Introducing the ErgoDox and Massdrop

Since the start of the year, I’ve been on something of a quest – no, not the Quest for the Holy Grail, but rather a quest for the best ergonomic keyboard. It started out with the TECK, moved on to the Kinesis Advantage, and now I’m working on wrapping up my third ergonomic keyboard review, this time the open source designed ErgoDox, with components and assembly provided by Massdrop. How does this keyboard stack up to the competition? As with all things subjective, that’s going to be more difficult to answer than something like “which CPU or GPU is faster?” What one person likes another may despise, and as with the previous two keyboards I want to start with a word of caution: adapting to any one of these ergonomic keyboards means getting over the learning curve. It can be done, and it will take anywhere from half a day to perhaps a couple weeks for you to get fully adjusted. So if you’re willing to shell out $200+ for an ergonomic keyboard with mechanical switches, be prepared to spend some quality time getting to know your new keyboard before trying to decide whether or not it works for you.

With that out of the way, let’s talk a bit about the ErgoDox and Massdrop. I’ll start with Massdrop, as they’re the ones who provided the review sample. Massdrop is a startup based out of Palo Alto, CA and was founded in early 2012. As of now, they have successfully helped facilitate over 300 group buys. The idea behind the site is a bit like Kickstarter, only you’re ordering parts or products at a bulk discounted rate by teaming up with others interested in the same item. It should come as no surprise that buying larger quantities of any item usually gets you a better price, and Massdrop helps people do exactly that. They’ve been around about a year and a half now, and the range of products available is basically only limited by what you can get others to buy. The only catch is that, like Kickstarter, you have to reach a certain goal or else nothing gets ordered; unlike Kickstarter, you’re not really hoping that a company actually follows through and makes what you wanted, as you’re ordering physical goods that already exist.

That takes care of the Massdrop side of things, but what exactly is the ErgoDox? This is where things get interesting. The ErgoDox is a mechanical keyboard that uses an open design – as in, open source for hardware – with the hardware and design released to the public under the GNU GPL  v3; you can read the finer points of detail on the ErgoDox License page. The ErgoDox builds off the Key64@ keyboard design, which was a keyboard that tried to reduce the total number of keys to just the ones you really need, resulting in a more compact layout. The ErgoDox has a few additional keys, bringing the total key count to 76 – at least on the model I received, though it appears versions with up to 80 keys exist. With the design complete, the trick then is finding the hardware necessary to actually build an ErgoDox keyboard. You could try to do it on your own, and certainly the potential for individual modding is there, but the basic PCB will largely dictate what else you can do. Massdrop provided the following history of how they came to be involved with the ErgoDox, which I’ll quote verbatim:

“We were approached in October of 2012 by several members of the mechanical keyboard community to help the group in facilitating a buy for the ErgoDox Mechanical Keyboard. After being involved in several buys already, these individuals loved their experience with Massdrop so much that they thought we’d be the perfect people for the job. What made the ErgoDox so special to us was that it was community validated. It was the mechanical keyboard community that came together, had a vision of the perfect keyboard, discussed, debated, and built it. However, to make the ErgoDox a reality for the entire community, they needed help, and that’s where Massdrop came in. Massdrop was able to source all of the individual parts the community needed at less than half the price they would go for if an individual tried to purchase them alone. With that we were elated to be able to help bring ErgoDox to the entire mechanical keyboard community and save them a substantial amount of money in the process. Since our first ErgoDox buy, we have sold over 800 ErgoDox Mechanical Keyboards and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”

With a bit of the history out of the way, let’s move on to the actual hardware. If you purchase an ErgoDox, you get all the parts and then need to put the keyboard together – something of a weekend project, assuming you’re handy with a soldering iron. As far as I’m concerned, the less work the better when it comes to something like a keyboard, so I’m more than happy to not have to do any soldering to get the ErgoDox up and running. Right now (through the end of the week), Massdrop is running another order of parts for the ErgoDox keyboard. Ordering everything on your own would likely put the total cost at over $400 (some estimates put it as high as $570!), never mind assembly and shipping charges; the base cost for this Massdrop ErgoDox order is $274, and that was achieved, and in fact at this point the minimum price of $199 has been unlocked (plus $37 for blank key caps). So if you want to get an ErgoDox, now would be great time to buy – otherwise you’ll be waiting at least six weeks for the next Massdrop order.

There’s still that question of assembly of course; what does someone without a lot of soldering experience do? Massdrop has reasonably detailed instructions for how to put the ErgoDox together, but I’m sure there are others who would rather have someone else do the work for them.  Massdrop now offers that, with $20 getting you a partially assembled keyboard (you have to solder the switches) and $50 getting the whole thing pre-assembled, just like my review sample. There’s also a bit of customization available: you can choose among four types of Cherry MX switches (Blue, Black, Clear, or Red), and you can get either a full-hand version of the case (with a palm rest) or a “Classic” casing that doesn’t have an integrated palm rest. For my review sample, I asked to try out the Clear switches with the Classic casing; that may not have been the right choice for me, as I’ll detail later, but the key there is choice: get what you will like, not what someone else likes.

One final item to note is that I'm basically stuck reviewing the design that was sent to me, with some potential remapping of keys to accommodate what I like. The ErgoDox is highly customizable, so other than having labeled key caps there's a lot of other nuances to my review sample that may or may not apply directly to one that you purchase and build. I'll try to make a note of some of these throughout the review, but try to remember: customization is a major part of the draw for this keyboard. And now let’s get on to the meat of the review with some objective and subjective analysis.

Overview of the ErgoDox Keyboard
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  • iamkyle - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Something makes me think that ergonomic keyboards are going to be a thing of the past. Think about it - how many kids these days are being taught typing classes? What about educational institutions moving away from the traditional computer model in favor of say, tablets?

    I understand in the NOW there are many people who have proper home row typing. But methinks the newer generations are relying less and less on this sort of input method, so does the necessity for ergo keyboards.
  • IVIauricius - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Programmers and those who type writers' books come quickly to mind. Perhaps writers can get away with speech recognition software, but a programmer wouldn't leave his keyboard too quickly.

    This comment does make me think. How is the future of input going to evolve now that people use their thumbs for most communication?
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I'll tell you one thing for sure: the kids these days growing up typing with thumbs on smartphones and using onscreen keyboards with their tablets are in for a rude awakening when they hit 30+. I had a coworker in my mid-20s that had carpal tunnel surgery, and I thought at the time, "Weird...I guess her body just isn't built as well as mine for typing and such." She was around 40 and I was a cocky 20-something, and I really thought I was somehow exempt. Fast forward 15 years and I have learned that it has more to do with age than with body superiority. Give the teenagers another 15-20 years and if we have't figured out a way to avoid typing on smartphones, they're all going to have mangled hands!

    Most likely, for text we're not too far away from doing far more dictation, but nuances of the language are difficult to capture properly without typing.
  • njr - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I started typing pretty heavily around the age of 5 and developed RSI before I was 20; I'm 34 now. I really wonder if this pattern will start to become more prevalent.
  • kmmatney - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I'm 42 and have never had carpal tunnel, but I did get really bad "tennis elbow" symptoms. I do actually play a lot of tennis, but it turned out to be caused by how I held the mouse. Now I keep a pad under my forearm and in front of the mouse so my wrist is level or even slightly dent down when I handle the mouse. After a week all symptoms were gone and I could play tennis and handle the mouse without issues.
  • Hector2 - Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - link

    I started getting the "tennis elbow" after retiring at age 65 last year. I figured it was the mouse action and possibly keyboarding too --- my desk surface at home is too high and I don't have good arm support either. Thanks for your input.
  • HisDivineOrder - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Depends on how programming languages advance and if voice command/voice recognition could adapt to service the new paradigm. If done properly, a voice shorthand could be used that would enable a programmer to fill in the blanks as the computer throws in the repetitive stuff that you mostly know is coming.
  • 2disbetter - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    I just watched a video of a guy who used Dragon with a plug in to write code for Python. He developed a special short hand speech for it, and had some 2000+ commands configured. It was very impressive. All that said talking to accomplish something on a computer just seems inefficient and slow. I can type way faster than I can speak. Add in macro's and keyboard shortcuts and I just don't see speech as a viable efficient solution. However, in the case of disability or someone who just wants to give his wrists a break it's an amazing solution.
  • SodaAnt - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Are you sure about that? I can easily speak at over 120wpm a lot of the time, I can't imagine someone typing a lot faster than I can speak without using stenography equipment or anything.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - link

    Speaking at a normal rate, I find most people I know are more like 90-100WPM, maybe 110 at the most. When you start dictating, though, you have to add in a lot of extra stuff for punctuation, so it slows down a bit -- plus you want to take a good breath every now and then. But as someone who has done coding, I shudder to think about trying to dictate many of the commands. g_Lighting_Constant as a variable would either need to be specifically added to Dragon's vocabulary, or you have to say, "gee underscore cap lighting underscore cap constant" to get G_Lighting_Constant -- and yes, I just dictated that to try it. And then when Dragon NaturallySpeaking inevitably messes up on something, either you miss it and get a compile error, or you have to go into the correction menu.

    I'm sure for those people who can't properly use their hands, speech recognition opens up a lot of doors that would otherwise be closed. However, for those who can type even moderately well, I can't imagine trying to do any technical work like equations or coding with speech recognition. Your mileage may vary.

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