From hunt and peck on a membrane keyboard to touch typing on a custom split ergonomic keyboard: a few steps towards a better working environment.
On a regular weekday, I spend more than 8 hours at my keyboard. I’ve spent some time reading up and thinking on how to make that experience as comfortable as possible. That’s how I discovered the world of mechanical and ergonomic keyboards. If like me you’ve googled around for some keyboard recommendations, you most likely quickly came across the following:
- Mechanical keyboards: comfortable, durable, they use single switches for each key that can be customized to fit your typing style. They are the noisy keyboards we all used until laptops and cheap desktop keyboards became more popular in the nineties.
- Ergonomic keyboards: they are often split into 2 halves and may look weird, but are a lot more comfortable to use.
- /r/MechanicalKeyboards (and later on geekhack and deskthority): yes, there are vibrant communities about mechanical / ergonomic keyboards, and how to build / buy / customize / use them. It’s a strong community, too!
Before long I was becoming a keyboard nerd, learning the differences between switches, boards, learning about the softwares that powered those keyboards, and admiring the work others had put into building their own keyboard(s). I got my very first mechanical keyboard a bit later; a WASD V2 TKL with some MX Clear and blank keycaps.
It was a great introduction: it made me realize how much more comfortable it could be to type on a “real” keyboard. The blank keycaps also helped me when I decided to switch to a different keyboard layout, Colemak.
Fast forward a year: I have learnt to touch type. Somehow I had never learnt to type properly before, although it is my job. :) I can now touch type at a reasonable speed (around 70/80 words per minute). I have switched to a better keyboard layout (Colemak) that does not require me to move my fingers that much; this is really more comfortable, especially after a long day of typing on days when I am stressed. And to top it off, I type on a mechanical keyboard that is more comfortable as I type less aggressively on the keys.
What else can I do to make my working environment even better? Well, I could mix things up even more and switch to a brand new keyboard :)
This is the Redox, an open-source, QMK powered, split ergonomic mechanical keyboard.
That’s a lot of words. Let’s backup a bit.
- Redox stands for “Reduced Ergodox“; Ergodox is a popular ergonomic keyboard, and the Redox was built to improve on the design of the Ergodox. Its “thumb cluster” is arranged a bit differently to really allow you to make good use of one of your strongest fingers. Think about it, what does your thumb do on your own keyboard, apart from hitting the space bar? That’s a waste of a finger! You’ll also notice that the keyboard is not arranged into rows like a regular keyboard; instead, it’s arranged into staggered columns so you can easily find the right key when touch typing.
The Redox is a split ergonomic keyboard. It has 2 halves that you can place far away from each other, so your shoulders can be relaxed and open when you type. You’ll also notice the legs that allow me to tent the keyboard to lessen the tension in my wrists. That makes for a comfortable position at my desk!
- Everything about the keyboard is open source: anyone can grab the design files and build a different case for it, rearrange keys, change things around.
- The hardware design is open source, and the firmware too. Redox, like other similar keyboards, uses a firmware called QMK. That firmware uses the GPL license. Anyone can customize it. In practice, it means that I can customize what key goes where and move things around at any time.
Here is my current configuration, for example:
My keymap uses 5 layers. If you are not familiar with “layers”, think of the Shift key you use on your keyboard every day. It allows to temporarily switch to a different “layer” of your keyboard, where the things you type are different. My keyboard’s firmware takes this to an extreme and allows you to create up to 32 layers, that can be accessed by hitting specific keys or key combinations.
Here are my current layers:
- The default base layer, using Colemak.
- A Symbol layer, so all symbols can be accessed from the home row. (top right legends) This is especially handy when coding.
- A Navigation / Media layer, with both sound control and arrows on the home row. (bottom right legends)
- An international / Emoji layer so I can type accented characters commonly used in France and in Hungary, as well as a few Emoji I often use. (top center legends)
- A keyboard control layer, not pictured above, allowing me to control the LED lighting, sound, as well as the keyboard debug functions. Yes, my keyboard has lights and can make music :) I don’t use the sound much, but the LED underglow is useful for now; I set it to change color whenever I switch to a different layer, so it’s helping me learn the different layers faster.
I created a repo for that keymap on GitHub if anyone is interested. I am far from being an expert in C, but that code works :)
I expect that configuration will change a lot in the coming weeks / months, as I become more familiar with the layout. I’ll update the repo as I make more changes. I may, for example, change the location of the Layer buttons to make them more accessible. I will definitely look into ways to lessen the stress I put on my pinkies with the Shift and Tab keys. I may also introduce custom behaviours when hitting a key twice, or when holding a key for a long time (imagine being able to copy or paste by simply holding the C or V key for 3 seconds). If you have recommendations or ideas, let me know!
Want even more details? I’ve opted for Cherry MX Brown switches and some generic blank DSA keycaps for now. I may switch to a different profile later on; I’ve grown used to sculpted keycaps, I find it helpful to touch type. That said, finding keysets of sculpted keycaps with the right number of mod keys for the Redox may prove difficult. :)
What’s next? A trackpad or trackball maybe, to place between the 2 halves? I like the idea of a trackball, but Apple’s magic trackpad could be great, with all Apple’s custom gestures. I may need to buy a couple of colored keycaps, or keycaps with a homing bump, as I find that I am missing this right now, it makes me type slower.
I definitely need to experiment with tenting the board a lot more, to make sure I find the most comfortable spot for me.
I will need to type on this thing a bit more too! The staggered column layout (the keys are organized in columns, not in rows like with a regular keyboard) is messing with my brain, I can’t seem to find the “C” key anymore :) The thumb cluster, on the other hand, should not really be an issue, I am already starting to get used to it.
Any other suggestions? Do you want your own? if you’re interested, you can use the
FTje05herve discount code to get a 6% discount on the site where I bought it, FalbaTech. Their customer service is top notch, don’t hesitate!