Happy 2021. I hope you and yours are all keeping well.
A few months ago I made a change to one of the key pieces of kit I use every day for my writing—I got a new keyboard. For me this was a big change, I had been using my old keyboard for fifteen years.
Beyond my ergonomic requirements I wanted a keyboard that was designed for the 2020s rather than simply being a typewriter attached to a computer, and I wanted a piece of hardware that I could bend to my way of working.
Meet the Moonlander
Let me introduce you to my new keyboard:
It’s called the Moonlander (that’s what it’s called…the name isn’t me trying to be funny…).
And as you can see, this isn’t a regular keyboard—there are two halves joined by a piece of wire and the keys are arranged in columns. Now I’ll try to explain why this keyboard is right for me…
If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll know that I’ve had repetitive strain injury symptoms (specifically, hand and wrist pain when I type) and so I’ve spent the last 25 years using ergonomic keyboards of one form and another. The Moonlander continues that trend and offers several features that reduce the pain of typing.
Perhaps the most important feature to help reduce pain, is the (literal) split in the keyboard—it comes in two halves joined by a piece of wire. This allows me to place each half in the most comfortable position for me when typing. I can set both the width between the halves and the respective angle of each half meaning that I don’t need to twist my wrists to type.
Columnar Key Layout
The keys are arranged in vertical columns rather than in the more conventional staggered approach taken with regular keyboards. My last keyboard had a columnar layout and I really don’t think I could go back to a staggered layout.
To my mind, there are two main advantages to columnar layouts:
- First, there’s much less stretching and squeezing to reach keys.
- Second, once you’ve got used to the columns, they just feel so much better than a staggered layout.
You can also see in the picture the thumb clusters (these are the lumps on the insides of each half with the big red buttons). Where a conventional keyboard has a single (large) space bar, the Moonlander has two thumb clusters.
The purpose of thumb clusters is to transfer work from the weaker fingers to the much stronger thumbs. So, for example, instead of a pinkie having to stretch for the enter/return key or the delete key, these functions can be controlled by the thumb (mostly without a stretch).
Beyond the ergonomics, the hardware is customizable in several ways to suit the individual typist.
The keyboard can be “tented”. This is where the middle of the keyboard (in other words, the inner sides of each half) are raised with the outside edges remaining on the desk, thereby angling each half.
Tenting reduces wrist twisting. My choice is “full tent.”
The Moonlander comes with mechanical key switches. Key switches are the devices which register when a key has been pressed. As such, the switches have a significant effect on the feel of a keyboard. As you might expect, the choice of switch is a very personal thing.
The Moonlander is available with many different key switch options. Not only that, but the switches are individually swappable.
Mechanical key switches activate about halfway down their travel (in other words, there is no need to push the switch to the bottom in order to trigger a key press). There are three main choices when choosing switches:
- clicky switches which make a noise when the key is activated
- tactile switches which give a mechanical click that you can feel more than hear when the key is activated, and
- linear switches which give no feedback when the key activates (and hence have a smoother travel).
Beyond these main choices, each category of switch is available in different weights making the key lighter or heavier to press.
My preference for key switches is for the lightest force and for the shortest travel. I also like linear switches and so the choice for me was Kailh Silver Speed switches.
However, I found that on my home row (the row where my fingers rest) the Silvers were just too sensitive and so I swapped the switches on that row for Kailh Box Reds. The feel is similar, but there is less tendency to accidentally hit a key.
Each key has its own (multicolor) LED.
While it is possible to make groovy lightshows (I’m not sure how…but there are videos on YouTube), this function has an important use to highlight individual keys (which is especially useful when using layers, which I’ll get on to shortly).
As well as being able to customize the hardware, the software in the keyboard can be tweaked. This is where we get into the world of 2020s keyboards that I mentioned at the top—and yes this gets quite detailed and there are lots of features that most people don’t need…but I wanted a keyboard that is exactly right for me.
The makers of the Moonlander offer a utility (called Oryx) where every key and the behavior of the whole keyboard can be tweaked.
There are many keyboard layouts such as QWERTY/QWERTZ/AZERTY, Dvorak, and Colemak. Any of these (and more) can be readily programmed (and since the key caps just pull off, the key caps can be easily reordered to reflect the programmed layout).
Significantly, as well as assigning keys, it is possible to assign a combination of keys to be deployed with a single key press. So for instance, if a function in a program requires the Ctrl key AND the Alt key AND the S key to be pressed, together, then that combination can be assigned to a single key.
One of the concepts of this keyboard that appealed to me is the notion of layers. This is kinda/sorta how a conventional keyboard works, but taken to the next level.
With a conventional keyboard, if you hit a key it gives you one thing. If you hold the shift and hit that same key, it gives you something else. If you hold the alt key and hit that same key, you get a third “layer”. The Moonlander is just the same…except that it has many layers.
Each layer is independent of the other layers and can be selected temporarily (in the same way you use a conventional shift key) or can be selected permanently (like with a conventional CAPS LOCK key). There’s also the option for a “one touch” change so that the layer is active until a key on that layer is pressed (much like how the shift key works on a mobile phone keyboard).
Layers offer a lot of flexibility—especially when multiple key presses are assigned to a single key. With flexibility, comes the possibility for complexity and so I have limited myself to two layers. I did try more…but I couldn’t learn the keys on these other layers.
Another smartphone-like behavior that can be programmed comes with long presses. If I tap a key, then it gives a regular letter, but if I hold it (for over 200 milliseconds) then it gives the shifted version of that key. With this functionality, I have stopped using the shift key when I type.
While the layout is very similar to my last keyboard, the Moonlander has taken some while to get used to—there’s a different feel, the keys are in a slightly different place, and with programming I’ve been able to streamline how I work. But now, the muscle memory has been relearned and I’m comfortable with it.
I’ve already mentioned the main tweak (replacing the home row switches) and limiting the number of layers. The other change that I didn’t expect is that I’ve ended up not using all of the keys. I found some of the stretches were uncomfortable and it was easier to put the key at a more ready location on a different layer.
I’m not sure whether the Moonlander will last fifteen years, but I’m sure it will last me a good number of years. However, I reserve the right to change my mind after I’ve written my first novel with it.
In closing, I hope you and yours have a good 2021.
If you’re in lockdown (again) please make sure you catch up on your reading…I can make some recommendations 😁 (and as I’ve just spent all my money on a new keyboard I could do with selling a few books…)
Until February, stay safe.
All the best