Mild-Mannered Canadian Fury

Doug Stephen is Politely Peeved

On ergonomic and mechanical keyboards

Wed, 17 Oct 2012 Ā«permalinkĀ»

Most of last week at the day job, I found myself using one of these. It’s the same keyboard that Marco Arment frequently mentions when discussing his work setup and when discussing keyboards in general on his podcast. For years, I had often completely disregarded ergonomic keyboards as a boondoggle. I knew that the layout of most contemporary keyboards was a suboptimal layout. But I just didn’t think that the difference afforded by split-wave keyboards was really that big of a deal.

Boy, was I wrong. I don’t suffer from proper carpal tunnel, but on occasion I do find myself experiencing a little bit of pain in my wrists when mousing and typing frequently. Part of this has to do with chair/desk setups. Neither my home office nor my work office afford me a chair/desk combo that allows me to sit at the proper height in relative to my monitor while having my arms at the recommended 90 degree angles. But I never knew just how much a nice, ergonomic keyboard could afford someone who types a lot until I was stuck using this Microsoft keyboard. I had to set up a new continuous integration server and perform a migration, and the only spare keyboard free at the time was this old Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 that nobody was using.

Suffice to say, typing on it was fantastic. It’s taken me three or four days to come to terms with this, because the lab was kind enough to buy me a Das Keyboard at the beginning of the summer and I didn’t want to feel ungrateful. And my stance on mechanical keyboards has not changed; I absolutely love the tactile feedback and heft that you get out of mechanically switched keys. I use my Das Keyboard full-time at work, and at home I use a recently acquired Apple Extended Keyboard II (which I tore apart to clean yesterday). I just can’t stop thinking about that Microsoft keyboard, though.

I’ve done some research in to mechanical switch ergonomic keyboards. They exist. But they’re incredibly expensive, and most of them warp the traditional key layouts pretty dramatically in the name of “ergonomics”; two of the major contenders are the Kinesis Advantage and the Truly Ergonomic. As keyboards I’ve heard nothing but good things about them; however, I have a difficult time with the way they move modifiers and utility keys around. While the actual letter and number keys are obviously important, I’m a keyboard shortcut geek. I find myself using tools like Alfred, gleeBox, Keyboard Maestro, Keyboard Fu, and the built-in shortcuts for a lot of apps pretty frequently. I also have my iTerm set to visor mode, with a global shortcut mapped to Cmd+Shift+Delete. Moving modifiers and other keys like delete in to weird positions would completely mess up my workflow. I’ve also heard that the positioning of modifier keys tends to be the one small thing that users of these mechanical/ergonomic keyboards run up against.

What I want is simple; it’s the same thing that Marco wants. A simple keyboard with a traditional layout styled in the split-wave style with mechanical switches. Whether or not the split-wave style is the best ergonomic form factor doesn’t really matter to me right now; what matters is that it is, at the very least, a better form factor than a traditional rectangle block. I’m sure there has got to be something out there that makes designing this keyboard a challenge, but I can’t see it being insurmountable.

And if you read this and decide to go off and make this thing on Kickstarter or whatever, please let me know. I will back the hell out of your project.