Adventures with a Programmable Mechanical Ortholinear Split Ergonomic Keyboard

Navindra Umanee
May 28 · 10 min read
ErgoDox EZ with Surface Precision Mouse.

As Apple and others struggle to understand and define the future of computer keyboards, I ventured into the evolving world of hacker keyboards. I learned a lot once I discarded the mainstream keyboards I had used for over a quarter of a century.

I recently upgraded my input instruments.

Mouse

The most straightforward upgrade was to my mouse — I upgraded to the Surface Precision Mouse. The contoured shape feels very natural and satisfying in the palm of my hand. It couldn’t get simpler as far as upgrades go.

Surface Precision Mouse, perfectly contoured.

Historically, Microsoft¹ has designed some of the best mice in the business, and evidently, the business hasn’t changed much. The Precision mouse has everything I liked about the original Microsoft Mouse 2.0 and the game-changing IntelliMouse designs from the ’90s, with all the modern accoutrements and design refinements to be expected a quarter of a century later.

I had initially purchased the popular Logitech Master MX 2S. It’s a looker and includes a mesmerizing hyper scroll wheel with a free motion spin. The thumb buttons are awkwardly placed, the gesture implementation is unusable, but the real dealbreaker for me was that the mouse was ultimately uncomfortable and tiring, subjectively, feeling too heavy.

It’s worth noting that the Surface Precision Mouse doesn’t have a free motion wheel, but it still provides inertial scrolling via firmware, and the loss of gestures is no loss at all. The main thing the Master has that the Precision doesn’t is a dedicated horizontal scroll wheel, although the Precision implements horizontal scrolling via a button toggle.

The Apple Magic Trackpad 2 is most enticing in its native macOS environment but lacks sufficient support for Windows. Nonetheless, it’s a magical piece of glass. Apple design and engineering at its finest.

Keyboard

The keyboard upgrade was more of a bender.

My reference keyboard was the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, which I still consider to be one of the best keyboard designs on the mainstream market. This version of the Natural keyboard was released nearly 15 years ago and stands the test of time.

It’s a contoured split keyboard that does basically everything right for a mass-produced product at an affordable price. It’s one of the most comfortable and uncompromising keyboards you can find with all the keys and functions you might ever need, and it is 100% free of Apple’s retrograde² industry influence on keyboard design.

The newer Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard isn’t my cup of tea, primarily due to the laptop-like scissor keys³, but many consider it an improvement over the Natural. Marco Arment has a review of it.

While we may have reached peak keyboard design by mainstream metrics, there is certainly more to aspire to in terms of keyboard ergonomics and functionality.

It’s especially noteworthy when coders feel the need to custom build their keyboards, hand soldering mechanical switches to custom circuit boards with custom firmware, or often just adopting traditional mechanical switch keyboards (sometimes with all-blank keys) for the ultimate typing experience.

My friend Adrian’s ErgoDox, painstakingly assembled and soldered from kit parts. (2 photos)

Out of the myriad of options, the ErgoDox EZ was particularly interesting to me, since it takes the open ErgoDox design, which typically requires kit assembly and soldering, and turns it into a commercial, if niche, product.

I configured the ErgoDox EZ with the Shine LED lights and blank sculpted keys, plus all the toppings. It is notable for many reasons.

It’s a fully split symmetrical keyboard.

ErgoDox EZ Shine.

Like the Natural keyboard, the keys are split between the left and right hands, however, this keyboard goes a step further with fully detached keyboard halves, each adjustable per hand.

This allows one to type with hands at shoulder width with an open posture as opposed to being unnaturally cramped for 8 hours a day. The keyboard can also be tented with a negative tilt to allow the wrists to take a more natural position.

The keys are arranged symmetrically across both halves, unlike the Natural keyboard.

Ortholinear, not staggered, layout.

Vertically aligned keys, similar to the numeric keypad on a traditional keyboard. Shown with thumb clusters. [used with permission]

Historically, typewriter keys were staggered for mechanical reasons, but there is no modern rationale for this design other than that’s the design humanity has been trained to use for more than a century.

Human fingers move up and down, they don’t move sideways, and the staggered keyboard design no longer makes any sense. The ErgoDox lines up keys in vertical columns, and eschews the horizontal rows of traditional keyboards.

Adjusting to a new layout after years of touch typing is not easy at first but gets easier after a day or two of practice.

Thumb clusters.

If adapting to the ortholinear design isn’t challenging enough, it gets worse. The ErgoDox design intent is to place important keys in thumb clusters, as shown in the previous graphic.

Just like the Space key, the Enter key and Backspace key and other important keys (such as modifiers), should be placed in a thumb cluster and operated by the strongest digits of the hands.

After years of touch typing on a traditional keyboard, training oneself to reach for fundamental keys in a different position with a different finger is initially quite frustrating but, again, all it takes is some focused practice.

To reduce frustration, the transition can be done gradually since the keys can be remapped at will and placed in familiar locations.

Missing keys.

There’s only 76 keys on the ErgoDox while the Natural keyboard has well over a hundred keys. At first glance, there’s no room for the Function keys — F1 to F12.

The ErgoDox supports the concept of layers. So the problem of having only 76 keys quickly disappears and becomes a bigger problem of managing hundreds of effective keys within finger reach.

My Function keys and chords are on a second layer for easy access.

It’s quite easy to compensate (or overcompensate) with chords such as Alt-F4 being directly assigned to a key. There are several different ways of switching layers, so function keys and chords are always just a layer shift or toggle away.

You can have a layer for PC, a layer for Mac, a layer for Linux, and even app or game-specific layers with custom shortcuts.

Other fun things to do with layers include having dedicated mouse keys. It’s a neat trick, being able to operate mouse functionality without leaving the keyboard.

Blank keys vs customizable layout.

Since the keys are unlabeled, there’s no need to worry about swapping them around when updating key mappings.⁴ The blank keys are sculpted based on row assignment, improving the ergonomics and touch sense orientation.

So how do you deal with blank keys? Learning QWERTY or a modern alternative such as the Colemak layout by touch is a start, but punctuation and less frequently used keys tend to be more of a challenge.

With a new split key arrangement, an opportunity presents itself to rethink a more logical layout for numbers and punctuation.

On a traditional keyboard, the left hand is expected to cover numbers 16 and the right hand only covers numbers 70 along with the and + keys. This confusing and asymmetrical layout is easily addressed by evenly assigning 15 to the left hand and 60 to the right hand, distributing the and + keys between the two hands.

5 fingers, 5 numbers — what an idea! The Control and Shift keys on each side of the keyboard double as punctuation keys. Other punctuation are either in the traditional position or placed symmetrically on the keyboard.

Some other improvements include having the two Shift keys double as ( and ) keys and the two Control keys double as ` and (modifier keys can behave differently depending on whether the key is tapped or held down), while having symmetrically placed keys for [{ and }]. These are all symbols that are used frequently in programming, so having them in symmetrical positions on the keyboard is very convenient and easier to locate, even without labels.

One thing to note is that all keys, including number keys, retain their “shifted” behavior. So for example, tapping the RightControl key would result in ', holding Shift and tapping RightControl results in ", while holding down RightControl continues to behave as the Control modifier. It sounds complex, but it’s really quite clever.

Other key assignments can be done per individual taste. For example, Control key chords are common in Emacs, so the LeftControl key reclaims the modern CapsLock prime position. Similarly, my arrow keys are in the traditional hjkl single row vi navigation style.

Ultimately, the real trick is to make the keyboard work the way your brain does. As you experiment with a layout, you might find yourself making frequent mistakes… simply adapt your layout to compensate, and when you are comfortable, work your way towards new optimizations.

Programmability.

You don’t have to be an actual programmer to program the ErgoDox. All you need is a vision and a paperclip.

You customize the keyboard via the web interface, compile and download the firmware with a couple of clicks, then flash it to the keyboard using the Teensy or Wally app and a paperclip. Flashing the keyboard only takes seconds.

All the intelligence is in the keyboard itself, which means you don’t have to change or configure anything on your computer.

Additional functionality includes the ability to record keystrokes and replay them via macros. Since the functionality is built into the keyboard, it works universally, regardless of editor support.

You can customize the LED lights and animations — for example, you can shine different colors to indicate the current keyboard layer or you can light up significant keys if you have the Glow version.⁵

If you want to go beyond the curated functionality, it’s all open source.

Mechanical keys.

I was sold on the idea of mechanical keys that, per the hype, would feel like a grand piano action.

No, not a grand piano action. Yes, gold-plated contacts. [credit]

I selected the popular Cherry MX Brown switches which are tactile and quiet enough for an office environment. The ergonomic advantage of this type of switch is that the key only needs to be depressed up to the tactile bump to register — it does not need to bottom out. It feels and sounds satisfying, while sparing your fingers the stress of hard impact.

Cherry MX Brown switches are great but they aren’t my favorite, and they don’t feel smooth enough to me. Fortunately, there are many switch types of varying smoothness, tactility, and clickiness to choose from; finding the best fit is a matter of trial and error. The switches easily pop off the EZ keyboard with the included tool, no soldering required.

Switch tester with 72 switches. [used with permission]

What’s the point?

Even as the modern computer industry transitions to new input methods such as touch and voice, keyboards should not be beholden to the legacy baggage of typewriters that were designed over a hundred years ago.

Coders resort to building their own keyboards.

The ErgoDox design aims to do better. The ErgoDox EZ makes that design accessible and improves upon it. Designs such as the Dactyl keyboard iterate even further by physically contouring the keyboard.

Contouring, literally and metaphorically, is the point. Instead of requiring the humans to contort to the keyboards, we should be bending the keyboards to better serve the humans.

Two weeks after I started writing this article, the Natural keyboard that I had used for over a decade now feels completely unusable to me.

— N.


[1] Microsoft is my employer but I don’t speak for Microsoft and vice-versa. These are all my opinions and based on personal experience — your mileage may vary. Assets are used with permission or with the relevant granted license; all original copyrights remain with their original authors.

[2] Apple has historically made some of the best mobile device keyboards, but the Touch Bar causes me grief. Regardless, the best mobile keyboard experience today is simply no match for the best desktop keyboard experience, yet Apple leads the industry in converging on mobile keyboard designs.

[3] Shallow keys make sense on a portable device, but the compromise doesn’t seem right when it comes to desktop productivity.

[4] Even if the keys could be labeled dynamically (e.g. with E Ink), an efficient typist generally isn’t looking at the keyboard anyway.

[5] If I could redo my EZ order, I would get the Glow option where individual keys can be lighted, instead of the Shine one which is a more indirect lighting effect, but stick with the blank sculpted keys. I later discovered that even though this is not an official option, it can be arranged via email for no additional cost.

Navindra Umanee

Written by

Professional Coder, Amateur Musician.