December 21, 2020

Building a Custom 40% Ortho Keeb

Join me on this journey of building a custom ortholinear 40% keyboard.

Since a while now I've had an interest in custom build keyboards. The idea of building one myself really intrigued me, where I could choose every detail exactly how I like it.

So first things first. Why do all this? Why invest all this time into building a keyboard while there are obviously so many options available. The answer in my mind is pretty simple. It is my job to type letters on a keyboard. I spend a lot of time doing this almost every day. At this time typing letters on a keyboard is also the only way to do my job (programming). Also the keyboard I use to type on is the primary interface between my hands (or my brain by extension) and the computer that executes these thoughts.

In addition to these custom keyboards there are a couple of vague ideas that I had heard other people talk about. One of these was vim, and even though I kind of knew that could make me more productive. I'd never really taken the time to check out what all the fuss hype, was really about.

When I orignally learned there are keyboards different than the default ISO 104 en_US keyboard, and in this case I'm talking about really different keyboards such as TKL, ortholinear or split kb's I became interested and decided now might be a good time to investigate some of these claims that I heard other people so positive about.

The best time to invest was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
— A smart person.

Ortholinear vs. Staggered

So diving in I found out that the core idea behind a ortholinear keyboard is the placement of the keys. This becomes obvious the moment you see an ortho keyboard and a more conventional style such as a staggered layout which you're probably more familiar with.

Ben does a great job in the video above of comparing the two layouts, and I decided to give it a go. Currently I'm pretty much used to typing on the ortho, although I had to re-train my muscle memory and it took a bit of time to get used to.

There are currently a couple of major players in getting your hands on one of these 40% ortho keebs. The first I got was a ZSA Planck. The case is made of plastic and the build quality is Ok-ish to get started. An additional benefit of ZSA is that the total turnaround time from order to delivery is pretty fast. I have to say that once I started using it this was an awesome device to aid in the transition to 40%. This is mostly due to the RGB colors which can help a lot to remember where certain keys are located. The first moments of typing on the thing make you wonder whether this was a good idea, because I had absolutely no idea how write anymore. Sometimes I even had to look up where a certain key was located on a piece of paper.

After a little while I got used to the placement of the keys, and had a lot less 'fat fingers', where I accidentally hit multiple keys at once. I had most trouble re-learning the way I type the letter 'C', since I used to press that with my left hand index finger, and now I was forced to type it with my left hand middle finger. That was something that took me alot of time to get used to.

Custom Switches

Lets just start of by saying, there are soo many options, I can't do it any justice in including just a single paragraph in this blog entry. One could probably write an entire book on just switches alone. Things like linear/tactile, loudness, 'clickyness', feedback, travel are just the tip of the iceberg I had to learn when getting into this scene.

I knew from past experience I had a preference for linear switches above tactile. And I like silents more over loud noises. In the end I went with ZealPC 62g Saurio Silent Linear switches. I have to say that switching to these switches (pun intended) was probably the biggest upgrade I've done since starting this journey. These switches feel so increadibly soft and silent. It was love at first erm... touch.

Sakurio 62g Silent Linear Switches

Further reading

If you're also considering switching to ortholinear or if you're just curious to other options available, here are some of the resources I used during my research and as ongoing communities.

Tagged with keeb, ortholinear

© 2020 Stephan van Stekelenburg. All rights reserved.