TLDR: Corporate computing takes some adjustment, new layers might be needed even months later, and odd habits can take a long time to switch, but I’ll never go back from split programmable keyboards.
It’s been over eight months since I contracted split keyboard madness and purchased the Ergodox EZ as my primary driver at work during my day job. Fully programmable, tilt and tent capable, weirdly shaped, and definitely a conversation starter, I’ve have loved getting used to, then thriving with the Ergodox EZ. I’ve talked quite a bit in my previous installments about the features I like and how I’m using the keyboard day to day, so this one is going to focus more on long term impressions and how it’s changed my daily computer use both as an engineer and as a writer.
I was shocked last week when I started doing the calculations and realized that very soon, my 1 month post was going to be due for the Ergodox EZ report-out.
I’m actually starting this draft on my standard board at home because the hassle of carrying the Ergodox EZ to and from work got a bit much. Moreover, if I brought it home, I used it EXCLUSIVELY which kinda flew in the face of my plans to use it at work and maintain some semblance of proficiency with a standard board at night and on the weekends.
Let that in no way be considered a sign that my enjoyment of my newest ergonomic treat has lessened. On the contrary, the longer I go, the more I miss not having it when I have to write anything. I prefer it everywhere and everywhen.
This holiday season, as a reward to our kids for being excellent students, we purchased a Nintendo Switch as our family gaming console.
If you aren’t familiar with the Switch, it uses a pair of controllers called Joy-Cons to control the on-screen action. These can be slid into the sides of the device for mobile play, slipped into a grip to impersonate a regular game controller, or used with one in each hand – my favorite way to use them.
You can sit however you like and put your hand however they are comfortable. Playing racing games with one hand next to my leg and the other cradling my head is delightful – it reminds me all of all the time I’ve spent imagining what driving an actual car with a joystick might be like. I’m sure it would be better.
What does that have to do with keyboarding?
Typing on the Ergodox EZ is basically the same idea.
As I’ve gotten more adept with a split board, I find that my brain relaxes just a bit more when my hands are apart then together. This is likely placebo, but it elicits a different kind of mental state when I’m focused than when using a regular keyboard.
I love it.
It keeps my shoulders loose, my head more upright, and my hands happy. Pretty much all pain, discomfort, and stress have disappeared, especially during marathon typing sessions.
Hands apart takes a little bit to get used to, and even now I’ll get a moment’s hesitation where my brain has to remember that even though my hands aren’t right next to each other, they are still doing the same task – typing.
The first bit, when you spread things apart, it’s like my brain interpreted that as my hands doing two different things. But just like using a mouse in one hand and WASD on the other eventually turns into “gaming – shooter”, having the hands split becomes just “typing.”
I love that I do all these micro adjustments throughout the day.
Forearm feeling a bit strained? Lets increase the tenting angle (i.e. how far tipped up the center of each side is). Right thumb stretched – whoops, the angle of my chair isn’t quite right, lets move that right board over a smidge and add a twist – bingo. Hmm – that key stroke for getting in layer 2 feels off – lets swap it with the key next to it.
Every little thing helps and makes it more personal and more, me. And as an engineer and writer, I accept that there is nothing “perfect”. I don’t agonize and waste time deciding if the layout is perfect or the ergonomics of my desk are exact. Instead, iteration is the key. Small adjustments, sustained over time. It’s basically the same idea as Toyota’s lean principles.
As for layers and layout, I’ve officially declared version 1.0 of my setup. The configurator just makes it so easy to play and swap whenever I want, so expect this to continue to evolve.
I’ve spent a lot of time in this and the other posts talking about how the Ergodox works and what I like, but not a lot on what it’s done for my writing.
So far, the effect is muted. My current project is doing a cut edit to try to remove 10% of my existing word count. That means a lot of scrolling, clicking, and deleting.
Having the delete and backspace keys under single digit (thumb) is glorious. And having Ctrl-Z (undo) right there with them means that a lot of the process looks like me gaming or doing graphics work – hand on mouse and keyboard.
I am rather looking forward to my next project where I’ll get to start drafting again and see how long I can type without fatigue. I imagine the board will help, but I haven’t had much chance to test it yet.
The one big negative I can say is that I have plateaued in my progress with speed and accuracy, and I freely admit, it’s me.
My daily use is fine and I don’t have any issues with the board. But I’m at that stage now where familiarity only takes me so far. If I want to get REALLY good at it, deliberate practice is the only thing that’s going to work.
And I’m not surprised by this. Switching to Colemak was exactly the same thing – eventually, I could only be so good without buckling down and forcing myself to do the hard stuff – accuracy drills, speed tests, transcription practice, etc.
Where the Ergodox is going to be different and more challenging is in how the other powers mesh with it.
The first thing I’m going to start deliberately practicing (and indeed, started already) is using the mouse control via the keyboard (see layer 1 of my map). There is a very clear connection with my right hand stress and mouse use now that I’ve gotten this board, which is surprising because I’d already thought I’d eliminated that as a source.
But, lo and behold, I can feel it when I do lots of mouse swapping. I think the Ergodox lowered my overall threshold and now that the stress of typing isn’t there, the mouse use shows. So, in an effort to limit it, I’m going to work the keyboard more.
I know it will never replace a dedicated point device, but for 80% of my mouse use, better navigation through keyboard and keyboard mouse control will be sufficient, so that’s what I’m going to start on first.
Only the First…or Fourth…whatever
The Ergodox will definitely NOT be my last mechanical keyboard. Which I think is dead-at-odds with what I had stated when this whole thing began. Granted, a new purchase will not be soon – next year at the earliest – but I love the split keyboard so much I want something smaller and more portable to take with me on trips and to use at home. I find myself leering at pictures of them, trying decide which I will eventually get.
I know this also flies in the face of my stated goal with keeping up on regular standard boards. I think I’ll just work those moments in throughout the day instead of dedicating my evenings and weekends to them. Right now, I can go for nearly a week on the Ergodox full time, and 2 minutes on a regular keyboard is all I need to get back into the groove. If I just spend that responding to an email or journaling at lunch, I’ll be fine.
And I know that getting one of these boards will require that I learn how to deal with firmware and setting up a configuration compiler and computer stuff I said I wasn’t going to deal with, and QMK and custom maps and ordering keycaps and soldering. Just ignore that for now – that’s all in the future.
I mean, it’s not like buying mechanical keyboards is at all compulsive.
I can stop any time I like. They’re just tools. They’re useful, that’s all. I don’t have a problem – you have a problem.
Thanks to some great questions by reader Chloros, I thought I’d compile a post on some of the things that might not be readily apparent about the Ergodox EZ (at least as far as I’m able) and to point out a couple of cons I’ve noticed. I think my posts so far may have been too glowing in their praise. So I’ll try to be a bit clearer here. Sorry this took so long to get ready.
Does the programming stay with the board? If it gets unplugged or power goes out or I switch computers does anything happen? Can I use it with someone else’s computer?
The programming is part of the keyboard, not a application running on the computer.
It’s fully within the firmware – flashing a new layout means reflashing directly to the board. Power goes out or board gets unplugged? No issue, everything is there still there, nothing erased. All the layers and key assignments stay put and I can switch from my work computer to my home unit with no down time at all. Plug and play. New computer I’ve never used the keyboard with? So long as the standard USB keyboard drivers are up-to-date, I don’t think there’s anything that would affect it. Swapping units has no effect at all on the Dox – unless I specifically flash using the tool, nothing affects the layouts I have and nothing from the keyboard changes the computer I’m using.
Gaming with a programmable keyboard, will layers or stuff screw up my game?
I don’t think so, and to be honest, I’m not the best source to ask. The only PC game I play with any regularity is Stardew Valley using WASD/mouse.
But, from what I’ve read, gaming might be one of the big reasons people go with a programmable kb. Since all the key assignments sit in the firmware, you can just program a layer to have all your shortcuts and key assignments right at your fingertips. So long as you don’t accidentally switch to another layer in the midst of play (and that requires you to hit a key that you have specifically set to be a layer changing key), there’s nothing the board would do to mess your game up.
Similar example – in writing, basic formatting and copy/paste functions get used all the time, so I set the interior column of both halves to have those shortcuts. To invoke bold I don’t have to hold the Ctrl key and hit “b”, I just tap the left-half inner column bottom key and the board sends “Ctrl-b” for me. I use one key stroke to send two.
That said, using the web-based configuration tool, things like macros aren’t possible.
The subreddits for the Ergodox and the Ergordox EZ are a good community resource. They’ve been very helpful to me.
Online EZ Configuration Tool – what happens if it goes away or the company closes shop? Are there other ways to program the board and change key assignments?
The online configuration tool is just a web-based compile tool for QMK, the firmware used on the original Ergodox, Ergodox Infinity, and a ton of other boards. It’s just far easier to use a web-based tool than setting up the compiler on your own computer.
For a new user and for someone not a developer (for example, me) its great. But it’s not as powerful and there are some quirks. So if the EZ company decides to pull the plug, there is always the QMK firmware, which is open source and has a decidedly enthusiastic community supporting it.
One quirk which I was not aware of (and this goes to one of the cons) – when you make a new layer using the configurator, the new layer is essentially transparent back down to the base layer.
For example, if I make a new layer, say layer 4, and don’t assign anything to it, when I switch to layer 4, it behaves just as though I’m on layer 0, the base layer.
If you want a new layer to be truly blank, turns out in keyboard-speak, you have to assign the keys the “blank” character. In the configurator that’s the “None” assignment. I think the reason this happens is because when you press a key on the keyboard, that completes a circuit and sends a signal. The computer HAS to know what the signal is, or you risk crashing something. So, the default approach is to just send what is already in that position on the base layer.
I think I understand the reasons for this and I’ve started to use this to my benefit, but the visual presentation of the configurator makes you think these blank keys send “nothing” or the blank character. I was annoyed by that and would like some better documentation to that effect on the configurator page.
If there more questions, feel free to post them below, and I’ll update here as time permits.
Update: I wanted to add my week long impressions before the daily recap, so edited to add that in at the beginning of the post; GMG
Week 1 Impressions
I am shocked at how quickly I have acclimated to the Ergodox EZ in my daily work. Granted, I’m using it nearly 6 hours a day between work and novel writing, but I really am surprised at how much I enjoy using it. I don’t think that much computer work is common for people. I also think I have a distinct difference over a lot of Ergodox adopters: I am NOT a developer or programmer. For me, that means I have fewer keys that I have to relearn.
For me, I needed to adapt to:
having the board split and hands farther apart
arrow keys on a layer
few shortcuts (bold, italics, cut, copy, paste, etc) at special positions on layer 0
I think developers and programmers have more that they would have to adapt to – symbols, IDE shortcuts, window movement keys, maybe integrating vim/Emacs.
The other big impression: people will absolutely judge you for buying one, but on the inside, probably find it pretty cool. My boss calls my cube the “cockpit” now and asks if I like piloting the shuttle. But he was also very eager to give the Ergodox a shot and was amazed at how hard it was to master, giving me props for getting good at it as fast as I have. My co-workers all tried it as well and everyone came away saying it was cool, impressed I would be willing to make this drastic change to my work place. One of them is even starting to learn about mechanical keyboards, perhaps moving towards one for himself one day.
Below, I’ve listed out my thoughts day by day, if that interests you. If you’ve got questions, feel free to drop them below and drift around to any of my other posts.
Day 0 – End of the day
I give in, my brain hurts. I went all day with Ergodox and could feel things kicking in slowly – left thumb is actually a useful digit now, arrows keys are right under my fingers, layers are starting to make sense.
But holy crap, I’m worn out. Very reminiscent of learning Colemak, where it isn’t a headache, but actually feeling like I can’t think anymore. I know gray matter in the brain has no nerve endings to feel, but this feels like a brainache.
Also, it’s weird to have my hands on separate boards. Wonder if that’s going to every feel normal.
But for the rest of the day, I’m switching back to my regular board just so that I can get this last email out.
I did however make all of my colleagues try it out on my QWERTY layer. I was hilarious to watch them try to process the changes introduced. None of them realized that the keys aren’t staggered until I pointed it out. They kept getting annoyed that they’d hit M and , at the same time.
Day 1 – Saturday half day
I did use it for doing revisions to my novel and I really like using is sorta one handed. Left hand on board with backspace and delete available and right hand on mouse. I could easily see doing gaming this way.
Still really struggling with bottom row not being staggered. This might be the thing which breaks me. If I can’t get this down, I can’t type and there’s not point continuing.
I CAN FINALLY TYPE “C” WITHOUT ERRORS!! Still struggling with X, V, and B though, but I think my brain is finally accepting the new positions.
And I made a lot of iterations to my layout today.
Also, I realized that I had put too much under my right thumb cluster. The pain moved from ring/pinky of my right hand to my right thumb, so the last item on that list, v0.6, was to move my layer 1 key elsewhere and change it’s type. Things feel better already.
I actually feel like I got work done today. I wasn’t thinking so intently on how to use the keyboard, I just used it and got stuff done. Suddenly bottom row stuff wo
DCA profile keycaps now feel mostly normal. I like that I don’t have to raise up much to move from row to row. I still wonder how DCS profile might feel for more sculpting.
Tenting also feels like it has lessened hand pain and I’m really liking having my hands apart.
Hmm, I’m using the built-in keyboard on my laptop during a meeting and I can’t type. My hands consistently are too far apart so I’m off the keys, I’m actually using my left thumb, though I keep hitting spacebar instead of backspacing. Ugh! Why don’t my fingers work?
Wait, there it is. After 20 seconds, my brain kicked in and I could suddenly type again just fine.
Who would have though that 5 days would be all that was needed to get that comfortable with a new system that my old one would feel foreign?
I think I need to make certain to use regular layout keyboards at least daily for a few minutes so that I don’t lose the ability to type on them at all.
Only struggles now are using number row and remembering to use layer 1 for navigation (arrows, end, home) instead of reaching for the mouse. I’m surprised at how fast I can navigate if I just can remember where to hit.
Error rate is down significantly and hesitation when doing regular typing is nearly none. Password entry is slow since much of that is muscle memory that hasn’t yet adapted to the new layout. Using my text expansion software (TyperTask) is also slow for similar reasons.
I LOVE that I can independently move each half. Little bit of rotation in or out, move in or out. Just tweak things a little for that hand to reduce stress and discomfort just a little bit more. Every little bit is helping. Shoulders are more relaxed and hand pain is down. Now both hands feel like they are getting used, but not in pain. And the adjustments in tenting are helping. I’m actually finding that too much tenting can contribute to stress as well.
So my board arrived last night, a day earlier than expected, which is always a nice bonus. Less nice was USPS caused a bit of a kerfuffle with how they do parcel delivery if someone isn’t home to receive the package. However, even with the issues, I am much happier with my USPS experience than recent FedEx deliveries with regards to parcels that require signature for delivery.
Still, all that mixed together meant that today was day 0 with the Ergodox EZ.
I’m not going to go into too much detail and for my regulars who aren’t keyboard aficionados, there might be a lot of jargon that will be unfamiliar. Since this is closer to steam of consciousness, I’ll direct you to the comments area if you’ve got something bugging you that you want to ask about.
Unboxing and Initial Thoughts
I got to have some help in opening my package, which is always a treat. And since I received a used unit, mine didn’t come with the same experience as someone getting it new. That said, major props to the seller who packed it very nicely with plenty of space and foam. All the bits, bobs, cables, and pieces were present and accounted for.
This particular unit has Gateron Brown switches. This is my second experience with Gateron Browns and this experience is much better. The batch of Gaterons used on my Obin Anne Pro keyboard seem much mushier in comparison. These are crisp, very much akin to the Cherry MX Browns that I have on other boards. Typing feel is very nice. I will say that the Ergodox EZ doesn’t have the “hefty” feel in typing that my WASD CODE board does, but I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. I am very pleased so far.
Key caps are nice – the DCA profile is going to be a change that only time will reveal if I like. The nubs that comes on the F and J keys are so prominent and I love them; almost sharp to the touch. So easy to tell without looking if I’m on the home row or not. I would be very interested to try the DCS profile that the blank Ergodox EZ comes with.
Ortholinear Keys and Customizing the Layout
One of the obvious differences from other keyboard are the non-staggered rows, and boy are they taking some time to get used to.
Reaching up from home row hasn’t been an issue, but the reaching down to the bottom row is so different, especially for my left hand. The X, C, V, and B keys just don’t sit where I’m used to and I’m way overreaching past where the keys are relative to where my brain thinks they should be. That’s going to be the hardest thing to master, I think. And since I will often be using other boards (laptop, personal Surface 4 Pro, conference room computers, etc.) I’m going to get plenty of chance to practice going from one to the other.
Getting used to the thumb cluster is going much smoother. By mid day, I had almost gotten used to the backspace key and the enter key being at thumb positions. And and I’m really getting used to having mouse control available to me through keys instead of having to reach for a mouse.
I had been using the online configuration tool in the days leading up to receipt in order to play with my initial thoughts of a layout.
Colemak layout on Layer 0 with dedicated cut/copy/paste and underline/italics/bold on the inner most column of each half and spacing/editing keys on the thumb clusters. As I haven been thinking about how I use computers each day, between work and prose drafting, I have tried to put the things I use the very most in that top layer. I think there will be plenty of tweaking to be done.
I also had a moment of consternation deciding how I wanted to deal with Ctrl-Alt-Delete (for logging into my work computer), Ctrl-Shift-Esc (used to pull up the Task Manager), and the combination of Win-Arrow keys (for moving and docking windows) as these are all things I will want to access quickly numerous times a day in my engineering work.
In playing with the configurator, I noticed what seemed like a few bugs and sent off an email to the Ergodox folks. The customer service response from them has been amazing. I kinda feel bad buying my unit used instead of buying a new one. I hope that providing some additional exposure will make up the difference.
So what questions or comments do you have? Leave them below.
Some of my real-space friends and acquaintances will know that I have a problem.
I have started buying keyboards. Expensive keyboards.
No necessarily break-the-bank types of purchases, but if your experience with expensive keyboards is a Logitech combo keyboard and mouse set, I’m not talking about those. I’ve started into the world of mechanical keyboards (which thankfully are coming down in price the more mainstream they become). My least expensive keyboard was the same price as that combo and it comes with only 61 keys – 40% fewer than a normal sized keyboard. Same price for something in a much smaller package.
Why pay so much for a keyboard? Well, I’ll actually be doing an entire series on that and reviewing the boards I have at some point later this year. Suffice it to say I find the quality, the feel, and the ergonomics of these boards much better than the wired USB keyboard that comes with your Dell or HP workstations. And ergonomics reason is the big one.
During NaNoWriMo this last November, I calculated I averaged 9 hours per day of keyboard usage (a little less on the weekends) between work and prose writing. That’s a lot. And my hands noticed. I’ve had some issues with RSI crop up in the past and the symptoms returned again in full force this year as I pushed myself to write more and faster than I have before. So, I’ve been on the lookout for something that will further alleviate stress on my hands and fingers because this will likely be the state of affairs for some time – day job and night drafting. And I hope I have found it.
It’s called the Ergodox. It’s a open source (code and design) split keyboard that has started to become popular in the keyboard enthusiast community. It uses programmable layers to allow for much greater functionality and efficiency in typing and by being split, each half can be placed and oriented to be the most comfortable. There are a lot of other differences, both visible and invisible.
The problem with it? I don’t want to mess with the software/firmware side of it. I can program, but only out of necessity, which all of this lovely flexibility would require. The other? You have to build it yourself from a kit of parts, which again, I could do, but I don’t want to spend the time and money acquiring all the tools I would need.
Thus enter my eventual choice – the Ergodox EZ. A manufactured, customizable version with a web-based configuration tool for programming all the layout changes.
The big problem with both? Price.
Both units cost well over $200, with the EZ (with the accessories) going north of $350.
As I said, expensive. But I finally have gotten to the point where if I’m going to spend that kind of time typing, I really should make sure I have something that is going to help me, rather than hurt me. And if this can do it, it’s a bargain, even at those prices.
So, I found a used Ergodox EZ (same version shown) that a fellow enthusiast tried and didn’t end liking, selling it to me for a significant drop in price compared to new. Will it be worth it? Will I see a reduction in pain and strain in my hands? Will I be able to handle all the changes?
That’s what I’ll document over the next while – at least the next month – as I try out this new (and quite different to me) keyboard. That’s why this post it day -2; the board is due to arrive later this week and I’ve been started to wrap my brain around how I might actually make this thing work for me.
Next week I’ll post some unboxing photos and talk about my first brushes with the unit.
If you’ve got any questions, post them below and I’ll try to answer them.