computers

Keyboards

table of contents

Waiting…

For the last 3 or so years, I’ve been passively searching for a really good keyboard, since I spend a lot of time typing. Mainly my wants were for it to be ergonomic (split) and to have mechanical keyswitches. After my brother semi-recently started having major RSI issues, my search has been kicked into high gear. Herein I’ll attempt to document some thoughts on the keyboards I considered.

Keyboardio

The first keyboard that really caught my attention was Keyboardio, mainly because of the really great blog post from Jesse Vincent–one of the two founders–describing the different iterations he went through while initially designing it. It was funded as a Kickstarter project–and easily met it’s goal–but unfortunately has been stuck in design and manufacturing stages for a long time, and is still in pre-order status, expected to be delivered in Q1 2017.

Fortunately the team has been really open about the entire process, and has written extensively about it, including the various decisions that have gone into design, and hurdles they’ve had to jump in working with hardware manufacturers. It’s been a super fascinating process to follow.

The main reason I didn’t buy one was because of the price, $329 (was $250 for Kickstarter backers if I recall correctly), which is more than I’d like to pay.

Ergodox

Ergodox

The next keyboard I seriously considered was the Ergodox. The design of the Ergodox is really cool (and freely licensed!), but it takes a little more than “here’s some money” to procure one. They generally have to be bought as a kit, and you have to buy the kit as part of a “drop” (a group manufacturing deal). Then, you’ll have to do some soldering and flash the firmware onto the keyboard.

This leaves a lot of room for customization (and people have made some seriously cool designs), and deserves a lot of credit for the DIY ethos, but it was more work than I wanted to sign up for. Then along came the Ergodox EZ, a pre-assembled Ergodox. I would’ve leapt at this, but the price was just a little higher than I wanted to pay, because when it first became available for IndieGogo pre-order (it’s now available for regular purchase) I wasn’t employed.

Kinesis Advantage

Kinesis Advantage

I haven’t really seriously considered the Kinesis Advantage because of the price (are you noticing a trend?), but it’s a cool keyboard that I read about pretty extensively anyway. Kinesis has been making ergonomic keyboards with mechanical keys for longer than anyone else as far as I’m aware. Anandtech has a really good review of the Advantage.

Ultimate Hacking Keyboard

The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard is another crowdfunded one that’s still in the pre-order process (on CrowdSupply, expected to ship in February).

I really like the form factor of the UHK, but again, the price (currently $220, will be $250 after launch) kept me from ordering, although on this one I was pretty close.

IBM Model M

I recently inherited an IBM Model M. I’d never used one, but I knew that they were pretty sought after for their clicky keys. (Can confirm; extremely clicky.)

IBM Model M

I’m not using it (it’s a little too clicky, it’s not split, and my laptop doesn’t have a PS/2 port), but it’s neat to have.

Microsoft 4000

At work I recently found an old Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 in the closet, and started using it.

Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000

It’s fairly comfortable, but to my surprise, it actually takes more force to push down the keys than the mechanical keyboards I’ve used. (This might not be the case with newer models, I’m guessing the one I’m using is at least 4 or 5 years old.) I’ve also come to dislike the numpad (on any keyboard, not specifically on this one), since you have to reach further for the mouse.

Mistel Barocco review

The keyboard I eventually went with–back in October–was the Mistel Barocco with Cherry MX Brown switches from Amazon. The form factor is pretty similar to the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard and the Ergodox, but the price is $160, which I could stomach.

Mistel Barocco

It’s been awesome so far. I was a little hesitant at first, because it just came out in August, and there were only a couple reviews when I bought it (still only 9 at the time of this writing), but the ones that were there were pretty thorough and enthusiastic about it. My only gripes with it are that–though the two halves fit together–there’s no mechanism for keeping them together, which would’ve been useful for transporting; and also that the keys aren’t backlit (although there are now backlit models available for $180). (I’ve also had issues with the left half of the keyboard not being immediately recognized after waking my laptop, but I’m fairly certain this is either being caused by my OS or the USB hub the keyboard is plugged into, or some combination thereof.) But these are minor gripes. Overall the keyboard has been awesome to use. It’s both the first ergonomic keyboard and the first mechanical keyboard that I’ve used full time, and it’s been extremely comfortable and easy to get used to.

Although I’d still like to try a few of the others that I mentioned (esp. Keyboardio and Ergodox), I’ve been really pleased with the Barocco, even before considering prices. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who spends a lot of time typing.

To Colemak…

Another thing (besides mechanical keyswitches and a split design) that I often see mentioned in online discussions about keyboards is key layout. The argument against QWERTY usually goes that it was designed in the 19th century, and meant for typewriters, and so was designed with a set of goals and restrictions that no longer exist or don’t apply today (i.e. that letters often appearing in subsequent order shouldn’t be next to each other to prevent jamming, and that the keys in “typewriter” should be located entirely in the top row for demonstration purposes[1]). So QWERTY is what was designed, and it’s what we still have today because it’s impractical to switch since QWERTY is what everyone has learned and gotten used to.

But that hasn’t stopped individuals from coming up with new layouts and switching themselves. And people who switch often report major increases in comfort, and sometimes minor increases in typing speed. In the ‘30s we got Dvorak, still the second most popular layout after QWERTY. In the 2000s, there have been a lot of new layouts, often designed partially or entirely by computer algorithm to optimize for things like commonly adjacent letters being placed on opposite halves, and the most common letters being on the home row. Colemak and Workman are the most popular of the more recent layouts.

In November I switched to Colemak since it’s a pretty popular layout[2] (third, after QWERTY and Dvorak) so there are a lot of anecdotes and guides available from people who switched (I was especially worried about having to move things around in Vim). The first couple weeks proved to be really difficult. ~15 years of touch typing with QWERTY is not easily unlearned. I practiced a lot with zty.pe, a typing game my friend Zach had shown me, and that helped a lot. After 4 weeks I was fairly comfortable with it, and had gotten close to my speed with QWERTY.

But even by only a couple weeks in, I noticed a huge increase in comfort. Luckily I’ve never dealt with too much wrist pain, but at the end of some days where I’ve spent a lot of time typing, I’ve had some aches. I haven’t noticed this at all since switching to Colemak.

… and back again

Alas, all good things must come to an end. I got a job that entails working on other people’s workstations much of the time, which means I have to stick with QWERTY for the time being. Part of me is considering trying to stay proficient in both layouts, but I’m not sure it would be worth the trouble[3]. It took me about 2 days before I was back to my normal speed and comfort level with QWERTY. (I used zty.pe again to make the switch back.)

Notes

  1. The Colemak website has a more extensive list of complaints about QWERTY and Dvorak.
  2. Colemak (along with Dvorak) was also an option built-in to my new Barocco keyboard, although I found it easier to just use my OS’s built-in keyboard layout options.
  3. Though I’d be interested in in hearing from anyone who regularly moves between different layouts.