Ergonomic Keyboards, Part 1

The Problem

I started work as a software engineer about 7 months ago now. With many long hours sitting and staring at the screen, I realized that my hands and arms were hurting. I also noticed my eyes were hurting, but I resolved that by being more dedicated to following my Stretchly routines (every 20 minutes, start at something 20 ft away for 20 seconds and every hour, take a 2 minute walk). I started researching into keyboards to see if they would help me.

The Requirements

I stumbled upon Reddit’s (r/ergomechkeyboards)[] community to see what keybards were available. I had spent some time previously looking at just regular mechanical keyboards, but I stopped when I realized I hated putting in o-rings. I immediately stopped considering new keyboards altogether. Anyways, after an excessive amount of browsing, I settled on the following criteria for an ergonomic mechanical keyboard:

  • Mechanical - I don’t think there’s a non-mechanical option anyways, but nonetheless a requirement!
  • Hotswappable - I still don’t really know what mechanical switch I like using.
  • Split - Left and right sections of the keyboard split in order to open up the chest.
  • Pre-built - I did not want to do much assembly. Especially no soldering.

I did have other considerations I wasn’t sure about that were relatively new to me:

  • Ortholinear - In this configuration, keys are in a square grid rather than offset like regular QWERTY keyboards. The Planck is a good example of an ortholinear keyboard.
  • Columnar Stagger - In this configuration, keys are staggered only vertically because each finger has a different length. This configuration. The Sofle is a good example of a columnar stagger (also split) keyboard.
  • RGB Lighting - Not really a hard requirement, but a nice to have especially for keyboards at home where I might be typing more often in the dark. I will not be looking at the keys while I type because I am a decent touch typist, but it helps for visibility. At work, this is a non-issue as the lights are always on.

With the requirements defined, I set out on my journey to shop around. I probably spent way too much of course as is the case with many people into mechanical keyboards.

The Solution(s)

From all the reading of people’s experiences with ergo-mechs, I knew I was going to need to progress through keyboards rather than finding my “endgame” keyboard right away.

Keychron Q11 (At Home, Daily Driver)

The Keychron Q11 was the first split keyboard I bought. Keychron has some beautiful keyboards and I always knew I wanted one. The Q11 is a 75% split keyboard with hot-swappable switches. The version I ordered has red (linear) Gateron G Pro switches and OSA keycaps. It also has QMK/VIA firmware (firmware to be discussed later!).

I use this keyboard as my daily driver keyboard at home at desktop which I use for almost everything. This keyboard feels solid and weighty, looks beautiful with the default keycaps, and makes a solid thock sound. This keyboard is my first keyboard with red switches and that’s when I realized I love the linearity when typing on them. I don’t do much twitch-shooter gaming anymore, but I probably wouldn’t mind the lack of a tactile feel on this keyboard when I do play a twitch-shooter.

This keyboard has helped my shoulders stay more open with the split. I realized I wanted to try a little more. I really looked into columnar stagger and tenting as options to give more relief to my arms. I really wanted to stop the pain and prevent potential future RSIs.

My only complaint about this keyboard is the lack of a dedicated “end” key. I realized I use this very often to navigate code or text lines quickly. It feels awkward having a “home” key, but no “end” key.

RK Royal Kludge RKS70 (Returned)

I found this solid budget split keyboard on Amazon. It was only $75 when I bought it and it had tenting and wireless options on it. It is still only a horizontal stagger (traditional keyboard), but I also needed a keyboard for work where I am typing at 3 days a week.

However, I found out very quickly this was not the keyboard for me. They say it’s a 75% keyboard, but it’s actually a 65% keyboard which doesn’t have the funciton keys. As a software engineer, I do need to use the function keys (F5 and F11 specifically) as keys for debugging. This keyboard doesn’t have customizability to add layers (which at the time I wasn’t even thinking about) so I could not just add them. The default fn key was just in an awkward position and I don’t like using them to toggle them on and off. I just wasn’t (and am still not) ready to do that.

One thing I did get to test with this was tenting. It has two levels of tenting available with legs you can change out (if I remember correctly) .It was uncomfortable at both levels and awkward for my hands. This is despite my hands “default” resting position is a little tented, they feel better laying flat-ish.

I returned this and moved on to the…

Mistel Barocco MD770 (At Work, Daily Driver)

I verified that my next keyboard was indeed a 75% keyboard. This is a true 75% split, horizontal stagger keyboard. I ordered a version with silent red linear (unknown brand?) switches. I decided I wanted to try out silent reds to see if they were as good as the red switches I liked.

Overall, I do not like this keyboard as much as the Keychron Q11, but it does the job well enough that I will keep it as my daily driver at work. These particular silent reds sound a little too loose, but are slightly quieter than the regular reds. The keyboard feels a little bit less weighty, but the advantage it has over the Q11 is that it has a dedicated “end” key!

OK, so my two main places I work and play at have been resolved. I decided I wanted to go deeper into ergonomics and comfort. My next step had to be columnar stagger.

Keebio Iris V8 (Portable, on again and off again)

This keyboard cost me about $200 for the pre-built option off of I did a lot of testing with printouts here to find the right columnar stagger for me. I iterated through the Sofle v1, Sofle v2, Lily58, and Iris before deciding on the Iris. I had almost bought a Sofle, but I realized the 5 bottom row thumb keys were hard to access. I wanted to be able to access all the thumb keys at all times (more on this later). I went with the Iris as it had the “best” thumb cluster for me while not having such an aggressive pinky stagger like the Sofle v2.

At this point, I also wanted to dive into an alternate keyboard keymapping from QWERTY. I had read that when switching to such a drastically different keyboard layout, I might as well change keymapping as well. This will be a separate post as I go through my ergo-mech journey. I can say as of today (4/21/24), I usually use QWERTY at 90 wpm, and Colemak-DH at 30 wpm.

Once I received my keyboard, I suddenly realized I had to consider different key profiles. I had really only used Cherry profile and was just exposed to OSA keycaps with my Q11. I opted for some basic XDA keycaps that had a bunch of extra keys that I figured I would haphazardly insert in as I try to figure out my layout. I also realized I had to contend with how to program this thing. Luckily, all keyboards from using QMK firmware with VIA enabled so that I can just use the web VIA app to program my keyboard on the fly.

I started to experiment with layouts by referencing a few others I had found online, but really could not (and still have not) wrapped around the best layer enables/toggles that work for me. This journey I’m sure will continue with my next keyboard…

In parallel to experimenting with layers, I had started practicing my Colemak-DH skills. I found sites like Colemak Academy, keybr, and monkeytype to be the best online typing learning apps. It was hard, but I was determined to re-learn how to type. I eventually dropped Colemak Academy and used keybr and monkeytype custom. It took me about 2 weeks to get through all the letters in keybr. monkeytype has me at 30 wpm.

I feel like my progress through this keyboard and layout hit a bit of a wall as I still needed to work reasonably fast at work. I am at a work deadline and I can’t sacrifice typing speed at the moment. I have noticed that I can type both layouts just fine with only a few seconds of ramp up. My muscle memory is tuned more into each keyboards layout rather than to just typing.

Back to the wall, I also figured out that I do not like the upper 2 keys on the thumb cluster that need my thumb to jump over a key to access. I started looking at other potential keyboards that could address this. The Sofle v1 and Lily58 came back in to play. I ended upting for…

Lily58 (En route)

I ordered this keyboard from with an acrylic case. The Lily58 is a split, columnar stagger, hot-swap, QMK/VIA enabled keyboard. I love how few options the store has. I only had to choose whether I wanted tenting and the casing. I bought my own Gateron Reds from Amazon.

Chocopad V2

I ordered this from as a backup for not having dedicated function keys. It is a 16 key macropad (sounds almost like a numpad eh?). I currently use it as more of a toy with my Mistel at work. I think it would pair well with a 65% keyboard if I adopt it as my daily driver. I would have preferred a Yampad that could function as a dedicated numpad with layers, but it was just too expensive pre-assembled.

The End (For Now)?

I expect the Lily58 keyboard to arrive tomorrow and do expect this to be the “end” of my ergo-mech shopping journey for a long time. The Lily58 has the most keys available to me with good positioning (at least hypothetically). I will persist through learning layers and we’ll see where that gets me. The thought of moving to a 42 key board like a Corne scares me due to my desire/need. For me, it would be an exercise in learning a skill rather than finding something that alleviates and prevents pain while typing. I think my actual dream keyboard would be a columnar stagger 75% keyboard. If no such keyboard comes to fruition and the Lily58 doesn’t work out, I might consider changing my QWERTY keyboards layout to Colemak-DH.