Cyber Decks and KISS

Cyber Deck Components

How I came to have a cyber deck that gets out of my way and allows me to focus on creation, not consumption

Prelude

For years I have seen posts about cyber decks and always wondered why people build them. I think I finally "Get It" while also not at all understanding why people build the decks I see posted online.

People building cyber decks almost universally post highly custom designs and setups that are rooted in the maker movement and single board SBC realm. Every time I've seen one of these builds posted I can't help but wonder why folks are building these sorts of setups. The integration of hardware alone is a weeks, months or years long process and the software options are constrained tightly enough to provide only the most minimal of utility to the user. They are also highly tuned 'for the moment' and any workflow or habit changes over time will be very difficult to support, if not impossible.

Concerns

As an older human who remembers a time before cell phones, I can't help but wonder how many posted cyber decks are ultimately shelved or permanently torn down once a users habits shift or technology changes over time. Technology isn't a static set of concerns and is constantly changing over time. Software also tends to demand more and more from hardware over time. Given these fundamental elements, I can't see a typical cyber deck build lasting long, certainly not longer than a couple years.

I also wonder about the durability and portability. The nicer cyber deck builds are placed inside 3d printed cases and usually have specific needs in terms of 'desk space' or 'layout on the desk'. I wonder if the builders have never had space constraints or need something that can be 'small' or 'large' depending on the 'desk' at hand. Wouldn't adaptability to the local environment be a strong requirement, if not fundamental requirement of a cyber deck build? As for durability, if you're carrying this about regularly is a 3d printed case and hot glue enough? I know the bags I use to carry my daily 'supplies' aren't the safest environments and would require a cyber deck be padded in some way to avoid being banged around to the point of destruction.

Confusion

Due to the above I still can't figure out why folks continue to build these kinds of cyber decks. If I am going to build something that could be considered a cyber deck it must be portable, adaptable, durable and able to last at least 2-3 years minimum. Given these requirements I don't think I'll ever understand the typical cyber deck builds that get posted.

Light Bulb Moment

Despite my inability to understand why someone would build a more 'typical' cyber deck I can understand why someone would desire a cyber deck to begin with. I've been working with a one handed keyboard layout and its become clear to me being able to type at 40 words per minute one handed is a huge deal for accessibility, utility and comfort. Especially when using a mobile device like a phone or tablet. In particular I've been working with ARTSEY (https://artsey.io). I've been working with it so much that I built a set of dedicated ARTSEY mini keyboards for use with my computer and my phone. I also built a few different 'traditional' keyboards from kits to help tune my day to day keyboard needs. These builds had a secondary effect which helped me understand why a cyber deck, in general, makes quite a bit of sense.

For me the main light bulb moment regarding 'why build a cyber deck' happened when I was using my phone at night instead of a computer, like I normally do. I realized I was really annoyed by the on screen keyboard. I'm not as fast typing on it as a computer and it can hurt my thumbs if I try to type faster. Using my phone and software keyboard can be a massive annoyance when chatting with others too. I also can't use split screen properly on my phone with the software keyboard which really doesn't help me when I'm working with two separate apps at the same time (reading + notes for example). All I could think in the moment was 'I have an ARTSEY mini keyboard and that has to be a hell of a lot easier to use than this on-screen keyboard'. I setup the board with my phone and a large portion of my frustrations melted away. Yes, the ARTSEY board is not as fast as QWERTY but it's fast enough and easier on my hand(s) than an on screen keyboard. Well then, I turned a phone into a not so phone kind of device.

Getting Warmer

As I warmed up to using my mini ARTSEY board with my phone I realized a tablet/phone/similar plus an ARTSEY keyboard would likely be a better portable computer for me than any other options I've used in the past. As I did research into portable computer options, I realized this would be a cyber deck build. It won't be home brew, it'd be just a super portable computing device that, in essence, is a cyber deck without the limitations I see with almost all cyber deck builds. This would also sort a number of issues I've had with UMPCs, Laptops and Tablets in the past. Namely the problem of a comfortable and useful keyboard. Thanks to ARTSEY I have a great keyboard option and it's super portable.

Testing

After a number of tests with a Surface Pro, GTD Pocket, and a 6" Android phone I realized that I would need an 8" sized device (roughly) for the screen to be useful and it would need to be able to work with bluetooth keyboards, mice and trackballs. I did like the phone to a degree but in the end I do a lot that requires side-by-side app use (reading+notes in particular) so a small tablet or foldlable phone would be ideal. I ended up buying a Surface Duo and set it up with my ARTSEY boards. To say this setup was a game changer for me is an understatement. I have a nice 13" laptop that I use less and less each day thanks to the Surface Duo and how I have it setup.

One thing that became apparent as I was working through my setup was the need for a mouse like device. The touch screen on most tablets and phones is fine but for heavier use I really do need a pointing device (even if the UI is heavily touch based). I tried a mouse but mice impose limits on where you can use them as well as the amount of space needed. I ended up going with a track ball that uses my index and middle finger for motion and thumb for clicking. It's super compact and takes up very little space. It also has the benefit of being able to be used anywhere and adapting to the situation and not imposing limits on use.

Keyboard Tuning

Once I had settled into this setup and started using it more and more there were times I really wanted a two handed keyboard that allowed me to type faster than 40 wpm or so. As I was thinking about this, the 7skb keyboard popped up in my feeds. It's a very thin, low profile 60% board that uses Kalih Choc switches. Even better is it is already setup to be run off batteries and has open source firmware available. The only down side was lack of direct shipping outside of Japan (I used a forwarding service for my purchase). One interesting feature of the 7skb is it's a split 60% board which is rare. Most split keyboards are 40% boards. Given I can't type well on a 40% board and prefer 65% boards as my primaries the 7skb was compelling and worth trying. It has turned out to be one of the smarter keyboard purchases I've made. It's incredibly portable thanks to its split design and I was able to work around the lack of navigation keys via porting the ARTSEY navigation layer to my personal layout. I type on it about as fast as my primary 65% keyboard, close enough to my usual speeds I don't notice a difference except under situations where I'm doing transcription work.

Putting Things Together

Putting everything together I ended up with a cyber deck. It's not custom hardware, it's simply a culmination of quality, flexible gear that works very well and is ultra portable. No longer do I have to battle non-flexible mini computers, needing a lot of space, being forced to adapt to a device or similar complaints I've had historically. I can also adapt to the situation at hand with a minimum of effort. Never mind I can achieve my usual levels of productivity and speed if desired or required. I am also not constrained by the system on the whole. If one piece of hardware needs to be replaced it's independent of the rest. This is incredibly helpful as I can upgrade the tablet portion over time while retaining my input devices that facilitate so much of the build on the whole.

KISS

There's something to be said about keeping things simple and adaptable.

Hardware Breakdown

  • The Paintbrush mini ARTSEY keyboard
  • Corne 5x3+3 big ARTSEY keyboard (optional)
  • 7skb 60%, split keyboard
  • ELECOM compact finger trackball
  • Surface Duo
  • Tablet kick stand
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