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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  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.

  • 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".
  • 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.
  • Exirtis - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    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?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Exirtis - Thursday, August 29, 2013 - link

    And thank you for responding, by the way.

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