Keyboardio Hits a High Point in Open Hardware

My expectations for Keyboardio’s Model 01 were high. I pre-ordered the keyboard during its 2015 crowdfunding campaign, and waited for over two years with increasing frustration as one delay in manufacturing followed another. Then, in 2017, the first Model 01s shipped — but not mine. By the time mine arrived in February 2018, my expectations were so high that I was sure that the reality could not possibly match my expectations.

I was dead right.

Reality exceeded my expectations, and by more than I could possibly imagine. The Model 01 is not the first programmable keyboard. Nor is it the first open source keyboard, the first keyboard with mechanical switches, or the first ergonomic keyboard. However, so far as I’m aware, no other keyboard has combined all these features at once. Combining aesthetics, ergonomics, hardware customization, and software customization, Keyboardio’s Model 01 is a keyboard in a class of its own.

Aesthetics

Except for outliers like Datamancer’s cyperpunk devices, keyboards have been more about function than beauty. That has always seemed strange to me, considering how many hours each day that many of us spend at a keyboard, yet it is as true of proprietary keyboards as open source ones, and of membrane keyboards as mechanical ones.

The Model 01 is different. Each of its two halves is mounted on a 2.5 centimeter thick piece of light maple, finished so that the grain shows. Both the maple mounts and the banks of keys are in graceful curves, resulting in a restrained elegance. Only the stands for each half of the keyboard have an ugly utilitarianism — which is no great matter, since only the ends of the stands’ legs are visible when the keyboard is in use.

Front view rainbow

Forced to choose, I would opt for functionality over aesthetics. But having both is a pleasant bonus. Fifteen days after I started using my Model 01, it still catches my eye from across the room, and I find that such an elegant device relaxes me as I work.

Ergonomics

The Model 01 is more than a pleasing design. It’s also an ergonomic keyboard. Each half consists of thirty-two keys, with the number pad and function keys accessed by pressing a key, just as upper case letters are accessed by pressing the Shift key on any keyboard. Add the fact that the rows of keys are arranged in curves, and many people’s hands can reach from one end of a keybank to another. Even those with small hands should find that their fingers have to move much less than on a normal keyboard.

Moreover, command keys like Ctrl and Space are arranged in an arc operated by the thumb, making it possible — once you have grown accustomed to the keyboard — to press them without stretching and to use them without looking down at them.

A further reduction in the required finger movement is obtained by arranging the column of keys in straight diagonals, rather than staggering the rows so that each higher row of keys is to the left of the one below it. My understanding is that the usual staggered column was originally intended to prevent keys from jamming on a typewriter, but the Model 01 is a long way from a typewriter, and today the traditional arrangement of keys only requires that fingers reach further than necessary.

In addition to the arrangement of keys, the two halves of the Model 01 can be physically positioned in a number of ways (see below) to reduce the strain on hands and wrists.

These features mean that most users take a few days or weeks to adjust to the Model 01. But, although the temporary reduction in typing speed can be infuriating, the adjustment is worth making. Contrary to my initial skepticism, using the Model 01 has reduced my sometimes crippling repetitive stress injuries to minor twinges that generally disappear in a couple of hours. At the very worst, any lingering stress of twelve hours at the keyboard is gone by the next morning. And, as my fingers grow more accustomed, the recovery time is decreasing.

Hardware Customization

Open source is all about customization, and the Model 01 is no exception. Keycaps are easily removed, and can be positioned for different key layouts. The black keycaps that are shipped will soon be replaceable at extra cost by white or blank keys. The Model 01 can also be ordered with quiet or loud mechanical keys, while pressing the led key toggles a dozen pre-installed sequences for backlights.

The two halves can also be arranged in several different ways. They can be tethered tightly together by a short RJ45 cable connecting their Arduino microcontrollers, or positioned widely apart with a longer cable. In addition, the halves can be positioned flat, or at different angles with their stands. If the correct centerplate holds the halves together, they can also be tented, forming an inverted V. However, Keyboardio warns that tenting the halves without the stands might crack them and that arranging the halves with the outer edges higher is unergonomic.

Software Customization

The Model 01’s keybindings are stored in its firmware. That means that changing the arrangement of characters is the same process as flashing an update from the company. The Arduino IDE and default Keyboario firmware must be installed, then the microcontrollers flashed with the command make flash and the prog key depressed at the right moment to bypass the microcontrollers’ bootloader. Should any problems arise, the firmware can be restored from a backup.

Keybindings and macros can be added directly to the firmware’s .ino file, or Sketch, either in the Arduino IDE or the text editor of your choice. Keys are defined in a text map, and arranged in layers. For example, besides the default keybindings, the Model 01 ships with a layer turned on by the fn key that provides function keys, curly and square brackets, and mouse controls, and a third layer that activates arrow keys and a numberpad. Users can add additional layers for other key layouts such as Dvorak or Coleman, or for macros for their favorite games or productivity applications. Keybindings, macros, and plugins can be created by you, or downloaded from the growing number available online. The Keyboardio community board is probably the best place to learn about third party offerings.

The Model 01’s software customization is handicapped by the lack of a single source for instructions, and by the fact that its graphical interface has not yet reached general release. However, once you track down the necessary links, the procedure is no harder than, say, installing a package from a tarball. If you choose, you can avoid software customization altogether, at least for the first while.

But, sooner or later, the temptation to tweak the firmware may be irresistible. Many users, for example, find that their first modifications are based on the mistakes they make while adjusting to the new keyboard.

Reinventing the Keyboard

The only question mark hanging over the Model 01 is how long it will last. At $326US plus custom duties for non-US residents, it is not a cheap device. However, in theory, both the mechanical keyswitches and microcontrollers can be replaced. My guess is that the worst result will be that the Model 01 will outlive any number of cheap keyboards given ordinary circumstances. Meanwhile, the Model 01 is everything I had hoped for and more. It is an example of just how outstanding open hardware can be when accompanied by uncompromisingly high standards. Keyboardio has entered a saturated market, and now promises to reinvent it. And if I seem to gush, try one and you will soon know why.