The Keyboard Logs

I have been experimenting with keyboards for the past several years and in February this year, I switched to a keyboard which I hope will be the last keyboard I ever buy. The whole point of switching keyboards all this while was to buy the right version of this keyboard, the Ergodox EZ. It is a split keyboard with an ortholinear layout. It is an expensive keyboard and can be customized to an (almost) limitless extent. It has several extra keys which can be programmed to do whatever you want them to such as function keys or macros. This post is a log of the keyboards I bought (and sold off) during this process.

Basics

There are some common terms which are used constantly in the discussion of keyboards, and mechanical keyboards in particular. I don’t want to re-explain these topics here. I will link to short explainers about each term:

  1. Mechanical vs membrane keyboard: what’s the difference and which is better? - GamesRadar+
  2. Switch Types - Mechanical Keyboard
  3. Choosing your key switches? Start here. - ErgoDox EZ
  4. Split Keyboards - A Complete Guide
  5. Are Ortholinear (grid/matrix) Keyboards Better Than Staggered? - YouTube

Goal

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I wanted to pick the right type of key switches for this keyboard. This keyboard can be customized to do a lot of things, but the key switches inside it can not be changed inexpensively. So, I wanted to get this key switch choice right.

The keyboard uses the “split” form factor with an ortholinear layout. I wanted to find out how much the split layout improved my posture and comfort.

Finally, the ortholinear layout itself. I wanted to understand whether having the keys directly above and below each other, instead of the typical staggered layout is helpful at all. Switching from the staggered layout to the ortholinear layout is a large investment as it requires one to unlearn years of muscle memory using standard staggered layout keyboards.

With these goals in mind, I started searching for similar keyboards which were cheaper and could give me a feel for what using the Ergodox would really be like. I found out about the Ergodox EZ some time in 2020 when everyone started working from home and started talking more about their work setup. My keyboard journey starts well before that.

First Keyboard (2014-2016)

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August 14, 2014: Logitech MK270r Wireless Combo Keyboard (Membrane)1

Looking around for a keyboard in my second year of college, I saw that the Logitech keyboard combo was widely used by my peers. (I had spent the first year of college using my laptop’s in-built keyboard. I had stayed away from my laptop for the most part of my freshman year anyway, so the keyboard did not matter as much.) This combo connected to the computer using a LogiTech USB dongle. I saw it around almost constantly, and I felt better investing in a brand which I knew about already.

This was a membrane keyboard. This means that there is a single membrane between the switches. When a key is pressed, it touches an electrical contact on the membrane, which in turn touches the underlying circuit board and transmits the required signal. All the keys are working on the same membrane and bending it when they are pressed. This means that the actuation force (the force required to send the signal) is variable. It is also higher than mechanical keyboards (The membrane’s resistance is quite high.) The force required to actuate each key is variable and depends on the quality of membrane. But the actuation force varies between 65 and 75 grams, with cheaper keyboards requiring more force to actuate the keys.

The actuation force is the force that you must apply on each key when you are pressing it as you type. If you are typing a typical e-mail or a Slack message, it might be about a 100 words, which might be about 400-500 characters. This would mean that you have to apply about 65 grams of force 500 times, or 32.5 kg of force for a single message. This number seems quite high. When I was not typing too much with my membrane keyboard, I did not have any pain in my wrist or my fingers. My setup in college was highly un-ergonomic and so I could not really blame my keyboard for any other pain that I did have. (I did not use an office chair and I was mostly sitting without any back rest.)

Nevertheless, towards the beginning of 2016, as I finished my third-year in college and entered my fourth year, I started feeling the stress in my fingers. In my third-year, I prepared for interviews for landing internships and worked at my first remote internship. During this time, I noticed that the membrane keyboard was really taking a toll on my hand. Every time I would stop typing or take a break, I could clearly see that my hands were fatigued and I had to work through the pain for a period of time. This intense period of typing during the first half of 2016 convinced me that I needed a better setup and I started searching for this setup.

Getting On The Mechanical Keyboard Train (2016-2018)

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July 14, 2016: TVS-e Bharat Gold PS2 Wired Keyboard (Mechanical) (Cherry MX Blue)

Mechanical keyboards seemed to be the universal answer to pain in the fingers and wrist induced by typing. As I started looking for the models that were available in India, I started realizing that all of them were expensive. In fact, I could not find anything which was cheaper than INR 10,000 during the time. I was in college and I did not want to spend so much money on a keyboard which may or may not solve my pain problems. So, I kept looking. About a month after starting my search, I ran into this TVS Electronics keyboard on Amazon. It seemed to be too cheap to be real. At INR 2000, it was far cheaper than anything else I had seen on Amazon or on YouTube. (The Indian tech YouTuber scene in 2016 was not as good as it is now, so I was able to find reviews and comparison videos only from American YouTubers, where mechanical keyboards had been popular for a few years.)

The brand TVS is well-known inside India for making automobiles, but I have never heard about TVS manufacturing any computer peripherals. So, I was suspicious of this product. There was a website for the product which described it well. The version that was available on Amazon used the PS/2 port, a port designed 30 years ago, in 1987! Keyboards had moved on to USB a few years ago and to Bluetooth in the couple years before I purchased this keyboard. So, the technology was quite old. I could not find many reviews on the Internet for this product.

Nevertheless, it seemed to be my only bet and after confirming that I would be able to return the product, I ordered it off of Amazon. After using it for a couple days, I was convinced that the product was legit and actually did use real Cherry MX Blue keys. In fact, the keyboard was extremely good and I started using it exclusively immediately after purchasing it. I used it throughout my pre-final and final year when I had to type a lot. I typed both my Bachelors and Masters thesis on this keyboard. I also used it for all of my college placement preparation: writing CVs, practicing competitive coding questions on CodeChef, notes about my placement experience, a large part of this block.

For nearly two years until my graduation in May 2018, I used this keyboard everyday. I was living alone in a hostel room for the whole of this period, so the sound that the Cherry MX Blue switches made was not a problem. I did not move around during this period either (Indeed, there was very little travel.) So, the weight of the keyboard was not a problem either. This keyboard remains one of my favorite keyboards to use. The product I bought in 2016 still remains in heavy use in my father’s home office.

Moving to Japan (2018-2020)

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October 24, 2018: Gamdias Hermes E2 7 color (Mechanical) (Cherry MX Blue)

As good as the TVS-e keyboard is, the one thing it is not is portable. Owing to the danger of bringing it all the way from India to Japan and damaging it or not finding a use for it, I left it at my parents’ house before moving to Japan. I intended to buy a Cherry MX Blue keyboard after arriving in Japan.

On my first payday in Japan, I went to an electronics store and bought this keyboard. It was a Cherry MX Blue keyboard, which I managed to figure out using the translator application on my phone and repeated confirmation with the store clerk. My only real consideration when buying the keyboard was budget. I did not know the Gamdias brand very well, and I had not read many reviews about this keyboard either. I decided in the store after comparing some keyboards and their prices. The other keyboards were mostly targeted at the gaming audience and seemed to have too many backlights, that could not be disabled. This keyboard also had an array of backlights, but they could be turned off easily and this was the reason I chose it over the other options on display.

One thing about this keyboard was that it had the JIS layout (and not the typical US layout). The JIS layout is mostly similar to the US layout but there are some extra keys which are used only when typing Japanese. Through some software tweaks on Linux and Mac OS, I was able to use this keyboard effectively at home. Throughout 2018 and 2019, I was going to my office daily for work and I was unable to use this keyboard there because it was too loud. This keyboard was pretty good for typing at home, where I did a minority of my typing. Using this keyboard, for the first time, I realized that all keyboards which use the Cherry MX keys are not created equal. Indeed, a mechanical keyboard is made up of several parts and the keyswitch is a major one, but not the only factor to consider when assessing the quality of a completed product.

I used a (terrible) Apple keyboard at work, where I was typing a lot. That keyboard definitely gave me some finger pain and I wanted to move away from that at work.

I sold this keyboard on Mercari2 3 years after I bought it for little lower than the price at which I had bought it. (I am an employee at Mercari. Future references to Mercari will include a footnote stating this.)

Experimenting With The Split Form Factor (2019-2020)

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October 26, 2019: Kinesis Freestyle 2 for Mac (Membrane)

I wanted to experiment with the split form factor. The idea with the split form factor is that the keyboard does not have to be a single unit. It can be split into two pieces, which can be placed at distance. This ensures that the hands don’t have to be squished close together into the typist’s body.

I was constrained to using a membrane keyboard because I wanted to use the split form factor at work, where I was doing a majority of my typing. (I had not started taking Smart Notes (TODO Link) yet in 2019.) There weren’t many membrane keyboards which had the split form factor. In fact, there were only a couple that I can remember. Out of these, the Kinesis had good reviews. So, I bought a second-hand one off of Mercari2, a marketplace app for second-hand goods. The price was good and there was little risk in this purchase because if I did not like the keyboard I could simply sell off the keyboard on Mercari once again, at a slightly lower price.

I used this keyboard at home for a couple weeks to become familiar with the layout. Getting used to the split form factor was hard at first. The temptation to reach for H or G on the wrong half was strong. (I do not do “perfect” touch typing, where typists use only the assigned fingers for each key. I would often “cheat” by using the left index finger for H or the right index finger for G. This kind of cheating is easily forgiven on a non-split form factor because the keys are close to each other; but it is unforgivable on a split keyboard, as it slows you down.)

In a month or so of usage, I was able to type on this keyboard at the same speed as I used to type on previous form factors. However, there was a major flaw with the design of this keyboard: Although it was using the split form factor, it did not change anything from the US keyboard layout. So, all the modifier keys were on the extreme left of the keyboard (such as Tab, often used in Ctrl+Tab and Alt+Tab and Esc, mapped to Caps). The finger extension for my left pinky finger to reach these keys was very large and strained my fingers. I had to take my left hand off the home-row when I needed to use a modifier key. I had to take my right hand off when I wanted to use the mouse. This flaw made the experience of using this keyboard beyond 2 months quite painful. I went back and forth with this keyboard between my office and home for a few weeks each time; hoping against hope that I would get used to the layout and perhaps even get over the pain. Neither of this happened, and typing on it remained a painful experience.

I ended up selling this keyboard on Mercari2. Things changed quite a bit in terms of my work environment in the beginning of 2020.

Trying The Cherry MX Brown Switches (2020-2022)

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April 2, 2020: Filco Minila Air (Mechanical) (Cherry MX Brown)

In the second week of February 2020, everyone in my office was sent home to continue working from home full time. I was able to use my Cherry MX Blue switches constantly now, and this was quite a good experience. But the loudness of the Cherry MX Blue switches created problems almost immediately, even though there was no on else in my home.

Namely, I was unable to type during meetings. As it had become commonplace to have a Google Doc opened and present it during a meeting, where everyone could take notes, this meant that I would not be able to type unless I muted my own mic. So, I would not be able to type and speak at the same time. This was a common pattern of my work back then, especially when I was brainstorming an idea or a calculation with a coworker. I realized that the Cherry MX Blue switches were so loud that I could not use them for work.

Google Meet’s technology was still being improved and it did not have the “background noise cancellation” feature that it does in 2022. Even still, it seems unlikely that I would have been able to get away with typing on a Cherry MX Blue switch during a meeting. Searching for a silent version of the mechanical keyboard that I was using, I found the Red and Brown variants. I had heard a about the Cherry MX Red and the Cherry MX Brown switches.

MX Red switches are linear and do not have any tactile feedback. This was a no-go for me; half the reason I was using a mechanical keyboard in the first place was the tactile feedback that I was getting when I pressed a key. This tactile feedback let me know that I did not need to press any longer. It had become a subconscious part of my typing experience and I did not think about it at all anymore. Typing without the tactile feedback, even on a linear switch, would be hard, I felt. The reason you need to apply a smaller actuation force on a mechanical keyboard is because you get feedback when the key has been typed. If you take away this feedback, you are left guessing or waiting for the screen to update you about whether you typed a key. This guessing process always ends with typing more forcefully and getting it right all the time, rather than typing less forcefully and not actuating the key sometimes.

Looking around for a Cherry MX Brown switch keyboard, I saw several large keyboards. The Filco Minila Air keyboard is one that I saw at an electronics store and its small design intrigued me. Did I really need the number pad? I used to use the number pad back then, but it involved taking my hands away from the home row. I wanted to be a proper typist, if at all possible. Getting rid of the number pad seemed like a step in the right direction. The Minila Air had received good reviews and seemed like a solid keyboard from a well-known manufacturer. So, I bought it and started using it daily for work from home.

It solved my “can not type during meetings” problem. The MX Brown switches on the Filco were silent enough that typing lightly during a meeting would go unnoticed. Even though it took me a few weeks of practice before I could really type lightly enough reliably, I could see that the MX Browns were significantly more silent compared to the Clicky MX Blues, which are loud enough to rouse people in deep sleep with the characteristically sharp click sound.

The MX Brown switches on the Filco also felt better than the MX Blue switches on the cheaper Gamdias that I was using before. Again, I felt that the switches were not the sole component that mattered; the build of the keyboard and the manufacturer’s experience also mattered a considerable amount.

An added advantage with the Filco Minila Air is its portability. When I went back to India to work for 3 months from there, I took it with me from Japan to India. I also brought it back to Japan. I brought the keyboard in my cabin baggage. I was afraid it would be broken in transit if I put it in my checked-in baggage. This meant that I had to unpack the keyboard and keep it alongside my 2 laptops on 5 different occasions during the trip, 1 time in Japan and 4 times in India. The experience of doing this in India was harrowing, to say the least. (The severely limited supply of trays in airport security check queues is a genuine crisis!)

After returning to Japan, I knew that I was ready for the final step in my keyboard journey: An ErgoDox EZ purchase with the Cherry MX Brown keys. Before going to that step though, I will digress slightly and explain my brief experience in the build-your-own keyboard world in Japan.

Sidetrack: Build-Your-Own Keyboard Misadventure (March-May 2021)

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March 20, 2021: Custom keyboard number pad kit

The build-your-own keyboard world in Japan is extensive. I have a few coworkers who have “built” their own keyboard. The process involves buying a circuit board, a microcontroller, the key switches, and the key caps which will be fitted on top of the switches. Then, soldering all the components together yourself.

I bought a small keyboard kit which, when assembled, would be a 10-key number pad. I don’t have any use for a number pad, but I wanted a kit on which I could test whether I would be able to put together a real keyboard.

This went poorly. I had greatly overestimated my soldering skills (I thought I was “OK,” it turned out that I was actually “terrible.”) And I had greatly underestimated the complexity of working with hardware. In particular, the point at which I realized that soldering was not my cup of tea was when I started soldering the microcontroller. The microcontroller has 12 pins and these are small and extremely close to one another. So, one has to solder everything perfectly and ensure that none of the soldered points are connected to each other, which would be a short circuit and would hamper the microcontroller’s functioning significantly.

After messing it up and trying to fix it, I decided to give up. I was left with the kit and some soldering equipment which I had no use for anymore. The only thing I did learn from this process was how keyboards look like under-the-keyswitches and the effort that goes into making a single keyboard when they are made manually.

Buying The Ergodox EZ (Jan 2022)

January 22, 2022: Ergodox EZ (Mechanical) (Cherry MX Brown)

So, here we are. About 7 years after starting this journey, I have finally reached a keyboard that is sufficiently customizable and ergonomic for sustained daily use. I am continuing with the QWERTY layout, despite evidence that proves that this layout is not very good and involves too much finger travel. The keyboard version that I have bought does not have the names of keys printed anyway, so the switch of the keyboard layout to something modern such as Colemak DH might be in the cards for me. However, I am not going to spend time on it now.

I have spent a considerable amount of time getting my tooling to its current shape. There have been misadventures along the way. They did not cost me much money, but they did take up some valuable time that I could have saved.

Nevertheless, I am glad to have started using mechanical keyboards and I can wholeheartedly recommend the Ergodox EZ keyboard to anyone who knows which switch they want to use.

  1. All the dates in this post are accurate and from receipts of online stores. I went back into my email to dig these out and that was quite fun. 

  2. I am an employee at Mercari  2 3