In late 2013 I started thinking about switching to an ergonomic keyboard. I did not have wrist pain or other health issues – although preventing them is a good reason as well, I mainly wanted to improve my productivity.
The key layouts on typical keyboards are vastly suboptimal: the alphanumeric keys are staggered (a carryover from mechanical typewriters), and important keys (modifiers, Backspace, Return, arrow keys) are too hard to reach. Although this is often worked around in software (e.g. hjkl movement keys in vi, Colemak remapping Caps Lock as Backspace), it is much more effective to fix the keyboard instead.
I was looking at three options:
- The Kinesis, possibly the most well-known ergonomic keyboard.
- The Workman Layout recommends the TypeMatrix.
- Finally, there is the Truly Ergonomic Computer Keyboard (TECK).
I ruled out TypeMatrix due to keylock (I think lack of NKRO is not acceptable for a high-end keyboard), and the Kinesis struck me as overly bulky – I wanted something I could take with my laptop (the TECK’s hand rest is removable).
Truly Ergonomic’s customization choices basically boil down to whether you want one big button (Model 227) or two small ones (Model 229) on the bottom corners of the keyboard, whether you want blue, brown or clear Cherry MX switches, and whether you want blank or QWERTY keycaps. My selection was Model 229 with brown switches and blank keycaps (using Dvorak for a decade, and I planned to reprogram the keyboard anyway). I ordered it on 2014-02-02 from The Keyboard Company and received it on 2014-02-06.
I’m writing this on 2015-05-25, so it’s been about 16 months. Here are my notes so far:
Adjusting to the keyboard was difficult for me, because I was not really touch-typing properly before. My right hand’s home position had been shifted by one key to the right, so I could reach Enter and Backspace easier. This wasn’t intentional, but rather just what my typing gravitated towards. As this typing stance does not carry over to the Truly Ergonomic, I had to re-learn to touch type with my right hand. This wasn’t a problem in itself: I set aside a few days and a copy of The Typing of the Dead to get adjusted.
An interesting moment occurred on my fifth day of using the TECK: I tried using a normal keyboard again, and discovered that I couldn’t use it any more. I panicked: I had forgotten how to type on a normal keyboard, and wasn’t anywhere near my old speed with the new one. I decided to quit. I was not seeing the benefits of the keyboard compared to the effort required to adjust to it, plus the “lock-in” that would render it difficult to use normal keyboards again. The time investment (of time already spent, plus that of however many days it took to remember to use normal keyboards again) would just have to be a sunk cost.
However, I got my old speed back in an hour (much to my relief), and I started noticing how much more work my right hand was doing, so I changed my mind and went back on the TECK. In retrospect, this has happened to me once before: ten years ago, when I tried using QWERTY after a few weeks of learning Dvorak, during which I was using it exclusively. The recent Backwards Brain Bicycle video from Smarter Every Day describes a similar effect, I think.
Truly Ergonomic provide a 60-day money-back guarantee, but you first have to use the keyboard for at least 30 days. As I found out, this has a good reason: I definitely went through a “this sucks and isn’t working for me” valley, after which my productivity began to go back up and I started liking the keyboard. So far, I do not regret my decision to keep using it: my typing speed is higher than before, and having all keys within reach without moving your hands is… quite fantastic.
The keyboard is reprogrammable. To reprogram the keyboard, you use an interactive tool on their website in which you can assign keys with drag-and-drop, or by directly typing the desired action onto the keys. When done, you can save your layout as a bookmarkable link, and download a binary firmware blob which can be flashed onto the keyboard using a separate flashing tool.
Curiously, the layout customizer wasn’t created by Truly Ergonomic: it is an open-source project created by yurikhan, and used with his permission on the company’s website. The customizer was created by reverse-engineering the original firmware, which I find a little amusing seeing as the product of said reverse-engineering is now being offered as official ROM updates.
Some of the customizations I made:
Truly Ergonomic recommended that you try their default layout for a while before you decide to reprogram it. It was somewhat opinionated, and I decided rather quickly that I did not like it. For example, the Tab key was placed in the middle column, making the common Alt+Tab combination overly difficult to press. The Shift key was also moved up to the home row, its old position being replaced by Ctrl. Turns out that I wasn’t the only one unimpressed, as the default layout for new keyboards has apparently been changed to resolve these annoyances: compare this image from 2013 with this one from 2014.
Before ordering the keyboard, I had been running a program which collected statistics about which keys I use more frequently. This proved to be very useful in deciding how to rearrange the keys. For example, I found that Ctrl was my most used modifier key, so I moved it back to the corner of the keyboard (i.e. to its usual position), so I can press it with my palm.
The keyboard has two space bars. I found that I only press the space bar with my left thumb, which meant that I had a free thumb key. I assigned it to a third Shift key, which I’ve found very natural quite quickly.
I moved the numpad overlay to the Fn layer, and instead reprogrammed the Num Lock layer with the Dvorak layout, effectively turning the Num Lock key into a hardware Dvorak switch. This is useful in many circumstances, e.g. in BIOS, when booting another OS, or in some games with a hard-coded QWERTY layout. This also allows me to collaborate on one machine with a QWERTY user – I would plug in a second normal keyboard, switch the software layout to QWERTY, and turn on hardware Dvorak on the TECK.
I have kept a journal with notes and a log of my layout modifications, which you can read here. You can find links to my layouts and some more detailed notes therein as well.
Chatter: Some of the keys occasionally exhibit chatter. I don’t think this is a problem with the TECK itself, since I had the same problem with my Filco keyboard (which also used Cherry MX mechanical switches).
The layout firmware customizer now allows configuring a debouncing filter, though I’ve yet to try it.
Not enough thumb keys. The importance of thumb keys became obvious to me when I remapped the second space bar to Shift: I’ve suddenly realized how underused my thumbs are. I’ve also had trouble finding a good binding for the Alt and AltGr modifier keys. Although I haven’t used one, I strongly suspect that the Kinesis got this right, as also evidenced by all new ergonomic keyboards incorporating thumb key blocks into their designs.
Bad business practices? Apparently, the Better Business Bureau has given Truly Ergonomic an “F” rating. It seems there are 14 complaints about the company on file with the BBB, mostly regarding the 60-day money-back guarantee. Amusingly enough, the only reason I know about this is due to a FAQ entry I found today on their website titled “What supposedly is the Better Business Bureau and why they deserve an F- ?”, which strikes me as big red flag, not to mention immature. The Amazon.com reviews are also very polarized. I don’t have any personal grievances with the company, though.
I won’t list the price as a downside. The TECK is expensive, as all ergonomic keyboards, but if you make a living pressing buttons, the investment pays itself off very quickly.
Would I recommend buying a TECK today?
There are some interesting new ergonomic keyboard projects:
I would suggest looking at those first, mainly because these all have thumb key blocks and the TECK doesn’t. Otherwise, if you don’t want to wait for the keyboard.io or KeyMouse, don’t want to build your own Ergodox, and found no other interesting keyboards, I would say that the TECK is a solid choice.
(Update: Many interesting comments on Hacker News.)