Overview of the ErgoDox Keyboard

As noted already, my particular unit has Cherry MX Clear switches, which definitely have a different feel than the MX Brown switches used on the TECK and Kinesis, but the great thing about the ErgoDox is that you can order it with one of four types of Cherry MX switches: Blue, Black, Clear, and Red. Massdrop has a good description of the four switch types, but I would have liked to see MX Brown switches as another option – perhaps there are patent issues preventing that from happening, or maybe it’s just a supply problem. Having already adapted to the TECK layout and then the Kinesis Advantage, this third time around I find it wasn’t nearly as hard to come to grips with yet another new layout. In terms of differences from a standard layout, the ErgoDox falls somewhere in between the Kinesis and a typical keyboard, with dashes of uniqueness thrown in for good measure.

One thing I do need to mention is that the review sample has labeled key caps; I'm not sure where exactly you get these, but if you do a standard order through Massdrop you'll end up with blank key caps. That's both good and bad; the good is that since the key mappings are stored in your head (and in the firmware), there's nothing to prevent you from changing where keys are located. Only the key sizes need to be maintained (more or less). The bad news is that if you're trying to learn a new layout, not having key labels can be a bit of a hurdle initially, plus any time someone else tries to use your keyboard they'll be at a complete loss. (Wait, maybe that's actually good? Hahaha....) Keep this in mind as I discuss the layout.

Since the keyboard is split into two pieces, obviously we have two halves again. Interestingly, where the TECK and Kinesis have the 6 key on the right hand, on the ErgoDox I received the 6 has been moved over to the left hand. Some typists prefer using the left hand for the 6 key, and that’s the “officially correct” way of typing, so this isn’t a major issue – it’s just something slightly different and perhaps more in line with the Microsoft Natural. Coming straight from the Kinesis, however, the top keys on the right hand are all shifted right, so that’s definitely something I found myself adapting to, but outside of typing numbers (or their associated symbols) things aren’t too bad.

The bottom row of keys is also completely changed relative to the Kinesis; on the left side you get the Start key (marked with a Star), then brackets, tilde, and a key for switching between QWERTY and Dvorak. I have yet to try Dvorak (except when I accidentally hit the key and suddenly all my words are garbled), but the ErgoDox I have came with dual labels so that’s at least one less thing to overcome should I decide to make the switch. On the right hand, the bottom row gets the cursor keys with an unusual arrangement (Right, Down, Up, Left), and another Star key on the bottom right (mapped to the Start Menu/Screen by default).

Moving on to the thumbs, we get something similar to the Kinesis thumb pads, but with differing key assignments. On the left thumb you get Space in the primary position with Delete next to it. The other keys consist of Home and End at the top of the pad, with Ctrl and Alt on the two keys to the right. On the right pad, again Space is in the primary position, but Enter is in the secondary spot – the same place where you find it on the Kinesis.  Ctrl and Alt are mirrored from the left thumb pad, at the left side of the pad, and PrtSc and Insert are at the top.

My unit came with the Delete key mapped to Backspace instead, which I didn’t mind too much but it meant there was no actual Delete key anywhere. Massdrop has built their own ErgoDox Layout Configurator to help with the assembly process, and you can even share layouts. The layout for my review sample can be accessed here, and you can customize any of the key mappings as you see fit. I ended up changing the left thumb Delete key to an actual Delete, as it’s a key I use regularly (and since it was otherwise impossible to do Ctrl+Alt+Delete, and likewise there’s no way to press Delete to enter the system BIOS, which is required for most custom desktops). I made a couple more changes, the first influenced by my use of the Kinesis: I set the left thumb Space to be Backspace. The other was to remap Insert to the Menu Key (called the Application Key on the Massdrop Configurator); I never use Insert these days, but I frequently use the Menu key. Again, the awesome thing is that you can customize your layout to your liking – here’s my final layout for the ErgoDox.

There’s another interesting aspect to the keyboard that you might not immediately notice, but there are almost no dedicated function keys on the keyboard – there’s an Fn key on the left side, and using that in combination with the number keys will get you the function keys. There are two exceptions: F4 and F5 both get a dedicated key on the right side of the left keyboard half. I use F5 regularly for refresh, and the dedicated F4 is good for closing applications (Alt+F4) as well as windows within an application (Ctrl+F4). I also use F2 (edit file name/edit cell contents) and F3 (find again) regularly, but I end up having to resort to the Fn+2/3 shortcuts for those. On the right half of the keyboard, you get two other keys that are frequently used: PgUp and PgDn. That basically gives dedicated access to nearly all of the commonly used keys (the function keys being the most noteworthy exception).

The biggest change overall is that this time there are two separate halves to the keyboard, which you can position as you see fit. My personal take on this is that it’s both a blessing and a curse – it allows you a lot of flexibility, so whether you have wide shoulders or narrow shoulders you should be able to find a comfortable placement for the halves. The problem is that the halves can easily shift, which results in frequent repositioning of the keyboard pieces to keep them in place. The issue is that there are no rubber feet on the bottom of the keyboard so they slide around on most surfaces; that’s something you can rectify pretty easily, but it would have been nice to get the rubber feet as part of the kit.

Other minor concerns are that I find that the cord connecting the two halves is a bit shorter than I’d like – not that I can’t move the halves far enough apart, but the cord isn’t long enough to get it out of the way, like behind the screen for instance. The USB to Mini-USB cable that connects the keyboard to the PC is also very short, around 1m/3’, and if you have your desktop on the floor you may need to find a longer cable – again, not too difficult to do, but it’s an additional cost. Lastly, there’s the matter of finding space on your desk for the two halves; even though the surface area is probably the same or smaller than other keyboards, the cord ends up taking much of the empty space between the halves so it feels larger.

One other item that I mentioned on the previous page is that there are two configurations of the ErgoDox available: a Full Hand model that includes a palm rest on each half, and a Classic model that basically only has room for the keys and a small bezel around the outside. Having opted for the Classic configuration, in retrospect I would have preferred the Full Hand casing, as the missing palm rests are definitely something I notice in regular use.

Introducing the ErgoDox and Massdrop Subjective Evaluation of the ErgoDox
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  • iamkyle - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Something makes me think that ergonomic keyboards are going to be a thing of the past. Think about it - how many kids these days are being taught typing classes? What about educational institutions moving away from the traditional computer model in favor of say, tablets?

    I understand in the NOW there are many people who have proper home row typing. But methinks the newer generations are relying less and less on this sort of input method, so does the necessity for ergo keyboards.
  • IVIauricius - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Programmers and those who type writers' books come quickly to mind. Perhaps writers can get away with speech recognition software, but a programmer wouldn't leave his keyboard too quickly.

    This comment does make me think. How is the future of input going to evolve now that people use their thumbs for most communication?
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I'll tell you one thing for sure: the kids these days growing up typing with thumbs on smartphones and using onscreen keyboards with their tablets are in for a rude awakening when they hit 30+. I had a coworker in my mid-20s that had carpal tunnel surgery, and I thought at the time, "Weird...I guess her body just isn't built as well as mine for typing and such." She was around 40 and I was a cocky 20-something, and I really thought I was somehow exempt. Fast forward 15 years and I have learned that it has more to do with age than with body superiority. Give the teenagers another 15-20 years and if we have't figured out a way to avoid typing on smartphones, they're all going to have mangled hands!

    Most likely, for text we're not too far away from doing far more dictation, but nuances of the language are difficult to capture properly without typing.
  • njr - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I started typing pretty heavily around the age of 5 and developed RSI before I was 20; I'm 34 now. I really wonder if this pattern will start to become more prevalent.
  • kmmatney - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I'm 42 and have never had carpal tunnel, but I did get really bad "tennis elbow" symptoms. I do actually play a lot of tennis, but it turned out to be caused by how I held the mouse. Now I keep a pad under my forearm and in front of the mouse so my wrist is level or even slightly dent down when I handle the mouse. After a week all symptoms were gone and I could play tennis and handle the mouse without issues.
  • Hector2 - Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - link

    I started getting the "tennis elbow" after retiring at age 65 last year. I figured it was the mouse action and possibly keyboarding too --- my desk surface at home is too high and I don't have good arm support either. Thanks for your input.
  • HisDivineOrder - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Depends on how programming languages advance and if voice command/voice recognition could adapt to service the new paradigm. If done properly, a voice shorthand could be used that would enable a programmer to fill in the blanks as the computer throws in the repetitive stuff that you mostly know is coming.
  • 2disbetter - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I just watched a video of a guy who used Dragon with a plug in to write code for Python. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SkdfdXWYaI He developed a special short hand speech for it, and had some 2000+ commands configured. It was very impressive. All that said talking to accomplish something on a computer just seems inefficient and slow. I can type way faster than I can speak. Add in macro's and keyboard shortcuts and I just don't see speech as a viable efficient solution. However, in the case of disability or someone who just wants to give his wrists a break it's an amazing solution.
  • SodaAnt - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Are you sure about that? I can easily speak at over 120wpm a lot of the time, I can't imagine someone typing a lot faster than I can speak without using stenography equipment or anything.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Speaking at a normal rate, I find most people I know are more like 90-100WPM, maybe 110 at the most. When you start dictating, though, you have to add in a lot of extra stuff for punctuation, so it slows down a bit -- plus you want to take a good breath every now and then. But as someone who has done coding, I shudder to think about trying to dictate many of the commands. g_Lighting_Constant as a variable would either need to be specifically added to Dragon's vocabulary, or you have to say, "gee underscore cap lighting underscore cap constant" to get G_Lighting_Constant -- and yes, I just dictated that to try it. And then when Dragon NaturallySpeaking inevitably messes up on something, either you miss it and get a compile error, or you have to go into the correction menu.

    I'm sure for those people who can't properly use their hands, speech recognition opens up a lot of doors that would otherwise be closed. However, for those who can type even moderately well, I can't imagine trying to do any technical work like equations or coding with speech recognition. Your mileage may vary.

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