Unless you're really unlucky, you've got two arms, two wrists and two hands. So why do keyboards pretend that we don't? Why are they flat? Why are they straight? Why are they oblong? Why don't they seem to suit our human shape at all?
Tradition, in a word. It's just how typewriters did it. Same story as our good friends QWERTY, stagger, and all the other historical oddities trapped in keyboards to this day. Invented for another age, they just came along for the ride.
Putting this right is the motive behind split ergonomic keyboards. Instead of bending ourselves around our boards, let them adapt to suit us. Give each hand its own half to type on, with its own independent adjustments. Give each wrist a rest from the kink we're so used to making when working, let them sit straight instead. And, last but not least, give each arm the freedom to lie where it feels natural, instead of reaching for the keyboard, let the keyboard be wherever we want it to be.
Nice enough idea, but what's it like in practice?
The Ergo State of Play
There are a few split ergonomic keyboards in the mechanical realm. But for the most part they are history. There was a time in the early 1990s when most everyone making keyboards took a shot at the problem. IBM made the Model M15. Apple made an Adjustable Keyboard; which I happen to have for comparison. But, alas, I do not own Cherry's G80-5000 ErgoPlus, which remains legendary and just as expensive to this day.
The trouble was ergonomic boards never really caught on. Maybe it was the unusual look of them, or a fear of touch typing that put people off. In any case, ergonomic keyboards never went mainstream, so the mainstream manufacturers just didn't keep them around.
It came down to us.
Perhaps the best known split ergo keyboard in our community is the ErgoDox, a thoroughly configurable open source project that's been manufactured many times in many places, and you can still buy new today. Or build it yourself from scratch. Speaking of which, Suka deserves mention too, with a good thread full of experiments all his own, and he's not alone in exploring this space.
But choices are slim on the commercial, boxed product side. Single bodied ergo keyboard designs like the Maltron and Kinesis family are more popular than split keyboards. The top dog of those, still being made today, is the Topre switch based µTRON, a fantastic and fantastically expensive keyboard you can only find in Japan.
Even more costly is the almost mythic DataHand. Made from pure Unobtainium, and very highly sought after indeed, it's maddeningly not even manufactured any more. A keyboard so different from the rest that Webwit has a nice line about it:
The Ergo Pro is not as radical as the DataHand. Nothing is! But this new split ergo keyboard from Matias is a welcome new entry into a category that really needs some fresh and affordable competition.webwit wrote: ↑If a human sees a DataHand for the first time, he or she will consider it alien. If an alien sees the DataHand for the first time, it will consider it human. Look at it. Full reset, it's made for human hands.
In the Box
Matias kindly sent me an early model Ergo Pro for Mac to review for Deskthority. It differs slightly from the final model, as I'll explain later. And it's going on tour soon after I've written my review, where you'll have the opportunity to open up this very box for yourself (if you meet the conditions). So look for the link and form an orderly line!
Seeing as this is Deskthority, here's some familiar scale:
Naturally, everything you need to use the Ergo Pro comes inside the box. That means an extra cable than usual. In fact, Matias included three.
Two of these are Micro USB cables. I didn't notice at first, but one has a reversible USB connector. I can't say I like that (plugging into a metal bodied laptop feels iffy) and I prefer a straight head over these right angled ones, so I simply use one of my own micro USBs instead. That's the good of removable cables: you can always just use whatever you like. Every keyboard should have them!
The Ergo Pro's extra cable is the link between the halves, which are entirely separate. In fact, only the right half deals with USB; including a 3 port hub. The left body simply hooks up to that connector, with no other ports.
This interconnect cable is a simple double ended 4 pin male TRRS 3.5 mm audio style jack. Matias supplies a cunning-at-first 40+ cm long cable, contained in a spring loaded spool.
Nice enough idea, but I find it messy in use. The cable is a touch too short to reach around my MacBook Pro so I can have the keyboard fully separated left and right. It's better for using the keyboard halves close together. If you've anything else in mind, do what I did: pick up a long generic cable instead. Right now I have the board on either side of me, way further than the supplied cable can go.
The positioning of these ports could be better too. I'd rather the link cable went where this awkward USB port lurks. Do you really think you'll get a lot of use from that hub? It'd be better round back.
Mind, one good thing about putting the 3.5 mm connectors on the back is that the two halves can sit flush side by side. I never use the keyboard that way — a split ergo is all about the split! — but it does look quite nice I guess.
Anyway, kudos to Matias for using standard connectors. Using your own cables with this board is easy, and opens up the possibilities for creative experiments in keyboard placement. That's the real advantage of split keyboards. You can integrate them into your environment in ways standard keyboards won't even fit.
The Ergo Pro comes in two varieties: PC and Mac. Matias sent me the Mac model, which is convenient for those of us on that platform. The difference between the two, however, is minor.
You only really need to swap the Alt and Windows keys to return to what you're used to on a PC, which I assume you can do easily in software. This is simply the reverse of what we Mac users usually do with our mechs! Yes, I don't like Caps Lock. Gimme Control any day! I do this on most all my boards, for consistency.
Besides the mods, Matias also plays some tricks with media keys. The Ergo Pro for Mac reports itself as an Apple made keyboard to OS X, so it can fake the same dual purpose function row that comes on Macs.
Yes, these black caps really show up dust. I forgot to use the rocket before this closeup shot! You can always tell. Nature doesn't take kindly to such a black beast.
I don't think this media function row fakery is a good idea. It has the weird effect of making this whole row act differently on my old Macs and new ones. Let alone what it does and doesn't do on other computers! But I get what Matias is aiming at here. The trick makes this keyboard — aimed right at the Mac — behave the same way Apple's own ones do, straight out of the box. A lot of users will like that. I'm just not one of them.
Look Out for Num Lock
Oh yeah, this is an early model. If you're considering an Ergo Pro for yourself, this bit won't matter, it's already been fixed. But if you're joining the tour, look out. The difference Matias fixed after this model is the placement of Num Lock.
It's a smart enough key, engaging a hardwired numpad mode much like IBM's SSK. I prefer that to the way Topre handles integrated numpads, which doesn't work at all on Macs.
But take a look at the other side of the split. Imagine what happens if you ever type B with your right hand instead of your left? Uh oh!
I figured out pretty quickly why Matias told me they'd changed this. I hit that key more times than I'd like to admit! All it takes is the letter B, and there's a chance I'll be typing numerical gibberish for a word or two until I groan and hit Delete. Ugh! More precise touch typists than me might not notice, but what a mistake for the rest of us. I wonder how they ever let it past development.
Oh, Num Lock lights up when engaged. But…
On or Off? Yeah, that cap needs a window to actually let you see the LED. (Caps Lock has one, after all.) I can't even tell whether it's on in the dark without peeking down. Barely any light creeps around the edges of the cap.
Fortunately, Matias swapped that diabolical tripwire for a second Control key instead. Smart move. Num Lock is much more destructive than occasionally hitting an unexpected mod. You only drop one character from your typing, instead of the whole lot!
The Ergo Pro uses damped tactile keyswitches developed by Matias for their quieter boards. Hence the (confusing) name "Quiet Click". Marketing aside, they're non-clicky descendants of the long and honourable Alps line. That means they're quite different to Cherry's ubiquitous MX family of switches. (Well, ubiquitous in the mechanical keyboard world! Most people have to make do with worse.) Like every keyboard Matias makes, the Ergo Pro feels different from all the MX boards out there, and it won't take the same caps.
Matias led the way with transparent switches. These went clear long before it was cool. Yet the Ergo Pro, like the rest of their own keyboards, doesn't make much use of this. Putting the since-nixed Num Lock to one side, just like Matias did, there's one lonely, single coloured, LED on this board. Good old Caps Lock. Imagine what Matias could do if they were as dazzled by blinkenlights as Corsair or Ducky?
The Caps Lock key is a funny size… a crafty cost cutting measure, I suspect. Look at that bar beside A. It gives you a similar impression as a stepped Caps Lock key, without needing a differently shaped cap. In fact, Caps Lock is just another Tab key on the Ergo Pro. Matias was quite creative at keeping the key shape count low, for tooling purposes.
This board is so, so black compared to certain others I can think of. No quack. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is entirely down to you.
Yeah, I'm glad they didn't shine it up either! The Ergo Pro is quite a decent looker, especially as ergo keyboards go. Matias made the right choice with black. Backlighting might be all the rage right now, but will it be forever? There's something to be said for simple elegance instead, even if you sometimes find your fingers hunting for the right key in the obsidian depth of night.
I'm in two minds about the switches in this board. I like their damping. Matias isn't kidding about their quietness compared to MX. The smaller keys, like the arrow cluster, are indeed quieter than any MX that I ever heard. The alphas are okay, but do get noisy if you pound away on them. The difference being that the noise comes from the downstroke, not the return. That means if you type gently, and especially if you don't bottom out, this is a very quiet board indeed.
The larger stabilised keys are a mixed bag, but extra marks go to Control and the spacebars. Yes, you read correctly: there are two of them, of course. Fortunately, as they're used so often, they're the best damped keys on the board. I wish my fancy HHKB Type-S were as calm between words!
But that's where the HHKB comparison suddenly turns. This ain't no Topre.
The part that disappoints me about these switches is their tactility. They don't feel as nuanced as classic "complicated" Alps, like the [wiki]SKCM cream damped[/wiki] switches in my [wiki]Apple Extended Keyboard II[/wiki]; ironically the very board Matias measures its own against in their marketing. I doubt this would trouble many people, but the switches in the Ergo Pro are a bit rough in comparison. (They descend from the later "simplified" branch of the Alps family tree.) Too much trapdoor, so to speak, and not enough flow. The tactile bump is there, all right, just too pronounced for my liking. I suspect I'd like the new damped linear Matias switches better. They seem a natural fit for this keyboard.
Probably still better than MX browns or clears, though. So there's that…
Of course, I've been thoroughly spoiled by Topre keyboards lately, which for me are the tactiles to rule them all. Topre switches flow like nothing else, with a smoothness I miss whenever I'm without it. As much as I like my AEK, the HHKB and Realforce outclass it and this Matias completely for pure feel. As you'd hope, for their price! Let alone the direct comparison in the ergo realm: the super expensive µTRON.
All that said, these Matias switches aren't at all unpleasant to type on. They're a good bit wobblier than I'd like, but nothing that actually gets in the way. Consider them middle of the pack. Could be better, but could be a lot worse; like all those flimsy mainstream keyboards out there without switches at all.
Usually, the biggest downside to Matias switches is their incompatibility with MX caps. You're really on your own for aftermarket goodness whenever you leave MX mount. Fancy group buys begone! That very compatibility was what made the hybrid Topre switch NovaTouch so promising. The Ergo Pro doesn't play that game at all.
And usually, I complain about the double height (well, 1.5x) bottom row Matias has built a few keyboards around lately. My objection is a similar story: you lose compatibility even with classic Alps caps when you get inventive there.
But, oddly enough, this time it really doesn't matter. The Ergo Pro is no ordinary keyboard. It's a split ergo! It needs its own caps. That split spacebar first and foremost!
Neither of these keyboards will be getting doubleshots any time soon.
The extra chunky bottom row actually works quite nicely on this board. The spacebars are pleasant and obvious, as well as impressively quiet. The outsized mods are quite nice to use in practice, especially the curvaceous Control key on the left. You can tell it apart from the other mods by its spacebar-like convex curve.
Spacebar-like because it is exactly the same shape of key! I bet Matias simply makes these from the same mold as the spacebars. That's cool, though, as Control is good and far from centre so you can't mistake them. And it feels positively luxurious at this size.
These big mods are a nice affordance, very useful when you can't so easily look down at your keyboard to check. They're stabilised good and quiet as well, a nice touch in any mech.
Matias uses their own design of Costar style stabilisers. These have the usual ups and downs compared to Cherry's. Setting aside the rivalry between Cherry and Matias in general, these stabs are probably the right choice here. Costars are annoying to install and remove, but most people like the feel better. And Matias has done a great job keeping these stabilised keys good and quiet. Something you don't typically expect from snappy Costar stabs.
Looks like the Command key was designed with stabs in mind as well. None are present. Fortunately, this doesn't feel like a problem when in use. The smaller mods feel fine to me.
If you do pull the caps, expect some quality time with these fiddly buggers.
The arrow keys work quite nicely too. Matias tucked them under the right Shift key, as Apple does on its laptops, which is what dictates the extra height down here. They're shorter than regular alphas, sure, but like all the compact keys on the Ergo Pro they're three-quarters height rather than a half, like Apple's.
These switches can indeed pack good and tight. Matias uses 0.75 unit high arrow keys, squeezing in a whole, quite usable, navigation cluster in a 1.5 unit sized bottom row. A trick MX cannot match. This tight vertical spacing is one advantage Matias really has, and Alps before, over Cherry.
My real complaint about them is they wobble a fair old bit. I'm surprised these little keys feel wobblier than their larger brothers, like Command and Option, but they do.
Smartly, Matias put a navigation block to the left of the arrows, one trick more than Apple. This is a great place for these keys. Much more sensible than pushed out on the right, in the "navigation sixpack", as they are by ancient IBM tradition. And, yes, the Fn + Arrow shortcuts Mac users may be already know well work fine here too. But with these dedicated keys on the Matias you can hit them one handed.
Sadly, the caps themselves aren't exactly fantastic. Right across the board, they're thin ABS with embossed white legends. They look good, on first sight, but I was concerned they would wear off real quick. Matias tells me they are up to something quite neat with these. Here they are compared to the stock caps from the NovaTouch:
Left: a laser infilled NovaTouch cap. Right: a laser boiled Ergo Pro cap. Notice the obviously different thickness of the legend.
This one's holding up nicely so far, but with extensive use I wonder how long the legends will survive. Matias reckons they're quite tough. These aren't painted on, they're actually scorched right into the cap by an ultraviolet laser. The white colour is, in fact, the cooled froth from zapping the plastic to a boil.
You can certainly feel them as bumps with your fingers.
We'll see. Durability is what doubleshot and dyesub are for. This board has neither. And thanks to its Alps mount and unusual bottom row, it's well and truly stuck for anything besides whatever Matias makes for it. There is word of a PBT set. That would be an improvement. Even if these legends stick around for the long haul, ABS is gonna shine.
All in all, the caps aren't horrible, but they aren't great either. Is it just me or are you seeing a pattern here too?
Laying it Out
Fortunately, one of the Ergo Pro's strengths is its layout. This board knows exactly where it is along the traditional versus radical ergo divide. Make no mistake: this is a conservative layout. Indeed, you can simply put the two halves together to see the whole for yourself!
ANSI! (It also comes in ISO, of course.)
I'm not against revolutionary new layouts. Thumb clusters are a very powerful example of thinking outside the old square box. But I'm not against instantly useable tradition, either. What bothers me is the realm of awkward compromises between the two. To its credit, the Ergo Pro makes no such mistake. Matias leaves you in no doubt about that as you look at and use this keyboard.
This keyboard is straight up ANSI-US, with only the mildest tweaks. The stagger is standard. (Unlike the symmetrically staggered and altogether more exotic µTRON.) The rows are straight. The caps are familiar sculpted cylindrical profile. You just get a column of clipboard shortcuts on the left to balance things out a bit horizontally, and lastly there's the fat bottom row with nav and arrow cluster. It's a pretty tight package, and so the case even looks just like other Matias boards, if you look away from the all important split.
But the split it what it's all about. The Ergo Pro is easily the most approachable split ergonomic keyboard available today. You can aim all your adaptation to the split between your hands. Everything else is standard, in a sensible and very natural feeling way.
So what's it actually like typing on a split keyboard if you're not used to it?
Well, as it happens, I'm fairly new to this. The only split keyboard I've used before was a Microsoft rubber dome, and then only briefly. Typing on the Ergo Pro is a learning experience, I must admit! And surely a good one. There's no quicker way to catch yourself "cheating" by reaching keys with the wrong hand. That's just not going to work when your board is split good and wide down the middle, either side of you.
The wider the better! Remember, the Ergo Pro is two separate halves. With an appropriate (easily sourced) cable, you can place them wherever suits you. The keyboard is completely freestyle.
One half goes one way.
And the other half goes the other way. So what?
Naturally, typing on the Ergo Pro is a lot easier if you're a touch typist. In fact, split keyboards are a great way to learn how to do that in a real hurry! I'm not the best of touchtypists by a longshot, but this board's not slowing me down too badly even so.
When it does, there's two reasons. One of them was the nasty placement of Num Lock, which Matias fixed in the revised, final version of the keyboard. And the other is an HHKB habit of mine for reaching backslash instead of backspace! I'm not sure if I should blame that on anyone but Professor Wada. It's weird I keep reaching for backspace in that spot on this keyboard. I don't make the mistake on standard ANSI. Perhaps it's because I use the Ergo Pro at different angles than the traditional posture with a straight keyboard? I've more to learn…
My favourite thing to do with the Ergo Pro is to place each "hand" far apart, like on each arm of a comfy chair. That way I can type without lifting my arms up and together, where they must meet to use a typical keyboard. Typing this way with the Ergo Pro is no harder than using it with both halves side by side on a desk. You use exactly the same skills. Once you adjust to typing each hand's keys with the appropriate hand, you're all set for using the keyboard in whatever positions you like.
Ergonomics is How You Use It
The key to making the best out of a split keyboard is to separate the halves. Armed with a several metre long TRRS cable of my own, I went out to explore this a bit. I tried it on my standing desk, halves close together but tented. Then further apart, with my trackpad in the middle. Then on the arms of a lounge chair. Then here, there, and everywhere…
It's pretty dynamic.
Tilted up at the front. Yes: this is exactly the opposite to the forwards lean most keyboards allow you to set! The Ergo Pro knows better than that.
And tented. That means raised in the middle, so your thumbs lie higher.
The key is the removable wrist-rest on each half of the body, and the assortment of feet Matias put on the underside.
The Ergo Pro has a cunning assortment of feet, hidden down below, to make adjustments to suit however you use it, and wherever you put it. Without the wrist-rests, each half has just the one adjustable rubber ended leg.
But each rest adds two more. You get a good bit more control over the keyboard's posture than usual, thanks to these.
I like typing with my wrists free in the air, in the "hovering" style. This saves me a lot of wrist fatigue in general, and means I never use wrist-rests. Indeed, the Ergo Pro felt better for me once I took them off. (As well as smelling better. Perhaps it's just because they're new, but those luxurious soft pads had the whiff of a plastics factory about them!) It also becomes a dramatically smaller keyboard, which also appeals to my senses. Fortunately, you have that option and it's as easy as unscrewing a few bolts.
Of course, even a dynamic board like the Ergo Pro won't meet every conceivable user's demands. Without a thumb cluster, some ergo aficionados won't be pleased, period. Others won't like its conventional staggering, and other legacies from traditional boards. But if neither thing puts you off, I recommend this board as a taster for quite what a difference a split keyboard can make. It's really quite an eye opener.
Pie in the Sky
Time for the typical Deskthority wishlist.
The Ergo Pro is not at all programmable. This is a bit of a pain for someone as used to that in his keyboards as I am. But only mildly. The Ergo Pro for Mac is actually pretty damn smartly laid out (excepting the rev.1 Num Lock issue once again…) so I was only slipping up on a few things, like the absence of my Shift + Shift = Caps Lock macro and, for some reason, the Backspace key. The old mechs I'm so fond of run through Soarer's Converter or Xwhatsit's Controller or the like, where I can remap, layer and macro everything to my heart's content. USB native keyboards deny that route. Which is always a bit of a disappointment.
Next up is the caps mount. Yes, Matias uses Matias switches, and so that means Alps mount. Grumble! Especially because of this keyboard's complete incompatibility with classic Alps sets. But! As I admitted earlier, my typical demands are a bit pointless really on a split ergo keyboard. There's no way you could put a set of caps from an SGI Granite or an AEK II on this board. Not without a saw.
I can still dream of MX mount compatibility though. Even in edge cases like this, we have ways of making things come true. Unless you meet a stranger in the Alps.
No Bluetooth. Oh well. Wireless would help all the more on a two bodied keyboard, where I've found myself tied up quite frequently with cables crossing this way and that. Of course, with wireless comes batteries and extra weight. Double so on a split keyboard, unless they're tethered, which removes the whole point! But ultimately I really do think we'll be typing on wireless split keyboards, instead of festooned with spring-loaded tripwires. Bluetooth has the extra magic of being installed in everything these days, so coming "free of cost", of USB ports at any rate.
I'd say something about backlighting. But come off it. I'd rather be without! Matias is surely leaving a good trick on the table, though, not carrying an all singing, all dancing, all glowing keyboard in their lineup, despite those transparent switches. Even if it's not for keyboard snobs like us!
Oh yes, before I finish, here's a little peek at how the Ergo Pro looks up against some other well known boards.
Left, front to back: PFU Happy Hacking Keyboard Type-S, Matias Ergo Pro, IBM Model M Space Saving Keyboard.
Right, front to back: Apple Extended Keyboard II, Apple Adjustable Keyboard, my old cat.
Without the bulky wrist-rests, the Ergo Pro is comparatively svelte. Smaller than an SSK, let alone the AEK II. Each half is smaller even than the HHKB, albeit squarer. The Apple Adjustable is smaller still (also without its wrist-rests, which I don't have) but its easily the worst feeling keyboard of the bunch! And the Matias has it beat comprehensively on adjustability, of course.
There's no beating 60%. But what about a Tenkeyless Realforce?
That's actually the closest match to the Ergo Pro, without its wrist-rests. With them? All bets are off!
Bringing it Back Together
The Matias Ergo Pro itself is no revolution. The layout is as standard as can be, for the most part. This keyboard really does handle just like a regular Matias, with a great slice down the middle. Whether you think that's a good or a bad thing will determine how you feel when trying this board. It's a modest attempt at something revolutionary. It's an approachable renegade. It's a vanilla frappuccino!? It's, well, choose your own metaphor. Because I think you'll have to. To know this keyboard is to spend a while learning its strangely familiar ways.
If you want a split ergonomic keyboard, the Ergo Pro is surely good news. Even if you prefer thumb clusters and programmability, features the Ergo Pro lacks entirely, the fact that one of the more innovative keyboard manufacturers around today has taken an interest in split keyboards once again is a breath of fresh air. Where one maker goes, the others often follow. Perhaps we're in for a second age of ergonomics?