Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/7245/ergodox-review-an-ergonomic-mechanical-keyboard-via-massdrop

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

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.

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.

Closing Thoughts: Some Assembly Required (Maybe)

Reviewing unorthodox keyboards can be a rather difficult business, and clearly it has taken me longer than originally anticipated to complete just these three reviews. However, the time taken has hopefully been of use to some of our readers, and I’ve certainly learned a thing or two. One important thing is that to get the most out of any of these products, you need to be willing to invest some time. You won’t make a switch from a standard 101-key layout to any of these without at least a few days of consternation, and on top of that the ErgoDox will require you to put the whole kit together before typing even a single word! Or will it? The original Massdrop for the ErgoDox required full assembly and programming by the purchaser, but for this round Massdrop has added a couple new options.

First, let’s also clarify something: you don’t actually get everything you’ll need for the current price of $199; you actually have to pay a bit more for the blank key caps that go over the Cherry MX switches – $37 to be precise – and if you want laser etched keys I'm not even sure where you'd buy them. So the minimum cost is $236 if you want key caps, which most people will need, unless you have a bunch of extras just lying around your home/office. There are a couple other options as well that you can check, like getting an anodized aluminum top plate instead of the clear acrylic for an extra $25, or you can have the whole keyboard in a gold plated case for just $5000 (awesome). As for assembly, if you don’t want to roll your own, Massdrop has two options: one is to have all the basic soldering done (steps 1-9 in the assembly process), and then you just need to solder the Cherry MX switches into place; this will cost $19.99. The other option is the easiest: Massdrop will assemble the whole kit for you, for a $49.99 fee.

That means when we talk about pricing, $236 gets you the parts and you put it together, or if you want a similar experience to buying a TECK or a Kinesis Advantage, you’re looking at $285.99 for a fully assembled ErgoDox. By comparison, the TECK will currently set you back $248 if purchased directly from TrulyErgonomic, plus $19 for ground shipping, so it’s only slightly less expensive (but you’d get it within the next week or so). Kinesis Advantage has an MSRP of $299, but it’s also far more widely available, so you can actually snag one off of Newegg.com for $268 + $15.99 shipping, or TigerDirect has it for $271.69 + shipping, which for me is $280.33. Looking at all three prices, then, it’s close enough that what it will really come down to is which one you think is the best/most comfortable/coolest looking keyboard.

I can’t answer the question of which is best for every person, but I do have my own personal preference. All three keyboards have their advantages as well as some potential disadvantages. I think the TECK is good for anyone looking for a compact ergonomic keyboard, and as I mentioned in the Kinesis review I found the TECK to be better than the other ergonomic keyboards if you want to play games. The Kinesis ends up being my favorite of the three keyboards I’ve looked at, with the large, raised palm rests and curved key wells being the most comfortable for prolonged typing in my experience; I also like that it includes a USB hub, and the macro functionality is basically a free extra. The ErgoDox meanwhile is going to be best suited for people with larger hands in my opinion, and the ability to move the two halves wherever you want (within reason) could prove beneficial for some users – plus it’s the keyboard best suited to modders and tweakers. If you want to dabble in alternative layouts, the Massdrop Configurator is practically impossible to match with any other keyboard.

As far as ordering options go on the ErgoDox, my recommendation in hindsight would be to get the full hand casing, and having now spent plenty of time with the Cherry MX Blue, Brown, and Clear switches, I would personally get the ErgoDox with Cherry MX Blue – though I can’t say from personal experience how the Blacks and Reds compare. Just note that Blue switches are very clicky, so if you’re in an office space with a lot of coworkers, you’ll probably need to get one of the “quiet” switches instead. I do feel the Clear switches require a bit more force than I like, so I imagine Reds would be my next choice for the ErgoDox. It’s too bad you can’t get the ErgoDox with Brown switches – you could always order your own, but most places sell the MX Brown switches for $2.50 each – that’s $190 just for the switches if you were to buy 76 for an ErgoDox, which illustrates quite well the power of the Massdrop group buys.

If you’re interested in giving the ErgoDox a try, now is a great time as the latest Massdrop group buy is nearly finished. Join before the end of the week and you should get your order within a few weeks; the next round of ErgoDox group buy isn’t likely to happen for another six weeks or longer, so for the impatient among you, time is of the essence.

And if you’re curious about what I’ll be typing on next, I’m going to be switching to a more traditional staggered key layout for a bit, the Goldtouch Go!2 Mobile, as I’m a glutton for the punishment of regularly switching keyboards apparently. I’m also going to be focusing on Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12.5 for the next month or two; I know for a fact that I can dictate faster than I type, at least for straight text, but unusual words, punctuation, and acronyms can be a bit of a pain. I’ll see if things have improved since my last serious Dragon review and render a verdict on typing vs. speech recognition sometime in the next couple of months. In the meantime, if there’s some other crazy keyboard you’d like me to test, leave a note in the comments.

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