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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Ergodox EZ Keyboard Review

The Ergodox EZ is the newest and most accessible iteration of the Ergodox keyboard. Previously the keyboard was only available as a kit, requiring the purchaser to solder together the pieces and assemble the unit. The EZ is the end result of an Indiegogo campaign to take the open-source design and mass produce it -- or, if not quite mass produce it, at least deliver it as a single finished product.

The bottom line is that this is a wonderful keyboard. The short time I have spent with it has placed this input device above my previous favorite keyboards, the Fingerworks Touchstream and the Truly Ergonomic Keyboard.

Design


The EZ is split into two separate pieces with a large cluster of keys underneath each thumb plus a few extra buttons in the middle. This arrangement will look strange to people who use common keyboards, but to users of the Touchstream or TEK it will feel familiar.



For now, though, forget about the extra buttons and focus on the arrangement: the keys are arranged in columns instead of the staggered arrangement of common keyboards. Columnar layout is the essential feature of any keyboard that I will consider using, or which I would describe as ergonomic. Users of traditional keyboards think it's weird, but those users are wrong: columnar arrangement is the only way any keyboard should ever be designed. The Touchstream, TEK, and Ergodox keyboards all use columnar arrangements.

The worst part of the design of common keyboards, other than the staggered buttons, is that they assign all the important special keys to the weak pinky fingers, and assign the singleton spacebar to both of the strong, dextrous thumbs. The EZ largely corrects this by explicitly assigning a bunch of keys to the thumbs -- different keys for each thumb. Certainly at least the four big keys in the thumb areas are intended for touch typing with the thumbs, but also the buttons on the bottom row of the main button area. With my layout, I can touch type twelve buttons with my two thumbs.

Also, there are the four large extra buttons in the middle of the layout. Some EZ users have modifier keys there, but I put the extraneous symbol characters there (slashes and brackets). Whatever characters are put there, they increase the utility of the dextrous index fingers.

I love the key arrangement. I think it is close to perfect.

Build


One critique of the Ergodox kits was that the cases were often 3D-printed which resulted in a chintzy look and feel. No such problem exists with this keyboard. It feels solid, the manufacturing lines are clean, the plastic looks good.

The keyboard uses a standard mini-USB cable to connect to the computer, and a standard TRRS cable to connect the two halves. If one of the cables fails over time it can be replaced with an inexpensive commodity one. Compare this to the Fingerworks and TEK keyboards, which each used a hardwired USB cable. If that cable failed, you would have to discard the whole keyboard or resolder a new cable. The EZ has no such downside.

The EZ can be purchased with little legs which allow users to tilt the keyboard to any comfortable angle. I did not buy those so I can't review them. If I had to do it again, maybe I would buy them, but I feel comfortable with a flat keyboard.

The keyboard uses standard MX switches which are well known with a good reputation. I got the printed keycaps which means I got "DSA" caps, which all have an identical shape. I had no trouble getting used to the shape of the caps immediately.

Purchasers have a choice of keyswitches. I have two keyboards with brown and blue switches, but for the EZ I close clear switches. This is purely personal opinion, but I wish I'd stuck with brown, which require a little bit more pressure to push down. The clears are a bit flaccid for my immediate appreciation, but perhaps over time I will come to love them best. In any case, the switches work perfectly as intended, so there is no problem with their quality.

I consider the build quality to be very good.

Layout


The kind of person who is interested in a three-hundred dollar two-piece keyboard is also likely to be interested in modifying the layout of the keys. I sure was! I will detail my personal layout in another blog post, but let me say that the process of changing the layout was easy. There's a little piece of software to download, available for Linux and Mac and (also Windows, if you have Windows for some reason). I ran the software on both Mac and Linux. It worked fine with the caveat that on Linux you should run the software as root or else configure your environment to allow the software to have the permissions it needs. If you don't do that, it will just quietly ignore the EZ.

Anyone comfortable with git and a text editor can follow directions and have whatever layout they want.

The keyboard ships with an extra couple keycaps so that you can put blanks into places where printed caps previously were.

Because it is easily programmable, I give the EZ an A+ for layout, but I don't actually like the default layout very much at all. There didn't seem to be a coherent overall plan to where the keys went, but I changed mine to work exactly how I think it should.

Room for improvement


So I really love this keyboard but is it the last keyboard I can ever imagine wanting? Is it absolutely perfect? No. Here are my wishes for improvement:


  • Backlit keyboards are more useful than dark keyboards. I wish all keyboards were backlit with individual LEDs underneath each key.
  • Instead of a TRRS cable connecting the two halves it should be a USB cable because USB cables are easier to find than TRRS cables.
  • The EZ ships with sturdy, high-quality plastic cables. I agree with another review I saw which said braided cables would lend a classy feel to the whole product.
  • While we're talking about cables, I think it's awesome when keyboards sport a pair of USB ports too. We had that in the 1990s, why don't we have that anymore?
  • Many keyboards have an Escape key which is physically separated from the rest of the layout, usually way up and to the left of the top left of the main button area. The EZ lets you put Escape anywhere you want, and that's awesome, but where I want it to be in that far away place. I would also ship the keyboard with a bright red button for Escape.
  • Although they sent me two blank extra keycaps, I ended up needing four. I wish I had a couple extra blanks or had single-size keys with printed text for Home, End, Page Up, Page Down. Right now I have keycaps printed with brackets where my Page Up and Down keys are.
  • The default layout really leaves a lot to be desired. It has some innovative and useful features, but then falls flat in placement.


Conclusion


Like I said at the top, the bottom line is that this is a really good input device, instantly my favorite compared to the Truly Ergonomic Keyboard which I have been using recently. I like it so much at the office that I might buy a second one (with the tilt feet and brown switches) for home.

Recommended.


2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review! Been eyeing this keyboard fora long time and am almost about ready to pull the trigger. What was your experience with the company itself? Shipping, customer service (if applicable), etc.?

    ReplyDelete