Mechanical keyboards are great. They used to be everywhere in the early days of computing but they died out a little through the 90s and 2000s. Around 2008 they started to regain their mainstream popularity, with communities springing up around building and collecting mechanical boards. To a lot of people, they're a bit of an obsession.
The Apple M0110 is an early Apple mechanical keyboard that came bundled with the Mac 128K back in 1984. It's a beige plactic, chamfered edged retro masterpiece with this huge, gnarly bezel - it feels rugged as hell, it's totally a product of it's time. Renan from Ramaworks loves the M0110, together we wanted to make a keyboard that paid homage to the M0110, but updated for the 21st century with modern electronics and a smaller size while making it even more rugged than it's predecessor. So that's what we set out to do.
The M10-A is a gorgeous, fully programmable 10 key macropad, in homage to the M0110. It's milled from a block of aluminum, uses the best key switches around, and is compatible with pretty much every major OS, oh, and it's fully open-source too.
The original M0110 was made of injection molded beige plastic, in much the same way most computer cases & accessories were made at the time. Now, though, most of Apple's computers and accessories are made of milled aluminum for a premium, rugged feel.
We milled the body of the M10-A from a block of high-grade aluminum, in much the same way Apple mills their laptops and phones now. It gives the M10 a satisfying weight, it feels substantial and solid. It also means you can drop it out a window and it'll probably be mostly fine, but we wouldn't advise it. Falling keyboards are a health and safety hazard.
The original M10-A prototype was powder-coated white after it was milled to give it a similar color and finish to the old M0110, but the production versions follow Apple's more recent trend in finishes, being available in silver, space gray and rose gold. Construction-wise, it's a pretty perfect blend of Apple design, combining the aesthetics & solidity of the 80s, with the manufacturing and finishing processes of today.
Cherry make the best keyswitches in the world, they have done for more than 50 years. They're hella-rugged, last for ages, and they sell a couple of different types so you can make your keyboard sound and feel like you want it to, we wrote a whole guide on what they are and how to pick them.
We used Cherry MX switches on the M10-A both because they're so well made, but also because they're one of the most popular switches, so they're compatible with most aftermarket keycap sets.
Unlike the M0110, most modern keyboards have LED backighting, it means you can type in the dark without fumbling for keys, and ignoring that, it looks *super* cool. The M10-A is no different, it supports standard 3mm flangeless LEDs in pretty much any color you can find. It looks particularly good in purple. Originally we looked into using RGB LEDs, but they're not compatible with Cherry MX keyswitches, and we didn't want to compromise on switch quality for backlighting. Cherry make an RGB compatible key, but right now they're exclusive - we'll look into RGB lighting again if they're released to the public.
The LED backlighting is also totally configurable with 6 backlight brightness levels, you can assign keys to turn the backlight up, down, on, off, or jump straight to a brightness level. Or you can be boring and just turn the backlight off, but where's the fun in that?
The old M0110 was a very basic device - a bunch of buttons and a basic chip to convert the buttons into keypresses that the computer could read, and it connected to your computer with a 4P4C connector like the kind you might find on the handset of your home phone. Worked well at the time, but not now.
We completely updated the electonics, replacing the weird 4P4C connector with a more sensible MicroUSB connector like you'd find on your phone or pretty much any other modern device. We replaced the simple single-purpose chip with an Atmel ATMega32U4, a popular user-programmable microcontroller for USB devices thats hundreds of times more powerful. We swapped old style through-hole components with tiny surface mount components that can be placed automatically by machine, and the crusty old single-sided circuit board with a gorgeous, gold-plated circuit board that's much more sturdy and reliable. Sounds like a lot of hassle for something that does basically the same job, but the M10-A has something awesome that the M0110 doesn't - Programmability.
Here's where the M10-A really shines - It's completely programmable, so you can make it do whatever you want it to, within reason.
The firmware on the M10 is based on the popular keyboard firmware framework QMK, which iself is based on another framework called TMK. Point is, these frameworks are all open source, so you can tinker with the code all you like
And why would you want to tinker with the code? So you can make the keys do whatever you want them to. You can make a key type a character, like "W", you can have it type a bunch of characters, called a macro, like "Hello, World!" or "Control+Alt+Delete" if you have a habit of crashing your Windows machine. You can have a key change the backlight brightness, play a song & turn up the volume, you can even have it move your mouse cursor around the screen.
And for more space for keys, the M10-A firmware supports layers, so you can have multiple layers of different keys, meaning your 10 key board acts like it has 100. It's kind of like homescreens on your phone - your screen only has space for so many app icons, but swipe to the left and you have a whole other screen of icons, and another, and another.
"But wait!", I hear you cry, "I don't want to have to write and compile code to make my keyboard do something cool!". Well, hypothetical user, it's your lucky day!
We've built a tool that lets you configure your shiny new keyboard visually, then compile and upload the firmware automagically without you ever having to write a line of code. So if you can't write code, or if you can but you just can't be bothered, just plug in your keyboard, click a couple of keys to configure them, press "compile & upload" and you're done!
The configurator supports most of the things the firmware does and we'll be adding new features & fixing bugs as time permits, so if you have any feature requests or notice any bugs, feel free to email them to us and we'll add them to our list. And if you can't get the configurator to do something you want it to, you can always fall back to tinkering with the firmware code and uploading it yourself, so your board will always be useful even if the configurator isn't.
"I think it is in collaboration that the nature of art is revealed." - Steve Lacy
This project has been a great collaboration between us, Ramaworks, and after reaching out to us a little while back, our manufacturing and distribution partner Massdrop. It's been in the works for a while, off-and-on for almost a year, and it feels great to put something so high quality out into the world for people to enjoy.
Ultimately, we feel like we've built something satisfying to own and simple to use, and with the purchasing power of Massdrop behind it, at a price that isn't too high for something so premium. It's a testament to what can be achieved when people collaborate closely and work like hell on every detail.