20 min read

Not Your Typical Keyboard

This is a keyboard review, but I want to take the long way round to getting to it. Bear with me, and let's talk keyboards for a moment. I've had many over the years. Here's just a few:

It's no secret that I really, really like keyboards. Unlike many, I haven't given up on this excellent little input device for one reason: they are really really really good at what they do. If you need to get text down into the computer, in various shapes and sizes, there is little better for doing this than a keyboard. All of the newfangled approaches to inputing data into the computer often fails miserably at being comfortable, efficient, and natural for doing serious content creation, no matter how predictive or capable.

For me, then, keyboarding is basically the single most important basic skill I have on the computer. It allows me to get work done better than any other core physical skill. And so it's no wonder that I put so much thought and effort into making sure that my keyboarding experience is able to keep up with me.

I have a strong preference for ergonomic, mechanical keyboards. One thing that I definitely care about is the rate of input. There are keyboards which are fairly comfortable, but they sometimes don't allow me to reach my full typing potential. What I want in a keyboard is something that is fast, ergnomic, and compact enough that I can carry it around with me wherever I go. It's no good to have a keyboard that you usually leave at home when you go on a trip.

I'm also a rather fast typist. The fastest I have ever typed in a timed typing race on TypeRacer was 152 WPM. My average is consistently above 115 WPM, and depending on the keyboard, I can usually maintain an average from 120 - 130 WPM fairly easily. This puts me in a realm of typists who start to encounter what I would call speed effects in their keyboarding.

When you start to type above 100 WPM, the basic mechanics, while still important, are a given. At this point, the difference between typing 120 and 150 WPM is a matter of accuracy and effort. That is, you need to be able to expend as little effort in your typing as possible with maximum accuracy. By expending less effort, you are able to maintain a better pace, and if you are able to maintain accuracy, you are able to maintain your speed. It's that simple. If you are inaccurate at high speeds, then you will lose so much time relative to your base speed that nothing else really matters that much. To this end, it's vitally important at these speeds to have a keyboard with keys that provide just the right amount of feedback without tiring out your hands. You want to be absolutely sure of what you typed without having to expend any additional effort to make sure.

This is where I feel the differences between the mechanical and the membrane type key switches really start to make a difference. When you type as much as I do and as fast as I do, then you start to become very sensitive to the different feelings of keys, and whether your keys are consistently giving you the same sort of feedback every time or not. You'll notice when a particular keyswitch requires more or less effort to be "consistently" informative to your fingers. With mushy membrane keyboards, the feedback just isn't there, and you have to press very hard, decisively, and with so much force that you are wasting much of your effort just making sure that you are getting the keys hit right in the first place, rather than letting that effort be spent on more important things like hitting the next key.

But getting a mechanical keyboard just isn't enough either. There are many different types, and each of them has their distinct advantages. One almost universal advantage that mechanical keyboards have over their membrane equivalents is their consistency throughout the life of the keyboard. The keyboards tend to have some initial break-in period where they will feel a little different, and then they will start to melt into what they will feel like for the rest of their lifetimes, or at least the main portion thereof. Some keyswitches are much more tactilely consistent over their lifetimes than others.

I can be very fast in just about any keyboard that I use, with a little practice. The question is really, where can I not only be the fastest, but also the most efficient overall, including energy expended and top speeds? Well, I'll let you in on a little secret. That 152 WPM top score that I ever typed was on a Truly Ergonomic keyboard. I have a history with many keyboards, but I have written about these keyboards before. I was one of the crazy people who pre-purchased one before they were even made. By the time that they actually shipped the first models, people had mostly forgotten them or assumed that they were vaporware of the 1st order. Imagine my glee when those naysayers were proven wrong and I received my first Truly Ergonomic keyboard.

Let me stop here and say that I have a fascination with many keyboards. I love the precision and tactile feedback that I get from my buckling spring, and the luxurious feeling of my Topre Switch based Happy Hacking, combined with its ultra-small footprint make it a joy to carry around, but when it comes to raw efficiency in a keyboard, I don't think I've ever had one that did so much in so little space as the Truly Ergonomic. I used a DataHand for a long time, and it still is the most ergonomic keyboard I have ever used, but I gave up a bit of my top speed to maintain that ergonomics, and it was not easy to carry that keyboard around. With the traveling that I am doing now, it's just not practical to have that as my primary keyboard. Moreover, they aren't made anymore, as far as I can tell, and it's very hard to find a good one nowadays. The mouse features are old school, and don't keep up with modern resolutions, which is another bummer. And really, if I'm being honest with myself, I really like the ability to type really really fast.

Buckling springs are great keyboards, and I love mine, but they are loud, and the force required to actuate them eventually starts to create issues if you want to type really really fast.

Topre switches are probably one of my favorite, if not my favorite, keyswitch. They are soft, light, with just enough feedback and an excellent sound. However, I've noticed that their pressure curve doesn't quite make it as easy to go fast as on a Truly Ergonomic. I think one of the reasons that this could be is that the Topre switches that I have are on a standard layout keyboard.

Speaking of layouts, I'll also remark, as I have before, that I remain in the camp of the QWERTY typists. I know that many people worship at the feet of Dvorak, and others still insist that the latest and greatest keyboard layouts can make my life better, and perhaps they can, but I've tried Dvorak, Colemak, Workman, and even some others, and I still find that they just aren't fast. Sure, they might have some advantages to ergonomics on some level, but I think people really give Qwerty a bad rap in that department. The bottom line is that Qwerty is amazingly effective at very fast typing. I'm not convinced that you can go that much faster with any of these other layouts. In the end, if you want to really exceed the speeds that you can achieve with Qwerty, you have to move into the area of steno-typing, such as with Plover. There, you trade-off generality for efficiency in a specialized domain. Unfortunately, as a programmer, I can't really make that transition easily enough, especially when my preferred programming language is so vastly concise.

So where does that leave us? Until a little while ago, I was happily typing on a Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro 2 with Topre switches and finding that I couldn't quite outstrip my old speeds on my Truly Ergonomic, no matter how hard I tried. Then, lo, and behold, I received an email from Truly Ergonomic asking if I would like to review one of their newer models that I hadn't yet used. Did I want to give it a shot? Yes, please!

Not long after that I began really giving this new model, the 227 with Soft Tactile Switches, a run for its money. Since that time, I've been using it as my daily keyboard and taking it with me everywhere. I've been trying to compare it to the first generation that they had, and determining whether it's better or worse than the original, and if the latest models hold up to claim that they are the fastest, most efficient keyboards that I have ever used.

You can read my previous review (mentioned above) for more information on the general idea of the Truly Ergonomic. The bottom line is that the overall design of the Truly Ergonomic keyboard line is a subtle, deceptively simple, but supremely effective design that just works. Firstly, they start with the mechanical keyswitches, which is the way to go, and many ergonomic keyboards don't do this unless you get into the higher end stuff, such as the Data Hand or the Kinesis Advantage or the like. Those keyboards are expensive, but the Truly Ergonomic is in the price range of a good Topre Switch. It's not cheap, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not crazy, either.

And this is the first thing that is different from the old model to the new model. The original model had Cherry MX Brown switches. They were great. The new model uses Kailh Next Generation MX Browns. These are like Cherries, but from a different manufacturer. Older generations of the Kailh didn't have a good reputation, but by all accounts, the new models are great. They have a spectactularly good pressure curve for fast typing and are very light. They also have gold plating and other features to ensure that you get consistency over the life of the switch. Truly Ergonomic has gone on to ensure that the mounting of the switches is rock stable and that they use quality stabilizers which helps to ensure a consistent keypress throughout the range of touch points on the larger keys. This shouldn't be overstated for those large shift keys and the large space bars. I can tell you that getting a good strike on the space bar is vitally important to comfort and speed, and having confidence that the space bar is going to do what you want, when you want it, makes a difference. The longevity for the Kailh switches is also great.

I've been typing with these switches for a long time on this keyboard now, to try to give them some aging to determine just how they will feel over time as you get used to typing with them. I can report that they have broken in a bit, and now seem to be fairly consistent with their feel throughout, and moreover, they seem to be holding steady throughout. That's a good thing. I'm not getting any double keying or anything else of that nature, and they continue to be quite talkative to my fingers, which is good.

In short, the switch to using Kailh switches seems to be an excellent one and I am very happy with their performance. Many people don't like the brown switches because they like the feeling of the clickiness of the blue switches of the same variety. I can understand that, and I won't begrudge them their choice, but for me, I like to have light, sharp strikes across the keys, and for that, browns definitely win the day over blues.

To me, the next biggest change of the new keyboard is the layout. They have included a number of different layouts in the firmware by default so that you can switch between them easily and without requiring support on the computer that you are using. This is nice if you want to keep your keyboard with you to type on foreign computers, but it's also nice if you like to work on multiple virtual machines, as it means that you need not worry about configuring your machines too much for your custom environment.

Of course, I'm an APLer, so that means that I have to do some customization regardless. This is where I hit my first snag with the Truly Ergonomic's new layout features. One of the greatest things about the Truly Ergonomic design is that you have two distinct space bars that can be used independently of one another. That means you can map one key to be something else while the other remains a space bar. It also means that these space bars are not as large and as a result, are more stable when hitting them and allow you to be more accurate with your typing. It's a great system, and one that I use a lot, because I prefer to map one of the space bars to the Alt key or some other special key for use when typing special symbols. While many people will not have an use for it, I imagine if more people knew how to work with this, it would be a valuable asset to many.

The original keyboard came with a nice DIP switch at the back that let you set this on and off, with a pre-programmed keycode to send to the computer if you wanted to use your left space bar as something other than space. I happened to really like this feature, but I suspect that not enough people did, because they have taken that switch away in the newer model with the default firmware and instead used it to widen the selection of default keyboards available.

This means that I had to spend some time learning how to use the firmware updater to get my feature enabled. I was worried that this would be rather difficult, and the answer is that it was both very easy and annoying at the same time.

Truly Ergonomic has provided an excellent keyboard mapper that will produce a nice firmware to upload from their website. I found this application easy and intuitive to use, but their firmware uploading software wasn't so great (I use a Slackware Linux box right now, and so there were some things that weren't working right with the updater because it was assuming Ubuntu). Fortunately, some talk with Truly Ergonomic's customer service pointed me in the right direction and I was able to find an alternative uploader that worked very well indeed. I've since recommended that they include instructions on using this alternative uploader with all of their source packages, and I believe they have said that something to that effect is being done. This means that the rest of you shouldn't need to spend the time bothering with that, and firmware updates should be a breeze.

With the firmware updater so accessible, it means that you're not as bound by the default DIP switch settings, and you have a ton of easy and ready customizations that you can make to your keyboard. And with that, let's look at some of the other layout changes that were made and see what I think of them.

One problem with the early models was that it was harder to map a keyboard layout like Dvorak to the original key layout because some of the keys were put in places that made life nice for a QWERTY programmer, but resulted in a somewhat useless configuration for a Dvorak typist. That's now been fixed, and the keyboard layout is a smidge more conventional, making the use of Dvorak or other alternative keyboard layouts much easier and less hassle. This also means that they needed to make some other compromises though, and these have lead me to some mixed feelings.

One thing I disliked about the original was the location of the Tilde key. It just wasn't easy to access, and tended to result in a sever disruption of typing flow when typing with it. I did however love the location of the Tab key, as it was kept right in the middle with the rest of the control characters like Delete and Backspace, which meant that it was easy to get access to all those control keycodes without using my pinky fingers, a major ergonomic advantage.

In the new model, they've thankfully fixed the Tilde problem by putting it in the more conventional location, but they've also moved the Tab key to a more conventional location as well. In its place, they've moved the Dash (-) key to the center line. It's not as awkwardly placed as the Tilde was, but it means that I still have to reach over when I want to type a dash.

I've thought long and hard about whether they could improve this and make it better, and I'm not sure whether any of the solutions I've come up with so far are actually better. In the end, I think I'm happier with this new layout than I was with the old one, even if it means that my Tab character isn't quite as efficient to use.

They have continued to do nice things for the balance of finger effort for symbol keys, meaning that the braces, like { and } are now typed with the left pinky finger instead of the right, balancing out the non-alphanumeric characters very well, so that you have three such characters dedicated to off-standard line pinky typing to each hand.

There are other subtle changes in the keyboard layout that make a difference, too. The Caps Lock, Num Lock, and Insert functions are all easier to work with. And, finally, much to my chagrin and probably many folks rejoicing, the shift keys have been moved back to more traditional locations, while the control key has moved up to take the place where the shift key originally appeared. I am not sure I am happy about this change. I've used it for a while and it works fine, but I do think that the shift keys in the original location were actually a better choice, and I am considering whether or not I want to change them back to this. There is the issue of muscle memory and transference from one keyboard to another, but since you're working with a columnar keyboard anyways, that's not that big of a deal. In the end, I recommend that everyone first give the keyboard a try by remapping the shift key and letting them enjoy a more efficient location, rather than sticking with the more traditional location, unless they just can't bring themselves to be so adventurous.

A few other remarks on the inspired but subtle design of the keyboard layout and key positions. The page up and page down keys are on the left hand side, right under your palm. This is a wonderful place to put them and works well with the same set of left, right, up, and down arrows that appear directly under the right hand palm. By putting these directional and movement keys right under the palm of each hand, it's easy to get to them, and more importantly, it's easy to balance their use. You don't find yourself constantly using the right hand to get things done with this setup, which is nice. And, I can actually reach keys like Home and End with my left hand without moving the rest of my fingers off of the home row. That's nice.

And finally, the Truly Ergonomic is one of the few keyboards you will find with an angle columnar layout. This has become one of my favorite methods of laying out keys on a keyboard. Once you get used to it, you can very easily work with you fingers to hit the keys, and the reach is quite nice. There are fewer awkward motions compared to a more traditional layout, and it lets your hands relax ever so slightly more during typing. Furthermore, this subtle slant to them makes a huge amount of ergonomic difference as I remarked in my first reviews of the 1st generation of this keyboard. And to make life even better, this ergonomic advantage can be had without the huge bulk of traditional ergonomic keyboards.

The small footprint of the Truly Ergonomic should not be undersold. Mousing is an important and critical part of interacting with a modern computing interface, and sometimes, despite how much I love the keyboard, the mouse is the more efficient input device for the task at hand. In those cases, you want to have your mouse or pointing device ready and in easy access. That means either directly below you in the form of the RollerMouse, or it means directly where your numeric keypad would normally be. Because of the columnar layout, the Truly Ergonomic can embed an useful (as opposed to just gimmicky) 10-key pad into the main keyboard itself, and free up that space on the right for the mouse. Moving the control keys to the center instead of off to the right further increases the efficient utilization of space. This puts the Truly Ergonomic leaps and bounds above a keyboard like the Microsoft Natural or other keyboards like that.

And in case I don't sound like a fanboy enough already, if you haven't had the joy of your control keys mostly in the center column of the keyboard, you need to get with the times. This is one of the favorite features of modern DIY keyboards and ergonomic keyboard designs alike. The Truly Ergonomic is well executed in this regard as the keys are easy and fast to reach, and let you make better use of those stronger index fingers for typing without wearing our your pinkies nearly so much.

The only other key I don't like the default placement on is the Escape key. I think that if I had my choice, I would prefer to put that key into the center column, probably where the Windows/Command/Super Key is right now. For those who aren't afraid of mistyping keys, that's probably a good place for it, but since that button is close to the 5 and 6, if you are afraid of losing work by hitting Escape while trying to type a number, then maybe it is good to have the Excape key far away. However, if you use Vi or other modal editors or systems a lot, then you might want to consider moving the Escape key to somewhere in the Center column.

If you are a Unix/Linux CLI sort of guy, using Vi/Emacs with the shell, then my initial thoughts on modifications that you would likely want to make, assuming that you didn't want to use the extra space bar as a Modeswitch key, would be as follows:

  1. Map Tab to the left space bar.
  2. Map Esc to the Super key.
  3. Map Shift to the Ctrl.
  4. Map Ctrl to the Shift.

That will bring the keys into closer reach and give you maximum efficiency when working with your command-line environment. If you are using Gnome or some other environment that makes heavy use of the Super key, then you might want to keep it right where it is and leave the Escape key back out of the way. Or, you could also move the Escape key to the less used backspace key location on the upper right area of the main key section of the keyboard. I find that I never use that backspace location, as the one in the center column is so much better.

My final remark on the keyboard layout as a whole is the gental sloping to the keys. This means that the keys are position columnarly, but in a slight curve, to help align the keys better to the natural lengths of the fingers of most typists. That's another one of those subtle but big bang for your buck sort of enhancements that you don't see on other columnar layout keyboards. It's becoming more popular as a design, but the Truly Ergonomic was there first in my mind. It's the combination of subtlety and effectiveness that sets the Truly Ergonomic apart from the competition, and I think what helps to contribute to making it so fast and effective for me.

Let's talk a little about the fit and finish of the new keyboard. I'm happy to report that the fit and finish of the new keyboard seems to be every bit as good as the old one. It feels like a solid keyboard, possibly because of the reinforcement of the main board and the new keyswitches which are supposed to help reduce wobble. The new keyswitches are definitely top notch quality and should have an extremely long life span to them. They feel excellent. The palm rest is removable from the rest of the keyboard, but it feels as though it were a permanent attachment if you keep it on. Overall, the keyboard has a solid well constructed feel and gives me confidence in the longevity of the design. You also get some nice additions like a custom fit dust cover to help keep the keyboard clean when you are not using it, which is a nice touch.

A few things do bother me, though, when it comes to fit and finish. With a keyboard of this price range, I expect an exceptionally well executed design, and the Truly Ergonomic mostly delivers, but for two points. Firstly, the cord design could be better. I've had cords snap and break on me with other keyboards, and while I have never had this happen to any of the Truly Ergonomics that I've used, because of the non-replacable nature of the cord, I would have preferred some very solid mounting to ensure that it was not going to break.

The weakest point, by far, though, on the construction of the keyboard is the plastics used. Now, first off, they aren't bad plastics, and they feel solid and are definitely going to hold up over time, but when you get up to the prices we're talking for a Truly Ergonomic, I don't just want a standard high-quality plastic, I want the best plastics that I can find. The inner construction of the frame for the keys is apparently a type of steel, and it feels top shelf. I can also say that I'm highly impressed with the cushiony materials of the palm rest. These show little to no wear on them after my months of using them every day.

Unfortunately, the materials used to make the Keycaps, particularly, are a mixed bag. The engineers at Truly Ergonomic made the right call in using laser-engraving and infilling with their keycaps, as the lettering on the keycaps has stayed solid and readable throughout the life of the keyboard. The positioning of the letters at the top of the keys also helps to prevent unnecessary wear, as they are not on the direct center or bottom of the keys which are more likely to receive more wear. But while this is a great process, it's not quite the best, as we'll see, and moreover, Truly Ergonomic decided to use ABS plastic for their keycaps and the use a painting to achieve the matte finish on the keycaps, according to their FAQ. While the laser-engraving holds up well to the abuse of intense typing, ABS with paint does not. Almost immediately after receiving the keyboard and beginning to use it I noticed that the keys were starting to show signs of glossing. For those of you who aren't familiar with this, it's when the keycaps start to wear a bit and instead of feeling slick and matte, they start to feel glossy. The matte finish on a keyboard helps the fingers to glide over the keys more easily and makes them easier to type on, while the glossy finish underneath, when revealed, tends to stick a little more to the fingers and makes it a little more difficult and less pleasant to type on. The laser-engraving with infill is susceptible to some degree of staining, and on the home row of the keyboard, you can see some evidence of staining on some of the keys.

To be fair, almost every single keyboard I have ever had shows this to some degree or another. But not every one. While most keyboards that aren't mechanical use very cheap printing and basically crumble under your fingers, the mechanical keyboards will normally be slightly better, but even then, they have varying techniques for maintaining the surface of the keycaps, and much of that is focused on maintaining the printing on the caps. But not as much effort is put into the maintenance of the surface feeling of the keys as well as the printing.

Unicomps buckling spring keyboard use a form of dye-sublimation on their keycaps, and that's a printing method that totally rocks, because there is basically no way to easily wear off the printing on the keys. This is also the technique used by some Topre keyswitches. The disadvantage here is that Dye-sublimation doesn't work on black keycaps, which the Truly Ergonomic uses.

IMO, the pinnacle of keycap quality for me remains my Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro 2, and for good reason. After years typing on that keyboard, it shows basically no wear. That's right, the keycaps feel and look as good as the day they came to me. That's something that basically only my Unicomp buckling springs come close, but the edge goes to the Happy Hacking.

The Happy Hacking keyboard is around the same price point or even a little cheaper than the Truly Ergonomic. It lacks a lot of the great features of the TEK, such as the columnar symmetric layout with the center column of control keys or any of that. All true. But the one thing where it completely powns the Truly Ergonomic? Keycap durability. The secret, as far as I can tell, is that it appears to be one of the only manufacturers using PBT plastic over ABS plastic + paint. Combined with the use of dye sublimiation on the keys, the Happy Hacking is the most durable keycap I've ever encountered. The ABS based keycaps need not even apply.

If Truly Ergonomic would alter their keyboard design to use a dark grey dye-sublimated PBT keycap instead of their ABS laser-engraved infill setup, and managed to keep the pricing the same, I don't know what I would do. It's the one serious, large complaint that I have with the keyboard that can't be fixed with their excellent firmware tools.

So there you have it. The TEK keyboard Gen. 3, the 227 model, is every bit as good, if not better than the original model, and keeps most of the good features, while delivering some excellent improvements. There are things that I would have changed in the defaults, but their choices are understandable, and with the good firmware upgrade tools that they have, it is easy to get what you want without trouble. My only real complaint is the ABS plastic instead of the tougher plastics. Other than that, this keyboard remains one of the fastest, most efficient keyboards I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and I would easily put it against any of the other top ergonomic keyboards on the market today, even potentially against such giants as the Kinesis and DataHand.

If you are interested in an efficient keyboard with ergonomic features, excellent keyswitches in a small, compact package that makes mouse use a real possibility rather than an afterthought and delivers on its promise of hardware/firmware programmability, then you should give the TEK a serious look.

In the end, I'm likely to continue floating around and using my favorite keyboards in various cycles. I love Topre switches, and Buckling Springs, and the TEK, and I'm likely to continue enjoying them all for their various advantages, but if I'm entering a typing speed race, then I'm not sure I could find a better keyboard to compete with than the TEK.