The ErgoDox

A photo of the ergodox

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.

Layout

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.

Feel

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.

Customizability

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.

Assembly

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 diodes on the ergodox circuit board

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.

Overall

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.

Updated ErgoDox

As some of you have noticed, I use an ErgoDox keyboard. Iʼm currently in the process of writing a review of it which, I hope to have completed soon. In the process of writing the review, I discovered that MassDrop has started a drop for a new revision of the design. The new design was not created by Dominic Beauchamp, as the original one was but, is designed by Jacob Alexander and the team at Input Club. Iʼm deeply divided on whether or not I should purchase one.

This revision has fixed my two biggest issues with the Ergodox: the weak connector between the two halves and an awful job of shouldering all of the resistors to the board. One of the TTRS connectors on my current board is flaky due to me putting it in my bag without disconnecting the two halves. When I pulled the ErgoDox out, I grabbed it by the connectors and that has caused the left half of the keyboard to have issues. Basically, it requires me to unplug and then plug the keyboard back in several times per day. I have the replacement parts sitting on my desk but desoldering is quite a pain, so I havenʼt done it yet. This revision of the ErgoDox removes the week point by utilizing a standard USB connection between the two halves. There are a couple of posts on DeskAuthority with people saying that theyʼve replaced their ttrs connectors with USB connectors and it works much better but, I havenʼt yet took that plunge. The another issue I had with the Ergodox was shouldering all of the resistors. It was easily the longest part of the assembly. The resistor was so tiny that it was extremely hard to attach them. This was probably due to my relative lack of experience with soldering (it was the first time that I had assembled something in 4 years) but I found it to be extremely tedious. Iʼm glad to see that that step is gone since the resistors are now integrated into the board.

Theyʼve also added a couple of niceties to the keyboard. First off is that each key can now have an led. They can also be independently controlled. This means that you will be able to setup your Ergodox to be backlit if you desire. They have also added an lcd. Iʼm not really sure what the point of having an lcd on your keyboard is but, no doubt some people will come up with awesome uses for it. Iʼm a little bit concerned that it wonʼt be very visible due to the glare from the acrylic case.

I also have quite a list of concerns over the new design. Much of it boils down to this being a 1.0 product. They have come up with a custom protocol to communicate between the two halves of the keyboard. I really donʼt think that this is a good plan, they could have gone with what the original ErgoDox used and just switch out the connectors for USB. We have no idea how reliable this connection will be and if it turns out to be unreliable, then this new iteration is pretty useless. Iʼm also concerned that neither the PCB design nor the firmware has been open sourced yet. While we have their assurances that they will be open sourced when the keyboard starts shipping but, this would hardly be the first time that a company has promised to open source something and then simply never do it.

I also liked the ErgoDox because it built up a decent community of enthusiasts. This new revision leaves all of that behind. It’s possible that many of the fans will migrate to the new design but, that’s hardly a sure thing. The new design is not compatible in any way with the previous ErgoDox, its more of a spiritual successor rather than an actual one. To add all of the things that they were able to do no doubt necessitated these changes, I question whether those changes are worthwhile or not. In making the assembly easier, I worry that they have lost part of the charm of the original. I think it’s great that this will let people with little to no experience soldering use an Ergodox but, the repairability of this new keyboard is a significant regression from the original ErgoDox. If a component on my ErgoDox fails, I can simply desolder the failed component from the board and replace it with a new one. Sure, that is a pain and you would still have to get a new pcb if the pcb is the part that fails but, I feel like that was an important part of the original ErgoDox. With the new one, if a switch, led or lcd fails, you can swap them out. If anything else fails it will necessitate a whole new pcb. That seems to be a bad trade-off to me.

As I said before, Iʼm deeply divided on whether or not I should pick up one of the new revision. Iʼve wanted to get a second ErgoDox for a while so that I no longer need to transport one between home and the office but, this wouldnʼt be picking up the second one. It would be picking up a whole new keyboard with a similar layout to my ErgoDox. Still, that might be worthwhile. Perhaps this keyboard will gain a larger following than I fear it will. If that’s the case then I really want to get in on the ground floor and figure out what is possible.