Nov 072015

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Keyboards are a commodity, they should cost next to nothing.

Or so I thought! For the longest time I couldn’t justify the cost of something that can be mass produced for dirt cheap and is used with something that costs thousands of dollars. When buying a new car I should expect the dealer to give away the key-holder, and I won’t ask for a fancy one either. Similarly, when building a new rig, I always found shopping for a mouse and keyboard an irritatingly boring activity, especially when it comes after the thrill of researching for high-end processors and GPUs.

Needless to say I was wrong. This is false economy.

Keyboards, more than mice, sit between us and the expensive silicon we broke the bank for. More often than not they also stand in the way of being more productive rather than frustrated. Sure, cheap keyboards get the job done, but if you spend any significant amount of time clicking and clacking, you need something better. Expensive keyboards are abound. Most are advertised and indeed designed for gamers. My gaming time has been going sharply down for the past decade and it’s the rare occasion when I binge on games. But I type. A lot.

Unfortunately, it took me longer than I like to admit to discover mechanical keyboards. Ironically, one of my earlier keyboards was an IBM, one of the more revered. Mechanical keyboards have far superior keys to those of the dome or chiclet ones. They are more fun to type on, give infinitely better feedback, so you can type more accurately and faster, and live far longer. Mechanical keys come in variants that differ in both strength to activate (actuation force) and feedback (tactile vs. linear).

In terms of layout, I need a keyboard that doesn’t get in the way. A keyboard where I can touch-type, without double-checking or backspacing every so often. Compact keyboards don’t fit this bill, so I stayed away from them. I also hated those that come with the brain-dead sleep or (worse) shutdown buttons. On a programming competition I more than once put the machine to sleep, to the frustration of my two teammates, until we had to ask the administrator to disable it. That’s what happens when you have a button sitting between the up-arrow and the end-key that kills the machine, no questions asked. (We still came in third and made it to the second round.) I use the function keys heavily as well, and I don’t want pesky multimedia keys where I don’t expect them.

What I need is a keyboard that is mechanical and programmable. A programmable keyboard is a major plus for someone who heavily customizes shortcuts and doesn’t mind relearning certain patterns every now and then in the hope of optimizing their workflow.

For programmers, the CODE keyboard is still king (something that might change soon). It’s designed with all the points I made above, except for not being programmable.

The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard is all that and more.

The UHK is mechanical, compact, programmable, and durable. It also has the added advantage of being detachable and thereby flexible. The early-bird price of $200 is also very reasonable (limited supply,) considering that the CODE sells for $150 to $170. It has four layers, accessed via special activation keys. Each layer in its turn is configurable. As a bonus, it has special mouse keys to both move the pointer and click, using nothing but the keyboard. I can’t imagine it to be fully usable, but for the quick click, it’s good not to leave the keyboard. The catch? The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard is a crowd funded project. It has another 37 days (as of this writing) to complete its goal.

A similar project is the ErgoDox EZ, also crowd funded. While some might prefer the ErgoDox design better, as I initially did, I think there are way too many extra keys that can get in the way. Well thought out customization should make most of them superfluous. Unlike the UHK the ErgoDox is permanently separated, something that can be a problem if the unconventional design is not to one’s liking. Still, unorthodox designs always come at a risk, which I’m happy to take in this case.

Needless to say, I backed the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard project… and hope you will too.

UPDATE: UHK is introducing attachable modules! These are small addons that go under the thumbs. There is a Keycluster module (3 regular keys, 2 buttons and a mini clickable trackball,) which makes the left half of UHK much closer to ErgoDox’s design. For the right half they are offering a Trackpoint Module (IBM Thinkpad style,) a Trackpad module, and a TRackball module.

These modules may be available for both left and right configurations, but not at the moment. There is also the possibility of adding other modules in the future. This gives UHK users the ability to extend the keyboard in a customizable way that makes it a solid alternative to ErgoDox but with the flexibility of being modular.

Early bird prices are still available… It’s not too late to get your own.

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