A Keyboard With Knobs On

It has become frankly silly.

I’m sitting here with effectively seven keyboards.  I haven’t grown extra arms.  To be fair, the gamepad and the foot pedals aren’t connected and my old trusty Logitech K350 is languishing to one side.  The Logitech is there ready to leap back into the fray if the replacement hits a snag.

I bought an Ergodox off Gumtree.  This is an ergonomic, split, columnar, ortholinear, tented, mechanical, underlit keyboard and completely customisable.

What does all that mean?  A writing colleague asked if I had RSI and I don’t, but surely the trick is to get an ergonomic keyboard, one designed for your hands, before you get RSI.

So, to explain:-

Split’ means that the keyboard is in two halves.  You move these apart to reduce shoulder strain.

Columnar’ means that the keys are arranged in straight columns unlike the usual staggered layout.  (Look at your keyboard now: it’s a honeycomb pattern.)  This change is because your fingers are straight.

Otholinear’ means that these columns of keys are shifted up for your middle finger and down for your little finger, because your fingers are not all the same length.

Tented’ means that the middle is raised and looks a bit like a tent.  This is to avoid twisting your wrists to lie on a flat keyboard.  Technically, the two sides ought to be vertical, but I’ve found 15o is about right for me.  This keyboard doesn’t have a tenting kit, so I made one from MDF.  It looks terrible!  It needs painting, but it is more comfortable (or will be, once I lower my desk by 3 cms).

Mechanical’ means the keys make clicky noises and is therefore more exciting.  Yeah!  People go on about it, but I don’t really care.

Underlit’ means that there are LED lights tucked under each key.  If you have keys with transparent letters, they shine.  All the reviews, particularly those on YouTube, really go to town demonstrating the glow, rippling patterns and flashing as if writing in a disco helps you concentrate.  I thought this would be another ‘meh’ feature, but it turned out to be useful.  I can see the keys in the dark and I’ve used the keyboard as a torch!  More importantly it turns from white to red when I switch to Layer 1.  I’ll have to explain that too and it’s in the section after next.

Customisable’ means that every key can be turned into something else.  If you don’t like where the ‘@’ symbol happens to be, then move it.  I write fiction and Shift-2 for double quotes is a pain, so I moved it to here, there and everywhere.  Indeed, a one point I had five different ways to start dialogue.  I’ve narrowed it down to the US keyboard layout and then swapped the apostrophe and semi-colon.  I created dedicated keys for ‘!’, ‘?’ and ‘#’ as well as one for interrupted speech.  Indeed, the keyboard is rarely the same from one week to another, which makes it tricky to learn.  I have a map printed out as well as writing on blank keys with a sharpie pen.  Some changes have been easy to learn.  I get the apostrophe right, but a colon tends to be the following sequence: double quotes, space, swear, backspace, backspace, shift-semi colon.  There are extra keys too, so I’ve dedicated one to italics.  Add this to AutoHotKey and Macros (see earlier blogs) and who knows what’ll happen when I press, say, this key here.

The layer concept is like pressing ‘shift’ for capitals.  On Layer 1, the red layer, I’ve set up the cursor keys.  Layer 2, the green layer, is a numeric keypad, although I’ve yet to really use that in anger.  The idea is that using keys for multiple functions reduces the space taken up on your desk and finger movement.

Overall, the new keyboard does make touch typing straightforward, but it doesn’t forgive bad habits.  I’ve discovered that I must have been reaching way over with my right hand to press ‘b’.  The extra centimetre was something my right index finger could do, but now with a split keyboard, it’s more like 20 cms – that’s an impossible reach.  The letter ‘p’ is tricky as my right little finger is slightly bent and goes for the ‘o’; this has been going on a long time as my right ‘ring’ finger presses the ‘p’ quite happily.  I’m trying to train myself out of it.

I do mistype and suddenly Word brings up some madness because I’ve managed to press control-alt-b-u or whatever, and it’s some esoteric shortcut for something you’d never need.

Numbers are a problem.  I used to just go along the top row with my right index finger, but that’s counterintuitive when 1-5 are over here and 6-0 are way over there with F8 and F15 in-between.

Another major issue is going back.  Recently, I tried typing on my old Logitech, which is ergonomic, but only slightly in comparison.  My fingers couldn’t cope with it at all.  It was like fumbling around in boxing gloves.

But it is easier. This blog has just gone over 1,000 words (sorry) in one sitting and my fingers, wrists and shoulders are fine.

I did find I missed the dedicated cursor keys.  You can put them on the Ergodox, of course, and I bought special yellow arrow keys for this.  With the old keyboard, I was in the habit of resting my fingers up against them when rewriting.  I bought another keypad with four keys to replicate this old setup… and then another keypad for nine keys, so I can have dedicated volume controls and keys for copy, paste and cut, and to type my email address, make a cup of tea… etc.

Unfortunately, the little keyboards were fiddly to reach. I moved them to sit between the big Ergodox ones and the tenting creates a barrier.

The solution?  Why another keyboard!