Storm Corrosion

Video for Storm Corrosion’s song Drag Ropes.

An album that I’ve been anticipating for quite some time is Storm Corrosion: a collaborative project between Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth and Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree. It was released in the UK on Monday 7 May.

I loved the last Porcupine Tree album, The Incident; the last Opeth album, Heritage, has been a grower; I enjoyed Steven Wilson’s second solo album Grace for Drowning. I knew that this album wouldn’t sound like any of these.

In an interview with Steven Wilson about the record he said

“If anything, it’s even more orchestral, more stripped down, even more dark, twisted and melancholy… but it certainly feels like it comes from the same place as Heritage and Grace For Drowning, which indeed it does because it was written during the same period. We were, in a way, egging each other on to do those particular records but also at the same time coming up with the music that’s now going to be on Storm Corrosion. So it’s a very orchestral record, as you’d expect, the songs are quite long and develop in unusual ways. I’m realistic about it, that half the people are going to hate it and half the people are going to fall in love with it. I’d be happy with that anyway.”

Metal Underground

I fell in love with it.

The album is dark and atmospheric and beautiful and odd and unexpected and it has the feel of a 1960s soundtrack (which is perhaps why I like the video to Drag Ropes so much). In many ways it reminds me of Richard Thompson‘s 1997 collaboration Industry with bassist Danny Thompson (no relation).

It is very much worth checking out.

I give it a rating of 5/5

Compiling Twitter Bootstrap 2.0 with SimpLESS on Windows 7

Using LESS with Bootstrap

This afternoon, after a couple of hours of poking and prodding various pieces of software, I worked out how to compile Twitter Bootstrap 2.0 using SimpLESS. This is what I’ve discovered so far…

CSS frameworks

Having been an avid user of the Blueprint CSS framework for a number of years now (I created what has become quite a popular cheatsheet for the framework, which even got released with the Joomla! CMS a few versions back) I am aware of its limitations, particularly in the area of responsive web design.

So I’ve been keeping an eye on how various CSS frameworks have been developing, such as 320 and up, Less Framework 4 and Twitter Bootstrap.

Twitter Bootstrap reached version 2.0.0 in late January of this year; the current version is 2.0.3 (released 24 April 2012). I downloaded it last week and have spent a couple of days idly playing around with it. with a view to using it on a future web project.

One thing that I was uncertain about, however, was how to use the LESS files.

LESS

When it comes to CSS pre-processors, such as LESS and Sass, I’m a bit late to the party. What can I say, I’ve got twins and a 16 month old and I still don’t get enough sleep.

Sass claims that it “makes CSS fun again”; LESS that it “extends CSS with dynamic behavior such as variables, mixins, operations and functions.” Chris Coyier prefers SASS. Bootstrap from Twitter uses LESS so I guess, for now, I’m going with LESS.

I’ve dabbled with both LESS and Sass over the last year but not enough to get proficient in either, and certainly not enough to use either in a production environment. One put-off for me, certainly in the early days, was the lack of GUI to compile the files. Sass uses Ruby; LESS uses JavaScript (either client- or server-side).

These days, however, there are a number of standalone desktop applications that allow you to compile LESS code without needing to poke around with command-line commands. One of my favourites is SimpLESS from We Are Kiss.

SimpLESS

SimpLESS is available for Windows, Linux and Mac. It installs as a very simple application onto which you drag-and-drop your directory/folder containing the .less files, click a button and it convert your LESS files to CSS. It’s just a shame that you can’t batch process all the files, a feature that WinLess offers.

By default, if your directory structure includes a \less directory and a \css directory then SimpLESS will compile all your .less files into .css files within the \css directory. Sounds simple enough. No faffing, and you get a very usable CSS file at the end of it all.

Also by default SimpLESS will compress/minify your CSS files unless you include //simpless:!minify in the .less file. I include it at the top of the file.

Bootstrap from Twitter

Twitter Bootstrap 2.0 uses LESS. It has a directory full of LESS files that control every aspect of the framework: accordion, alerts, breadcrumbs, button-groups, buttons, carousel, forms, layouts, etc.

So, if you want 16 columns instead of 12 edit the @gridColumns, @gridColumnWidth and @gridGutterWidth variables within variables.less and recompile. That’s how customisable the framework is.

Except… when I did that I and I used SimpLESS to compile the LESS file I got an error:

Syntax error in progress-bars.less on line 33

Syntax error in progress-bars.less on line 33

Syntax error in progress-bars.less on line 33.

After a little digging around on the internet and I discovered a very helpful post on GitHub. This is what I did…

How to fix SimpLESS to compile Twitter BOOTSTRAP 2.0 on Windows 7

  1. Download and unzip Twitter Bootstrap v.2.0;
  2. Copy the \less directory to a new test directory and create a new \css directory as its sibling, so you will have:
    \test
    \test\less
    \test\css
  3. Download and install SimpLESS;
  4. Download the fixed version of less.js from We Are Kiss;
  5. Replace the existing less.js located at
    C:\Program Files\SimpLESS\Resources\js (32-bit Windows)
    C:\Program Files (x86)\SimpLESS\Resources\js. (64-bit Windows);
  6. Run SimpLESS;
  7. Drag your \test directory onto SimpLESS;
  8. Click the ‘reload’ icon against bootstrap.less to compile it;
  9. Success! You will now have compiled .css files in \test\css
Successfully compiled LESS file

Successfully compiled LESS file

A few things I noted:

  • If you run SimpLESS without the fixed less.js file then you will need to restart the application after you copy over the fixed less.js file in order for it to start using the new version.
  • less.js v.1.3.0 from the official LESS website does not work; only this fixed version from We Are Kiss works as expected.
  • The two main files to compile are bootstrap.less and responsive.less.

Time to get creating…

Dropbox vs SkyDrive vs Google Drive

For the last few years I’ve been using Dropbox, a service that offers online file storage (often called ‘cloud storage’) and synchronisation. But in the last few weeks two new services have been launched by a couple of big names: Microsoft SkyDrive and Google Drive.

I’ve been looking into these two services and trying to decide for myself whether I should move away from Dropbox or use SkyDrive and/or Google Drive in addition to Dropbox.

For me the important things are:

  • Storage space for the price
  • Speed of synchronisation
  • Ability to choose which files to synchronise on which devices

I am assuming here that the terms and conditions of each of these three services is similar. And as that linked article to The Verge concludes: “what’s most important is how much trust you’re willing to give away as your data moves to the cloud”.

Here are a few of my findings and thoughts.

What is cloud storage and synchronisation?

For those who don’t already understand what Dropbox, SkyDrive or Google Drive are. A brief explanation.

So, if I save a file in my Dropbox folder it automatically gets uploaded to an online account From any web browser I can then log in to my Dropbox account and download any file that I’ve uploaded. That’s the ‘cloud storage’ bit.

Not only that, any other device (such as my laptop or work PC) that is connected to my Dropbox account automatically downloads that file into its Dropbox folder. That’s the ‘synchronisation’ bit.

Comparisons

Dropbox

Dropbox

Storage Month Year
2GB+ Free Free
50GB+ £6.25 £75
100GB+ £12.50 £150

(All prices are in US dollars, converted using Oanda, and rounded to the nearest 5p.)

Earn extra space: Dropbox users can earn more space for free by referring new users to Dropbox up to (I think) 32GB.

File limits: Files uploaded to Dropbox via the desktop application have no file size limit. Files uploaded through the website must be 300 MB or less.

Speed: When I drop a new file into my Dropbox folder it takes only a few seconds before the sync starts. Synchronisation time is fairly quick (you can customise whether bandwidth is limited or not for both upload and download).

Dropbox also supports LAN sync, which is brilliant! Basically, it speeds up synchronisation across computers on the same network by transferring files across the network rather than downloading them from the Dropbox servers.

Customisation: Which folders and sub-folders are synchronised can be fully controlled, which for me is essential. Dropbox calls this “Selective Sync”.

The desktop client offers a lot of options and tweaking. It is rather a joy to use, as is the website interface.

Integration: There is no built-in office application support with Dropbox. But there are a number of online apps and browser extensions that will sync with your Dropbox account.

SkyDrive

SkyDrive

Storage Month Year
7GB (or 25GB†) Free Free
+ 20GB £0.50 £6.00
+50GB £1.33 £16.00
+100GB £2.66 £32.00

(All prices are in GB sterling, paid yearly; monthly prices are shown for comparison.)

† Existing SkyDrive users were given the option to keep their existing 25GB when the service was revamped and relaunched in April 2012.

File limits: Files uploaded to SkyDrive via the desktop application are limited to 2GB. Files uploaded through the website must be 300 MB or less.

Speed: When I drop a new file into my SkyDrive folder it seems to take quite a while before the sync starts, noticeably longer than either Dropbox or Google Drive. Synchronisation time is fairly quick (you cannot customise bandwidth limiting).

Customisation: The only options that the desktop client offers are “Make files on this PC available to me on my other devices” and “Start SkyDrive automatically when I sign in to Windows”. When my PC first starts up it seems to take ages for SkyDrive to go through its initial checks and synchronisation.

Selective synchronisation is not available, which means that whatever you upload will always be available on each computer you synchronise with. For me this is a problem, I only want certain files to be available on my work PC, for example. Perhaps this will be made available in a future release.

Integration: What is really nice about SkyDrive is that I can open, edit and create Microsoft Office files (including OneNote) directly within SkyDrive using the Web app versions of Microsoft Office, which makes the experience feel familiar.

Google Drive

Google Drive

Storage Month Year
5GB Free Free
25GB £1.50 £18.00
100GB £3.15 £37.80
200GB £6.25 £75.00
400GB £12.50 £150.00

(All prices are in US dollars, converted using Oanda, and rounded to the nearest 5p.)

File limits: Files uploaded to Google Drive via the desktop application are limited to 10GB. Uploaded document files that are converted to Google documents format can’t be larger than 2MB.

An important point to note is that Google Docs (that is any file that is created as in Google’s proprietary format for documents, presentations, spreadsheets, forms or drawings or is uploaded and then converted into a Google Doc format) do not count against your total storage. So, you could effectively use a 5GB free account but also have, say, 10GB of files in Google Doc format.

Speed: When I drop a new file into my Google Drive folder it takes only a few moments before the sync starts; comparable with Dropbox, which is a good thing. Synchronisation time is fairly quick (you cannot customise bandwidth limiting).

Customisation: The only options that the desktop client offers are “Make files on this PC available to me on my other devices” and “Start SkyDrive automatically when I sign in to Windows”. When my PC first starts up it seems to take ages for SkyDrive to go through its initial checks and synchronisation.

Selective synchronisation is available, but not to the same degree of granularity as Dropbox offers. It would appear from the Google Drive preferences that only top-level folders can be selected or deselected. So if I want to sync my “Reference” folder, for example, with my laptop then I need to synchronise everything within it; with Dropbox I could select which sub-folders to sync. Perhaps this will be made available in a future release.

Integration: What is nice about Google Drive is that I can convert a lot of formats into Google Docs format, admittedly mostly Microsoft Office formats but that suits me fine. I can then view, edit and print them. I can also open PDF files directly in Google Docs, and I can attempt to use OCR to convert a PDF into an editable document.

Evaluations

Based on a 100GB+ account, on price per gigabyte Dropbox is by far the most expensive (SkyDrive 32p/GB per year; Google Drive 38p/GB per year; Dropbox £1.50/GB per year). Plus Dropbox doesn’t offer any integration with office applications in the same way that Microsoft SkyDrive and Google Drive do.

However, Dropbox has been in the game since September 2008 and has built quite a strong reputation for its stability, its ease-of-use, its speed and the features it offers. The drill-down selective sync and the LAN sync, in particular, are very useful for me.

While SkyDrive was officially launched in August 2007 it didn’t enjoy the same level of uptake or success that Dropbox did. One reason may have been due to the lack of desktop client.

The relaunch of SkyDrive in April 2012, only days apart from Google’s launch of Google Drive may change that but as it stands I think neither Google nor Microsoft’s desktop clients come anywhere close to the polish that Dropbox offers.

It will be interesting to see if Dropbox will continue to rely on its reputation and on the quality of its platform clients (remember Dropbox is also available for iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry) or whether it will lower its prices as the competition from Google and Microsoft grows.

Limitations

Truly selective sync: What a shame is that none of these three services allow me to select which folders on my PC (regardless of where they are) I can synchronise. I can only synchronise the contents of my Dropbox folder, and my SkyDrive folder, and my Google Drive folder.

What would be really nice is to be able to say: I want to sync everything within:

  • D:\Music\
  • E:\Photos\Family
  • F:\Code\Personal
  • etc.

Maybe in the future…

Encryption: And what about encryption? Currently none of these services offer any kind of data encryption

Your files are stored somewhere out there, in the cloud, completely unencrypted. Which means that if someone else got hold of them then they could read them with the minimum of effort.

While I don’t store any state secrets on my PC, it’s still the principle of the matter: ideally, I want my data to remain only mine and for me to choose with whom to share it.

AND THE WINNER IS…

A few months ago I upgraded to the 50GB account (approx. £6.25 per month) which meant that I kept my 4.75GB that I’d accumulated from my 2GB free account plus referrals and added an extra 50GB.

If either Microsoft SkyDrive or Google Drive allowed me to select which folders and sub-folders to synchronise, allowed me some control over the upload/download throttling speeds, and allowed me to synchronise files across my LAN (I often use my desktop PC and laptop at the same time) then I would likely move to a cheaper option.

If that was the case now then I’d move to Google, simply because of the lag time associated with the SkyDrive synchronisation. If they fixed that… well, I’ve already got 25GB free with them. That would save me £1.50 per year that I could otherwise spend on… I don’t know, a chocolate bar.

I use Dropbox a lot, and for now I intend to continue to use Dropbox as my primary cloud storage/synchronisation service.

I trust Dropbox.

Dropbox offers me the combination of speed and customisation at a price that I can afford.

But I will keep a close eye on both SkyDrive and Google Drive.

What have you decided about these, and perhaps other cloud-based services such as Apple iDrive?

Dodgy gig in Edinburgh

Dodgy playing live at Edinburgh's Electric Circus

Dodgy playing live at Edinburgh's Electric Circus (L-R: Andy Miller, Nigel Clark, Mathew Priest)

On Wednesday evening I drove down to South Queensferry, teamed up with my brother Eddie, and the pair of us took the train in to Edinburgh Wavelery to see—what Wikipedia calls—’English power pop trio’ Dodgy in concert at The Electric Circus on Market Street (which is right next to the station).

The summer of 96

In 1996 I was working with homeless young people in London, and living in a very nice basement flat in Eccleston Square with my good friend (and former National Youth Choir of Great Britain member) Jonny Coore. We had a summer of beautiful weather. It was the summer of Euro 96, which was hosted by England, and the city was alive; the atmosphere was electric. It was the year that I got engaged for the first time. And the soundtrack to that summer of 1996 was Free Peace Sweet by Dodgy.

In many ways it was a strange choice of album for me. I was heavily into metal (still am), I was trying my hardest to avoid anything with the ‘Britpop‘ label, like Oasis and Blur, and yet here I was listening to Dodgy again and again and again.

But the song writing was fabulous, and I loved the use of acoustic guitars throughout the songs.

Live

I was always under the misconception that Dodgy were from Birmingham. Apparently they started out as a band called Purple, a trio from Bromsgrove and Redditch in Worcestershire, who moved to London had a few line-up changes and re-badged themselves as Dodgy.

So, they were in London in 1996. I was in London in 1996. How on earth did we never bump into each other?! I would have loved to have seen them in concert back then.

So I made up for it this time around. They were coming to Edinburgh on their UK tour. I live about 50 miles from Edinburgh. I bought a ticket. My brother bought a ticket. And on Wednesday evening, I stood about 10 feet from the tiny stage at The Electric Circus and grinned from ear to ear for about 90 minutes.

It was an intimate gig. Dodgy were fun, and professional, and played a fabulous set. Despite my dodgy back (no pun intended), which was really beginning to hurt by the end of the set, I could have stood and listened to them for another 90 minutes.

Guitarist Andy Miller stood stage left behind a lap steel guitar on a stand. His playing was intricate and delicate but never too much. At times his guitar sounded more like a keyboard and I loved it for that. Every now and then he would look out to the crowd and smile. He obviously seemed to be enjoying himself.

Vocalist, guitarist and bassist Nigel Clark stood centre of stage, armed for most of the evening with an acoustic guitar, occasionally taking bass for a few of their earlier hits. The rest of the evening bass duties were handled very comfortably by a friend of the band. There was a warmness and confidence about his stage presence that suited the venue.

Drummer Mathew Priest has a fabulously simple drum set-up but he plays it so melodically and with such space. If I was a drummer he’s the kind of drummer I would want to be. I enjoyed his between songs chats, and we all marvelled at his knitted drumstick warmers in what I presumed were Aston Villa colours.

Thank you Dodgy.

New album

Dodgy released a new album Stand Upright In A Cool Place earlier this year, from which this is a track

Playing live

I don’t get out much these days. That’s my choice. I have three small children and a wife to support. So when I do get out to see a live band it’s a real treat. I’m glad I made the effort this time. Dodgy live were more than I expected. The venue was much smaller than I had expected but as a result there was an intimacy and a relaxed feeling to the gig that I relished.

The gig also reminded me how much I miss playing in a band live. Maybe one day I’ll get back to it. I sure hope so.

As my brother and I stood on the platform at Edinburgh Waverley to catch our return to Dalmeny, Eddie asked me “So, have you got any other bands you’d like to see live on your… bucket list?”

If you don’t already know, a ‘bucket list’ is a list of things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket (die).

“Why?” I asked, “If I don’t are you just going to shove me in front of the next train?”

Dodgy were definitely on my list. I’ve scored them off now… but do you know what? I think I might just write “Dodgy” on that list again.

Epilogue

A few weeks ago I got a phone call from my Mum.

“Hello Mum!”

“What’s this I hear about you going to a dodgy gig?”

“The band are called Dodgy.”

“Ah… right,” she said, obviously sounding quite relieved.

PowerMockup – create wireframes using Microsoft PowerPoint

PowerMockup website

PowerMockup

When designing (or redesigning) websites I tend to follow a five stage process:

  1. Gather / discover
  2. Structure
  3. Design
  4. Build and test
  5. Launch and maintenance

During the second stage (structure) I will focus largely on two aspects of the website’s structure: the overall site hierarchy and the structure of each of the pages, what are traditionally called ‘wireframes’.

Site structure

To design the site structure, for years, I’ve used mind maps and my mind mapping application of choice is Mindjet MindManager.

I love MindManager, and each version just gets better than the last. An important thing for me is that the software interface doesn’t get in the way of capturing and organising the information. It’s packed with subtle but powerful features such as keyboard shortcuts and the ability to drag information from web pages and Windows Explorer directories).

Page structure and wireframes

When it comes to designing page-level structures I pretty much always start by drawing wireframes using a good old fashioned pencil and pad of paper.

Wireframes are visual guides that present a skeleton or framework for the information on the page. They are concerned more with where information and design elements should sit rather than how they look.

If you think of it in terms of architecture, the building blueprint will show you that the kitchen needs a window between the wall cupboards, and in front of the sink, but it won’t tell you what colour or make they are.

As I said, I usually start all my wireframe diagrams with a pencil and pad, but occasionally I want something that I can save, edit and share with others via email.

Until now I’ve usually used either Balsamiq or Mockingbird, both of which have limited, free accounts. But recently I’ve been trying out PowerMockup.

PowerMockup

PowerMockup is a wireframing tool that integrates with Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 or 2010. It is essentially a library of PowerPoint shapes offering

  • 89 fully-editable user-interface (UI) elements
  • 104 wireframe icons
PowerMockup stencil library elements

Examples of some of the PowerMockup stencil library elements

And it is as simple to use as finding the element you want to use and dragging it onto your PowerPoint slide. The UI elements and icons can all be resized, and recoloured too which provides a great deal of flexibility.

Page size

Also, remember, although you are working in Microsoft PowerPoint which, by default, is set up for a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio screen you can adjust the page setup for any screen size and aspect ratio. That way you are not limited to only designing for ‘above the fold’.

Example

As a quick example, I mocked-up the PowerMockup website homepage using PowerMockup in Microsoft PowerPoint 2010:

Wireframe of the PowerMockup  website using PowerMockup

Wireframe of the PowerMockup website using PowerMockup

My experience

Intuitive

I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised using PowerMockup. Because it integrates with Microsoft PowerPoint I didn’t have to learn a whole new application: it was very intuitive to use.

Design

I really like the design of the elements too. My main criticisms of both Balsamiq and Mockingbird is that their UI elements have quite a sketchy, cartoony feel to them; particularly Balsamiq.

In contrast the UI elements in PowerMockup are clean, unfussy and unobtrusive. While Balsamiq and to a lesser extent Mockingbird’s UI elements have a Comic Sans feel to them, PowerMockup’s UI elements feel more like something classical like Helvetica.

Price

PowerMockup costs US $39.95 (approx. £25 GBP) for a single-user license, although obviously you also need a licensed copy of Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 or 2010.

The cheapest, standalone version that I can find, Home and Student, will cost you £75.00 GPB on Amazon UK), so you’re talking about a total cost of around £100 for one user.

If you already own a copy of PowerPoint 2007 or 2010, however, then you’re laughing and you may even qualify for a free license.

There are also two team licenses available: 5 users for US $119.95 (approx. £74 GBP), and 10 users for US $199.90 (approx. £123 GBP).

Conclusion

I’ve been genuinely very impressed with PowerMockup. What is not to like? It has a very extensive, very attractive, and very usable collection of UI elements and icons, and most importantly it’s really simple to use.

What might be nice is if someone could throw together a number of PowerPoint template files (with sensible background grids) to emulate the most common page dimensions, e.g. Blueprint CSS’s 950px width, 960 Grid System’s 960px width, plus some responsive-style tablet and mobile templates. Coupled with PowerMockup these could be a very useful, very affordable combination for small design studios and individuals.

I can definitely see myself using PowerMockup on the next design project I need to work on.

Postcards of old Edinburgh (in 1824 and 1845)

This afternoon I came across these few postcards of old Edinburgh.

Edinburgh from the West End

1824

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 1824

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 1824. Aquatint by T Sutherland, after J Gendall

I thought it would be fun to compare that image with the same view captured in Google StreetView.

2008

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 2012 - Google StreetView

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 2012 - Google StreetView

St John’s, Princes Street

St John's Chapel, Princes Street, from Castle Terrace. Coloured lithograph by Nicol after W Mason, c.1845

St John's Chapel, Princes Street, from Castle Terrace. Coloured lithograph by Nicol after W Mason, c.1845

There wasn’t much to see in the Google StreetView of the image above: mostly trees.

Edinburgh from the Castle looking east

Edinburgh from the Castle looking East. Coloured Aquatint by T Sutherland after J Gendall, c.1824

Edinburgh from the Castle looking east. Coloured Aquatint by T Sutherland after J Gendall, c.1824

The thing I find most astonishing about this view from Edinburgh Castle is the space once occupied by the Nor Loch, to the left of the picture. The Nor Loch was filled in and the land reclaimed to create Princes Street Gardens. The road up The Mound, and the Waverley Bridge are quite prominent in the absence of other buildings, particularly the Scottish National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland. And how few buildings to the south-east of the castle, south of the Old Town.

View of the Old Town from Princes Street

View of the Old Town from Princes Street

View of the Old Town from Princes Street, looking West. Coloured aquatint by I. Clark after A. Kay, c.1814

Finding the right keyboard – how I settled on the Logitech K750

What keyboard and mouse do you use, is it the one that came bundled with your PC? The last couple of PCs I ordered I made a point of making sure they didn’t include a cheap, budget keyboard. Instead I ordered my own.

Recently I’ve been on the hunt for a replacement for what has long been my standard, trusty keyboard, the Microsoft Digital Media Pro.

Microsoft Digital Media Pro

Microsoft Intellitype Digital Media Pro keyboard

Microsoft Digital Media Pro keyboard

For the decade or more I’ve used various Microsoft keyboards, for the last six years or so my keyboard of choice has been the Microsoft Digital Media Pro. It was a great keyboard: comfortable to use, solid and highly customisable

As you can see from the image above, the Digital Media Pro has lots of extra buttons:

  • Volume buttons (volume up, volume down, mute)
  • Zoom slider
  • Four media keys (play/pause, stop, previous track, next track)
  • Five My Favorites (sic) keys for launching your favourite applications
  • Hot keys (My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, Mail, Web/Home, Messenger, Calculator, Log Off, Sleep)
  • F-Lock key (toggles F1-F12 between standard function keys and predefined actions, e.g. Help, Undo, Redo, New, Fwd, Open, Close, Reply, Send, Spell, Save, Print)

In practice I always remapped the Calculator hot key to open My Documents as it was the closest reconfigurable key to my mouse; the shortest distance for my right hand to move.

I rarely if ever used the zoom slider, and since upgrading to Windows 7 I stopped using the My Favourites, as you can achieve something similar by holding down the Windows key and tapping a number (Win+1 will open the first application pinned to your taskbar, Win+2 opens the second, etc.). Similarly, I rarely used any of the other hot keys.

In the end I realised that the only extra keys that I used regularly were the four media keys.

And after six years of constant use I was beginning to get very sore fingers after typing with it, not to mention prolonged bouts of RSI.

It was time to get a new keyboard, both at home and at work. I like to use exactly the same keyboard in both locations so that I don’t have to think about where my fingers should go.

Logitech Media Keyboard K200

I spent a few weeks researching what kind of keyboard I should buy, investigating the options, and weighing up the pros and cons. USB or PS/2? wireless or wired? mechanical or membrane?

In the end my fingers were getting so painful I just ordered a really cheap Logitech Media Keyboard K200 as a stopgap. It cost me about £9.99 GBP.

Logitech K200 keyboard

Logitech K200 UK Media keyboard

The K200 is a full-size, 105-key keyboard with four media keys, and four hot keys. For a keyboard so cheap I was quite surprised by how comfortable it was to type on.

What let it down for me, however, was how flexible it was. When the adjustable legs were flipped out the whole keyboard bent in the middle whenever I typed on it.

As a temporary solution, however, it was perfect and within a few days my fingers were no longer hurting and the RSI was calming down. Time to find something more permanent, though.

Logitech Wireless Keyboard K360

I first spotted the Logitech Wireless Keyboard K360 in a gear review in .net magazine (issue 224, February 2012). The verdict of the review was “we found this to be a very comfortable keyboard to use, and — as wireless keyboards go — it’s well worth checking out”.

Logitech Wireless Keyboard K360

Logitech Wireless Keyboard K360

The K360 comes in five designs, which makes a change from the standard grey, black or silver offerings from most keyboard manufacturers:

  • Fingerprint flowers
  • Victorian wallpaper
  • Indigo scroll
  • Purple pebbles
  • Emea grey/black

I wanted something simple and and non-distracting, so I ordered the black one from Amazon for £19.99 GBP.

The K360 uses Logitech’s Unifying receiver, a small USB dongle that plugs into the PC and which can be paired with up to six devices (keyboards and mice). I discovered pretty quickly that this needs to be plugged into a the PC itself and not into a USB hub. I multi-boot my PC and the USB hub wasn’t available during the power-on test so the keyboard was still unresponsive when it reached the boot menu. Plugging the Unifying receiver into the USB port on the front of my PC tower, however, fixed that.

As far as the keyboard itself goes, it has the feel of a very nice laptop keyboard, with its low profile and ‘Scrabble tile’-like keys. The keys themselves are good sizes and very easy to use. The travel is very short so you don’t need to use much pressure to type with, which was great for my wrists.

You can lay the keyboard itself flat on the desk, or flick out two little legs to raise up the keys a little. I found that arrangement more comfortable and meant that the keys were all easily reachable without having to move my hands too much.

I did find, however, that overall the keyboard did feel to be a little smaller than standard and my fingers did begin to cramp up after a few hours typing.

And with it being a compact keyboard, like a laptop, the position of the ‘editing block’ keys had also been moved: the arrow keys, insert, delete, home, end, page up and page down keys, as well as the print screen, scroll lock and pause/break keys.

That was the thing that I found most frustrating and which led me to looking for something else. For years my fingers have just known where to go to grab a screenshot, or move the cursor to the end of the line. With this keyboard I couldn’t just get on with typing, it slowed me down, it forced me to think about the device, it forced me to keep looking down to locate the keys.

I gave myself a couple of weeks working with it to see how quickly I could adapt, and to be fair, by the end of the fortnight I was feel much more comfortable with the keyboard. I was able to locate the moved-keys more quickly but it still didn’t feel natural.

What I did find very useful, however, were the media keys (previous track, play/pause, next track) and the volume keys (volume up, volume down, mute). I liked that the K360 didn’t have lots of extra keys cluttering up the design (like the Microsoft Digital Media Pro), but I did find those six extra hardware keys very handy indeed.

In short, though, overall the keyboard’s compact layout got in the way of my typing, and that’s not a particularly efficient way to work. I needed to find something else.

Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750

That was when I opened the latest copy of .net magazine (issue 227, May 2012) and spotted a review for the Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750.

The review itself wasn’t exactly glowing, “spending over £60 on a keyboard that’s nothing special design-wise seems crazy to us, but it’s your call” but it looked exactly what I wanted.

Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750

Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750

I ordered one from Amazon for £49.98.

Another keyboard?!” said Jane as I unboxed it. “What are you like?”

The K750 paired very quickly with my existing Logitech Unifying receiver and I was good to go.

It has a similar low profile to the K360 but is wider. It has more of a feel of a full-size keyboard and before long my fingers were finding the ‘editing block’ keys again (insert, delete, home, end, page up and page down) without my having to look down at the keyboard. Perfect!

The keys themselves are a little different to those of the K360: they are slightly dimpled which makes them feel surprisingly comfortable to type on. Your fingers sit easily in the hollow of the keys. Logitech calls this “hand happiness”: “Treat your hands right with keys that feel good and make every keystroke comfortable, fluid and whisper-quiet.” And they are right.

There is only one additional hardware key on this keyboard, to the right of the Pause/Break key. Press it and one of two LEDs lights up, next to a happy face or a sad face, to indicate whether the keyboard’s built-in solar panels are receiving enough light to top-up the rechargeable batteries. Logitech claim that even in total darkness the batteries would last for three months. Perhaps not long enough for Gollum to write his memoirs but certainly enough to get you through the night on a long coding or writing spree.

In the absence of additional keys the functions keys double up via the help of a Function (Fn) key sitting between Alt Gr and Ctrl to the right of the spacebar:

  • F1 – Web/Home
  • F2 – Mail
  • F3 – Search
  • F4 – Calculator
  • F5 – Media player
  • F6 – Previous track
  • F7 – Play/Pause
  • F8 – Next track
  • F9 – Mute
  • F10 – Volume down
  • F11 – Volume up
  • F12 – Sleep
  • Print Screen – Windows context menu

Typically, I regularly use the media and volume keys, and have once reached for Fn+F4 to launch the calculator. Thankfully these additional, and mostly extraneous options, are unobtrusive. I really wouldn’t have missed them if they had not been available, but I guess these days such media keys almost come as standard as though providing a solid, comfortable and highly usable keyboard isn’t enough.

At last! This is the keyboard for me.