Author Topic: Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues  (Read 706 times)

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Offline F eq ma

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Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues
« on: Sat, 01 May 2021, 00:30:47 »
I like the the ideal of building a keyboard, especially a hand wired, no thrills, workhorse.  Those fresh build photos on reddit drive my imagination.   Like new car smells in the morning.   But, I am a Virgo, so my analytical mind chews on the edges.

My current board is a Filco, full size.   Not a itch of an issue in three years.  It does the job, 9 hours a day, with no complaints.   New Tai-Hao keycaps for a little spice.   I clean the board regularly and have started to the lube the corsair stabs.  It is a Honda, consistent and would probably last until my retirement.

I have the itch to hand wire a board.  Covid boredom.  I have read nearly everything.   That living solder thread....two days of excellent tips.   Pace YT videos were great.  Built a bdn9 with qmk and AutoHotKey to control itunes and test my soldering skills.   Only issue was not fully pressing in a key to the main plate before soldering.   Waiting on a solder pump to correct.

I am in IT and tell those young kids coming in that you gain experience by making mistakes....and I have a lot of experience.   The trick is preparation, expecting all of scenarios, and quickly recognizing past “experience”.

Confidence is growing for a first build.   But I want to be prepared.

I would like to understand the realities of custom keyboards.   What are the common issues?  What maintenance do you do and at what intervals?    Is anyone using their keyboard long enough for reliability estimates?  Or is the bug such that a new board is always around the corner?

For a hand build, I see the following
  • Reliability will be a function of my soldering skills.
  • No PCB with RGB and fancy hot swappable keys means less troubleshooting
  • Rework, troubleshooting, fixes should be easier.  Multimeter to find my soldering inadequacies.
  • Hand builds are be more sensitive to vibrations and shorts.   So don't drop the damn thing.
  • Sandwich case is simple and efficient, albeit less sexy.
  • Patience is key.  Don’t hesitate to step away instead of making a short cut.

So, I ask those gurus, what harsh realities am I missing?

Offline Leslieann

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Re: Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues
« Reply #1 on: Sat, 01 May 2021, 06:34:30 »
Reliability will come down less to how you solder and more with how your wires matrix is built and supported. Even a bad solder joint is often okay, it's the wires yanking and bouncing that dooms the joint, good or bad. If it's a hard mount joint (switch to switch in a plate), support it so it can't move, if it's flexible (switch to controller) let it flex but not flop, this will reduce the joint stress and even a bad solder joint will function for years so long as it functions, which is easy.

RGB with QMK is EASY. If you get addressable rgb (all it supports I think), it's 3 wires in series (pos, neg and signal) and a couple lines of code. Pos and neg run from the USB, and the signal wire goes to the controller, then you just designate that pin RGB.  It was the easiest part of my entire board. But, and there's a mighty big but here, trying to get that rgb led under your switch in a hand wired board, forget it. You can do underglow, accent lights, whatever, but don't try getting them under your switches for backlights, the backing pcb on them is too large. It might work without hot swaps like I used but it would be a massive nightmare regardless. Even if you can get them under the switch it adds thickness, something you don't want at your front edge.

Rework and troubleshooting - this depends massively on how you wire it. I used the diodes for one half of the matrix (common) and then solid core cat5 for the other half. This gave me light, firm wires, not floppy wires, this made it easy to build assembly line style, avoiding mistakes and making it easy to spot mistakes as I went along. This will also help keep things tied together and as I said before, not flopping around breaking joints.  From here I used soft core/flexible wire to jumper from the matrix to the controller, this can flex all it wants and allows some give between the hard wired matrix and the remote mounted controller.

If you want to use hot swap without a PCB expect troubles.
It can be done but why do that to yourself? It's asking for trouble. Either use a 3d printed tray like I did or just hard wire the switches, you're creating so much work to avoid soldering a switch, when it's super easy to just solder or desolder a hand wired switch anyhow. Meanwhile the hot swaps add complexity, hassle and more points of failure, especially if they are not properly supported with some sort of undertray.  If you want hot swap either make sure it's supported or build a pcb with them. I get it, you can't how swap if you solder them, but you can't really have it both ways. I'm sure people try, my advice is don't. Hot swap is already a hack, this just makes it incredibly worse. 

A better option is..
If you made one, you can make another. Sure making a new plate, wiring a matrix and soldering to my controller harness takes time, but built it, it's built. I can print a new "pcb" and plate for a few bucks, then along with another $10 controller I'd have an entire second plate of switches for about the same as a set of hot swaps. This may be beyond your ability or you may not want 3d printed but order extra plates so you can do the same. Don't swap switches, assemble plates of switches and swap the case instead. Once done, this is faster to switch than hot swap. being 3d printed I can also just print another case as well for a couple bucks. I did hot swap on mine for an engineering challenge but it really just doesn't make sense when you really think about it. If I were to do it again I'd go out of my way to make it just as fast and simple as possible to assemble a fresh matrix rather than hassle with hot swaps because once it's done you never mess with them again. Don't get me wrong, it's neat, but just not as practical as you think.

Hand wired delicate? I'm pretty sure I could toss mine off the roof without damage to anything but plastic (case and/or switches) if it landed on concrete.

Shorting the matrix is how you activate keys. Other than shorting 5v into your matrix you can't really hurt it by shorting anything. Odds of you needing a multimeter is slim to none as all hot wiring is in the controller. The matrix is just directing signals, crossing any of them just sends the wrong signal, A becomes H, J becomes D, etc..

Maintenance? I haven't had it long but mines fully enclosed with all wires supported in very controlled tracks, I don't expect any more maintenance to be necessary than my other boards.



Other advice,
The only trouble I had was incorrect numbers on rows and columns, the firmware looks at it as if you're looking down at the keyboard but I was looking at it from underneath so everything was mirrored left to right. Oops. While it sounds simple to just mirror the wires, they don't mirror. The labeling is not alphabetical or numerical so you can't just swap A with F, B with E, C with D and so on, nor are they in a a common order.

Don't worry about the matrix looking as good as pics of other people's matrixes, the busier it gets the more it hides. Not that it mattered electrically but I was trying  to make mine look nice and straight and as I went I noticed it really didn't show as I added more and more to it. It will look neat and tidy with almost zero effort by the time you finish so don't worry about that little kink or bend.

If 3d printing try and find a printer large enough to do it in one piece and use PETG, PETG has better sound characteristics than the alternatives and a softer feel. Unfortunately PETG doesn't glue well so if you can't get a big enough printer you would be better using something else. You can print ABS and Polycarbonate, but not at this scale so they will need to be broken up and glued together. While PLA prints easiest at this scale avoid it if you can, it has a harsh sound and feel.

No matter how cool you think having an LCD on your keyboard will be, retaining your sanity from getting such a completely useless addition to your keyboard is far cooler. I don't think I worked so hard for something I cared so little about in my life. While I did get the LCD to partially work I spent more time on that than the rest of the board combined and it completely burned me out on the keyboard so much that I haven't used it since. I threw it into a box of keyboard stuff in a closet and haven't even looked at it lately. The tutorials on getting it to work, especially how I wanted are just not there yet. Admittedly I threw the kitchen sink at it, but that was kind of the idea for the board.


Lastly, don't over think it, get going on it.
The more you sit around planning, the longer it is before you get started. This probably won't be the last one you build so allow yourself to be free to make mistakes and even hate it when you're done. Once done you now know you can do it again faster and better, but until you get started you're just spinning your wheels.
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Offline Volny

  • Posts: 190
Re: Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues
« Reply #2 on: Sat, 01 May 2021, 08:08:24 »
No matter how cool you think having an LCD on your keyboard will be, retaining your sanity from getting such a completely useless addition to your keyboard is far cooler. I don't think I worked so hard for something I cared so little about in my life.

As usual, different strokes for different folks. I loved the LCD on my keyboard so much that I put up with crappy rubber dome keys for 10 years (well, the LCD and the battery of 18 macro keys, to be precise). I'd owned mechanical keyboards before, so I knew what I was missing in terms of key-feel, but the benefit of mechanical switches simply didn't compare with the benefit I got from that LCD (and, like I said the 18 macro keys too). I'm an artist, but ultimately I still believe in function before form.

The keyboard finally died this year and while I don't miss the rubber domes at all, I still really miss the LCD. It was perfect. Small and unobtrusive, but just big enough to show me just about all the system info I wanted in a super-handy location (cpu & gpu usage, ram, vram, net traffic, framerate, temps, etc.). And nowhere is as good a spot for that kind of info than at the top of the keyboard: it's prime real estate right next to your field of vision, yet competes with nothing else. Yes, you can display system info on your monitor, but then it either gets in the way, is blocked by windows, or requires opening a program to see it. You can put it on a shiny dedicated little standalone LED unit and place it nearby, but then it takes up valuable desk space or gets knocked around. Put it anywhere else and it's no longer as easy to peek at as the top of your keyboard.

BUT, I suspect that most people who owned the same keyboard as me probably got virtually no real use from its LCD. It was marketed as a gaming feature after all, and not once did I ever see a gaming-related implementation of it that wasn't a complete gimmicky waste of time. Its real utility probably suits a particular type of person, like me. Diligent enough to implement a well-designed layout that can display so many stats effectively, and anal enough to care about those stats in the first place.

So I say that the torture you describe in wiring it might still be worthwhile, but only for someone who really wants an LCD, and - most importantly - definitely knows why they really want it.
« Last Edit: Sat, 01 May 2021, 08:13:48 by Volny »

Offline F eq ma

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  • Posts: 45
Re: Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues
« Reply #3 on: Sat, 01 May 2021, 10:34:27 »
@Leslieann -  Thank you for the detailed response.   Some really good advice.  I appreciate the time you took to respond.   Hot swap options are definitely a turn off for me.   I didn’t even know that someone would attempt to do HS with a hand wired setup.   I tend to stay with the KISS philosophy.

Glad to hear Cat5 works well and that your setup is strong.  I have tons of that laying around.  Excellent point on floppy wires.   Never seen someone use that word, but it makes perfect sense.  If the hand wiring goes well, then I can see myself having multiple plates to switch around for different switch types.

@Volny - Being a Linux SysAdmin, I definitely appreciate an LCD to keep an eye on my responsibilities.   You might explore a standalone LCD that connects via USB.   Something like http://www.goverlay.com/ (I have no experience with this product, just ran across it with a quick search)


Thank you both.   Reading through this community’s posts, it always seems supportive, helpful, and overall positive.

Offline Leslieann

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Re: Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues
« Reply #4 on: Sat, 01 May 2021, 17:38:10 »
@Leslieann -  Thank you for the detailed response.   Some really good advice.  I appreciate the time you took to respond.   Hot swap options are definitely a turn off for me.   I didn’t even know that someone would attempt to do HS with a hand wired setup.   I tend to stay with the KISS philosophy.
You're welcome.
I too prefer the KISS philosophy but this was a Covid engineering exercise, I wanted a 65% and had been waiting 6 months for a Novelkeys N65 with no luck and with Covid I figured what better time than now. I'd also seen some 3d printed hot swap boards that were pretty neat and figured not only can I do that but I can do it better and if I'm going to really put my skills to the test I'm and go all in on this, I'm going to throw everything at it and document it and share it. While I think I did do better, it turned out to be a terrible design to share with others due to the complex nature of the firmware and hand wiring.

I'll probably do another at some point, and it will be a simpler design, I was already considering a split design before I finished that one, though with prices on those (Corne and similar) I may just buy it and build a case for it.




As usual, different strokes for different folks.

Small and unobtrusive, but just big enough to show me just about all the system info I wanted in a super-handy location (cpu & gpu usage, ram, vram, net traffic, framerate, temps, etc.).
It's not that I dislike the idea, you simply can't do that on a QMK board with a display.
All you can really do is display layer ID and caps/scroll/numlock information, all information I don't really need.

The display code eats up a MASSIVE amount of onboard memory and there's nothing in it to allow passing of cpu stats and such. You will need to hand code that yourself and try to implement that into the display code. Most of the nicer displays are on split keyboards and there's a reason for this, you have only half the layout and function layer coding on each half. Even a single function layer eats up a pretty good size chunk of the memory you have to work with and so off loading half of it, especially on a small keyboard leaves you with a "lot" of room for the display coding. We're talking bits not bytes or megs of available storage.

If I could get all that you described into a keyboard display, yes, it would be fantastic, I have a small dock on my desk with a 3inch screen that does what you describe but you can't do it with QMK. Here's my dock. Temps (top left), network traffic (top right) and cpu load (main area).
267627-0
« Last Edit: Sat, 01 May 2021, 17:40:01 by Leslieann »
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Offline Volny

  • Posts: 190
Re: Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues
« Reply #5 on: Sat, 01 May 2021, 23:11:02 »
@Volny - Being a Linux SysAdmin, I definitely appreciate an LCD to keep an eye on my responsibilities.   You might explore a standalone LCD that connects via USB.   Something like http://www.goverlay.com/ (I have no experience with this product, just ran across it with a quick search)

Wow. I actually spent a fairly tedious amount of time looking for alternative LCDs, yet somehow never came across that one in my searching. It actually ticks most of my boxes: it's not too big, it's not too expensive, it supports AIDA64, and it doesn't require an engineering degree. Can't believe I missed it. It still wouldn't be as good as having it on the keyboard, but definitely a feasible option for me. Thanks!

It's not that I dislike the idea, you simply can't do that on a QMK board with a display.
All you can really do is display layer ID and caps/scroll/numlock information, all information I don't really need.....
Oh, I see :( That does seem pretty pointless. If I was to go to so much effort just to get caps/ScrollLock/numLock indicators, I'd at least want them to be located near their respective keys, which is actually some kind of a UX improvement.


Offline Leslieann

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Re: Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues
« Reply #6 on: Sun, 02 May 2021, 02:07:56 »
@Volny - Being a Linux SysAdmin, I definitely appreciate an LCD to keep an eye on my responsibilities.   You might explore a standalone LCD that connects via USB.   Something like http://www.goverlay.com/ (I have no experience with this product, just ran across it with a quick search)

Beware many specially made ones like this often need 3rd party software, like Aida64, which can cost more than the screens themselves. My little dock screen is just a cheap Raspberry Pi screen using HDMI and KDE Plasma plugins, maybe $15 not counting the USB and hdmi cables I had laying around then I just printed a bracket to hold it.
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Offline Volny

  • Posts: 190
Re: Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues
« Reply #7 on: Sun, 02 May 2021, 02:39:27 »
I actually use Aida64 - it's what I used for my previous LCD. It uses a yearly license and would be very expensive if you renewed it anually, but i's not too expensive for a 1-year license. After the license expires you can still use it - you just can't get newer updates. Though you generally don't need updates unless you've bought a new CPU/GPU that isn't supported in your older version of Aida64.

Offline Maledicted

  • Posts: 1830
  • Location: Wisconsin, United States
Re: Reality Check: Reliability, maintenance, and common issues
« Reply #8 on: Mon, 03 May 2021, 09:26:27 »
@Volny - Being a Linux SysAdmin, I definitely appreciate an LCD to keep an eye on my responsibilities.   You might explore a standalone LCD that connects via USB.   Something like http://www.goverlay.com/ (I have no experience with this product, just ran across it with a quick search)

Beware many specially made ones like this often need 3rd party software, like Aida64, which can cost more than the screens themselves. My little dock screen is just a cheap Raspberry Pi screen using HDMI and KDE Plasma plugins, maybe $15 not counting the USB and hdmi cables I had laying around then I just printed a bracket to hold it.

Looks like GOverlay supports HWMonitor too, and various other software. It even has some game plugins for game-specific data when playing a specific game. I also like that it is entirely USB, not that such a low resolution display would be that taxing on graphics hardware. I already have 3 monitors connected to my gaming rig anyway though myself. I ordered a few of these to play around with.