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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  • Findecanor - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Actually, the ErgoDox was designed to be titled. The point of having the keyboard split in two separate halves was so that you can customize the tilt, angle and distance to fit YOU. The Microsoft Natural Keyboard is locked in one position that can not be changed, and is (at least the older models, before the MS 4000) also flat on each half.

    The Massdrop "distribution" of the ErgoDox (it is an open design) does not contain any hardware for tilting, but an earlier case design (on ErgoDox.org) had different bottoms with different tilts for different users. Massdrop chose the layered design because it was less expensive to make.
    Reply
  • echtogammut - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Great series of reviews. After my last MS ergo keyboard died, I am now using a Razer Lycosa that I won in some contest or tournament and god my wrists hurt. I have a Kinesis circa 2000 sitting in one of my many parts bins, but I seem to recall the key actuation being too heavy. This review brought me back to an idea I had a while back, which was to make my own keyboard. It appears you can get backlit cherry keys for Ducky keyboards for $41-51 and I have the advantage of having my own, photoresist pcb lab, cnc machine and pick and place (assuming I decide to build a bunch). Looks like I will be figuring out my ideal layout, once I get back from vacation. :) Like you my hands seem to be a bit smaller that what manufactures seem think is the norm (the worst case of this was the Razer Nostromo... I think you needed hands like Chopin for that thing). Reply
  • WeaselITB - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Thanks for the review, Jarred. This seems closest so far, but I'm still looking for something curved like an MS Natural, but with mechanical keys. Why does a product like that seem more elusive than a genie riding a unicorn? I can't believe I'm the only person out there who would pay (and pay a goodly sum) for a nice high-quality keyboard like that, but mechanical keyboards are either the traditional straight-line affairs, or the really unique ones like this.

    First world problems, I guess.

    -Weasel
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I suspect part of the problem is that the companies who invest the time and resources into creating an ergonomic keyboard with mechanical switches want to make sure that they create the best keyboard possible – in their opinion, naturally, but also backed up by some studies and research. I would assume that Kinesis and Truly Ergonomic (and Maltron, etc.) have looked at a variety of designs and concluded that their current solutions are the "best". Reply
  • woogitboogity - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    When the company Cherry (the Cherry MX switches) was cited this keyboard earned quite a bit of respect from me.

    I am a programmer and student physics researcher who has done not just personal hacking but work designing systems of sensors and switches for use controlling experiments at DOE National Labs. While drooling over the Datahand keyboard (the $1200 super keyboard for the rich and those who have carpel tunnel that have to bite the bullet) I once went on a quest to find the lightest activation force switch I could find. This was of course a lever limit switch (long level means longer travel distance but less force) but I also searched for practical switches of the type that get ordered en masse for human input devices. I knew when I started looking up model numbers and started coming up with hits to logitech and similar companies I was in the right area.

    Cherry was the company that consistently came up when it came to the lightest activation force switches from the big companies like Digi-key and Newark, whether they were limit switches or button switches.
    Reply
  • Exirtis - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    @Jarred:
    I'd love to read a review of the Datahand Professional II, particularly since most of the reviews I've come across are rather old, lacking in comparisons to other ergonomic keyboards, or were evaluated over too short of a term to be useful.

    That's where a review from you would be great, since you're in a position to offer a much more definitive & useful review than is currently available—important, as the price is rather extreme in comparison to other keyboards (it's currently listed at $995). And so on a typical budget, a person would have to be out of their mind to buy one without high confidence as to whether it might be worth it for them.

    So, do you think a review is possible? Or is the Datahand too out there even for you guys?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - link

    I'm more than willing to try one, if they'll send a review unit. I'm not in a position to spend $1000 on a keyboard/input device, but I've sent them an email so we'll see. Honestly, I haven't seen or heard much of the DataHand since about 2002/2003, other than some community discussions, and they apparently went off the market for a while (a supply issue I guess).

    I have to say that their website isn't encouraging, with some errors on pages cropping up and a general lack of recent information. It also looks like the hardware hasn't been updated in quite some time, given that they have PS/2 adapters for the mouse and keyboard, with a $20 USB converter required for most modern systems. But like I said, I've sent a request so I'll be interested to see if they respond.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - link

    So both of my email messages bounced from their servers. It appears DataHand is now defunct. Wikipedia has this to say (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datahand):

    "DataHand Systems, Inc. announced in early 2008 that it was ceasing to market and sell its keyboards. The company web site states that due to supplier issues, the company will not sell the DataHand keyboard 'until a new manufacturer can be identified.' However, the company plans a final, limited production run to satisfy existing customers. In January 2009, the company's website started taking orders for a 'limited number of new DataHand Pro II units'."

    Given the cost and the apparent inability to support new customers, I unfortunately have to conclude that the DataHand is a dead end.
    Reply
  • Exirtis - Thursday, August 29, 2013 - link

    Too bad. It always looked interesting.

    You know, I've always gotten the feeling that the company was more run by researchers who didn't really know how to run a business that well – or get manufacturing costs worked out, apparently – and this leads me to believe that this feeling was correct. Sad days.
    Reply
  • Exirtis - Thursday, August 29, 2013 - link

    And thank you for responding, by the way. Reply

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