The best keyboard you can buy

Tamlyn Rhodes
Aug 20, 2018 · 5 min read

I became interested in ergonomic keyboards after breaking my arm in a bike accident. For a month or so I had difficulty rotating my left hand to a horizontal position so I started looking into solutions to make typing more comfortable.

Choosing a keyboard

I researched many options but I kept being drawn back to the ErgoDox for a number of reasons:

  • Ortholinear (aka columnar layout). The keys are arranged in columns with staggered rows which avoids each finger having to travel along a diagonal.
  • Thumb keys. Thumbs are underused when typing on a normal keyboard.
  • Split keyboard. The two halves move independently giving you a better chance of finding a comfortable position.
  • Available to buy now. Many esoteric keyboards require sourcing the parts and assembling yourself. Some other promising crowd funded projects remain in the ever-receding-shipping-date phase.

Other keyboards I considered included:

I’m still lusting over the Keyboardio. I think the thumb key placement is really neat compared to the ErgoDox, Dactyl and Kinesis Advantage which have an identical six key cluster.

The ErgoDox design is open source so there are many different versions. But the only one generally available to buy is the ErgoDox EZ. Each unit is made to order in Taiwan and there are a number of customisation options. The most important of these is, of course, the colour! It comes in either black or white but if you ask nicely they can make you a black and white “zebra” one.

Designing a key layout

Although the Ergodox comes with a reasonable key layout, it’s expected that you will customise it. That’s why the keycaps are blank: better no key markings than wrong key markings. (You can buy a version where only the non-letter keys are blank but this doesn’t have the same sculpted keycaps of the fully blank model.) The web based layout editor is really good and although applying the layout requires flashing the firmware of the keyboard, this only takes couple of clicks and a button press.

The aims for my layout were:

  • Keep most keys close to their QWERTY location. I want to minimise the cognitive overhead of switching from one keyboard to another.
  • Use thumbs for modifier keys. I already used my left thumb for Command and Alt so it felt natural to extend that to Shift and Control.
  • Focus on the left hand. That way I can do some keyboard based tasks while keeping my right hand on the mouse.

I went through several iterations on my initial layout. I was particularly fond of the thumb cluster symmetry in layout alpha 9 but it had a couple of practical issues. Firstly I often got my thumbs confused and pressed return instead of space (which led to several confusingly structured work conversations in online chats). Secondly having backspace as a dual function key was just not practical as it means you can’t hold it down to make it repeat, you have to tap and hold it. Removing Ctrl from the right half has had the repercussion that pressing Ctrl+Enter now requires me to use my left thumb and index finger together.

Having dedicated keys for volume control is handy compared to the standard Macbook Pro keyboard which requires two hands to hit Fn+F11. Speaking of F keys, these are accessible on the second layer. This is a bit of a faff to reach but it turns out I hardly use my F keys so it’s OK.

And I even have a spare key. Feel free to suggest a use for it.

Learning to type

I’ve been using computers daily for over 20 years and yet I’m ashamed to say I never learned to touch type. Of course I know where all the keys are and I could probably draw a QWERTY key layout from memory but I still had to frequently look down at the keyboard as I didn’t have consistent finger placement.

I thought that buying a keyboard with blank keys might provide the necessary motivation to finally crack touch typing and I was right!

Initially, typing on the ErgoDox was painfully slow. After a day I was getting about 10 words per minute. Trying to hold an online conversation when typing at that speed is… trying. After 6 weeks I was up to about 30 words per minute and after three months I’m now at 40 words per minute. This is still short of the 50 words per minute I’m used to when non-touch typing on a normal QWERTY keyboard but it feels acceptable.

The things I still struggle with are typing numbers and moving around with the cursor keys.

Issues

While I’m very happy with my experience so far, there have been a few issues:

  • Only half of the thumb keys are really usable. The two tall ones and the small one in the bottom corner are all easily reachable but the other small keys require arching the thumb to reach them.
  • Some repeated keystrokes, mostly on the same few keys. I tried fiddling with the debouncing settings in the firmware but to no avail. I then contacted ErgoDox HQ who offered to send me a replacement unit right away. That seemed overkill so instead I swapped the offending switches for some on the edges that I rarely use and it’s been fine since.
  • Bottom row of keys is quite hard to consistently hit. I just can’t get my hands used to their position. I expect it will come with more practice.
  • Cannot map shifted keys. In the layout above, I’ve got dedicated keys for parentheses ( and ). These work by simulating the key combinationsShift+9 and Shift+0 respectively. I would like to map Shift+( to < and Shift+) to > in order to have all my brackets in the same place but this is not currently possible. There’s an open issue discussing it.
  • Not wireless.
  • One handed hunt-and-peck typing (e.g. when on the phone, or eating a sandwich) is really hard with blank keys.

A journey

Did using an ergonomic keyboard help with my broken arm? Well, no because by the time I’d done the research, ordered the keyboard and waited for delivery, my arm was pretty much back to normal!

But I’m still only at the beginning of this journey. My typing speed and accuracy can only improve as I get more practice. I can now type without looking at the keyboard but my ambition is to type without looking at the screen. I’ve always thought people who can do that look cool. 😎

Thanks to Clare Simpson

Tamlyn Rhodes

Written by

Full stack web developer.

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