As a software developer, I spend a lot of time on my desk with keyboard and mouse. About a decade ago when I used to play tennis regularly, I injured my right wrist due to my bad forehand technique. Since I stopped playing regularly, my wrist has somewhat recovered, but sometimes I still feel mild pain. And as I grow old I am getting more concerned about the general ergonomics of the tools I spend so much time with.
About six months ago I started my research into keyboards, and ergonomics in general. As I read more and more, I found this whole new world of keyboards! Gaming keyboards with snazzy RGB effects; mechanical keyboards with all these cool switch names like Cherry MX Browns or Kailh Boxed Reds; weird looking ergonomic keyboards; split keyboards with all sorts of tent angles; DYI kits that you can customize till the end of time if you want to. It felt like I have entered a whole new universe of keyboards and keyboard hobbyists.
You can spend as much or as little money as you want on a keyboard. Right now, the most expensive keyboard I can find on eBay Australia is over 9000 Australian Dollars. That’s almost as expensive as my car!
The 4 Axis
Over the last six months I got interested in much more than just the ergonomics of a keyboard. Eventually I realized that I was interested in four main areas:
These are the four main dimensions of comparison of various devices I consider buying. You will notice that price as a dimension is missing from the list above, but it’s actually always at play. I don’t believe that expensive necessarily means better, and I am always after the best bang for the buck. But, as you will read below, starting with cheap keyboards and eventually moving into more expensive range made me realise that the quality of keyboard is generally related to how much you are willing to pay. No surprises there.
Ergonomics was definitely the starting point of this journey.
For a while, I was using Logitech K380 primarily because of it’s size. It’s an excellent membrane keyboard, extremely light, and yet it feels solid when you type on it. You can switch between three bluetooth devices, and it is ideal for situations when you want to carry it with you. Because I have been switching between clients as a consultant, I like it’s portability. Unfortunately, just like any other small keyboard it is not something you can recommend to someone if ergonomics of the device is important to them.
Look at how wrists are angled outwards in the direction of little fingers. This situation is called Ulnar Deviation and can lead to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I feel I was experiencing pain in both of my wrists when I was using this keyboard for long periods of time.
So I bought my first ergonomic keyboard: Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard.
I absolutely love this keyboard. It’s a great value for money. The split design has some learning curve, and can force you to fix some of your bad typing habits (e.g. if you use your left index finger to press the “Y” key). But if you are a proper touch typist then the learning curve is minimum. Within weeks you will have the full benefits of an amazing ergonomic keyboard. I could feel that the tension in my wrists was pretty much gone in a couple of months.
One potential issue that I found is that once you get used to a split design, you tend to make more mistakes if you have to go back to a conventional keyboard. But the price and portability of this keyboard allows you to either buy two units (for example one for work and one for home), or you could carry it in your backpack as it’s not that big. The detatched number pad is a touch of a genius, because it helped me understand that how little I actully use the number pad. Mostly it’s hiding in my drawer and I don’t miss it. If you really need a number pad, you have the flexibility to keep it on either side of the keyboard. For me, not having a number pad results in more free space on my desk, and I can keep my mouse closer to my right hand which improves ergonomics of the whole setup.
Please do note that people have had mixed results with Microsoft Sculpt. There are well documented issues with wireless connectivity, and some people found that it was simply dropping characters, or the connection was simply too slow. It is actually a very old keyboard and doesn’t offer bells and whistles of a modern keyboard of the same price range. I personally have had no issues with it, and it has done the job pretty well.
But I knew I could do better than the Sculpt. I don’t really like the Sculpt mouse the comes with the keyboard. Also, I saw a gaming mechanical keyboard that a colleague was using, and I felt that I absolutely must get a mechanical keyboard. More specifically, the tactile feel of a mechanical keyboard made me look for a good affordable mechanical keyboard.
After some research I found this: the Keychron k1 V4 with Gateron Low Profile Red switches. There are cheaper options availble form eBay or Ali Express (Red Dragon comes to mind, Ajazz is another one), but I found really good reviews for the K1. The other thing is that at this point in my journey, I realised that I don’t really need the number pad thanks to my experience with the Sculpt, and TKL was the best option for me.
One thing to keep in mind is that you want your keyboard layout to be as close to the convnetional layout as possible. On the Sculpt, the layout is similar to a 65% keyboard, which I find a bit difficult to adapt to. Most keyboards you find in offices are full keyboards with number pads like this one. The TKL layout is exactly that minus the number pad. If you are looking to save desk space then TKL is the best choice. Keychron K1 is a good choice because of it’s TKL version.
And, I loved this keyboard initially. The feel of the red switches is so good, and results in an awesome typing experience which a membrane keyboard like the Sculpt can’t match. I could type for hours and hours on this one. But two things started to bother me about K1 after a week or so:
- No kick-stand. The whole point of this expedition was to find a good keyboard with ergonomic benefits. After using the Sculpt for a few months, the K1 felt like a step back.
- No customisation. When you pay a decent amount of money for a keyboard, you expect some level of customisation. K1 doens’t come with a software which could let you do any customisation.
I therefore returned the K1 after a few weeks. But if you are not concerned about ergonomics and want a simple mechanical gaming keyboard, and like the red switches then k1 is an awesome deal. It is thin, feels solid in hands, and overall has a really premium feel.
K1 was my first RGB keyboard.
I am not a gamer and I never thought that something seemingly useless like a bunch of random color patterns on my keyboard could be so important. But it does make a difference! You feel like spending more time on your desk. There is something magical about an RGB keyboard. If you want to have a nice experience working long hours hooked up to your desk, an RGB (specially the TRUE RGB, not the fake one like this) keyboard will make a difference.
By the way, I did use that cheap keyboard from Kmart for a few weeks and had to return it. It had blue switches (more on switch colors later) and was just too loud for me. The typing experience was aweful, and I can’t recommend it. If you have 40 dollars to spend on a keyboard, just get a decent Logitech membrane keyboard and forget about mechanical or RGB keyboards.
So at this point, I was looking for a split mechanical keyboard with RGB backlight. And I found one: the Respawn Ninja Ergonomic Split RGB Gaming Keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches.
I have had this keyboard for a couple of weeks and I am absolutely loving it.
Size does matter.
Respawn Ninja is bigger than what I would’ve liked. After using K1, I am conscious that I am actually wasting some desk space due to the non-detachable number pad which I am not using at all. But this is tolerable when you think about really nice switches, split design and full customization via the included software, which feels a little rough around the edges but gets the job done. You also get 10 macro keys, and I will definitely find a use for them in the future! There is a dial on the left half of the keyboard which you can use to adjust the volume. I find it useful as I am generally listening to my Spotify playlist when I am working.
Respawn Ninja is a wired keyboard. But surprisingly, even after using two wireless keyboards for a few months, the wire didn’t bother me much. Also, the name of the keyboard is the best I have heard so far :-)
Not all splits are the same
Logitech sells Ergo K860 Split keyboard and it looks amazing. But the thing to remember is that with keyboards like this one or the Sculpt, there is no customisation in terms of the distance between the two halves. A true split keyboard like the Respawn Ninja gives you way more flexibility. You can adjust the keyboard in a way that your hands are in line with your shoulders, giving you an even better posture.
Ergodox is an impressive beast. But it goes against my philosophy that my keyboard should make it easy for me to switch to a normal keyboard when I have to. Ergodox is an ortholinear keyboard. I get that in theory it probably is more ergonomic and you can eventually type faster on it with practice, it is still a bridge too far for me. Besides, the real benefits of ortholinearity are still questionable.
UHK is an amazing achievement. The cool thing about it is that it supports various modules that you can buy to attach to the keyboard. UHK and Dygma have taken the approach that the Space Bar on keyboards is basically a wasted space. UHK gives you a number of options to utilize that space, so you can either have a trackball or a touchpad module in that area, or a key cluster that you can customise. It is now hot swappable, and the software to customize the keyboard looks awesome with support for multiple layers. I find UHK to be the most innovative keyboard ever, even though it is not ortholinear which I don’t care much about anyway.
But I think that for me, my next keyboard is going to be Dygma Raise.
Dgyma Raise - the best money can buy (arguably)
Dygma Raise is developed by people who are really passionate about keyboard ergonomics. It is as cusotmisable as any other keyboard I could find, and looks absolutely stunning. The team has really engaged the community and it has a cult-like following. In fact, their users have helped solve them some of the technical challenges they were facing as they keep researching and improving the product. Recently they finalized the design of their tent-kit, and I think it’s the best tenting option I have seen so far.
Keyboard tenting - Why is that a big deal
Tenting of the two halves of a split keyboard is important. It solves another problem that we face with conventional keyboards: pronation in the forearm and wrists.
Pronation occurs when you are typing with your palms face down. It is not the natural position of our wrists. It reduces blood circulation and leads to fatigue. When we feel discomfort in our hands after prolonged use of conventional keyboards, it is a combined result of the Ulnar Deviation and pronation.
Keyboard tenting helps you with pronation of wrists. It gives your hands a more natural position when you are typing. My Respawn Ninja has a slight tent and I think it already is making my typing experience better.
But the problem here is that you need flexibility in your tenting solution just as you need it in terms of the location of the two halves of a split keyboard. Respawn Ninja doesn’t give you a flexible tenting solution, but Dygma’s solution has a range of tenting angles. Checkout their video that gives an awesome overview of keyboard ergonomics and their tenting solution.
Blue, Brown, Red or Silver
Cherry MX is a German company and their mechanical switches are considered to be the best. They have a range of switches and the different types are color-coded. The Cherry MX Blue switch is the clicky version and is supposed to be the loudest. It has a bump in the middle of the key travel, accompanied by a click sound when pressed. I can imagine that Blue is probably the most satisfying for many switch enthusiasts, but for someone like me who works in an office, I will end up annoying everyone around me with this type of switch. The Red is the other end of the spectrum. It is a linear switch which means you get a smooth and linear feeling from top to bottom when you press a key. In between the two is the Cherry MX Brown, which is a tactile switch which means that you get a bump in the middle of the key travel, but there is no clicky sound.
I personally prefer the Cherry MX Red, but my current keyboard has Brown switches and I like those too. I was really happy with the Gateron Low Profile Red switches in my K1. You really have to try different switches out and see which one you like the best. I think I will eventually end up with red switches in my Dygma Raise.
The custom kits
There are quite a few custom kits available that you can buy and build the keyboard yourself. You can buy kits from sites like Custom KBD or Keebio. Keebio sell a pre-built keyboard called Iris, which is pretty expensive at USD 190 at the moment (cheaper than Dygma though if you don’t factor in the time you are going to spend building it yourself). Personally I would prefer to pay someone to assemble the keyboard over building it myself, but only if I could find a kit that offers what Dygma doesn’t.
But what about Kinesis, Matias and the Moonlander
There are so many brands that I haven’t covered. I have mentioned above the keyboards that I have tried so far (not that many actually), and I think I know what I will end up with. Kinesis makes some interesting keyboards specially the gaming ones, but their Advantage2 looks to me like a weird bulky keyboard with a riddiculous price tag. I haven’t had a chance to see it, but I’d rather stay away from it.
Matias makes interesting keyboards and based on the reviews I think they have good products, but they are quite expensive, and if I am ever willing to fork out 400 dollars for a keyboard, I would rather get a Dygma.
Moonlander is great ortholinear keyboard. If ortholinearity doesn’t bother you, go for it.
Obviously I have a particular set of criteria which may not apply to you. But based on my research, my top two candidates are:
- Dygma Raise
- Ultimate Hacking Keyboard
None of the other keyboards I have found meet their level of customisation and ergonomics.
The next in the list for me could’ve been the Moonlander, but the ortholinear layout is a deal breaker for me.
I have used both Microsoft Sculpt and Respawn Ninja. I’d recommend both of them at their price point, with the later offering much more customisation and flexibility at essentially the same price here in Australia.
And if you don’t care much about ergonomics and just want a decent and affordable wireless mechanical gaming keyboard with great connectivity options, Keychron K1 V4 is a beauty.
P.S. Another keyboard that I bought recently is the Tecware Phantom. It is a hot swappable mechanical keyboard compatible with Cherry MX switches. I haven’t seen another hot swappable board at this price point, and it is a great entry into the world of mechanical keyboards if you want to try out different switches etc. It comes with Outemu brown switches which are not great. I have replaced the keycaps, and will be replacing the browns with Gateron yellow switches, a highly respected linear switch in the keyboard community. People have customized this keyboard with great results.