This month’s Hobby Tech column – now in its new four-page more streamlined format – takes a look at the oddly-shaped and solidly-built hackable Keychron Q8 Alice Layout mechanical keyboard and an official Ubuntu 22.04 image for the StarFive VisionFive RISC-V single-board computer, while also covering the launch of pre-orders for the VisionFive 2 and Arduino’s plea for community assistance as it plans to add true multitasking to its embedded platform.
As someone who spends more time typing than anything else, keyboards are the most important part of a computer system. I’ve plenty, from aggressively ergonomic split models to an IBM Model F that’s 40 years old and still going strong – but the Keychron Q8 Alice Layout is perhaps the most interesting. Built in a hefty anodised aluminium shell, the keyboard boasts features you wouldn’t normally expect at the low-mid price point: a fully-floating plate and PCB on rubber gaskets, pre-taped chassis, pre-lubed switches, RGB backlighting, and full support for reprogramming its QMK firmware using the VIA cross-platform software tool.
It’s the layout that stands out the most, though. Inspired by Yuk Tsu’s original Alice layout, Keychron’s take increases the size from 60 to 65 per cent to add a few more keys and shuffles a few things around – but anyone used to the ergonomic split Alice layout will find themselves right at home. Sadly, the company is only selling the keyboard pre-assembled in US ANSI; those looking at an ISO version of the layout can buy a kit but will need to source the keycaps themselves, which isn’t as easy as it sounds given the unusual sizing of some keys and varying heights between rows.
I reviewed StarFive’s VisionFive in Issue 230 last month, and in doing so noted that the software was in a poor state – not just buggy, as you might expect from a first-launch early-adopters’ product, but built on an insecure end-of-life base. Shortly after the review went to press Canonical announced it was expanding its RISC-V support to include the release of an official Ubuntu 22.04 Long Term Support (LTS) image for the VisionFive – which is a major upgrade on the stock Fedora spin.
On the topic of upgrades, the VisionFive 2 has just closed a successful crowdfunding campaign. Designed to address all of the shortcomings of the original VisionFive, and boasting twice the processor cores, the VisionFive 2 could prove to be the best RISC-V single-board computer yet to hit the market – and we’ll find out once it hits my test bench in the coming months.