I’ve mentioned a couple of times in previous posts that, as well as loving pens, I’ve been variously smitten with typewriters and, more practically, mechanical keyboards.
And now Jeff posts at the Pen Addict about his journey into keebs, which I’m taking as permission to tell you all about my dalliance with the digital side of writing. (If /r/mechanicalheadpens starts leaking any more, I’ll have to tell you all about my headphone setup, too.)
Unlike most keyboard fanatics, I don’t hate laptop keyboards. I’ve never had a problem with short-travel, silent keys, or compressed layouts. I don’t have particularly bad RSI. And while I work from home a lot, I do use my laptops on the move and around the house, not from a particular battle-station.
Given that you can easily spend a few hundred quid on a single mechanical keyboard, this might make you ask: why on earth would I get into keebs?
Let me take you on a tour of my current rotation and maybe things will become clear.
Why don’t we start… normal. The Massdrop Alt. This is what we call a “65%” keyboard, since it misses out the numpad and squishes the arrow keys and home/end cluster into the main board. It keeps a staggered layout, and a number row, but is much more compact than your run-of-the-mill PC keyboard.
I like it as a stealth option, but it has wonderful RGB underglow too.
The big downside? It has a lot of ‘ping’, from the rigid aluminium low-profile case.
Let’s get a bit smaller. Quite a bit smaller. The Minivan.
This is a “40%” board, with no number row and no home/end cluster at all. You access all these keys through a modifier key, just like the Fn key on your laptop. You’d think that would be a real pain, but I got used to it very quickly. How often do you use the F7 key? The right Alt? The square brackets? Tilde? Pipe? Hide all those rare keys and slim down.
The Minivan is a staggered keyboard still, and I have mine configured with a standard arrow key setup, but you’ll already see some unusual features here: like the split space bar. Why take up the width of 6 or 7 keys when a shorter one will do? You can use the other half for a different function — like an enter key.
The main downside of the Minivan is the plasticky feel and the difficulty of getting the unusual keycaps.
But the Minivan does start to show how the keycaps can be one of the big attractions of keebs. This is a set called ‘Paperwork’, designed to look like the colours of Post-it notes. On another keyboard, I have a set called ‘Big Bang’:
And incoming I have a legendary set called ‘Godspeed’, and another called ‘Vilebloom’. It’s just like fountain pen inks. Crazy colours, crazy names.
And now let’s go weird. Let’s go… ortholinear.
The Niu40 is a 40% board like the Minivan, but the stagger is gone. Keys sit in a true grid format. This is very a e s t h e t i c, and takes a chunk of time to get used to, but I find it very comfortable. The space bar here is even smaller, and I’ve made enter tiny and sat it right next to space.
The downside of this one? Mainly weight. It’s a solid block of aluminium.
And lastly, here’s the Kyria.
This is an ortholinear with ergonomic shaping, plus it’s a split keyboard, with OLED displays and a rotating knob for scrolling, called a ‘rotary encoder’. It takes a LOT of time to get used to typing on this thing, and it’s a pain to transport.
What do I like about using these boards?
Some of it is aesthetic. I can make every board my own, and every board different. That is not just in terms of colour and legends on the keys, but even the key profiles themselves — sculpted Cherry is not the only fruit. If you’ve ever hunted for just the right ink and pen combo to fit your taste, this is very similar.
Some of it is about a deeper level of personalisation: I can dive in to QMK and remap every damn key. On my smaller boards, I’ve kept semi-colon and hyphen as standalone keys, because my writing style uses them a lot. Others remap keys to put modifiers like Ctrl or high-frequency keys like Backspace under the thumbs instead of the weaker pinky fingers. There’s a lot of power and control there.
Some of it is about the mechanical joy of clicking and clacking away on tactile switches, with the noise and sensation it brings. That should be familiar to any pen addict.
Some of it is the same ‘limited edition’ frenzy that drives the fountain pen market. While we have yearly releases, the keyboard world has Interest Checks (ICs) and Group Buys (GBs), and I’ve had SO MANY situations where I’ve found just the right board, or keycap set, only to discover that it was a group buy from 2018 and will never appear again. DDmicro, I’m thinking of you. This FOMO scarcity is a huge trigger for me.
And lastly, some of it is the joy of being an outsider from the mainstream, but part of a community. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the incredibly esoteric terminology around plates and switches and lube and stabs and linears and tactiles and actuation force and thumb clusters and GMK and SA and and and… it’s a whole different language. And when I drop my Niu40 on the desk at work, people look at me like I’m crazy — it’s just the same reaction I get when I tell them how much I spend on pens.
So you see: different hobbies. Same human nature.