A number of months ago, I picked up a kit for an unusual keyboard from Massdrop, the ErgoDox. Unusual is a fitting word for it as it is unusual in nearly every way. The only way that I can describe the layout is unusual, the shape is unusual, the materials are unusual and you probably get the point. It’s also completely open source. You can download the PCB and case design and build the keyboard yourself. Given all of that, you also need to assemble it yourself. In spite (or perhaps because) of all of that, the ErgoDox is the best keyboard that Iʼve ever used.
As I mentioned before, the layout is unusual. It’s a split layout where you can independently move the halves. This is, by far, the most important improvement over a standard keyboard layout. This allows you to position the two halves to be shoulder-width apart. This vastly decreases the stress on your wrists while you type.
The keys are also arranged in columnar layout which removes any of the staggering that you would typically see between each row of keys. What this means is that your middle and ring fingers only move up and down. Its a little hard to imagine the benefits of this but, after a few days of use, you won’t want to go back.
Unlike most ergonomic keyboards, the ErgoDox uses mechanical switches. Many people enjoy keyboards with mechanical switches as they have a much better feel while typing. Iʼm one of those people. I donʼt mind typing on scissor key keyboards but typing on keyboards with mechanical switches is a real treat. That’s not something that I would normally say of typing. You can use whatever switches you want for it. If you already have a favorite switch variety, you can use those on your ErgoDox. If not, I really like Cherry MX Clears. They have a tactile bump about just after the actuation point. That makes it very easy to type quickly without bottoming out the keys.
With the ErgoDox, everything is customizable. In fact, you are forced to customize it before you can use it. Luckily MassDrop has a web-based configuration tool that’s really easy to use. Its what I used to create my layout. The web configuration tool is great. It exposes almost all of the options that you might want. If that doesnʼt quite do all of the customizations that you want, youʼre able to write C to fully customize your keyboard. The base firmware is available on GitHub. The one thing that Iʼve found is that you arenʼt able to change what character is sent when you use shift with the key. This is important for doing some more exotic layouts. There is an alternate firmware called tmk that supports some more advanced features but I havenʼt tried it yet and I donʼt know whether it supports custom shift modifiers.
There are also a variety of external customization that you can do. Iʼve equipped mine with an aluminum top plate. I also chose to have clear DCS keycaps. I strongly recommend that you get DCS keycaps. It is much nicer to reach the bottom key rows as they are angled to meet your fingers. I also chose the standard case. If I had to make the choice again, Iʼm not sure what I would choose. While Iʼm working at my nextdesk, I really like the standard case. However, I now work in an office and a full hand case would work much better on a more conventional desk.
Although you can put any keycaps on your ErgoDox, there are some practical limitations. You have to be particularly careful when picking out DCS keycaps. Basically, you need to be able to buy a keycap set that was made for the ErgoDox. Youʼll also be locked into using qwerty like layout. If you go with DCS keycaps, you have quite a few more options but, youʼll still have considerable trouble finding keycap sets with all of the extra modifier keys. Youʼll likely need to buy at least the modifier key set from a set designed for the ErgoDox but then youʼll be able to use any keycap set you want for your base keys.
My views on the assembly process have changed since the time that I built my ErgoDox. If you would have asked me about it while I was in the process of assembling it, I would have told you that it was the most tedious process that Iʼd ever done. I would have also stated that it really isnʼt worthwhile. While I still feel that the first part is true, I definitely think that the end result is worth the pain. I feel a special connection with my keyboard since I needed to assemble it. I really needed to work to reap the benefits of the ErgoDox. It has made me really appreciate the end result. Iʼm also rather proud that I constructed my primary input device using my own hands.
On to some more practical advice for assembling the ErgoDox. Youʼll need a soldering iron, solder and a tweezers. The last part isnʼt optional. The surface mounted diodes are incredibly tiny and you are not going to want to put your fingers anywhere near the tip of the soldering iron. I used this soldering iron from RadioShack with this solder. Neither of which was ideal. Youʼll likely want a slightly smaller solder. As for the soldering iron, youʼll want something a bit nicer with an adjustable temperature. The one I used frequently was hotter than I was comfortable holding.
The Massdrop ErgoDox kit has a couple of choices that make assembly more difficult. Of course, its unclear whether Massdrop will be doing anymore ErgoDox kits due to their introduction of an Infinity ErgoDox. Due to their case design, you canʼt use standard diodes, you have to use surface mount diodes. They are, of course, included in the ErgoDox kit but, they are tiny, youʼll need to use a tweezers to be able to pick them up and attach them. You also need to be careful while attaching them. I managed to break one of them while I was attaching it. My kit was also short a single diode so I ended up needing to purchase more. Luckily the diodes are fairly easy to find, they are these ones from Digikey. I really wish that MassDrop would have included a few extra diodes in the kit, at the volume that they ordered them at, they are 3¢ a piece. I found the easiest way to attach the diodes was to put down a dot of solder on one side of each diode for an entire row before attaching the diode.
The ErgoDox is the best keyboard that Iʼve ever used. Its by far the most comfortable keyboard Iʼve ever typed on, I actually enjoy using it everyday. However, you need to be a tinkerer in order to use this keyboard. The assembly is quite tedious and program the keyboard is a little bit involved. Iʼm sure that anyone could make it through the web based configuration but it is another step to complete before you get to experience the ErgoDox. If youʼre a tinkerer too, you should check out the ErgoDox.