ErgoDox Review, an Ergonomic Mechanical Keyboard via Massdropby Jarred Walton on August 27, 2013 12:00 AM EST
Subjective Evaluation of the ErgoDox
I’ve covered the layout and some of the configuration options, and at least from a high level it looks like all the necessary ingredients are present for the ErgoDox to work well. Naturally, the proof is in the eating of the pudding, so let’s discuss how things work in practice. This is a far more subjective matter, as what one person likes/dislikes may or may not matter to someone else. Getting a chance to personally try some of these expensive keyboards is a bit difficult, unfortunately, so you may be stuck simply buying on blind faith. With the Kinesis and TECK, you at least have the opportunity to return the keyboard if you don’t like it; with an ErgoDox from Massdrop, once you buy it you own it. But then, there’s likely people out there that would happily buy a properly working and assembled ErgoDox if you don’t like it, so eBay is always an option.
One of the things I’ve noticed in my time with the ErgoDox is that the keys are somewhat larger and spaced out more than on the TECK and Kinesis keyboards, so depending on the size of your hands and fingers it can feel like you’re stretching more to hit certain keys. It’s not necessarily bad (says the guy who's 6'3"), but for some people it may end up feeling less comfortable than other options. As with the Kinesis, I also find reaching down to the cursor keys and brackets to be a bit difficult, though I’ve mostly acclimated to the new locations now. Personally, I think anyone with smaller hands will be better served by other keyboard options, and in fact of the three ergonomic keyboards that I’ve tested, I unfortunately have to say that the ErgoDox is the least comfortable for me to use.
Typing speed on the other hand isn’t really a problem – I’m just as fast with the ErgoDox as I am with the Kinesis or TECK, which means around 70-75WPM. The margin of error in taking a typing test is somewhat larger than with a normal benchmark, so I’m not going to bother creating any graphs this time, as I don’t want anyone trying to draw conclusions based on some ad-hoc benchmarks. Familiarity with any particular keyboard also plays a role, so some of my earlier typing results may not be entirely valid. The short summary of typing speed is that I might be slightly faster with some of the ergonomic keyboards compared to a standard keyboard, but it’s more a question of comfort than speed. Mostly, I end up having to think about what I’m writing more than I have to wait on my fingers to get thoughts out, so at 70WPM I’m running into bottlenecks in my head and not in the keyboard.
Getting back to the comfort question, I know that I just said I found the ErgoDox to be the least comfortable – for me! – of the three ergonomic keyboards that I’ve tested, but that doesn’t make it decidedly uncomfortable. In fact, I switched briefly to a standard keyboard for a bit just to see what I thought, and the way it kinks my wrists became immediately noticeable and undesirable. The ErgoDox may not be better than the Kinesis in my book, but it’s definitely a step up from a straight keyboard. Those with larger hands (and/or broader shoulders) might also find it’s actually more comfortable than a TECK or Kinesis.
There’s another issue I’ve had with all three keyboards that I’ve tested: the 10-key support, or lack thereof. On the TECK and Kinesis, there’s at least an attempt to include an integrated 10-key; on the ErgoDox I received, you can press the Fn key and get access to a 10-key on the right hand, but holding down Fn the whole time isn’t something I want to do, plus the layout is all messed up relative to a normal 10-key. But, going back to the layout remapping utility, you can actually put together an alternate layer with a 10-key and the equivalent of a Num Lock if you so choose, similar to how the Dvorak layer sits on top of the QWERTY layout. It’s a bit trickier to implement, as you basically have to build it for both the QWERTY and Dvorak modes as another layer, using the Push/Pop layers option, but it’s possible.
The default 10-key doesn’t really match what I’d like, with the numerical operations being in the wrong locations, and the function keys up top get in the way as well. If you want to try mimicking a regular 10-key, I took a stab at my own layout (which doesn’t match the key labels of course); there are now five layers, with the fourth and fifth layers being essentially the same, but the fourth layer returns to QWERTY mode when you press “Num Lock” and the fifth layer returns to Dvorak mode. For the Num Lock key, I used the right side Star (initially mapped to the Start Menu). If you’re interested, you can try out my alternate 10-Key mode; however, let me just say that I don’t do nearly as well on that 10-key as I do with a standard 10-key (I’m about half as fast right now, though I could improve with practice if needed).
And if you don’t see how cool that above paragraph is, this may not be the keyboard for you. Yes, you can customize other keyboards with various software utilities, but the customizations don’t stay with the keyboard if you move to another system. With the ErgoDox and the handy key remapping utility (and Teensy firmware programming software), the possibilities are vast. With the standard blank key caps (or if you find them elsewhere, some labeled keys), you can basically do whatever you want on the layout. My layout has QWERTY, Dvorak, and now an integrated 10-key with a more or less standard layout (other than the plus sign, enter key, and zero keys). Dvorak may be the most well-known alternative to QWERTY, but I’ve had a few people suggest going with Colemak if I ever try making a switch, and it would be relatively simple to add Colemak if I wanted. In fact, whatever layout you can come up with, you can make the ErgoDox match it with a bit of effort – as long as you don’t need more than 76 keys and you like the ErgoDox key arrangement, of course. You can also do additional key mapping with the Fn (or any other key, really), so for example a lot of laptop users get used to hitting Fn+[Cursor] for PgUp/PgDn/Home/End; it’s super easy to add that to the ErgoDox.
The lack of differentiation among the keys is another potential benefit with the ErgoDox. There are three key sizes used: the standard size key is used for all of the numbers and letters, cursor keys, etc.; there’s a 1.5x size key used for F4/F5, PgUp/PgDn, and the eight keys on the right and left sides of the keyboard; finally, there are four 2x size keys on the thumbs. You can interchange any of those keys with any other same-sized key (assuming you have labeled keys, naturally; otherwise there's no need to move anything around), and the ErgoDox kit from Massdrop even includes a handy key removal tool to help out. From there, the proverbial sky is the limit to what you can do, but anything truly advanced might require you to make your own PCB. Anyway, I’m not one to heavily mod my PCs, but if you fall into that category, pairing up a highly customized PC case with a similarly themed ErgoDox keyboard could be a real attention grabber.
There’s one last subjective item I want to discuss: gaming capability. The ability to remap any/all keys as you see fit should allow you to work around some of the idiosyncrasies of the ErgoDox, but just on a pure usability level I find that it’s not the greatest keyboard for gaming. It’s not untenable by any means, but really I think gamers are generally best served by a normal keyboard layout, or at the very most a keyboard that doesn’t mix things up too much like the TECK. Having a keyboard with macro support can also be useful for games – so basically more keys is better rather than fewer keys like most of the ergonomic keyboards I’ve looked at. Ultimately, it comes down to how much time and effort you’re willing to invest, as with a bit of tweaking of config files and key bindings I think most keyboards will be fine for gaming.