I’ve been using a new keyboard recently: the Moonlander by Ergodox.

keyboard

Ergonomics

It’s a split keyboard, which is supposed to promote better posture. After using it a while I can feel the difference, holding your arms to your side tends to naturally push your chest out. It encourages you to sit upright instead of leaning over the desk.

The keyboard is ergonomic in a few other ways, it can be tilted on two axes, so you can avoid pronating your wrist. The keys are on an otholinear layout, the rows line up vertically, so moving between rows shouldn’t require any left-right finger movement.

I would say the keyboard is a bit small for me. I have long fingers, my hands form claws over the home row. Is this actually bad?

Remappable layouts

One of the first things you do with this board is set about customising your preferred layout and flashing new firmware. I generally avoid things like editing udev rules, but the flashing process was altogether straightforward and well documented. Also now I know a little more about how devices are handled in GNU/Linux.

The board runs a forked version of QMK, here is my firmware configuration. After using it a while I can see a few problems with what I’ve done, for example I thought it would be cool to put the enter key down from my right pinky, instead of directly across. This was a bad idea! I didn’t understand the Americans who complain about the ISO keyboard layout, and specifically the size and placement of the enter key. Now I get it.
The important thing is to understand that it’s an iterative process: try out a lot of things, if they don’t work, reflash the board with new firmware. It’s all free software, and there’s a reset process to save you from bricking the board entirely.

The first macro layer on the default layout is intuitive and I picked it up almost immediately. I will pick up the other layers eventually but it’s difficult for things like symbols which you only ever use very rarely. I changed the keycaps around for a colemak layout I’m slowly trying to learn that along with touch-typing.

There’s another personal example of how layout changes are useful. My right thumb was damaged recently in a series of stupid mistakes. I accidentally drove a sharp piece of metal into the cuticle when messing with my bicycle, and then wrenched half the nail out of the nail bed when picking up a bag of slippery dishwasher salt. These were both extremely painful incidents, my thumb was very sore and basically unusable for a few days. This is where a special keyboard came in handy, I moved all the important keys off the right thumb cluster so I didn’t have to use it so much. Problem solved.

Speed

Once I learn to touch-type on a colemak layout, I figure I’ll be a faster typist. For a baseline reference, I did a typing test with GNU Typist.

Keyboard Adjusted words per minute
Laptop 64
Desktop QWERTY 55
Moonlander 9

Obviously the Moonlander is currently well below my tolerance for ‘too slow’, but as it improves I’ll eventually reach a tipping point and then switch over entirely. I can already see how fast I could type with words just on the home row. When it works it feels like hitting a combo boost in a video game, it’s just very satisfying.

There’s a lot of effort involved in relearning left-right coordination. It’s a mental challenge to separate each hand onto its own dedicated part of the keyboard. Some people say you should approach it like learning to play the piano.

Music

Speaking of pianos, this keyboard has an inbuilt speaker and audio module. You can switch it over to the music layer, which gives each key a dedicated note. 🎵

Otherwise, the keys sound satisfying enough without random bleeping.

These are Kailh White boxed switches. The box is there to prevent key wobble, and apparently it helps make the switch slightly more durable. I can attest to the sturdy feel of the keys. Very robust.

In defence of the keyboard

Why would you spend $365 (plus £50 in customs fees importing from Taiwan) for a keyboard which is significantly more difficult to use than the one you already have? I should acknowledge here that the Moonlander is a wasteful extravagance, mechanical keyboards are expensive. So if you just want a normal semi-decent keyboard, the Perixx model 106 is pretty good for €30.

But, to justify this silly purchase to myself: I write a lot,1 or to put it another way, I spend a lot of time bashing keys with my fingers. A keyboard is a tool, and if you want to do good work, it helps to have good tools.

I’m not at all limited by the speed of my typing, for every sentence I write on my PhD I spend far more time reading, thinking about what to write, reading again… It’s more about breaking down the barrier between thought and text.

I’m fascinated by the story of how George RR Martin writes using Wordmark 4.0 on an old DOS computer. There’s a curious paradox in the way very old computers can be faster than newer ones, especially for basic things like inputting text. Without reading too much into GRRM’s choice, it really is preferrable to cut down on the delay between pressing a key and seeing a letter appear on screen. All typing is part of a feedback loop, and the shorter the loop, the easier it is to type.

As another analogy here, when the Nintendo Wii got popular, it was accompanied by a lot of excitement around Human-Computer Interaction.2 Microsoft jumped on board with the Kinect and redesigned Windows to have a touch-friendly interface. The future was going to be full of 3D virtual spaces with all sorts of new sensors and controllers. And yet, the joyless corporations reverted to the fact that computers respond well to simple inputs. It’s still the case that best way to get information from your brain to the computer is by rapidly tapping buttons with your nimble fingers. All I want to do here is optimise the key-slamming activity to make it as smooth and comfortable as possible.

Finally, there’s already an ideal audience for the Moonlander; the sorts of people who use tiled window managers, who rely on keyboard shortcuts and macros, and who appreciate the opportunity to tinker with firmware. If you’re part of this group, and you’ll definitely know if you are,3 you probably already know whether or not you want a fancy keyboard like this.

  1. I don’t write enough, or write well enough, to be a writer, it’s just that my job (my… occupation?) seems to rely on producing written work. 

  2. You see the contemporary equivalent of this enthusiasm in virtual reality interfaces. 

  3. Hello there.