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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  • 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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