I am not a keyboard fanatic or even an enjoyer. I’m a simple user with a particular set of requirements. Unfortunately, those requirements put me in the group of most demanding and worse-served customers. Most of the mechanical keyboard community focuses on color, sound, and materials. I don’t care much about those. For most of my life, I used membrane keyboards and liked it. This changed a year ago when I got myself my first mechanical keyboard. However, after a year of using Keychron K12, I felt ready to upgrade my keeb game.
Keychron K12 is a completely OK keyboard. It has a decent layout and build quality (despite the height), but the firmware is terrible: it’s closed source and allows for zero customization. I never wanted to have dedicated cursor buttons, as I use them very rarely. But when I do, I certainly don’t want them in a random spot! It’s either NPFB or HJKL. The only way to achieve that was via a 3rd party program installed on the computer, as the firmware doesn’t support custom key configurations. This worked, but it’s not sustainable.
I use a company-provided Macbook, which I am forced to use during company time. Installing such a low-level keylogger and remapper (let’s not fool ourselves, as this is what all those tools are) is not something I should need to do. There was also a problem of keeping all customizations in sync between machines, so yeah. Not a fan.
But the biggest problem was the form factor. Keychron was my first mechanical keyboard, but before that, I used an ergonomic, split Logitech K860. It was a great keyboard, but far too large for my needs. It took over most of my desk, and a third of that was keys I didn’t even need. However, for the entire year since abandoning the split layout, I dreaded the squareness of Keychron. I thought that having the same form on a laptop and desktop would be beneficial. I was wrong.
Also, I got to the understanding that switches are the least important part of a mechanical keyboard. I tried red, blue and brown. I see little difference between red and browns, and blues are annoyingly loud1. But that’s a small difference, and the biggest gain of a mechanical keyboard is the key travel. I want my keys to travel, and even the cheapest mechanical one offers that. That removes one problem.
Back when I got the Keychron, I was also thinking of getting a Charybdis. Initially, the price won me over but with the experience of that year, I finally threw cash at Bastard Keyboard and got myself an open source, ergonomic, split, column-staggered beast with an integrated trackball. It looks dangerous, so of course the box had to be double-checked.
My first impressions were clear: how the hell do I type now? I still don’t know, but first I needed to remove the tents. They are a way to force the keyboard at a comfortable angle. They were gone after 5 minutes because:
- They don’t fit on my shelve-desk. They are simply too tall,
- They add a gigantic learning curve. It seems comfy on paper, but when you are learning a completely new keyboard form, it just adds a HUGE level of complication.
I will reattach those at some point in the future, but for now, orienting my hands horizontally was the only thing maintaining my sanity. With this, I was ready to relearn how to type.
A lot of fingers do a different job on a staggered layout. Luckily, somehow I use the correct hand for all keys2, but even with that, I constantly need to think about what I am doing. I’ve never been a touch-typist3, but I type fluently on a normal keyboard with four fingers on each hand. My pinky was never able to reach anything. On Charybdis they finally got a job - I can press keys other than enter, ctrl, and tab with them - so stagger works. Having the keys not shifted horizontally, but rather vertically (just like my fingers), is great when I get in the flow of typing. It’s not that I’m hoping to be faster than on a normal keyboard, but the movement on Charybdis is just so natural and effortless that I completely buy the notion that stagger is the way to go.
My biggest gripe here is the distance between keys. My hands are of a normal size4, but I need to move my fingers much further than I am used to. I think someone with huge hands would have a better time here. I, on the other hand, need to readjust my entire arm all the time. I think that having all 5 working fingers is worth it. The pros overweight this nitpick.
I also fell in love with the thumb clusters. Normally, thumbs only operate the spacebar. It was said that those are the strongest fingers and I have to wholeheartedly agree. I reach all keys on the clusters without any problems and, even though it’s still not a second nature, I find it to be a great way to operate.
QMK is the stuff that dreams are made from - an open-source firmware allowing you to do virtually anything with the keyboard. Mr. Bastard sent the package without any manual of what does what, but all I needed to do was to go to Via where, from a web browser, I was able to read and modify keys, layers, RGB5. As scary as it is to allow a browser to modify hardware’s firmware, it’s also magically simple. I still haven’t gotten into QMK and at some point, I’ll outgrow Via. But for the time being, I hope no one will hack it and install a real keylogger as it’s the tool that allowed me to start learning this keyboard.
So, after a few minutes, I’ve already made a few adjustments due to… well, Emacs. And after that I constantly changed something, checked if it would break my hand, and changed something again. Like a mini-game!
I like the keyboard. Like, but not love as I am still learning the ropes. But trackball became the love of my life6.
The way it works is that trackball always moves the mouse pointer. Pressing and holding “Z” on the keyboard enables the mouse layer where left/right/middle clicks are present on the thumb clusters. Normally the pointer moves fast, but upon enabling the mouse layer, the movement goes into so-called “snipe mode” allowing for a much more precise movement7. I was afraid that I would touch the trackball by accident and move the pointer like many touchpads have a tendency to. But in real-life use, this is a non-issue as it’s not the movement that is the problem but random clicking - and since the buttons are hidden on a dedicated layer, so no random clicks happen.
I have now tried and used a mouse, trackpoint, trackball, and touchpad, so I can pretend to be an expert on pointing thingies. Until recently I would die defending the mouse’s honor, but with trackball, I have instantly become as fast and accurate as with the mouse with the added benefit of having the ball ready without moving the hand. Best of both worlds! As of writing this text, my mouse left my desk a week ago and I have yet to miss it.
The only downside is the finish on the ball housing. The entire keyboard is 3d printed with no sharp corners - with the only exception in the sharp and jagged corner on the 90 degrees of the housing of the ball8. Guess the stress of the material here was too great for the finish to remain perfect. Luckily, unless I explicitly try, there is no moment I am touching this place. When typing my hand hovers over the entire ball and when doing mousy thingies, my fingers lay on the ball.
Yes, it is as expensive as a computer. Yes, it has a huge learning curve. Yes, I have cursed more than I will admit it. Yes, it is not perfect.
But yes, everyone will ask what the hell is it.
I love it.
And I finally have a place for a notepad. A lot of ergo-folks put their dedicated trackball in between the two halves of the keyboard, but I have mine attached so the spot is free for any use. For me, it was a humble notepad.
yes, the click is satisfying. But when actually typing, I don’t notice it enough to pretend that the sound is acceptable in any place. ↩︎
Just think of reaching for a key that is on the opposite part of the keyboard. You stretch the finger and there is nothing. Just this void and growing frustration. ↩︎
More like a touch-typo-ist ↩︎
Or at least I hope so ↩︎
I set mine to warm yellow, so don’t judge me. No unicorn vomit in sight, despite the photos. I’m not 12 anymore. ↩︎
Sorry son, you are now number two from now on. ↩︎
Of course both speeds are easily adjustable on the fly using the keyboard alone. ↩︎
I tried to get this on a photo, but no luck there. My X100S’s macro is not macroing enough. ↩︎