal number row has to go. Some common keys, like the question mark, have to use a function layer to be available. I should mention that all the key caps and spacing remain the same as on a full sized keyboard. The designers don’t actually shrink the size of the keys. There are typically only 47 or so keys on a keyboard of this type.

40% is an uncommon format, but you do see it around some. I haven’t tried one, but it sounds like there would be a big learning curve, and I can’t really see what the upside might be. My TKL keyboard is still pretty compact, at least for my needs. I do have a bluetooth keyboard that is roughly 60%, and it works fine. It isn’t mechanical, however, so I won’t spend a whole bunch of time on it. Likewise, I won’t linger on the oddball mini keyboards that use little keys, rubber tabs, and the like to make a keyboard wicked tiny. If you have to actually type on something like that, I’ll just say that I’m sorry.
There are a few other formats out there, but those are most of the ones that are available on more than one brand’s products. For most, the full sized or TKL layouts will serve to be as broad a choice as they require. With mechanical switch keyboards, one dimension that can’t really shrink very much is that of height off the desk surface. Mechanicals featuring the familiar switch types are almost always at least an inch tall. Most everything that manages to be space efficient in this dimension will be a membrane keyboard with a scissor switch above it. Some of these are okay, but many of them…kinda suck.

Next time, I’ll talk about key caps, including their interchangeability, material, and shape.

Cheers, and happy typing.