ErgoDox Review, an Ergonomic Mechanical Keyboard via Massdropby Jarred Walton on August 27, 2013 12:00 AM EST
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.