The Avant Prime Keyboard - New Tools

Update: 2010-11-06 - I got a new Topre Realforce board. I talked about keyboards before on a previous post. On that post I mentioned that, although I loved (and still love) my Filco, I would continue to broaden my horizons by researching and using other boards. Well, that other board arrived on Friday and is an Avant Prime.


Before I go into the technical details, I'd like to share a little bit of the history I uncovered while doing my research.

Back in the late 80's and early 90's, after IBM made the PC architecture available for other companies to build clones of it, a little company out in California called Northgate Computers started to sell its PC clones from a mail catalog. Brand name PCs, like the original IBMs and Compaqs, were expensive and consumers were looking for alternatives. Companies like Northgate rushed in to fill that niche market. Out of the companies that were created during those days and sold from a catalog only Dell still exists today.

But Northgate also manufactured a keyboard that was highly valued by geeks of that era. This was the OmniKey line of keyboards. Northgate went out of business for good in 2005, but by this time a little company near Minneapolis, MN had already started to manufacture the OmniKey line under a new name. This company is Creative Vision Technologies and they make the Avant Prime and Avant Stellar keyboards. The Avant boards are analogous to the OmniKey 101 and OmniKey Ultra, respectively.

Visual Studio 2008 Task List

The Avant Prime Keyboard (click for larger image)

Why Another Keyboard?

My wife actually asked me this question. The honest answer is that when it comes to keyboards, I'm a little obsessive compulsive.

The criteria that I set for myself when researching boards this time was the following: 1) I absolutely have to have a real Ctrl key on the home row and 2) I am absolutely not going to use any software or configuration hacks to get the Ctrl key to work on the home row. Well, that really narrowed the pool of available boards to chose from to just three. The other thing I am looking to accomplish is to become a more efficient and faster typist.

Currently on the market I can only find the Happy Hacking, the Unicomp Customizer with custom key layout and Avant boards that have these features. Of course, there are always those vintage Sun or OmniKey boards listed on EBay, but I was looking for something new.

The Gory Details

Visually, the Prime looks like a standard legacy IBM PC board with white and gray keycaps, a row of function keys across the top and the standard LEDs on the top-right corner above the number pad cluster. A couple of other minor differences are that the + key in the numpad is just a regular size key in order to make space for a = key that goes right under it. The main Enter key is large and shaped like an L in reverse. The |\ key is located next to the left Shift key.

The configuration of the Avant Prime out-of-the-box is to have the CapsLock key on the home row to the left of the A key and the Ctrl key on the far bottom left corner of the board. But the Prime also ships with a handy key puller tool and replacements keycaps for the CapsLock and Ctrl keys. This allows me to easily swap the physical keycaps for those keys as you can see in the image (click it for full size).

But just switching the keycaps using the handy puller tool doesn't do the trick; you have to actually remap the keys to emit the proper codes to the computer. This is where the Avant keyboards really shine as they are fully programmable. The Prime has an Atmel AT89C52 microcontroller with 8K flash RAM inside it that you can program by using certain key combinations.

To swap the CapsLock and left Ctrl keys you have to first press the right Ctrl key four times and then press left Shift and 1 together to enter the Prime's programming mode. Then press the R key to tell the Atmel that you are going to remap a key. At this point the NumLock, CapsLock and ScrollLock LEDs will be blinking really fast. The LED on the Up Arrow key will also be blinking. Now you need to press the key you want to move, which we will call the From Key. In my case this is the CapsLock key. Once you press the CapsLock key, all the LEDs start blinking at a slower rate than originally. Now you need to choose the To Key, which in my case is the left Ctrl key. At this point you will have two CapsLock keys, the original one and the left Ctrl key. So we need to remap the left Ctrl to the original CapsLock key. We choose the left Ctrl key as our from key and then the original CapsLock as our to key. You will know that you are doing the right thing because the blinking rate of the LEDs will change again when you are doing the second remap. Once you are done with that you can press the right Ctrl key once to get out of the Prime's programming mode.

It's also important to mention that once you remap those keys, the new functions are persisted in the Atmel's flash memory and will transfer with the keyboard even if you go to a different computer or operating system.

The Prime has white stem Alps key switches, which means that it provides both an auditory and a tactile feedback. You can hear the click of the keys and you can also feel them on your fingers. If you are familiar with other mechanical key switches like the Cherry switches, you will notice that the Prime's switches provide a more pronounced clicky feel and sound.

So You Want One

Some things to note about the Avant Prime that may influence one's decision to get the board are 1) the Avant Prime has a PS/2 connector only and requires a PS/2 to USB adapter to work on computers that don't have PS/2 ports. This is not too much of a problem as most computers today still ship with PS/2 ports for mouse and keyboard. But I'm also starting to see some laptops and netbooks ship out without it. Additionally, Apple computers don't have a PS/2 port. 2) The Avant Prime is a clicky, heavy and loud keyboard. When you press a key on the Prime it resonates with a metallic echo and it definitely gives you tactile feedback. Your fingers will know that you pushed a key and I like that, but if you prefer a quieter, lower profile board, than the Prime is not for you.

What Is That Trackball Doing There?

Another aspect of my workflow that I am looking to tweak is to use my mouse less and less and keep my hands on the keyboard for as long as I possibly can. I thought that one way to do that is to break that pattern of reaching for the mouse and feeling very comfortable with it. So I also got me a Logitech TrackMan, and it has most definitely helped in my goal. First, I am not a trackball person, so it definitely breaks the original work flow. But I still have to make a conscious effort to keep my hands away from it. It helps to print out a shortcut cheat sheet for your desktop of choice, and post it right on your monitor. I have to say that keeping your hands on the keyboard does increase efficiency, speed and you get used to the new paradigm very quickly.

Wrap Up

Based on my previous post, a friend has already asked me if I like the Prime better than the Filco. Well, I think that the jury's still out on that one. What I can say with confidence is that I will be using the Prime at work and the Filco at home, so I will have plenty of opportunity to compare the two more closely, but right now I still few like it's too early to tell.

Anyway, the Avant Prime is going for $149 and I got mine from Lone Star Keyboards because they had the best shipping rates of all Avant distributors. They shipped my Prime promptly and I am very pleased with their service overall. The TrackMan I got from Amazon for $49.95.


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