Walk the Planck

If you know me you know my collection of clicky keyboards has been steadily growing since I bought my first one in April of 2012 (a Das Keyboard, if you were wondering). In recent years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for a specific subgenre of keyboards: keyboards that are 40–50% the keys of a full-sized keyboard that are ortholinear. One of the most popular of these keyboards is the Planck, an absolutely adorable little grid keyboard with a 4×12 arrangement of keys.

When I’m recommending a mechanical keyboard for a friend who is relatively new to the game, I don’t want to throw someone into the deep end with a keyboard that also comes with such a dramatic learning curve; typically I aim to provide a soft landing in the mechanical keyboard world with a pretty standard looking full-size or tenkeyless keyboard that is laid out pretty much like a keyboard your computer might come with. That way, I give them a fair shake at getting to love the much better feel of the mechanical key switches without a ton of frustration at having to re-learn how to type.

But lately I’ve been inclined to push people more toward something like the Planck as their first clicky keyboard.

Just look at it:

planck

It’s cute! It’s just 47 or 48 keys (depending on whether you opt for a double-wide spacebar). That’s super approachable, especially compared to something like the Ergodox, which is full of these clusters of keys of different sizes:

source: ergodox EZ

When you first lay your hands on a Planck you’re going to quickly feel like you have a grip on the keyboard; in the top three rows every single key is can be reached by moving a finger no more than one position from home row. And instead of being overwhelmed, you’re actually likely to be asking “Hey, where are all the keys? Don’t I need more?”

And you don’t! The Planck’s clever firmware makes fantastic use of limited keys by making each key do more. Modifier keys like Shift and CTRL can be dual-purpose; for instance, when I tap my CTRL key quickly, it’s treated as an Escape key, but when I hold it, it’s a Ctrl key.

And, of course, there are the layers. So, while you’ll notice there is now row of number keys, they’re actually right there, in the top row, on a different layer. You hold the key to the right of the spacebar to access this layer:

Layout of planck layer

When you factor in how easy it is to reach each key, you’ll find it actually feels quicker pressing 2 keys to press a number than it would have felt to reach up 2 rows to get to that number row. And because the keys are in a perfect grid, your fingers will love how easy and unambiguous it is which key is which! How often do you hesitate for a split second while you try to guess by feel whether you’re hitting the 2 or the 3 key in a staggered layout? With a grid, it’s never in question!

Your Planck will typically come pre-configured with a standard layout that works quite nicely, but you aren’t forced to live with that. The Planck is a fully programmable keyboard. That means its layout can be changed at the firmware level (which also means you don’t need to install special software or hacks on your computer to customize your keyboard’s layout, and you can plug your keyboard into any computer and it works just as you expect). This is my base layer’s layout (I’m a sucker for arrow keys in an inverted-T layout):

My Planck's base layer layout

The Learning Curve

My first keyboard in this category was a Preonic, which is like a Planck but with an extra row of number keys on top. I thought the extra row would make for a smoother transition, but eventually I realized the layers were plenty powerful and the extra row was an unnecessary crutch, and I rarely am using my Preonic anymore.

As a programmer, I’ve found that if I try to dive face first into a new type of keyboard at work, I will get frustrated really quickly. Instead, I spend time becoming proficient in more conversational typing first. I’ll type text conversations with people on it, or write up some blog posts with mostly prose and not a ton of special characters. Then, when I become proficient, I’ll try to gradually introduce more typing that involves the other characters.

If you choose a Planck EZ, they offer a graphical online layout configurator that also has a training mode, allowing you to see your layout in real time as you are holding different layer keys. I haven’t tried this yet myself (it was added after I was already pretty good with the keyboard) but I really like the idea of this.

And speaking of layout configuration, as you are learning the keyboard’s layout, I encourage you to make layout changes early and often! If you keep mistaking one key for a different one, why not just change the layout so that it matches your expectations? Are you finding that you keep hitting the Enter key in inopportune situations? Move it somewhere else or put it behind a layer to avoid accidentally sending a message prematurely!

Customizing

If you haven’t already gotten the hint, Plancks love being customized! After all, the whole keyboard design is open-source from the start, so it was made to be tinkered with; it’s not a black box you’re expected to enjoy as-is. Two popular Planck versions (Drop.com’s and the Planck EZ) have circuit boards where you don’t have to solder the key switches on, meaning you can try out different kinds of key switches to your heart’s content.

Since it’s such a small keyboard, you only have to buy 48 switches to have a full keyboard’s worth, making it cheap to try new kinds out! For the same reason, Plancks also make a great kit (the drop.com version is a kit, for instance). Even if you buy a version that needs soldering, soldering a Planck together is not nearly the undertaking that a full-sized keyboard is).

And, of course, you get to enter the world of customizable key caps! Most custom keycap sets offer a variant to make them compatible with the Planck (look for the “ortho” key set). For the most part it’s not too hard to just take some existing key caps from an existing keyboard and put them on your Planck, but for the bottom row you’ll have to get a little creative since most standard keyboards’ bottom rows don’t have 11–12 single width key caps.

A keyboard that is truly yours

Philosophically the Planck warms my heart. The Planck is a community-designed keyboard, and it is open to its core. When you buy one, you aren’t buying from a big, faceless corporation; you are buying from a cottage industry of small keyboard makers. Hell, you don’t even have to buy one from someone else if you don’t want to; you could build one yourself by hand and hand wire it if you wanted.

The keyboard will give you years of service, but it’s also a simple enough product that it is highly repairable. If an individual key switch stops working, you can replace just that switch. If a component on the circuit board fails, you could replace just that, or have a friend with some know-how replace it. It’s a refreshing departure from so many of today’s electronics.

And most importantly, you aren’t stuck choosing an inferior product just to get something built with these values; the Planck is objectively a better keyboard because of its openness, not in spite of it.

A keyboard for all

The Planck’s birth may have been among some passionate keyboard enthusiasts, but I firmly believe that it’s a keyboard suitable for the mass market. As friendly as the keyboard is to being customized and endlessly tinkered with, it’ll serve you just as well if you set it up just the way you like it and never change anything again.

The keyboard is a very intimate part of the computer. It is the most tactile part of it, and it’s the part of the computer you use when you want to precisely express your thoughts. It’s a peripheral that’s essential to people who work at a computer for a living, and if you’re like most computer users you’re just using the one that came with your computer without giving it a second thought. Believe me, it’s worth exploring better options, and a great keyboard is a solid quality of life improvement!

Keyboard Projects: Iris

Over the past year I’ve developed a periodic habit of going on keeb.io and just ordering up a kit for a keyboard just to try it out. Like with most mechanical keyboard supply shops, you have to keep a close eye on when things are in stock, but they have some fun and relatively simple keyboard kits.

I recently embarked on trying to find an answer to the question “what if I had a keyboard that was like the Planck, but had just a couple more keys on it?”

There are a couple Planck-like keyboard projects out there that kind of fit the bill of what I was looking for, but I noticed the Iris kit on keeb.io and decided to give that a shot.

It’s a split ergonomic type keyboard with an ortholinear layout. Each half has 28 keys; a 6×4 grid, plus space for 3–4 thumb keys on the corners of each half.

Now, its default layout is set up not quite like a Planck; it’s actually using the top row as number keys, like this:

Iris keyboard layout (default)

But this is a fully programmable keyboard, so I don’t need to concern myself with such limitations!

Instead, I decided to lay mine out as though it’s a Planck, just with some extra keys added:

my Iris keyboard layout

Switches and Keycaps

Once you’ve picked what kind of keyboard you’re making, the next most important set of choices are going to be which switches you’re going to use, which will in turn inform which key caps you can use. The switches, if you’re not familiar, are the component that goes beneath each key cap, and it’s the “mechanical” part of a mechanical keyboard; it actually has mechanical components within it that are responsible for actuating when you press a key, and are also responsible for a good chunk of the clickiness you feel when you are typing on a mechanical keyboard.

The Iris PCB, luckily, is quite flexible! It supports three main types of switches: Cherry MX-style switches (by far the most commonly used in modern mechanical keyboards), ALPS switches (very popular in the 80s and 90s with some die hard fans still today), and Kailh Choc switches (a thinner switch that enables you to build a low-profile keyboard with less key travel and less thickness).

I initially decided to lay mine out with ALPS-style switches made by Matias. Because ALPS-style switches use a different plastic stem shape, that severely limited my key cap options, so I just bought a set of blank key caps from Matias.

Obstacles

Building the keyboard is pretty straightforward. The latest PCB is basically all pre-made; you just have to solder the switches in, then screw the case together. It’s a good beginner project, too, because there are only 56 contact points you have to solder on each half.

Once I had the keyboard together, and once I ported my layout over to it and flashed it, I gave it a whirl. But the thumb keys proved to be a problem; they were basically blocking the two keys they’re in front of.

So, I decided to try something experimental: what if I bought a few low-profile Choc switches, and used those for the thumb keys instead?

That’s got to work, right? The PCB supports both types of switch.

It was a little janky, and the PCB wasn’t built to have more than one variety of switch in it at once, but with a little flexing, I got the Choc switches (Jades, if you were wondering) soldered in and they worked!

PCB flex

Show me the keyboard!

It came out looking pretty cool. Note that despite my stint living in Wisconsin, I’m not as much of a Packers fan as the key caps let on; the supplier I got the key caps from included some color key caps as freebies.

Iris glamour shot

close up of the Iris keyboard

And of course, you’re probably wondering how it sounds. Well, I am delighted to say that the ALPS-style clicky switches are some of the clickiest you can get, and these are nothing short of really satisfying to listen to:

Mind you, with this particular choice of case and plate and keycaps, I am ending up with a somewhat different sound than these same switches produce on another keyboard. Let’s hear these ALPS switches on my Ergodox Infinity, for instance:

The difference is more pronounced in person, but the sound is deeper than on the Iris.

Also, the four thumb keys are using “thick click” Kailh switches, which also have a lovely little sound and feel to them:

I think if I could do it over again I’d have picked the slightly stiffer Navy Blue Choc switches.

Parting Thoughts

Whenever I’m using a Planck or similar 48-key keyboard, I’m always thinking to myself “if I just had a couple extra keys here that’d be just perfect.”

And so I give myself a few extra keys with the Iris, and I realize it’s not the productivity boost I thought it’d be.

The issue: With the Planck, everything is within super easy reach. The thumb keys on the Iris are just far enough away that your fingers second guess themselves when you try to use them. That slows me down more than you might think. So even if this gives me some new dedicated keys I can now hit without a layer switch, it’s still actually just faster for me to hit the equivalent key on the Planck, even though hitting that same key involves two keystrokes.

I’ll give myself more time though. This keyboard is still a lot of fun to type on and I really do like how rich and clicky it sounds. Also, the switches are still a little stiff and would benefit from a little more time to break in as well as a bit of lubrication.

This is a great quarantining project too. Material costs are $100–150 depending on what components you pick out, and the soldering work is pretty easy. Hit me up if you have questions about it.

Fully Programmable Keyboards

I first got hooked on mechanical keyboards in 2012 for the simple reason that they felt really nice to type on. They make nice satisfying clicky sounds, but also they just feel nice under your fingers. It’s a delight to the senses.

But the bigger thing that’s kept my interest in mechanical keyboards as strong as ever is the growing industry of enthusiasts making highly customizable keyboards.

Let’s talk about keyboards that are “fully programmable.”

Not all mechanical keyboards are like this. In fact, most mechanical keyboards you find at retail aren’t. But when I’m recommending a keyboard for someone, I almost always recommend one that’s fully programmable.

But what does it mean that the keyboard is fully programmable?

Most of you are probably using a keyboard that looks, more or less, like this:

apple keyboard

You have been taught that each key does what it says it does, and that’s that. That means if the keyboard’s layout has a weird design decision, you’re kind of stuck with it.

Fully programmable keyboards aren’t restricted like this.

On a fully programmable keyboard, you get to tell your keyboard which key is which, and that becomes embedded in the keyboard’s firmware. That means those customizations are still there, no matter which computer you connect it to.

You can do this in software with apps like Karabiner an AutoHotKey on your computer, but it’s a pain to install that software, and if you want to use the customization on, say, an iPad, this isn’t an option. But when the keyboard itself can be customized, the customization is in the keyboard.

Let’s go over a few simple example things you might want to customize on a typical keyboard:

  • Swap the Windows key and the ALT key so that the Windows key is just to the left of the spacebar like Mac users are accustomed to
  • Turn your Caps Lock key into a CTRL key
  • Turn your Caps Lock key into an Esc key
  • Turn your Caps Lock key into both a CTRL key and and Esc key! When you tap it, it’s Esc, and when you hold it, it’s CTRL. Whoa!
  • Turn that extra CTRL key into a key that’s shift+cmd at the same time so you can type some of those more obscure keyboard shortcuts without having to do finger acrobatics
  • Make your Shift keys do double duty by having them type a frequently used symbol when you tap them, but otherwise when you are holding them down, let them be a Shift key.
  • Take a spare key and make it so that when you hold it down, it gives you a whole other layer of keys on your keyboard, full of all your frequently used keyboard shortcuts.

Quite simply, a keyboard with programmable firmware will work just the way you want it, and if you don’t like how it’s working, you can change it. Do you keep hitting the “-” key when you meant to hit the 0 key? Just make them both a 0 key and assign the “-” key somewhere else where you won’t accidentally bump into it!

Is it awkward for you to type keyboard shortcuts with lots of modifier keys at once, like shift+ctrl+alt+5? Turn the modifier keys into one-shot keys so that you can just press them in sequence, then press the 5, then it’ll work as if you were holding them all down at once.

When the keyboard is programmable, you get to be in charge!

Fully programmable keyboards are pretty cool with standard layouts, but they also open up a whole new world of keyboard options for you. Look at this tiny little keyboard, for instance:

split Planck keyboard with cute key caps

If you showed me this photo several years ago I’d have been intimidated. “I’ll never learn how to type on this!” This is now one of my most-used keyboards. I had the confidence to try it out because I knew that its layout could be customized any way I like.

With my keyboard fully customizable, I have a whole new dimension of tool-sharpening available to me, and I take advantage of that multiple times a week. I’m often coming up with simpler keyboard shortcuts that are macros for more complex ones, or finding ways to make it less awkward to type certain things on a variety of keyboards.

Programmable keyboards have fundamentally changed my relationship with keyboards. It’s not the keyboard’s world; it’s my world, and the keyboard is a tool I can craft to be just so.

Your keyboard is a very intimate tool. Your fingers are always in contact with it. It is the vessel by which your thoughts travel from your mind to the computer screen.

If you do your job at a computer you spend hours a day interacting with a keyboard, so don’t fuck around with some flimsy generic $15 keyboard. Get a keyboard that is a delight to the senses to use, and works with you, and for you.

And if programmable firmware blows your mind, wait till you find out what other ways your mechanical keyboard can be customized!

Uncategorized

The Moonlander Keyboard – First Impressions

When ZSA announced a new keyboard a couple of weeks ago and said it was in stock and ready to ship immediately, I managed to last about five minutes before clicking the Order button. ZSA, makers of the Ergodox EZ and more recently the Planck EZ, have stepped things up with a new keyboard that is an entirely new design (the Ergodox and Planck EZ are based on open-source keyboards).

I was interested in the Moonlander primarily as part of my initiative to experiment with keyboards that are Planck-like but have some extra thumb keys to make things a little easier for me. The Moonlander has an extra row on top, which makes it more similar to a Preonic with extra thumb keys.

But one thing in particular caught my eye about the Moonlander: the thumb clusters are on a hinge and adjustable. Being someone for whom the thumb keys often either are in my way or are a real stretch for the thumbs to reach (looking at you, Keyboardio Model 01), this seemed quite promising.

Fast forward to today (well, yesterday), and my friendly UPS driver drops off a surprisingly compact box on my doorstep. I open it up and find it has a beautiful unboxing experience, and the keyboard comes with a nice little carrying case.

Moonlander box with Planck EZ on top for scale

Moonlander keyboard in its handy carrying case

I immediately got to work adapting my own keyboard layout to this keyboard (That’s right! I’m giving it my own custom layout. This keyboard is fully programmable so its layout can be whatever you want it to be. More on that in a bit). Instead of using the layout it came with, I am instead making this layout a superset of my Planck layout, which is what I’ve been doing with all the ortholinear-layout keyboards I use. They’re all at least as big as a Planck, so they contain a Planck inside of them.

Onions have layers, keyboards have layers

When using a relatively compact keyboard like one of these, you will find the need get multiple keys’ worth of mileage out of each individual key on your keyboard, and one easy way to accomplish this is with layers. You can assign keys to let you switch between layers. They can either work like a standard modifier key where you’re on the other layer as long as you hold the other key down, you can have the key toggle the layer on/off, or you can even have a one-shot layer switch, where you tap the key quick, then the next key you tap is on that layer and the keyboard automatically switches back. You can even have a key that lets you hold to momentarily switch layers, but will toggle the layer on if you tap the key.

Your computer traditionally is none the wiser about these layers; all the computer knows is that the keyboard sends keypress events to it and it processes them, and the fact that there are layers is not really known to the computer. But ZSA have made a clever feature in their keyboard configurator called “Train” that allows you to actually explore your keyboard layout in real time, and it gives you visibility into the layer keys you’re pressing. Let’s have a peek at that now:

animation of training mode

This goes beyond a traditional typing tutor application because it also provides visibility into the layers you have on your keyboard and it indicates which is active and what keys are available on that layer. If you’re new to the whole concept of layers on keyboards this is a really valuable learning tool, and even an experienced curmudgeon like myself enjoys this as a testing/debugging tool.

And if your keyboard layout turns out to be unusable? No worries! You can just reprogram it and re-flash it.

Keyboard features and quality

tl;dr: It’s a quality keyboard. Nothing to worry about here.

The keyboard itself is surprisingly thin when unfolded. It’s just over half an inch thick. It can be used flat (which is how I’m using it currently), or you can tent it at whatever angle you like. Actually getting the tenting situated looks a little bit fiddly, but there’s a helpful YouTube video demonstrating how to do it.

The key caps it comes with come in a DSA profile, which means that the height and angle of the keys is the same on every row. If you don’t like this, there is a cottage industry of small makers selling their own third-party key caps for mechanical keyboards. You might have to buy some add-on kits to get enough caps for this keyboard, but for most key cap sets a base kit plus an ortho kit will probably be just fine.

The keyboard has RGB LEDs under each keyswitch, and the firmware for the keyboard comes with a variety of fun animations built right in. The LEDs’ brightness and hue can be adjusted on the keyboard, and they can be turned off entirely for those who hate the whimsy. And the keyboard isn’t just a visual delight; it also has a built-in PC-style speaker which can even be used to play little tunes if you’re into that kind of thing (and the speaker can also be turned off if you don’t want it making a chirp when you connect it to your computer).

The build quality is absolutely fantastic. The keyboard is made of plastic but it has a decent amount of heft to it (something I can’t say for ZSA’s Planck EZ which is so light it feels cheap).

As any good modern mechanical keyboard, it uses a USB-C connector on the back, and the switches aren’t soldered onto the board; they are instead hot-swappable, so if you change your mind and want a different type of feel to your keyboard you can just pop out the switches and put in new ones.

The keyboard comes with a 2 year warranty as well, and I can say that all of my interactions with their support team are spectacular. They helped me troubleshoot a pretty gnarly issue last year with my Planck that ended up being caused by the animation code using up too many processor cycles and causing my keyboard to not respond correctly in all cases.

The switches

I chose Kailh Box White switches for this keyboard. ZSA offers a decent selection of switches with their keyboards, but one thing I really wish they and other keyboard vendors would offer is an option to buy a keyboard with the key caps but no switches so I can pick exactly the ones I want later, because these wouldn’t have been my first choice.

My first choice would probably have been Kailh Box Jade or Box Navy switches, which are part of their “thick click” series. They’re… so luxurious to type on. But I digress.

The Box White switches are nice and clicky, and have a bit more of a “chonkier” sound than, say, Cherry MX Blue switches, often the default keyswitch people think about when they think about a loud and clicky keyboard.

The click from these switches is lower in pitch compared to an MX Blue.

Let’s hear these compared to a couple other of my favorite switches:

In person the differences between these sounds are quite different (in particular the Box Royal switches are much quieter in person than the recording would have you believe). And if you don’t really need or want a loud and clicky keyboard there are plenty of much quieter keyswitch choices available to you, although they often have a more dampened tactile feel to them as well when you type on them.

A… nonstandard configuration

I got used to the layout of this keyboard pretty quickly, but one thing kept driving me nuts: as a long time Planck user, that top row of keys felt superfluous and the keys were getting in the way.

I initially worked around this by making the top row of keys do the same thing as the second row of keys in most layers, but it still felt clumsy.

Then I realized: It’s a totally customizable keyboard with hot-swappable switches; I can do something about this!

So… I just took the top row of keys out entirely.

blinded by the light

It looks silly and I am getting blinded by these extra LEDs while I figure out how to make some plastic placeholders to go in place of these keyswitches, but it works pretty well!

Of course, if ZSA makes a compact Moonlander that drops that top row I’m totally dropping another few hundred bucks.

I also might explore trying to find a super low-profile MX-compatible key cap that can go on that top row so that I can retain those extra keys, but without them always necessarily being in my way. I might even look into 3D printing some miniature caps that go right over the stem but don’t cover the rest of the switch, leaving the keys accessible, but not in a way I’m ever going to mistake for a regular key. I might also put in a row of artisan key caps on that top row.

Verdict: should you buy one?

Yeah, if you want one! It’s a great choice of keyboard.

If you’re currently using a standard keyboard layout, you need to give yourself time to adjust to this one though, because it’s pretty radically different. It’s a split keyboard, for one thing. It also uses a columnar (aka ortholinear) layout, which is going to feel unnatural to someone who is used to staggered rows of keys on traditional keyboards. And if that’s not enough, you have to get accustomed to the fact that there’s not a space for all of your symbol keys in the normal spot on this keyboard.

You’re not going to be typing at full speed on this keyboard the day it arrives on your doorstep like I am (unless you happen to be adapting a very similar keymap from another similar keyboard like I did)

And I think ZSA is a great little keyboard shop and they’re very deserving of your business.

Verdict: will it unseat my Planck as primary keyboard?

It could.

One thing that I really love about the Planck is how accessible every single key feels on it. I necessarily can’t get that same experience with these bigger keyboards because, well, they have more keys and when you add more keys, you’re eventually going to end up with some that are a farther reach.

What I can say so far is that once I got my layout on here, I’ve felt completely at ease and at home on this keyboard. It makes for a great keyboard for my desk, and it has a very good chance of becoming my daily driver.

Of course, when you have the massive collection that I have (that keeps getting larger), you can end up with an awful lot of daily drivers!