Explaining My Crazy New Keyboard
July 18, 2020
This Keyboard is Almost Magical
In early June, I got a new keyboard: the ErgoDox EZ. It’s mechanical, but I’ve had mechanical keyboards before. I can swap out the mechanical switches if I want to, but I’ve had boards like that before, too. Those are great features, but they aren’t the true stars of the show. This keyboard is special for some very cool reasons.
This keyboard is split in half. I’m not talking about one of those extra-wide keyboards where half the keys are on each side, and there’s some empty plastic in the middle. This thing is litterally split, as in each half is its own unit. They connect via a small cable, which lets me place each half anywhere I feel like. I can type with my arms at shoulder width if I want, or I can bring my arms closer together. I can angle one half a bit differently than the other if I need to. I can even unplug one half, and just use the other, to make extra room on my desk. I don’t do this last one, but I could. It took a few minutes to get used to, but I quickly got the feel for it. Typing this way is extremely comfortable, and regular keyboards felt cramped and confining after just a week of use.
The ErgoDox is ortholinear. That’s just a fancy way to say the keys are in columns. Explore your keyboard; are your keys offset? Is each row somewhere in the middle of the row above or below it? This is a staggered layout, and it’s the most common by far. Instead of this offsetting, though, imagine the keys were laid out in more of a grid pattern. That’s how the EZ is, though each row is shifted very slightly to make the keys fit more naturally under your fingers. Generally, though, typing is just moving a finger up or down to reach a key above or below where that finger is, rather than constantly shifting the finger to one side or another. As with the split design, this took some getting used to, but not much. My main problem was re-learning to type x and c, as I’d been pressing them with the wrong fingers my whole life. On a staggered keyboard, this wasn’t a huge deal, but ortholinear keyboards force you to use the correct fingers.
The ergonomics don’t stop there, though. There’s a cluster of keys on each keyboard half, called a thumb cluster, meant for your thumbs. There are two keys within very easy reach of each thumb, with four more that are harder to reach. I use these last four for keys I don’t need often, like page up or end. The thumb keys, though, are great: my right thumb handles space and enter, while my left has tab and an extra space. We’ll come back to key functions later, because I haven’t even told you about the best part yet. For now, just know that tabbing with my thumb is far better than reaching my pinky to the tab key, or worse, moving my whole hand off the home row to hit tab with another finger. My left thumb has never done anything while I type, and now it can finally make itself useful.
QMK: the Amazing Software
This keyboard supports QMK firmware. QMK is what makes the EZ truly shine. With it, I can do all kinds of things, from setting up my own symbols, to moving keys around, to, well, let me just give you examples of how I’ve set up my keyboard. Remember that this is just what I have done; the flexibility of QMK is its real power. You could go in a completely different direction if you want.
- If I press the bottom-most keys, below the bottom row of letters, I get a set of arrows. This is on each side, so either hand can hit an arrow if it needs to. If I press and hold any of these keys, though, they turn into modifiers. Two sets of keys for the price of one.
- If I press home or end, they do what you’d expect. If I press and hold either one, though, it simulates pressing the control key with itself. That is, I can press home to go to the start of a line, or hold the key for a bit longer to jump to the top of the document. Pressing either home or end twice quickly adds shift, letting me quickly select a line without needing to hit the shift key at all.
- If I hold down either of two thumb keys, my left hand has home row access to the f keys, while my right hand has another set of arrows, home, end, page up, and page down.
- I have a layer for symbols I often use as a programmer. I can press and hold the key under either of my index fingers, and the rest of my keys become brackets, dollar sign, braces, and so on. I don’t need to hold shift and hit a number, just hold f or j and press a key on or near the home row.
- If I press and hold the home row keys under my other fingers, I get more modifiers. For instance, to press control-s, I need only hold down my right pinky (changing the semicolon into a control key) and press s. Imagine how many hotkeys would become easier if you had modifiers on the home row.
- If I press and hold n, my left hand has numbers under it, instead of letters. This saves stretching up to the number row if I don’t want to reach all the way up there.
- Backspace is where caps lock usually is, making it a lot more comfortable to get to. I can simply double press either shift key to toggle caps lock if I need it. Honestly, I’ve come to think every keyboard should adopt this idea.
- I have to type my work’s domain name a lot, since I often log into various servers. My username includes the work domain as well. Instead of typing that domain multiple times a day, I can now press and hold the backslash key briefly. Doing this causes the domain name to type itself out without me needing to do anything.
- My screen reader key is on the bottom left row, but I can put others anywhere I care to. I haven’t yet, only because this one works well for me, but knowing I can simply add a second key in a more comfortable spot is great.
I’m not even done yet. I didn’t mention the easy mappings for combinations like alt-f4 or control-f5, the key that is the applications key if pressed but lets me access media controls if held, and on it goes. The point is that QMK lets you do almost anything with your keyboard. If you just want to move a few keys around, and that’s all, great. If you want to dive into the code and really make your keyboard your own, you can do that, too.
QMK runs on a lot of keyboards. You don’t necessarily need an ortholinear board, or even a split one, to use it. It often gets used on smaller keyboards because the use of layers, and dual- or triple-use keys, means you don’t need as many keys as normal. Still, you can find keyboards that are more or less standard, but that support QMK, if you want to start small.
The Good and Bad
There is a lot that I am enjoying about this keyboard. QMK gives me incredible flexibility in how I can customize everything; typing is far more comfortable now; having two keys for each thumb is wonderful; and the tilt/tent kit on the EZ lets me find an angle that works well for my hands. It’s not all good, though.
First, this stuff can get expensive. You can get several keyboards for around $50 to $70, but you’ll have to assemble them yourself. That means soldering diodes, resisters, the micro controller, the key switches or sockets, and so on on your own. You’ll then need to 3D-print a case, or buy one that someone else has fabricated. While the soldering isn’t hard, my visual impairment means I can’t really do it. I therefore have to buy the prebuilt boards, or pay someone to assemble the keyboard I want.
Second, having used the EZ for almost two months as of the time of writing, I really don’t like standard keyboards anymore. I can use them, of course, but I’m now so used to the EZ’s superior layout that I don’t like to. My hands feel too close together, I keep tapping caps lock when I want to backspace, the staggered key layout makes my fingers feel clumsy, and the muscle memory I’ve built up for the EZ means I now have to think more when typing some keystrokes. I’m on my own keyboard nearly all the time, especially as I’m currently working from home thanks to COVID-19, so this isn’t a huge problem. Still, if and when I go back to working in an office, I’ll be purchasing a second keyboard similar to the EZ; I’ll have to. I simply don’t want to deal with the discomfort of a normal board for eight hours a day.
Third, QMK and games don’t get along. If you make keys that only do one thing, instead of doing one thing if you press them and another if you hold them down, games will work just fine. However, so many of my keys have multiple functions that this isn’t really an option. This doesn’t mean never gaming again, or having to switch keyboards, it just means coming up with a special layer meant only for gaming. I have to think which keys should be my arrows, which my modifiers, etc. While this is annoying at first, once you get it done, you’re set. Plus, you can make a few gaming layers if you want to, each with single keys bound to complex keystrokes in the game.
Fourth, I don’t think the Ergodox design is perfect. It could use more keys the thumb can access, and maybe some other keys could shift around some. There are other designs out there, such as the Redox and the Gergo, but finding these pre-built is difficult unless you are okay spending a lot of money. We’re back to the soldering/assembly problem, basically.
Finally, QMK’s use of secondary functions when keys are held is great. The problem is getting that timing right. I’ll often hold a key a bit too long, and suddenly find myself opening the start menu or jumping to the menu bar. This just takes getting used to, and breaking the habit of sometimes pressing keys slowly. Still, it’s the one aspect of the new keyboard that I have yet to really get comfortable with. (Update as of December 2021: I’ve long since gotten used to this. These days, I only hold a key when I don’t mean to if I’m tired or distracted.)
There You Go
I’ve been tweeting about the neat new things I’m able to get my keyboard to do, and people have been asking what I’m talking about. It’s hard to explain all this in a few tweets, so I thought I should write it all down in a longer format.
The keyboard I got is a split, ortholinear one, but you don’t need to go that extreme. If QMK has you curious, there are plenty of keyboards and macro pads that support it. If you decide the keyboard you purchase isn’t right for you, chances are you can sell it online. There’s a very active mechanical keyboard subreddit where someone will probably be happy to take the keyboard off your hands.
Most of my life, I’ve carried around more pounds than I should. My doctor says that, for my height and