mike fettis

@michael.j.fettis

Mechanical and custom built keyboards

What was “old” is new again, Mechanical keyboards! A mechanical keyboard is one that has a discrete mechanical switch under each and every key. There are a number of sites out there that can go into the specific details about exactly how these function, as well as all the differences between the switches. This article is not going into much detail about the switches themselves but rather everything else. Lifehacker wrote a good extensive article on switches years ago. https://lifehacker.com/how-to-choose-the-best-mechanical-keyboard-and-why-you-511140347

Why bother with a mechanical keyboard? When someone is spending at least 8 hours a day 5 days a week, using a keyboard, a keyboard that just “feels better” can drastically improve the enjoyment from even mundane tasks. This is the world of the IT professional, and they, IT professionals in general, enjoy going deep down the rabbit hole of this subculture/niche. The first stage of the rabbit hole is the simple mechanical keyboard. These can all be found on amazon and seen all over the internet. They are the basic keyboards, sometimes have led lightning, and most times with a manufacturer’s specific mechanical switch in them. The second level of keyboards is where the switches specifically are called out. This is the gateron or the cherrymx switches, these keyboards might look a bit more subtle but they are usually a full sized keyboard or a ten keyless layout. Known in this article from massdrop, as the tenkey (tk) or tenkeyless(tkl) https://www.massdrop.com/talk/947/keyboard-layouts-explained-in-detail-many-pics Such keyboards may also have at the 60 percent layout which is the tenkeyless but minus the function keys, arrow keys and home/end/page up down keys. Finally the third level are the fully custom boards. These are the ergodox, the ortholinear, the 40 percent and the full custom builds. That was a whole bunch of information to throw out, here is some more detail on all of it.

Ortholinear: https://olkb.com/ 
ergodox https://ergodox-ez.com/collections/frontpage 
40percent https://thevankeyboards.com/products/backerselectkit

Starting at level 1; Full sized and ten keyless keyboards. There are the entry level keyboards. Sometimes people will start off here and end here, or even go back because these are pretty common and comfortable. They will look like every other keyboard out there and depending on the switches that were chosen they might not feel all that different. Which leaves people asking “what’s the big deal?” A perfect example of such a keyboard is the cmstorm line which is readily available form amazon. First the tenkeyless and then the full sized https://www.amazon.com/Storm-QuickFire-Rapid-Tenkeyless-Mechanical/dp/B0068INSUM . https://www.amazon.com/Storm-QuickFire-Rapid-Tenkeyless-Mechanical/dp/B00EQV0W02?th=1 these keyboards will run from $40 to $80 and be the exact same thing that most people have seen. They will plug in and do exactly what every other keyboard out there does. (Yawn)

Delving deeper into level 2; Some of the full size and the ten keyless may have the specific switches mentioned such as cherrymx or the clones known as gateron. But the second level is the more unique keyboards such at the 60 percent layouts. These are where the keyboards begin to get interesting . The classic 60 percent is known as the vortex pok3r. https://mechanicalkeyboards.com/shop/index.php?l=product_detail&p=3633. These boards start around $120 This layout comes with a bit of a learning curve because the arrow keys are missing. The board comes with a default layering system that allows layers to be chosen to shift one key into a different key, therefore the arrow cluster is moved to IJKL. The nice thing about this keyboard is it allows the user to reprogram where the keys are mapped. This is done on the keyboard itself going through a series of key presses to shift modes and then move a key to a different location. While it is a nice feature hitting all the correct keys in the correct sequence with the correct timing, it can be a pain. However at the end of the day those arrows can be remapped to something like VIM arrows HJKL pretty easily. Once this customization is experienced and toyed with the itch begins to get bigger, and it is the gateway drug to the real custom keyboards.

Here we find level 3; Fully customized and custom built keyboards. These are not the everyday keyboards, these are known as ergodox $300 https://ergodox-ez.com/collections/frontpage , Planck $150 https://olkb.com/ , minivan $200 https://thevankeyboards.com/products/backerselectkit , and full customs like the 1up60HSE $100–250 (https://www.1upkeyboards.com/shop/controllers/1up-rgb-pcb-hse/).

These are often sold as kits and then soldered and assembled using a variety of switch types, case materials and custom keycaps. It is the individual pieces that really start to make these keyboards unique. Keyboard base materials like aluminum, https://www.1upkeyboards.com/shop/bases-and-cases/al60case-champagne/ or hardwoods like purple heart https://thevankeyboards.com/collections/catalog/products/retro60-keyboard-case-purple-heart. The designs and layouts will also catch the eye of a coworker and ask “what the heck” especially when one encounters the ergodox for the first time. This keyboard in particular with its full split layout and shifted ortholinear layout, will cause some people to simply not be able to use the keyboard when first encountered. Most of these keyboards will take many hours to assemble and will require soldering skills. However the 1upkeyboards 60HSE (hot swap edition) is a new entry into the custom keyboards. This is a new generation of PCB that allow the for swapping of switches using a sip socket of sorts. This allows the switches to be pushed in and pulled out without the need to solder and unsolder each one. The effort of soldering them in can be daunting and oftentimes there is a minor short somewhere in the board which then requires the debugging of each switch to find the flaw. The hot swap, style eliminates this problem and lowers the bar to entry drastically.

Looks aside, under the hood is really where these keyboards begin to shine. All of the aforementioned keyboards have the ability to run a custom firmware known as QMK https://github.com/qmk/qmk_firmware QMK is an open source project that supports well over 120 keyboards. It is written in C and can be compiled from a docker image. The docker image is highly recommended because there are a number of toolkit and package dependancies that are instantly resolved when built with docker. QMK itself allows for the complete programming of every aspect of the keyboard. Dvorak layout? No problem. Colemak?, not an issue. The ergodox can even be transformed into a Stenograph layout. Stenographs can easily cost over $1000, therefore the $300 price tag is a steal. QMK’s killer feature is its ability to program in a variety of macros into the hardware itself. Where a series of keystrokes in order to bring up the correct layer and key, can trigger a function written in C to fire which will output anything the user can imagine. Personal favorites include sending unicode symbols for ಠ_ಠ` ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (╯°□°)╯ ︵ ┻━┻ These can also be used to program in entire code blocks for people that are rewriting the same comment headers or other tedious things in developer land. Implementing the custom programming is also much easier than having to go through the series of button sequences. The process entails compiling the firmware to a hex file and then pressing a reset button on the keyboard and flashing the hex file to the keyboard. No muss no fuss. The possibilities are truly endless.

That was a brief run through of the niche world of the mechanical keyboard. People who spend much of their time in front of screens and on these keyboards tend to have an affinity for how they feel and how they are setup. Sure it is easy to use a basic keyboard, but what is the fun in that when the hacker street cred can go through the roof when someone stops by your desk and literally has no idea how to use the text entry device sitting in front of them. For further information and a community of these folks head over to https://www.reddit.com/r/mechanicalkeyboards and spend hours looking through everything there is to offer. It is a deep rabbit hole with almost no end to be found. Good luck.

More by mike fettis

Topics of interest

More Related Stories