Testing out new ideas, prototyping them & building them into a project is very nearly the most fun part of a project, it's second only to sharing the project with other people and getting their feedback. Combining these two endorphin hits felt like a very good idea.
We test out a lot of ideas, it's what we do and we love doing it. There are very few things more exciting than building a prototype of a neat new idea and testing out if it works. If it does, great! You can build a product around it, if not, you probably learned something testing it out and you can try again with a different approach, it's all iterative.
One of the only things more exciting than testing a prototype is sharing it with other people and getting their feedback on what works and what doesn't. If they love it, it's the best validation that it was probably a good idea and you executed on it well. If not, that's fine too, all feedback is good feedback - it's time iterate on it or bring it back to the drawing board and start again a different way.
With that in mind we, along with Rama from Ramaworks, wanted to create a kind of testbed product for our exploration into mechanical keyboards. We wanted it to be well built, we wanted it to look great and we wanted it to be simple and cheap enough to be able to test crazy new ideas on and let other people try them too without taking months and breaking the bank.
Similar to it's older brother, the M10-A, the M4-A is milled from a solid block of aluminum, so it's sturdy and substantial despite being tiny, and it's anodized in two colors, silver & space grey. It sports just 4 keys, two square 1u keys, and two rectangular 2u keys - not enough to type your novel on unless you're crazy, but enough to use as a media controller or a shortcut pad, enough to test out if one of our ideas is something you like while still being useful.
Think of it as the small paint tester pot you get from the hardware store before you repaint your entire house a weird shade of purpule you think will look great.
Like we've said before, we think Cherry make the best keyswitches in the world, if you're curious why, we wrote a whole guide on what they are and how to pick them.
It was a no-brainer to use Cherry MX switches on the first edition of the M4-A - it gives us a solid starting point and it means they're compatible with most aftermarket keycap sets
Again, like it's big brother the M10-A, the first edition of the M4-A supports backlighting with standard 3mm LEDs. RGB LEDs are something we're looking at putting into the second edition of the M4-A, but we wanted a rock-solid starting point for the first edition, and that's exactly what standard LED backlighting gives us.
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?
Rama worked his magic on the industrial design of the M4, we worked ours on the electronics. The circuit board is tiny, measuring a hair over 5cm squared. We packed on an Atmel ATMega32U4, a crystal oscillator, a miniUSB connector and 4 Cherry keys along with all the supporting resistors and capacitors needed to make a keyboard tick
All of those parts sit on a beautiful, silver-plated circuit board with black and white silk screening. This 'aint any old PCB, no sir, this is a tiny borderline work of art.
Programmability & Configurator
Like with our other keyboard, and probably all our future keyboards, the M4-A has full Configurator support and it's firmware is based off the popular keyboard firmware framework QMK, which iself is based on another framework called TMK, both of which are completely open-source. So you can configure your tiny keyboard visually or, if you want to embrace our attitude and do something more experimental with it, then you can mess around with the code all you like.
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
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.
We really like the idea of letting other people into our testing and prototyping stages so they can get hyped about new ides the same way we do. And even if you're boring and don't want to 'follow our experimental jorney', the M4-A is still a mighty capable, mighty beautiful little keyboard, it's not to be underestimated.