One year with the Truly Ergonomic keyboard

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:

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.

Model 229 TECK with blank caps.

I’m writing this on 2015-05-25, so it’s been about 16 months. Here are my notes so far:

Adjusting

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.

Customization

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.

My current layout.

Issues

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.)

15 thoughts on “One year with the Truly Ergonomic keyboard

  1. zouhair Mahboubi

    I wish I had bought this through Amazon. Unfortunately, I bought directly from the company. And despite the warning about the BBB score, I still went through it because I really believed this keyboard would be great.

    Unfortunately when I tried to take them up on their 60-day money-back guarantee since I could not program it under Linux and decided to go with ergodox instead.

    They wouldn’t reply to my emails. Eventually I reached them by phone and got an RMA. I returned the keyboard but I never got my refund!!
    I tried emailing and calling again, but they never got back to me.

    I looked on BBB and it turns out that the company is dishonest about their return policy as I am not the only one who did not get their money back:
    http://www.bbb.org/mbc/business-reviews/computers-whol-and-mfrs/truly-ergonomic-ltd-in-vancouver-bc-1269309/complaints

    Reply
  2. Byron

    I purchased a Truly Ergonomic keyboard in April, 2015 and used it for a month. No complaints about the quality of the product but the key placement didn’t work for me, even after remapping the most problematic keys. So I started the process of returning it. It was difficult, to say the least. As of today, I do have my money back but… If you choose to do business with Truly Ergonomic, please consider that their web site doesn’t provide any contact details other than their web form (which they can ignore) — no email, no address, no phone. If you do happen to locate their phone number (look them up in the Vancouver BBB on-line directory), you go immediately to an answering machine and won’t have your call returned.

    After threatening legal action via their web form, I finally got an email back with excuses and directions for returning the keyboard. I returned it, but then waited for a refund. Follow-up emails were again ignored until I (again) threatened legal action.

    My recommendation is to avoid the company unless you have had prior experience with the keyboard and know that it will work for you. Even then, I don’t know what to do with the reports of faulty switches. Probably just avoid it entirely.

    Reply
  3. sk

    it is trulydisappointing keyboard.
    after 1 year of bearing keyboard, it is totally useless. unresponsive keys is big problem even after trying each suggestion as listed in the faq section.

    nice concept but not well made, totally disappointed. tried to return but not too easy to ship it back to canada and not sure if they return money or replacement.

    don’t waste money …. 🙁

    thanks,

    Reply
  4. moshev

    I used to be very happy with my TECK, but after about a year and three months, it has started to miss letters and produce double letters. I tried cleaning the affected keyswitches with warm water and leaving it to dry for two days, tried with alcohol, and nothing seems to fix the problem. Additionally, Truly Ergonomic don’t seem to read their e-mail at all, all my correspondence to their customer support has been ignored.

    I really love the ability to edit the layout in firmware and the physical form-factor is absolutely perfect, but quality can be a crapshoot with this company it seems. Which is a shame, as they are the only ones making a keyboard with this shape.

    Reply
    1. Vladimir Panteleev Post author

      I had such problems occasionally, but they always went away after a while. I guess it’s due to a speck of dirt getting into the switch or something. Forcefully pressing the key a few dozen times often helps (it can take the stress). I had these problems with other keyboards with Cherry switches too, so I don’t think it’s something TECK-specific.

      Reply
  5. Malcolm B

    Finding the right ergonomic keyboard definitely isn’t easy to do, hopefully we get some more options sooner rather than later. It’s one of the reasons why I think the Kinesis is such a great option, because its always been readily available and there isn’t much hassle when switching over. It’s too bad that ergonomic keyboards aren’t more mainstream, there really is a need for them.

    Reply
  6. Stuart G

    I highly recommend avoiding this keyboard and this company as well.

    I recently purchased a TEK, and after 9 months of use several keys started failing intermittently. I have contacted their support several times and received no reply.

    Reply
  7. Bjorn

    I’ve been using a TEK model 207 for almost 4 years now and it’s been great. I’m a software engineer and type a lot. There is a learning curve, and I’m not quite as fast at programming on regular keyboards anymore, but it’s worth it for the speed increase and ergonomic improvements I get with the TEK. I tried going without my TEK at work a couple years ago and only made it two weeks, as I started feeling elbow pain again (the reason I got one in the first place).

    Reply
  8. James Sandlin

    I’ve been using 2 TEK’s for the last 3 years… one for work and one for home. I have loved the layout and functionality. I truly wish I could give this product an A rating. Unfortunately, as stated, the company does not respond to contacts. I have had 2 keys break and although I’m more than willing to pay for replacement caps, the company doesn’t respond. And as the key moulding is not the standard you can order from massdrop.com, there is little I can do. Sadly, the BBB is correct in their company rating.

    I’m on the waiting list for keyboard.io && have a ergodox kit on the way.

    Reply
    1. acl

      Actually apart from the lowest two middle keys all the others can be replaced, although for the central keys the shape will be wrong and for some of the modifiers the sizes are nonstandard. However, the rest are all standard keys.

      Reply
  9. Alexandre Buisine

    Hi there !
    I got a 6 months old 209 model and keys such as , , , and some others but less frequently are not responding. I tried everything listed in the FAQ, no luck. I tried to contact the support a couple of times, and except their automatic response I got no answer at all. This is quite frustrating !
    Is there anyone facing the same problem ?

    Reply
    1. Alexandre Buisine

      my tags where removed : here is the list of keys that are not functionning properly (QWERTY mapping):
      simple/double quote
      coma
      plus
      left space
      right shift
      down arrow
      … and some others but less often

      Reply
  10. Kirk

    I started using a Darwin smart keyboard back in the 90’s and wore it completely out. I found them online and ordered another and after a decade of hard use it just quit. I really loved that keyboard and still haven’t thrown the broken one away. They are sadly out of business, so went looking for a similar one. I found Truly Ergonomic. I didn’t realize that the keys were moved until I got it. I can deal with the return key ok, but really didn’t like the tab and a couple others. I decided just to force myself to use it. After a month or so, I got faster and liked it. Mine is supposed to have Cherry MX Brown switches in it. Whatever it has, I like the feel of them.

    In the last two months I have noticed missing letters in my typing. Some letters don’t always register unless the key completely hits the bottom. That is not how the keys are supposed to work. They should register at 2mm.

    I have about 6-10 keys that intermittently malfunction. I tried to contact Truly Ergonomic, but never heard back.

    I just ordered a pretty standard layout Corsair K95 RGB PLATINUM Mechanical Gaming Keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches.

    Still would like to have my old Darwin Smartboard back.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *