Sunday, March 10, 2019

ZX-Key, External Keyboard For ZX81s and Other Micro Computers: Part 4

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Some of you may have noticed that a batch of ZX-Key units went up for sale on Sell My Retro over the weekend. This has been a great achievement and would not have been possible without some much valued help. When I started this project I'd only intended to make a keyboard for myself but soon found a lot support and others desiring a modern mechanical keyboard implementation for 80s micro computers.

To that end I would very much like to thank Spencer Owen of RC2014 fame for his contributions and ZXkim81 for embracing the idea so fully that he's about to test out the first DIY kit version of the ZX-Key.

Now onto some more about the project so far.

Sundry ZX-Key Design Decisions 

This post is primarily centred around some design decisions on the Case for the Keyboard and the Selection of Key Switches.

Mechanical Key Selection

Selecting the right Mechanical switches for the keyboard was a slightly more difficult task than you might imagine; in the end I chose Gateron Yellows, a firm to medium weight linear switch. The reason for this is twofold, and all to do with how the ZX81 registers key presses.

The ZX81 can be somewhat sluggish in registering keystrokes. While this is normally quite fine when entering text with the membrane keyboard, moving to a mechanical keyboard makes this lack of speed somewhat more noticeable. This is the reason behind the use of a linear switch, over a clicky one such as MX Blues. While a real keyboard is far more tactile, the use of a clicky switch would give an undue impression that a ZX81 had actually registered the key press when in reality it hadn't.

Gateron Yellow Keyswitch, the Perfect Match for a ZX81 Keyboard

Related to the above;  the use a firm linear switch adds a certain amount of weight, possibly unconsciously slowing down the natural typing rate, bringing key strokes more into line with what a ZX81 expects. On testing I found Gateron Yellow switches a nice match to requirements, and the main reason for not going with the firmer MX black was in keeping the typing experience pleasant, particularly for people not used to (overly) heavily weighted switches.

A Case to Start

All keyboards need a case of some sort. The trouble here of course is that all bespoke keyboards require a very specific case, one that can end up being quite the expense. For the ZX-Key keyboard case my main goal was to first make it relatively affordable, and secondly I desired a design that could be upgraded over time.

Essentially the Starter case I came up with is more of a keyboard frame than a full case. The ZX-Key keyboard is screwed in place with some 3mm diameter 6mm long case bolts. Provision on the base has been made for standard 12 x 12mm rubber feet to stop the keyboard from sliding around on a table.
ZX81 Mechanical Keyboard in Case
The ZX-Key Keyboard Mounted on the Prototype Keyboard 'Starter' Case
Also of note, the case has a gentle 2 degree slope from front to back for an easy typing angle. A higher angle felt a little exaggerated on such a small keyboard.

I've been using the initial prototype for some time now, and have found it provides quite a good level of rigidity. I did make a few errors on the original, mostly around spacing, and in the height of the lip around the keyboard PCB. All issues have been addressed and the fully revised version of the ZX-KEY Keyboard 'Starter' Case has been made  made available on Shapeways.

Bottom of the Prototype Keyboard 'Starter' Case
As alluded to, there will be 2 more case parts designed, a simple backing for underneath the keyboard and a somewhat more elaborate top half styled to suit a Sinclair product. However I felt it important to make these components entirely optional, particularity as larger 3D printed objects can become quite expensive.

Of course the case as a whole is entirely optional, and if you make your own then I would welcome seeing pictures.

Final Production Ready ZX-KEY Keyboard 'Starter' Case as Found on Shapeways

I will be releasing the complete set of case parts to Shapeways in the coming month or so, if you would rather wait for the complete unit.

See more entries for this project: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

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Thursday, March 07, 2019

ZX-Key, External Keyboard For ZX81s and Other Micro Computers: Part 3


The main goals of the ZX-Key project has been to build a mechanical keyboard usable on real ZX81s, PCs (particularly in emulators) and on the RC2014 or other computers with serial keyboard inputs. This entry we'll go over a couple of the details relating specifically to the Keyboard component of the build.

Final prototype ZX-Key ZX81 Keyboard
The ZX-Key Keyboard

The ZX-Key Keyboard

The keyboard layout is based around the 8x5 matrix format found on the Sinclair ZX81 and ZX Spectrums, which makes sense as that's what it's designed to be used with.

The main keyboard circuit is also almost identical to a ZX81s, with the addition of a Arduino Pro Micro enabling the ZX-Key to be used as a regular USB PC keyboard. Connection to the ZX-Key ZX81 expansion interface is facilitated by  a 16 pin IDC header.

Additional diodes have been added to the 5 row lines, these  prevent some issues found when testing the prototype keyboard with a ZXpand expansion card. When the ZXPand read an SD card, its current draw caused some instability with the Arduino. This problem was also addressed on the ZX-Key interface card by proving it with an independent voltage regulator.

A reset line has been brought out from the ZX-Key interface card, and is presented on the 16 IDC header so there is no need to turn the ZX81 off and on to restart the computer. Similarly the 6 pin IDC connector provided for TTL serial communication also provides a reset line broken out for using the keyboard in conjunction with a RC2014 micro.

The pull down 100k Resistor on Column 8 allows the Arduino to detect the presence of a ZX81. As the Arduino powers on or when reset it first tests the status of this column to determine what mode it should start in, either Standard USB / PC or ZX81 mode.

ZX-Key Keyboard Schematic

The Arduino Bit

While connected to a ZX81 the Arduino is essentially dormant, only handling some minor LED visual indicators. However when not connected to a ZX81 the Arduino Pro Micro takes control, turning the keyboard into a fully functional USB HID (device).

In ZX81 mode with the ZX-key interface connected via an IDC ribbon cable, the ZX-Key will behave as a standard ZX81 keyboard, except with a much improved typing experience. When the keyboard is unconnected, plugged in via USB or serial port the keyboard will start in Standard PC mode.

Keyboard modes and selected layers are indicated by a cluster of three LEDs on the right hand side of the keyboard. There are three keyboard Layers, Standard, Emulator and ZX81. You can switch between Standard and Emulator layers by holding down SHIFT, FUNCTION (ENTER), and GRAPHICS (9) key combinations. The Standard layer has 3 main modes and each of these has a SHIFT layer, this gives access 98% of the keys to be found on a normal USB keyboard.

LED States
Layer & Mode Selected
Standard Layers: Keyboard Mode and Function Selection
NormalNormal mode. All keys are in Standard US Keyboard configuration.
SHIFTWhen in Normal Mode: Symbols in Red are selected. Where these red keys are commands, for example 'EDIT or SLOW' they have been replaced by another symbol. All common symbols are present on the keyboard. Note that SHIFT keys effects vary in each of the other modes
SHIFT,FUNCTIONChanges to Function mode. This selects upper case characters. Pressing the SHIFT key in this mode will select symbols as normal.
SHIFT,GRAPHICSAll the number keys are now there equivalent 'Fx' key, ie. '1' becomes 'F1'. All Letter keys become 'CTRL Letter'. Holding down the SHIFT key in Graphics mode changes the letter keys to 'ALT Letter', number keys '1' and '2' become 'F11' & 'F12'.
Emulation Layer: For use with ZX81 or ZX Spectrum Emulators
SHIFT, FUNCTION, GRAPHICSKeyboard will enter the emulation mode. All Standard Layer mode functions are disabled. This allows Emulation packages to detect key presses as using a standard USB / PS2 keyboard.

You can go back to the Standard layers at any point for entering program Emulator menus with 'F' keys for example.
ZX81 Layer: For use with a real ZX81 plugged into the ZX-Key Interface
Auto DetectionThe ZX81 layer is selected automatically if the keyboard is connected to a ZX81 using the ZX-Key Interface. You can't deselect this mode.

Next time: I'll finalise with the 3D printed case, attach the software and more.

See more entries for this project: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

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