Long-Term Review: The Kinesis Advantage 2 Ergonomic Keyboard

In the mid-1990s, while working as a full time researcher, writing up my PhD thesis and starting publicspace.net, my arms suddenly started tingling after a good day’s (and night’s) work. Shortly afterwards, my fingers and forearms would be on fire at the end of every day. I started worrying.

Eventually I couldn’t work full days any longer and even just typing a few words or using a mouse would cause pain and discomfort. I started seriously worrying that I had managed to hamstring myself before even making it into a “proper” job.

That’s how my obsession with all things ergonomic started.

A good 20 years later, I’m much healthier and have suffered no RSI related symptoms for at least 15 of those years.

Probably the two most effective things I did back in the mid-90s was to buy an outlandishly weird ergonomic keyboard called the “Kinesis Ergo” and learning to touch type with the DVORAK keyboard layout.

Kinesis Advantage 2 Keyboard

The Kinesis Advantage 2 Keyboard

The Kinesis Ergo keyboard is now in its brand new “Advantage 2” generation, which is an opportunity for a long term review. It looks like something from an alternative (much geekier) universe, but is probably the single best piece of ergonomics I’ve ever bought.

Like all ergonomic keyboards, the Kinesis will do you absolutely no good if you don’t touch type.

Ergonomic keyboards enable you to type without pain and with greatly diminished effort, but you have to learn how to use them. Two finger-pecking at a split keyboard with your wrists fully bent, hammering your fingers into the keys with your keyboard resting on a desk that is 5 inches too high, obviously won’t work.

The point is that it is simply impossible to type on a traditional keyboard without some degree of discomfort, because you just can’t get your limbs into a pain-free position. With the Kinesis Advantage, you can.

A great keyboard, which the Advantage 2 certainly is, goes one step further: not only can you type without injuring yourself, but it also helps you forget about the keyboard, concentrate on what you are writing and makes it feel natural and fun.

Just like lesser “ergonomic” keyboards such as Microsoft’s much loved, but ultimately very half-hearted attempts, the Advantage is “split“, meaning that each hand gets its own separate area and both are physically separated.

This allows your wrists and shoulders to stay in a neutral, un-bent position and is instrumental in preventing carpal tunnel syndrome. CTS is caused by the tendons of your fingers rubbing against the gap between your wrist bones while typing. When your wrists are bent sideways or strongly upwards or downwards that gap narrows and.. ouch!

Also just like other ergonomic keyboards, the Advantage has a “tented” design. This means that both halves of the keyboard have a gently upwards slope starting with your little fingers and progressively rising as you move towards the index fingers. Again this allows for a more natural position of wrists and shoulders.

The Kinesis also uses mechanical key switches: the “Cherry Browns” for mechanical keyboard enthusiasts. There is a debate whether mechanical key switches are truly superior to their scissor counterparts, but it is probably telling that even die hard scissor switch aficionados only claim that they are “just as good”; while nobody claims scissor switches are better. I personally much prefer the mechanical kind.

This, however, is where the similarities between the Advantage and something like Microsoft’s Surface Ergonomic Keyboard or even Matias’ Ergo Pro stop.

Matrix Key Layout

Kinesis Advantage Matrix Key Layout

The Kinesis Advantage is part of only a handful of keyboards that don’t use the staggered key rows that originate in the requirements of the mechanical typewriter, but instead uses a columnar (also known as a matrix) layout. All this means is that the keys are arranged in straight columns just like on a number pad.

The sheer stupidity of doing anything else does not hit you until you have used a matrix keyboard for a day or two and go back to a “stupid” keyboard. Who would do this to themselves? Simply arranging the keys in columns eliminates the awkward finger contortions that are such a fun part of touch typing. Yes, our fingers can move sideways, but they really don’t want to, especially when you want to hit something.

There are other matrix keyboards out there, all with their own fan base.

The Truly Ergonomic Keyboard

The Truly Ergonomic Keyboard

The Truly Ergonomic is a mechanical keyboard but completely flat with neither tenting, nor enough of a split for my tall frame.

The Type Matrix Keyboard

The Type Matrix Keyboard

The Type Matrix is a very similar affair but with scissor switches.

The Latest Ergo Dox Keyboard Iteration

The Latest Ergo Dox Keyboard Iteration

The ErgoDox is an open source DIY keyboard that is mechanical, tented and fully separated. This is the only keyboard I mention here that I don’t own myself. I don’t like the fact that it is “straight” tented rather than Kinesis’ more organic shape, but I can imagine that it is pretty close to the Kinesis and is a real “split keyboard”.

The Maltron 3D Two-Handed Keyboard

The Maltron 3D Two-Handed Keyboard

The Maltron Two-Handed 3D keyboard is very close to the Kinesis Advantage in almost all respects and I have used it for a few years before going back to the Kinesis. My major gripe is the build quality which is more “bespoke custom job” than what you’d expect from a consumer product.

Kinesis has gone a step beyond simply adopting a matrix layout in the search for the perfect ergonomic fit. Your hands in fact rest in a completely natural “well” taking into account the length of your finger and their natural curvature. Moving your fingers up and down in a straight line always puts your finger tips straight on the keys with no reaching. The new Advantage 2 even has textured and molded home row keys that make it immediately obvious that your finger tips are dead center on their respective home row keys.

Over the years, I have tried to move away from the Kinesis design; mostly in order to have a cheaper and more mobile setup. I spent several agonizing months in 2014 trying to migrate to the Microsoft Surface Ergonomic keyboard after my second Maltron developed yet another dead key, but I could never get comfortable with it.

It took me a while to realize why my attempts to go back to a more standard keyboard were doomed. The real reason is what makes the Advantage so hugely superior to the TypeMatrix and the Truly Ergonomic: the thumb clusters and in-line cursor keys.

Behold the thumb keys.

Behold the thumb clusters.

The thumb clusters are such an obvious improvement once you get used to them, that is seems impossible that there are keyboards without this feature. The thumbs are the strongest and most mobile fingers and yet on a traditional keyboard both thumbs only hit one miserable key.

Not so on the Kinesis, where each thumb gets its own cluster of keys. You press Space, Backspace and Delete with your thumbs. In fact the Space and Backspace keys are right under your thumbs when your hand is completely relaxed. Your thumb also covers your Control, Option and Command keys, as well as the less important Home, End, Page Up & Page Down keys. The cursor keys are placed in a 4th row that does not exist on other keyboards.

What these design choices amount to is what makes typing on the Kinesis Advantage such a great experience: you never have to move your hands away from the home row.

In all other keyboard designs, some frequently used keys such as the Backspace, Delete, Enter or the cursor keys require you to move your hand, usually the right hand, away from its home row, feel for the key, press it and then awkwardly feel your way back onto the home row.

Not having done this for well over a decade of continuous Maltron and Kinesis keyboard use, this absolutely drove me nuts on the Surface keyboards and I went back to the Advantage.

On the Kinesis, if you’ve mistyped something, your fingers stay where they are and you tap your left thumb to hit backspace. If you need to go back a few characters, bend your fingers until they rest on the cursor keys. Bend them back and you are on the home row again. Your hands themselves do not move.

Personally, I do not use the thumb to hold the Control, Option and Command keys but move my hand to reach the top of the cluster with my index finger; I’m not even sure whether this is as was intended, but it works really well and I’m back on my home row in no time.

On a traditional keyboard, the keys that need to be reached by bending your index fingers laterally (e.g. G and the H key) are very awkward to press. The Advantage does not eliminate this awkwardness altogether, but just sliding the finger sideways places it at the optimal angle to press sideways, making it into more of a poking motion which feels much more natural.

The Kinesis keyboard has the full range of function keys, but they are not much easier to reach than on any other keyboard. For almost two decades, the small function keys were rubber domed atrocities that served their purpose, but felt really cheap, especially when compared to the bank-breaking mechanical key switches used in the rest of the keyboard. In the Advantage 2 iteration these keys are now also mechanical, but while appreciated, this does not genuinely make a world of difference.

The latest model makes a bunch of detailed improvements, but the basic design has been identical since the early 1990s. The on-board programmability, which has always been a selling point is much also much improved.

The only programability feature that I have really used is the ability to switch between QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard layouts automatically. This allows you take your keyboard anywhere and type in Dvorak whether your employer feels like installing that keyboard layout on your machine or not.

The Advantage 2 also lets you easily remap keys, define macros and much else besides. I haven’t had enough time with the latest iteration to play much with the new features.

My only gripe with the Advantage 2 is that it is not yet a fully split keyboard. That would be awesome, but I guess at roughly $350, Kinesis reckons that a hard price limit has been reached. I disagree.

The Dactyl Fully Split Keyboard

The Dactyl Fully Split Keyboard

There is clearly Advantage-inspired fully split keyboard design available for 3D printing called the Dactyl Keyboard and I wish Kinesis would take that final step, so that I could replace my 3 Advantage keyboards one more time 🙂

Tools of the trade: Monitor Arms

Ergotron LXSitting in front of a computer display all day long does not do wonders for your health.

Things are made considerably worse if that computer display is of the notebook kind. Laptops in general are ergonomic nightmares putting your body into all the wrong positions. First, you need to look down all day long, then to make matters worse, the keyboard is attached directly to the screen forcing you to find the least bad compromise between positioning your arms and hands correctly and getting the screen into a semi-comfortable viewing position. Unfortunately no good compromise exists and you will over time do both your upper extremities and your neck/ back/ shoulders in. If it feels a little uncomfortable now, trust me, it’ll hurt a few years down the line.

Desktop computers are much better in that regard, allowing you to independently adjust keyboard, mouse and display. Unless you are using an iMac of course. Its aesthetics-over-function design has led everybody’s favourite industrial designer, Johnny Ive, to give it a stand that is far too low to allow you to view it comfortably. Such a shame because his Luxor Junior-inspired second generation iMac featured what must surely have been the best built-in monitor arm ever.. Oh Johnny..

When it comes to ergonomic Macs then, it’s a choice between the Mac Pro (my choice), the Mac mini (also my choice) or the newish VESA-mounted (stand-less) iMac.

On this type of setup you can not only choose your own (non-glossy if you want it to be easy on your eyes) display(s), but also adjust its height, distance from your eyes and inclination to your heart’s content.

The “ideal” viewing position is usually said to be at least 30cm (circa 12 inches) from your eyes, with the top-most row of pixels level with your eyes. A very slight forward tilt to the monitor is also said to be beneficial.

I find that advice to be fairly close to what I find comfortable myself, even though it’s better still to slightly raise and lower the display every now and then.

Monitor arms allow you to reach this position very easily and make adjusting it much less painful, though even the best monitor arms are not quite as good as the one on that second generation iMac. Monitor arms also free up space under the monitor and make for a much tidier setup over all.

I personally own several Ergotron LX Desk Mount Tall Pole mounts and they are great. They can be fixed directly through a screw onto your desk and once installed are much steadier than their admittedly much cheaper counterparts. They are sturdy and easily set up correctly and can be adjusted within a very large range of distances and heights. Moreover they work great in multi-display setups.

I’m fairly tall (6 feet 4) and I find that having the display slightly higher than is usually recommended is most comfortable for me. Most monitor arms do not stretch high enough for me and the Ergotron LX’s tall pole to which the arm itself is attached allows for raising the displays as high, and indeed higher than is comfortable. Anyway it’s better to have more range of adjustment than you need than to have just that little bit too little.

I also use a sit/ stand desk in my home office and unfortunately even the tall pole version of the LX, does not go high enough to cope with the standing position.

In theory, you shouldn’t have to adjust the height of the screen at all when your desk goes into the standing position. When you are sitting at your desk, you are holding your upper body completely straight just as if you were standing! Or at least that’s what the theory says.

In practice, my merely-human body isn’t candle straight at all times but likes to move around, lean forward, then back, etc. When I stand up I find that the screen is too low for comfort and it needs adjusting upwards. The Ergotron LX Sit/Stand Monitor Arm gives you jumbo-sized adjustability and takes even heavy weight monitors. I originally got those for my twin 30″ Apple cinema displays that showed their age through their ludicrous weight. One of them now has my Dell UP3214Q 4K display monitor on it, while the other supports a Dell UP2713HM; both awesome displays in different price ranges and weight categories.

Designed to be used to easily lift a monitor from a sitting to a comfortable standing position without the desk itself moving, the sit/stand version of the Ergotron easily deals with the comparatively small task of lifting the monitors that extra bit higher. The sit/stand version is clearly overkill but in a good way. It’s much more stable and paradoxically moves much more easily with even heavy loads. Not cheap but highly recommended, even in combination with a sit/stand desk.

Monitor arms seem like an indulgence to most people, but the cost of an ergonomic setup is dwarfed by the cost of wasted productivity and the inevitable medical bills that accumulate after a decade or two of full time screen-based work. For a home-based full-time IT professional like myself there really should be no hesitation in splurging out on a proper setup.



MacBreakZ 5 web site redux

MacBreakZ is one of my earliest software projects and started in 1996, when I developed tendonitis in my forearms.

I heeded this as a wake up call and learned everything I could about RSI recovery and prevention and I have been RSI free for close on twenty years now.

As a software developer, of course, I needed to write a program that would embody all of that know how.

MacBreakZ has since gone through 5 major revisions and development is still ongoing.

Last month, I published the first Yosemite-only version and today the new website is ready.

In doing this I also had to review my book list on RSI, only to find that little has changed in the past decade. Either RSI is no longer a problem (definitively not true) or there’s no much money in writing about it 🙂


OrthoMouse Review


My interest in ergonomic hardware was triggered in the late 1990s when I contracted a bout of tendonitis while writing up my PhD, working full time as a Research Assistant and starting out with publicspace.net concurrently.

Nothing focuses the attention more than pain and the prospect of ending your IT career before it’s even started. I made a lot of changes both to how I work and the environment that I create for myself to work in. In those years, “human factors” were beginning to become a big thing and the awareness of Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) was rapidly growing.

Back then, I learned to type using the dvorak keyboard layout, got myself a “proper” ergonomic keyboard (Kinesis Advantage), dabbled in voice recognition (a lot of my thesis was dictated into Dragon NaturallySpeaking) and tried pretty much every pointing device out there.. settling finally on the FingerWorks iGesturePad which has become the grand daddy of the iPhone (and as rumors have it the iTablet/ iSlate, etc.).

Since the late 90s, while ergonomic design has entered the main stream, there have been few ergonomic products of particular note and the companies specializing in such gear seem to have fallen on hard times. RSI, while it hasn’t gone away, has gone out of fashion.

It was in that context that when I came across the “Ortho Mouse” I jumped at the opportunity to test one. Here was a product that seemed to break the mould of computer mice and promised some real health advantages.

The “unboxing” of a new piece of kit has become a bit of a review ritual these days. With Apple’s products this is of course usually a special treat. You feel like you’re getting a boutique item presented to you and even companies such as Wacom have started doing a nice job.

Ergonomic gear usually falls flat on its face in this department. Usually it comes straight from its Chinese factory cardboard box filled with little “chips”. In a word, the experience is more “organic food produce” than “Cartier watch”.

The OrthoMouse doesn’t come in a cardboard box but in a nice looking but much maligned “rigid plastic clamshell” package. I usually hate those things because it’s impossible to get the product out of it without cutting yourself somehow which kind of is the point given that it is first and foremost used as an anti-theft device. Luckily, the OrthoMouse doesn’t fail at this first ergonomic hurdle. The packaging is only held in place by the pressure on its rim and comes open very easily without having to apply more than a gentle push. So don’t open it with box cutters, knifes or scissors!

Just in case, you do come across more “traditional” clamshell packages, here are some safety tips for opening such packages (try the can opener technique).

The packaging itself is quite nice, not up to Apple standards, but it does a good job of explaining the main benefits of the product, looks good and it even let’s you put your hand on the mouse to get a “feel” for it before buying it.

Once opened the package contains the mouse, several plastic shells that can be used to adapt the mouse to your hand size and form along with a mini-CD that contains the documentation and some instructional videos. There are three plastic “prolongers” for small, medium and large hands and two “upper adapters”. I’ve got small hands, so I put on the small prolonger and that seemed quite nice already (I like “puck” style mice anyway).

Connecting the mouse to your Mac is as simple as attaching it to the nearest USB port and the default settings are just fine.

My first impressions were very positive. The mouse fits well into my hand and it rests in the typical “vertical mouse” relaxed neutral position with zero tension in your hand.

With “normal” mice (Mighty Mouse, Magic Mouse, Microsoft mouse, Mac “puck”, etc, etc.) the palm of your hand lies pretty much flat or “horizontally” on the mouse. This seems intuitive until you try a “vertical” mouse where your hand is the “handshake” position.

This position is much more comfortable to work in and leaves your forearm and wrist in a neutral position avoiding much of the discomfiture that often ends up in tendonitis and carpal tunnel injury.

What is noticeable to a long term vertical mouse user is that the OrthoMouse isn’t fully “vertical”. Meaning you have to rotate your forearm a little bit towards the body after all. This intrigued me at first but a quick look through the manual revealed that the grip mimics the traditional hand writing position where the thumb and the index finger hold the pen in a pincer position. I can’t vouch for whether this is better than the “vertical” position advocated by vertical mice, but it certainly feels “right” and gives you a feeling of precision that is sometimes absent in vertical mice.

The next thing that is noticeable is that there is no scroll wheel or little trackball, etc.. instead the OrthoMouse uses two micro-switches on the side of the mouse that you activate by moving your thumb up and down. Moving your thumb up will scroll upwards, moving it down will scroll down. The scrolling continues until you release the switch by moving your thumb back into the middle. The desired speed is selected through the number of clicks: clicking once and holding will result in a very slow scroll, clicking twice and holding results in a “normal” speed and beyond three clicks you get into fast territory. This sounds a bit odd, but in practice feels quite comfortable and intuitive. There’s also no problem with accidentally hitting the switches with your thumb; your thumb rests quite comfortably on the body of the mouse and it takes no effort to keep it there. The switches are responsive and take little effort to activate.

The OrthoMouse is a three button mouse and the third button rests just under the top of your thumb, which can be usefully mapped to Exposé. The two main buttons lie in the entirely intuitive index and ring finger positions and the buttons extend all the way from the knuckle to the tip of the fingers so you can use the entire length of your fingers to click. The microswitches again are of good quality and produce a clearly audible clicking sound.

The body of the mouse features high-grip textured surfaces across most of its surface and is made of a light weight plastic material. This doesn’t exactly give it a quality feel (our brains tend to associate heavier as being better) but it does help with the ergonomics by minimizing the effort required to move it across your desk. Even on a less-than-optimal surface the mouse also slides very easily and the tracking and sensitivity are good. The manufactures have even gone the extra mile and provided an “ultra-flexible” cord that “minimizes resistance to displacement”.

I can vouch for the result being vastly superior to the Apple “Magic Mouse” which on the hotel table (velours top!) that I wrote this on had huge problems with its tracking. The OrthoMouse worked just fine.

Having now worked with the mouse for well over a month, it has become my preferred input device. It’s comfortable and intuitive to use and just blends into the background. Precision tasks as well as general pointing and clicking tasks can both be performed without any problems. From a purely tactile point of view, it’s not as satisfying to move around as the Evoluent VerticalMouse, which feels a bit heavier and looks more aesthetically pleasing.

The “OrthoMouse” is a great compromise between proper ergonomic design and everyday practicality. Its industrial design emphasizes function over aesthetics without producing the medical equipment look that so often makes people shy away from such devices.

If you already suffer from a repetitive strain injury, this mouse is definitely worth a try even at its comparatively high price point of $109. If you don’t already have problems, now is probably the best time to make sure that it stays that way.

Wacom Bamboo Pen & Touch Review

I started my quest for the ultimate input device more than a decade ago when I had a bout of tendonitis as a result of spending too much time on the computer, using the wrong techniques with the wrong hardware..

One of the results of all this was of course MacBreakZ, our “Personal Ergonomic Assistant” for the Macintosh.

Another was a constant stream of high-tech gadgets making their way through “Frank’s Ergonomic Testing Lab”.

Unlike many other people, I have always had a soft spot for track pads rather than mice. A track pad doesn’t need shifting around endlessly, it can do without buttons (which is nice for those fingers) and it’s super fast to just move the pointer around quickly in between bouts of typing. On the downside, they are imprecise and absolutely, categorically no good for anything to do with graphics or where you need pixel accurate positioning.

A lot of track pads are plain rubbish, especially those dreadful things on many cheap “netbooks”, so it’s no wonder they have a bad reputation. There are also some quite astonishingly good trackpads around, my all-time favourite easily being the Fingerworks iGesture Pad, which is a direct ancestor of the iPhone multi touch interface (Apple bought FingerWorks). They are no longer available, but seem to be sold at something of a premium for $999 these days! If you are interested, I’ll sell you mine at that price!

Anybody who wants to do anything graphical will of course want a digital tablet and over the years I have owned a ridiculous number of different models, most obviously from Wacom. The problem with tablets is easily described.. they rock at doing graphical stuff, but suck at anything else. The reason for this is that you need to put the pen down (or on its stand) each time you use the keyboard turning everyday tasks into an ordeal.

I always use the tablet for a few weeks and then it disappears rapidly into its box never to be opened again.. still next time will be different won’t it?

Sadly the same is also true for track pads. They usually stay next to my keyboard for at least a year, then get shoved back into their box when I start doing a lot of pixel-perfect stuff again.

Why not have both? A pen for pixel perfect work and a touch pad for quick clicks? Besides the space problem on your desk there is no reason why this shouldn’t work.. which is precisely why when Wacom announced their new Bamboo Pen and Touch Tablet, I had to have one.


The Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch Small Tablet combines a jumbo sized track pad that allows you to move the pointer with your fingertips with a “small” tablet that takes pressure sensitive pen input and throws in a few function keys and multi-touch gestures for good measure. In essence it’s a FingerWorks iGesture Pad with pen input. What could be better?

My first worry was that the drivers wouldn’t work properly. This is pretty much a Wacom trademark: great products, awful drivers, lots of crashes. Luckily so far everything seems to work just fine (as long as you don’t count the Bamboo Scribble handwriting recognition software that comes with the tablet, use Mac OS X’s “Ink” if you must).

As a long time Intuos user, I’m used to paying a lot of money for a tablet, but to also get great results. The Bamboo model range is much more accessible and well.. not of the same quality. The pen tracking is fine, the pressure sensitivity is okay, but it’s all a lot cheaper than the Intuos range.

The track pad is indeed large and works reasonably well, but bears no comparison with either FingerWorks’ or Apple’s efforts. On the FingerWorks track pad, you can roll your fingertip to make the pointer move just a little. On the Bamboo this does exactly nothing. You need to move the whole finger or nothing at all. In other words, as a trackpad it’s at the imprecise end of the spectrum, which would be a fatal flaw if it wasn’t for the fact that you also have the pen for precisely those kinds of tasks!

If you look at the entire package and factor in the sub-$100 price tag, it’s a great little input device. It is a tablet and offers all of the advantages of a tablet and it is also a track pad and offers most of the advantages of that type of device as well. Combined, you get a device that is fine for run of the mill pointing and clicking tasks, but also let’s you draw and supports tasks that require more precision.

You are left with a perfectly adequate (in fact more than adequate) input device for a wide range of tasks, but you can’t help thinking that there are better track pads and there are better tablets out there. It’s a bit like a washer/dryer, it doesn’t wash as well as a proper washing machine and doesn’t dry as well as a proper dryer, but cost less and takes up less space than having two separate devices 🙂

In future, Wacom will probably add multi-touch to its premium Intuos range and then we might very well get the best of both worlds at the kind of price that this entails. For now the the Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch Tablet is the only game in town.

I had expected Apple to leverage the FingerWorks iGesture technology that it acquired to greater effect on the desktop. If it worked fine a decade ago, why not offer a separate track pad for the Mac? We keep hearing about the combined pen and touch input for the fabled Apple Tablet, so I had kind-of-expected Apple to release something more exiting than the Apple Magic Mouse, which is basically a multi-touch trackpad on top of a mouse, but without the ability of moving the cursor with your fingertips.

In my view, it’s a strange decision because multi-touch on top of a mouse doesn’t really give you very much. Especially when your keyboard and its vast number of shortcuts is only inches away. After all if you want to navigate forwards and backwards the cursor keys on your keyboard do a perfectly good job. The pinching gesture and scrubbing gestures might be more interesting, but all this would be so much more intuitive on a track pad.

In the end, I think it’s a matter of Steve Jobs liking mice.. and not track pads.

Anyway, I ordered mine today for my “testing lab”, so I’ll be put right soon 🙂

What’s ahead in 2008

It’s been a long time since I last wrote anything on this blog.. it’s been a busy few months and not all of it related to publicspace.net

I became a dad (hurray!) for the first time a very long 18 months ago. Since then everything has been a bit topsy-turvy. I quit my day job to be able to concentrate on my software business, but working from home with a little baby turns out not be the most productive environment to “get things done”..

Anyway, I did get quite a lot done over the past year or so, especially considering the many distractions and 2008 is going to be full of new improved goodness.

First in line will be the long awaited A Better Finder Rename v8.

Version numbering is always a problem. Whether you charge for upgrades or not, a “full digit” release is supposed to be an event. If you do charge for upgrades then it’d better be! If you don’t charge for upgrades then you’ll probably rather stay with version 1.1.2 anyway 🙂

Version 8 thus needs to needs to be chock full of new features and improvements, e.g.

  • A new GUI?
  • File filtering?
  • Saveable presets?
  • A new industrial strength renaming engine that make short shrift of a million renames?
  • Automatic file name conflict resolution?
  • Pairing up jpeg thumbnails and RAW picture files?
  • Sparkle-support?

It’s all in the provisional feature set.

I bet you must have scratched your head when you saw version recently? or 7.9.1 for that matter.

Well another problem with version numbering is that it is has an implicit message, e.g. version 7.9 means that 8.0 is just around the corner. Well it isn’t really.. my policy has always been to make lots of smaller updates. This gets lots of new features and improvements out to you guys quickly and makes sure that the program remains reliable over time (if something’s broken it must be the last thing you changed).

Now the temptation would be to take all these small improvements and instead of releasing them piecemeal, bundle them all up into major new release. I don’t want to name any particular company or product (“Apple”, “Mac OS X”). Looking at A Better Finder Rename’s version history, there’s 42 updates since version 7 came out. Now that would justify a whole new “full digit” upgrade, wouldn’t it?

Only of course, that’s not what I’ve chosen to do. So I basically start from version (just joking) and everything that comes after that is “new in version 8”. Doing something heroic for each major release isn’t easy however. Last time over, I completely rewrote the program from scratch using Cocoa. Now that was a good effort!

This time over, I have lots of new features and improvements, all of which take a lot of effort to implement.. which means it takes a lot of time.. and I haven’t started properly yet. I really don’t want to do this, but I think I might have to go for Apple’s new trendy “7.9.10” numbering strategy.. I wonder whether versiontracker and macupdate can handle this?

There’s another major factor that affects the release date of version 8. When I initially started coding on version 8, I quickly realised that I can do a much better job if I leverage all the new Leopard features. Lots of stuff that I was going to hand-code are already in there and frankly they are better than what I could come up with on my own. Then I quickly realized that “it’s in there, but it doesn’t work (yet)”. In Mac OS X 10.5.1 things are already a lot better and I expect that by 10.5.2 most things will work without a hitch.

So here’s the bombsheel: A Better Finder Rename 8 is going to be Leopard-only. This pretty much means that it will only be released once a significant share of Mac users have made the migration. I wouldn’t want to release something that only a few people can actually use. Right now it looks like about 30% of Mac users have made the switch, but by the summer I suspect it will be most of the people who download software from the internet anyway. Besides, v7 is still perfectly functional.

You might have noticed the “file filtering” on the new feature list. Yes, it’s time to say bye, bye to A Better Finder Select.

This originally was the file filtering component of the A Better Finder Attributes. This is another product that has long lived in the shadow of the mighty A Better Finder Rename, but has recently found a new lease of life after I included the ability to adjust the EXIF timestamps of digital camera pictures. It turns out that lots of people have lots of photos with screwy shooting dates.. the more the merrier. I have also finally found a way of changing the timestamps on the majority of RAW formats including NEF and CR2. I might even include this before the 5.0 release.

Then of course there’s our latest bad boy application, “The Big Mean Folder Machine“. It’s initial releases went fairly well and there’s a lot more in the pipeline for 2008. On top of that, I learnt a lot about Core Data which comes in handy for that new renaming engine. It’s hard to tell with a 1.x release, but I think I might have another hit application on my hands. Now that would be nice!

Last but not least, MacBreakZ, after its 4.0 rejuvenation efforts is once again doing fairly well and I can thus justify spending time on it. Since its release in late 2006, it has been updated regularly on a bimonthly schedule and I have some new illustrations and artwork stacked up as well. The dreaded 4.9 release is going to come up far too quickly again.. oh no! another “full digit” release!

This brings me to another priority for this year: documentation. I keep getting the same emails about documentation: “Where is the PDF manual?”, “Where is the download-able documentation”, “Where is the e-book?”, “Where are the screencasts?”, “Where are the tutorials?”, “Where is the major feature movie?”. You get the idea..

The thing is that no two people can seem to agree on what kind of documentation they would like to have. “Just do everything” is a nice idea, but it just isn’t possible. I’ve spent a lot of time recently finding out how other people deal with the situation and my web logs show that few people actually ever use the documentation anyway. Plus of course, it’s a bore 🙁

The Windoze guys all seem to solve this problem by using “Help & Manual“, the ueber-technical documenation tool. Unfortunately the only reference to the Mac that you can find on their site is an explanation of why it doesn’t work in Safari (it’s not made by Microsoft).

There are various tools available for the Mac, but they really aren’t any good.. I would plug my newly purchased Apple Help tool here, but it doesn’t do images (!) and I’ve been waiting for 6 week for a reply to my support request.. aarrgh.. at long last I have found something that’s better on Windows!

Nonetheless, 2008 is going to be the year of improved documentation on publicspace.net. Period.

I’m hoping to package an Apple Help documentation set with MacBreakZ soon and the other products will probably need to wait for their upcoming big releases. I’m also considering PDF versions of the manuals, which should satisfy most people..

Anyway, that’s all from me from now.

Take care,


Portrait Mode is Back!

Today’s Mac OS X 10.4.9 update finally brings us Mac Pro NVIDIA 7300 GT owners, the portrait mode whose absence I had lamented in my Mac Pro Review no less than almost 6 months ago:

Anyway, the Mac Pro does not support portrait mode! Arrgghhh… What do you mean NO portrait mode on a Pro graphics machine in the 21st century?

The nice people at Ergotron had felt a bit miffed by my report of how difficult it was to adjust their triple monitor stand from portrait to landscape mode and instead of suing me, convinced me to test their “new and improved” LX Triple Display Lift Stand, which I promptly reviewed on this blog.

Well, I’m happy to report that changing my monitors back to the long-awaited portrait mode was no problem at all and took less than 2 minutes; no outside help required 😉

BTW If you have posted a comment on this blog recently, please do not be offended but it will probably never get out of moderation. Logging in today I see that there are over 10,000 comments for moderation and I don’t think WordPress is up to displaying all these in a web browser window. Sorry.

MacBreakZ 4 is shipping


Today on the 29th of November after almost a year in development, three public betas and five private alpha releases MacBreakZ 4 is finally ready for prime time.

More than just protecting you from computer-related health risks (repetitive strain injuries, back ache, eye strain, headaches, etc..) the new version makes healthy computing fun. Based on ergonomic principles and almost 10 years of feedback from its users, MacBreakZ 4 makes it easier than ever to get out of bad work habits in order to work more productively and feel better at the end of the work day.

If you haven’t done so yet, check out what all this is about..

MacBreakZ 4 Beta 1 Press Release

publicspace.net is pleased to announce the availability of the first public beta of MacBreakZ version 4.

MacBreakZ has long been the break timer of choice for many Macintosh users having received a 4 mice rating from MacWorld in September 2002.

Version 4 is more than a simple upgrade, but is a re-thought, re-designed and re-written product developed in cooperation with a dedicated group of volunteer private alpha testers. The new version is completely re-implemented using Mac OS X’s native Cocoa libraries, but remains true to the spirit of earlier versions that repetitive injury prevention should be a fun rather than frustrating experience.

The extensive use of Tiger’s transparency and layering features and the invaluable input from our alpha testers have made MacBreakZ 4 far less intrusive than “traditional” break timers. Nick Miller, the lead cartoonist for the project, has contributed to the easy going tone of the product with his colorfull stretching illustrations executed in both a fun “informal” style and a more serious “business” style better suited for a more formal work setting.

In order to promote healthy computing on the Macintosh, we have slashed prices by over half for the introductory period of the product: a single user license is available for as little as $9.95.

MacBreakZ 4 beta 1 can be downloaded from:


MacBreakZ 4 Beta 1 Just Around the Corner

Back in April, on this blog I called for volunteer alpha testers to help me develop version 4 of MacBreakZ.

I was astonished and gratified by the number of volunteers that contacted me. Could it be that interest in ergonomic computing is finally making it into the mainstream?

After an enthusiastic start in 1997, MacBreakZ went through quite a few releases offering any number of new and improved features. With 20/20 hindsight I made one major mistake in the development of this product: I used RealBasic rather than C++ to develop it.

My reasoning was sound (I think): MacBreakZ would be overwhelmingly a user interface application with little behind the scenes processing and speed was really not much of an issue. Back then, and even today, developers seem to fall over themselves to praise RealBasic’s suitability for developing this type of application.

Not so. In my own personal experience, with each new release the RealBasic compiler and run-time system seemed to fix one bug only to introduce 5 new ones of similar gravity. At one point (I think this was early OS X releases) some customers experienced “rainbow text”: each character in the text of all dialog boxes would be a different rainbow color. This problem, as so many others, eventually did get fixed by RealBasic but my confidence in the tool quickly droped to absolute zero. I decided to freeze development with version 3.6 which had proved stable for fear of introducing arbitrary new bugs just by recompiling with the “new improved” RealBasic compiler.

Before all hell breaks lose and every RealBasic enthusiast on the planet starts flamming me: I know you love RealBasic, have never had any problems at all with it and your software is great and 100% bug free; that’s just not at all my experience with the tool..

Back then in the 3.6 days, I hatched this plan to rewrite MacBreakZ in “a real language with a real api”. The first choice of development environment on Mac OS X is Objective-C with Cocoa using XCode: the same tools used to write OS X itself.

Unfortunately for lack of time, the plans remained just that for almost two years and MacBreakZ 3.6 now clearly shows its age and its legacy.

Back in April when the call for alpha tester went out, there wasn’t much code written. I had a very bare-bones activity monitor (the component that detects your mouse and keyboard activity), a rough state machine implementation and a few user interface elements.

The idea was to involve end-users right from the start well before the application design is fixed and major changes are difficult and costly to make. Getting end-users involved early on also opens your developer’s eyes to end-user issues: sometimes you’re the only person on the planet who thinks that a particular dialog or menu item is intuitive, while the rest of the world scratches its collective head and thinks “What’s that supposed to be when it’s finished?”.

In my experience, early user involvement leads to far better product: a product that actually addresses the needs of its users, rather than showing off the cleverness (in his own head) of the developer.

At this point, I obviously need to thank my alpha testers for the amazing feedback and support I have received from them: Thanks guys!

Not only is the new version fully re-developed in Objective-C and Cocoa, but it also makes big sweeping changes pretty much everywhere. In fact, it is more a new product than a new version of an existing product.

I have blogged about progress on MB4; the earlier post has a number of quicktime movies showing the new interface and some of the cooler new features.

Six months, a couple of hundred posts and ten alpha releases later, MacBreakZ 4 is ready to go into public beta. I’m going to spend the next week getting the “behind the scenes” stuff ready, but next Wednesday MacBreakZ 4 beta 1 will be officially posted to the website (If you write me a real nice email, I may send the new version before then :)).

Current MacBreakZ owners will be interested to know that everybody who bought the product after the 1st of January 2005 will receive a free upgrade. Everybody else may like to know that there will be full-featured 14-day trial available from the website on next Wednesday.

It was great fun developing the new version and I hope you will like it.

Take care,