Introducing the ErgoDox and Massdrop

Since the start of the year, I’ve been on something of a quest – no, not the Quest for the Holy Grail, but rather a quest for the best ergonomic keyboard. It started out with the TECK, moved on to the Kinesis Advantage, and now I’m working on wrapping up my third ergonomic keyboard review, this time the open source designed ErgoDox, with components and assembly provided by Massdrop. How does this keyboard stack up to the competition? As with all things subjective, that’s going to be more difficult to answer than something like “which CPU or GPU is faster?” What one person likes another may despise, and as with the previous two keyboards I want to start with a word of caution: adapting to any one of these ergonomic keyboards means getting over the learning curve. It can be done, and it will take anywhere from half a day to perhaps a couple weeks for you to get fully adjusted. So if you’re willing to shell out $200+ for an ergonomic keyboard with mechanical switches, be prepared to spend some quality time getting to know your new keyboard before trying to decide whether or not it works for you.

With that out of the way, let’s talk a bit about the ErgoDox and Massdrop. I’ll start with Massdrop, as they’re the ones who provided the review sample. Massdrop is a startup based out of Palo Alto, CA and was founded in early 2012. As of now, they have successfully helped facilitate over 300 group buys. The idea behind the site is a bit like Kickstarter, only you’re ordering parts or products at a bulk discounted rate by teaming up with others interested in the same item. It should come as no surprise that buying larger quantities of any item usually gets you a better price, and Massdrop helps people do exactly that. They’ve been around about a year and a half now, and the range of products available is basically only limited by what you can get others to buy. The only catch is that, like Kickstarter, you have to reach a certain goal or else nothing gets ordered; unlike Kickstarter, you’re not really hoping that a company actually follows through and makes what you wanted, as you’re ordering physical goods that already exist.

That takes care of the Massdrop side of things, but what exactly is the ErgoDox? This is where things get interesting. The ErgoDox is a mechanical keyboard that uses an open design – as in, open source for hardware – with the hardware and design released to the public under the GNU GPL  v3; you can read the finer points of detail on the ErgoDox License page. The ErgoDox builds off the Key64@ keyboard design, which was a keyboard that tried to reduce the total number of keys to just the ones you really need, resulting in a more compact layout. The ErgoDox has a few additional keys, bringing the total key count to 76 – at least on the model I received, though it appears versions with up to 80 keys exist. With the design complete, the trick then is finding the hardware necessary to actually build an ErgoDox keyboard. You could try to do it on your own, and certainly the potential for individual modding is there, but the basic PCB will largely dictate what else you can do. Massdrop provided the following history of how they came to be involved with the ErgoDox, which I’ll quote verbatim:

“We were approached in October of 2012 by several members of the mechanical keyboard community to help the group in facilitating a buy for the ErgoDox Mechanical Keyboard. After being involved in several buys already, these individuals loved their experience with Massdrop so much that they thought we’d be the perfect people for the job. What made the ErgoDox so special to us was that it was community validated. It was the mechanical keyboard community that came together, had a vision of the perfect keyboard, discussed, debated, and built it. However, to make the ErgoDox a reality for the entire community, they needed help, and that’s where Massdrop came in. Massdrop was able to source all of the individual parts the community needed at less than half the price they would go for if an individual tried to purchase them alone. With that we were elated to be able to help bring ErgoDox to the entire mechanical keyboard community and save them a substantial amount of money in the process. Since our first ErgoDox buy, we have sold over 800 ErgoDox Mechanical Keyboards and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”

With a bit of the history out of the way, let’s move on to the actual hardware. If you purchase an ErgoDox, you get all the parts and then need to put the keyboard together – something of a weekend project, assuming you’re handy with a soldering iron. As far as I’m concerned, the less work the better when it comes to something like a keyboard, so I’m more than happy to not have to do any soldering to get the ErgoDox up and running. Right now (through the end of the week), Massdrop is running another order of parts for the ErgoDox keyboard. Ordering everything on your own would likely put the total cost at over $400 (some estimates put it as high as $570!), never mind assembly and shipping charges; the base cost for this Massdrop ErgoDox order is $274, and that was achieved, and in fact at this point the minimum price of $199 has been unlocked (plus $37 for blank key caps). So if you want to get an ErgoDox, now would be great time to buy – otherwise you’ll be waiting at least six weeks for the next Massdrop order.

There’s still that question of assembly of course; what does someone without a lot of soldering experience do? Massdrop has reasonably detailed instructions for how to put the ErgoDox together, but I’m sure there are others who would rather have someone else do the work for them.  Massdrop now offers that, with $20 getting you a partially assembled keyboard (you have to solder the switches) and $50 getting the whole thing pre-assembled, just like my review sample. There’s also a bit of customization available: you can choose among four types of Cherry MX switches (Blue, Black, Clear, or Red), and you can get either a full-hand version of the case (with a palm rest) or a “Classic” casing that doesn’t have an integrated palm rest. For my review sample, I asked to try out the Clear switches with the Classic casing; that may not have been the right choice for me, as I’ll detail later, but the key there is choice: get what you will like, not what someone else likes.

One final item to note is that I'm basically stuck reviewing the design that was sent to me, with some potential remapping of keys to accommodate what I like. The ErgoDox is highly customizable, so other than having labeled key caps there's a lot of other nuances to my review sample that may or may not apply directly to one that you purchase and build. I'll try to make a note of some of these throughout the review, but try to remember: customization is a major part of the draw for this keyboard. And now let’s get on to the meat of the review with some objective and subjective analysis.

Overview of the ErgoDox Keyboard
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  • labrats5 - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    My buddy just got the ergodox, and I can say with great certainty that customization is the main draw. his entire layout was painstakingly designed by scratch to match his exact needs and idiosyncrasies. His goal was to do most everything on or near the home row while using the thumbs for chording, thus making his finger movements more similar to those of a stenographer than of a traditional keyboard typist. He loves the thing to death, but it is only worth getting if you put in the effort.
  • Ninhalem - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Jarred, you have one weird QWERTY layout on your Ergodox. Mine has the "6" key on the left hand, and where your key currently is placed, mine has the "ESC" key. I have the Push Layers and Toggle Layer buttons where your F4 and F5 keys are, the "Backspace" key is on the left hand in place of the "Space" key.

    The beauty of ErgoDox is that you can create a layout all your own to fit your own hand size. I went in on an earlier drop that included PBT DCS blank key caps. The only thing I have to do now, is keep a picture of my current layout in front of me in order to memorize where all the keys are placed now.
  • jjegla - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I have two ErgoDoxen, one full-hand and one classic (I also prefer the full-hand version). You really should have emphasized at the _beginning_ of your review how customizable these are, because your experience with your OOTB layout is meaningless, as that layout is meaningless - change it to what suits you, as you eventually did. For example, my own standard layout contains three RETURN, three SPACE and two DELETE keys so that I'm never far from one, and exposed F5, F10 and F11 for convenient Visual Studio debugging. I certainly won't be switching back to any other keyboard any time soon, and may even buy a couple more of these, but they are not perfect. They really were designed by someone with large hands - I have trouble reaching the thumb clusters without shifting my entire hand. Also, the use of so many 1.5x keys makes it a very expensive proposition to get labelled keycaps for a custom layout - those 1.5x keys will run you upwards of $7 _each_! Right now I just have sticky labels on mine (yes, the keycaps you can buy from MassDrop _are_ blank). I'm gearing up to buy custom keycaps, but will probably use 1x keys in place of the 1.5x ones just to save on cost (yes, it will be slightly harder to reach them). All-in-all, a really cool project and product and I'm glad to have found it.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Thanks for the feedback, and you're totally correct. I wasn't entirely sure how the kit comes since mine was pre-assembled, but now that I know I've tweaked several areas of the article to emphasize the customization options. Really, other than being limited to 76 keys and having a less compact feel than some of the other ergo keyboards, there aren't any real deal breakers here. It's a very cool idea, though obviously not something you'd buy on a whim unless you have a lot of disposable income. :-)
  • jjegla - Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - link

    By the way, thanks indeed for this series of reviews - I've quite enjoyed them. Didn't mean to sound too harsh there in that previous comment. You're a glutton for punishment, to the benefit of all of us.

    I happen to have also purchased a TECK keyboard a while ago - I tried it for at least a couple of months, carrying it back-and-forth between work and home, but I just could not come to like the darn thing. For me, the problem was really the key layout, not the size or shape. The way that they chose to lay out the "command" keys (return, shift, ctrl, alt, etc.) was really weird and just killed my productivity. It also really hurt my ability to type on normal keyboards. In the end, I scavenged the keycaps to use on my first ErgoDox. I just saw, a couple of days ago, that TECK have finally come out with a fully-reprogrammable firmware ala ErgoDox. I may have to reassemble the thing and try it again...

    One last note: my TECK had Cherry MX Browns, my ErgoDoxen have Blues (really because that was all that MassDrop could source at the time, I believe). I really like the Blues. They are very loud and clicky-clacky, but it sounds cool and for me they are easier to actuate than the quieter Browns - perhaps has something to do with predicting the actuation point based on the sound or something.
  • jesh462 - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I just wanted to say that I'm super thankful for all the reviews on keyboards you have posted.
    I didn't get my first computer until the age of 14 (now 26), but I've always had the mentality that it's better to use ergo products and avoid RSI than to take the risk of injury.
    For years and years I've only used the Microsoft Natural 4000. Even though the one I have now is fairly new, I'm now contemplating jumping ship to an ErgoDox. I simply love messing with things and breaking them and fixing them. This keyboard you recently reviewed sounds perfect. Before your first article, I had no idea there were mechanical ergo keyboards!
    Anyway, thanks again, you the man.
  • emilyhex - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I am always interested and intrigued by new UI devices and I really appreciate these reviews. But, I personally couldn't justify buying this. After customizing it and buying accessories, it's like you are meeting the device half-way, conforming to the device instead of the other way around. Money aside, is the increase in productivity or comfort going to be that much worth the effort and are you going to drag this with you every time you choose to work away from your home base?

    I'm sticking with my wireless that I can plop in my lap from time to time. I have learned where all the quirks are, even if it isn't perfect. I'll patiently wait for the next game changer.
  • Bromsin - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Sigh, another failure in ergonomics. Keyboard manufacturers need some anatomy classes if they want to create a proper ergonomic keyboard.

    Flat keyboards are NOT truly ergonomic as the hands\wrists natural state is not flat. Out of all the so called ergonomic keyboards I have seen, only the Microsoft natural keyboards come close to true ergonomics.

    I am sure you are asking, Why? Simple really, the natural position for hands\wrists when typing is at an angle, with the thumbs slightly higher than the pinkies. This is why the Microsoft wave looking keyboards with the high point in the center is the proper position for typing.

    Same holds true when punching. When you punch a punching bag, your fist should be on an angle with your index finger nuckle being the highest point. That is the natural position of the arm.

    If these companies want to create a truly ergonomic keyboard, look to Microsoft's Natural 4000 and figure out how to make that mechanical.
  • 2disbetter - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    This wasn't made by a company, but by the keyboard enthusiasts collective.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    The need for a raised center really has more to do with the position of the rest of the elements. If you're trying to type with the keyboard halves centered and close together in front of your body, yes, raising the middle and canting them would be desirable -- and of course you could add some foot rests to accomplish this. But if you move them apart so that you basically reach straight forward from your shoulders, it's far less of a concern. One thing I definitely think you need to try before drawing any more conclusions is to use a keyboard that doesn't have a staggered layout. The staggering was basically a factor of the time when it was first created, as it helped them to get the keys and mechanical levers together. With modern keyboards having replaced typewriters, there are far fewer moving parts and size and spacing can be as large or small as you want. I'm now using that Goldtouch Go!2 I mentioned in the final paragraph, and let me tell you I'm already very much missing the orthogonal layouts of the previous three keyboards.

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