Keyboards

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been someone to strongly advocate for investment in great input devices and a really good working environment, when using computers. Great keyboards, mice, displays, chairs, desks, ambient lighting, etc. You get the picture. Those things are overwhelmingly more important than the computer you interface with using those things.

In recent years I’ve converged on a setup that really couldn’t be much better, save for the possible ability to make great coffee without having to leave the room, although I really would fear for my health if the main reason for leaving this room was negated. I have two amazing displays, a sit/stand desk, fantastic headphones, brilliant chair, great adjustable lighting…basically everything I could possibly want while using my computer.

That includes the keyboard. I switched to a full-sized keyboard with mechanical switches — a Filco Majestouch-2 Ninja with Cherry MX blues — a couple of years ago, at the encouragement of a friend, after years using stock Apple USB keyboards. I always thought the Apple keyboards were great, but there really isn’t any beating a keyboard with great switch hardware in terms of possible typing feel and tactile feedback.

There’s nothing wrong with the Majestouch-2 either. In fact, looking at it now, it’s almost perfect. I love the all-black look, the chassis construction and solidity, the integrated velcro cable tidy, and of course the layout, rake and those excellent Cherry MX switches. Those switches are where it all goes wrong (or right, depending on perspective!) when it comes to mechanical keyboards.

Because of the choice in switches, any research into what the differences are opens up a huge Pandora’s Box of options on the keyboards they’re wired to, and the keycaps you can put on top of them. And I’m hooked. I got the Filco because the encouraging friend had one too and he let me type on it once. That’s a true blessing, because if I was trying to decide now without the guiding wisdom of an existing mechanical keyboard owner, I don’t think I’d be able to make a choice.

Mechanical keyboards vary not just in the switches you can put in them, but in size, arrangement, lighting, programmability, connectivity and the keycaps that adorn them. Want a standard keyboard like the Majestouch-2 that you use forever as it arrived in the box? That’s the easy way. Want a split board with fully custom layout, per-key RGB lighting, hand-engraved wooden artisan keycaps, one-off CNC-milled chassis and your own custom set of multiple layouts that might never be programmed into any other keyboard in the history of the Earth? Totally doable.

The craziest thing is the online communities and business that have sprung up to support a booming industry with such a wide range of options. More than once in the last few months have I thought about quitting my job to get into the custom keyboard and custom keycap business, because of the gap in the market in the UK for replacement sets with ISO layouts, like we have here. You’d think the number of people looking to customise and have a unique mechanical keyboard would number in the low 100s at best. You’d be dead wrong. The largest online mechanical keyboard community has over 100,000 members and is growing rapidly.

I’m now obsessed with what’s possible with great keyboards, to the point that I finally own a second one. It arrived earlier today and I’m typing to you from it right now, looking wistfully over at the Majestouch-2 and wondering if I’ll ever use it again. And in many ways the new keyboard, a UK/ISO Vortex Pok3r with Cherry MX blues, is much worse. It’s a 60% keyboard, meaning it has around 60% of the keys of a full-sized 104105-key standard keyboard. There’s no function key row, no arrow key set, no PgUp/PgDown/Home/End/Ins/Del block, and no number pad.

Having used it for a few hours now, the lack of dedicated arrow keys is the biggest thing I miss. The Pok3r has arrow keys, but they’re behind the Fn modifier. Having said that, already my brain instinctively knows what to do to arrow around on the Pok3r, which gives me great confidence that the main reason to get the Pok3r, versus something more full-size like the existing Majestouch-2, will work out in the end: learning a new keyboard layout.

You see the Pok3r is programmable, and out of the box it comes with a means to switch it between QWERTY, Dvorak and Colemak. If you’ve never thought about keyboards past being the only way to efficiently get text entry on modern computers, you’ll never have thought about alternative layouts for the keys on one.

Assuming QWERTY is what you know now (or QWERTZ, or AZERTY or something similar and very common), Dvorak and Colemak are more ambitious reimagingings of the keyboard layout, and specifically designed with computer keyboards in mind. The common refrain is that QWERTY came about because of mechanical typewriters, and their need to keep commonly pressed keys physically apart, or they’d collide as they were pressed close together in time, on their way to strike the paper in the roller.

Modern computer keyboards don’t have those mechanical restrictions. You can press any key pretty much as fast as you like and as close together to any other, and your computer will register it. In fact, modern mechanically switched computer keyboards have features that allow you to go to the limits of human hand movement in that respect, allowing for correct register of basically any set of keys at the same time in the order that you can physically depress them.

So Dvorak, Colemak and their ilk are designed to take advantage of modern keyboard hardware and optimise text entry further, at the human being. I’d like to learn a new layout to see if the premise is true. Not just to make writing these blog entries more efficient, but because I do all manner of other things with a computer, not least programming when I can, to make all of my text input more efficient. And fun. Being bilingual in terms of text entry isn’t something everyone is capable of, so I’d like to test myself and my brains capacity for learning new muscle memory sequences.

So being able to turn the Pok3r into a Colemak board in hardware, and program some of the other aspects of it, has a real appeal for that pursuit. But if you spend any time online researching keyboards to let you learn something like a new keyboard layout, you’ll invariably stumble upon keycap sets.

I haven’t looked at a keyboard in over 20 years, since I was taught to touch type at school, so why I’d want to change how my keyboard looks is a little counter intuitive. But just as I like the way any object looks despite only glancing at it, I’ve caught the keycap bug as well as the new keyboard bug.

At some point later this year, when the keycap sets finally ship from the specialist plastics company that the mechanical keyboard community has turned to in their quest to customise and personalise their keyboards as far as they can, I’ll have replacement keycap sets for both the Majestouch-2 and the Pok3r. I might never touch the Majestouch-2 again, but it’ll look good on display somewhere in my office. None of this makes any sense, I know, but I’m hooked on personalising my keyboards now. I have more than one keyboard. Why.

Anyway, I know this was rambling and long and doesn’t really have any point, but what better way to stress test a new keyboard than to tap out a stream of consciousness and hit the keys over and over again to learn their subtleties, teach my brain the new tricks it needs to use the new keyboard well, and break it in so it becomes second nature to use? The Majestouch-2 will feel weird when I finally type on it again. If you got this far, thanks for indulging me, over 10,000 keypresses later.

Not sure when I’ll finally enable Colemak, but I’m looking forward to the journey.