last updated: 13 January 2021 (approximate reading time: 13 minutes; 2587 words)
In November 2020 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.
In making my acquisition, 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, the Moonlander (from ZSA).
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.
How I Use the Moonlander
I am a novelist (my books) and primarily use the Moonlander to type words (as opposed to numbers or symbols or other data input tasks). My most used program is Microsoft Word (read more about how I used Word). Accordingly, I have little sense of how suited this keyboard is for programmers and the lack of a number pad is of no consequence to me.
I have used split keyboards for the last 25 years or so, starting with Microsoft ergonomic keyboards. For the last 15 years, I have used a Kinesis Advantage (I used the mark I model). With the Advantage, I did adopt Dvorak for a few years, but switched back to QWERTY.
The move to split keyboards was driven by repetitive strain injury symptoms (specifically, hand and wrist pain when I type). The Moonlander continues that trend of split keyboards and offers several features that reduce the pain of typing.
Now I’ll try to explain why this keyboard is right for me…
The Moonlander offers several ergonomic features that make it easier (for me) to type over a long period of time.
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.
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.”
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 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 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 (as well as giving tactile feedback)
- tactile switches which give a tactile 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, and some also offer shorter key travel (“speed” switches designed for faster activation).
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 trigger 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 in one of four ways:
- The layer can be selected only while the switch key is held (in the same way you use a conventional shift key).
- The layer can be toggle on or off (like with a conventional CAPS LOCK key).
- The layer can be switched to. The return to the base layer (or to any other layer) requires another switch.
- 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 autoshift functionality, I have stopped using the shift key when I type.
The Moonlander is great, but there are a few challenges. In highlighting these, I think it’s important to note:
- First, the manufacturer calls the beast the “Moonlander Mark I”. To me, this is a very clear indication that there will be future developments.
- Second, all of these challenges are fixable.
And of course, these are just my opinions, based on my hands and my preferences. Others may not be annoyed by these issues.
The thumb clusters are adjustable so that the buttons can be placed in the ideal position for the user.
However, the thumb clusters perform double duties—as well as holding the buttons, the cluster acts as a leg when the keyboard is tented. Hence, if there’s any tenting, then thumb cluster has to be placed to balance the keyboard even if that’s not a convenient position for the typist.
I set the keyboard to “full tent” and this means the thumb clusters are at their maximum extension (away from the main ‘board). In this position:
- there is a gap at the hinge (between the main ‘board and the cluster keys which is big enough to fit another key), and
- the middle key in the cluster is an awkward stretch and the far key is impossible to reach without moving my hand.
This design militates against the customizability ethos of the board and greatly reduces the ergonomic benefits.
This problem could be fixed. If ZSA were to offer a keyboard stand/rest to hold the ‘board in its tented position, then the thumb clusters would no longer need to act as legs and so could be positioned in the best location for the typist.
And just to be clear, I’m suggesting that ZSA (or entrepreneurially minded individuals) could develop a new product which they sell to customers. I’m not trying to suggest that ZSA should give us all a stand for free.
As an aside, the red keys on the thumb clusters look really cool, but boy, they are hard to reach!
There are several challenges with the wrist rests:
- First, there is an element of play in the hinge which is annoying when you want a firm surface to rest your wrists.
- Second, and more significantly, the position of the rests cannot be adjusted to optimize the hand position relative to the keys.
When it comes to adjusting the wrist rest, my preference would be to have the rest raised from its default position. In it’s current position, there is too much upward twisting of my wrists.
Now obviously, I could manually raise the wrist rests (for instance by putting a block under the hinged wrist rest), however, that is a horrible kludge. But more significantly, by raising the wrist rest, the thumb cluster (used as a tent leg) becomes even more unreachable.
Again, the solution here is a keyboard stand/rest. And with a well designed integrated wrist rest, there would be no need to make the rest adjustable.
The key caps are great…but there are a lot of blank caps (there’s just a horizontal line). So, for instance, there’s no Windows/Apple keycap, no tab keycap, no Esc keycap…no shift, no ctrl, no alt, no home, no end, no page up, no page down…
I’m almost OK with this lack of caps, but not quite. I’d love to have the option to buy some more key caps. Sure, I can get caps at various places around the internet, but I’d love to have some more caps that I know are of the same quality as those that shipped with the Moonlander.
As a secondary issue, for me, the only way to orient my hands on the keyboard (so that I can touch type) without looking is by the nubs on the F key and the J key. For those who use different layouts (such as Dvorak and Colemak), it would be good to have other keys with nubs. The Moonlander comes with replacement F and J without nubs…but not with alternate nubbed keys to put in their place.
Oryx is a great utility which allows the keyboard to be bent to the typist’s will. However, there are limitations:
- The shifted key cannot be changed. So for instance, if you tap the 1 key, then the keyboard outputs 1. If you tap shift + 1, then the keyboard outputs !. There is no flexibility here to set a different character in the output state.
- There is an autoshift functionality whereby if a key is long-pressed the shifted version of the key is output. This feature is good, but limited. Better, I would like the option (on a per-key basis) whereby a long press outputs the same key, but on a different layer. In other words, I’d like yet another way to select a different layer.
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 (come back and ask me how it’s going in 2036), but I’m sure it will last me a good number of years, unless the annoyances I’ve outlined really start to get to me.
Should You Get a Moonlander?
I like the Moonlander but for almost everybody else (apart from “professional typists”) it will be the wrong keyboard.
However, if you spend much of your time typing (and particularly if you make a living typing), then it is well worth getting a keyboard that is right for you. If you do spend a lot of time typing, then I’d definitely suggest you look at mechanical keyboards (as in keyboards with mechanical key switches) and also look at keyboards with a columnar layout.
I definitely recommend that you look at the Moonlander if you think it might be right for you (with the proviso that you can touch type).
If you do get a Moonlander, be ready to put in the time to make it work for you. Straight from the factory, the keyboard will be good, but it won’t be right for you. You’ll need to spend some time getting the tenting right and you’ll probably want to create your own layer and bend how the keyboard works to your way of working.
But once the Moonlander is bent to your way of working, it’s a great thing to have.