For the last month, I’ve been using two different keyboards:
- At home, I’m using the Ergodox-EZ split ergonomic keyboard.
- On the road, I’m using the new MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar.
Both of them forced me to slow down and look at my hands for a while.
The Ergodox EZ: Wildly Ergonomic
I type a lot (and quickly), and maybe fifteen years ago, I started having wrist pains. I switched to ergonomic keyboards, and the pain disappeared pretty quickly. Thing is, most ergonomic keyboards have craptacular key feel and they don’t promote great posture.
There’s a better way. I first learned about Ergodox keyboards through Massdrop, a group purchasing site. Turns out there’s a whole community of hard-core keyboard enthusiasts, and they seem to congregate on /r/ergodox. The easiest way to get this keyboard is from Ergodox-EZ.com, where you can order it with the color, keycaps, and switches of your choice. (Brace yourself: we’re talking a $300 keyboard.)
Switches are the little mechanical internals that dictate key feel and noise. If you decide to go for an Ergodox, get a key tester first to learn which style of resistance & noise you prefer. In the keyboard world, better feel generally equates to more noise. I can’t have super-loud clackers since I take fast, extensive notes on conference calls while I’m talking, so I went with Gateron Brown switches for a balance of good feel and a minimum of noise.
Here’s how mine looked at first:
Yes, it’s ugly. Very ugly, like something out of a low-budget hacker movie. But the benefit is that the keyboard halves can be placed far apart, letting your arms fall into a more natural stance instead of cramped together.
A whole lot of the keycaps are black, and it’s not because I bought some l337 hacker model – they all come this way whether you like it or not.
They’re blank because the keys are programmable so you can set the layout you want. Never use caps lock? Map that key to something else. Do a lot of backspacing? Put that key closer to your fingers. Here’s my layout for now (I have to change it soon, forgot to include an apostrophe, so I’m relying on autocorrect for that):
Ergodox’s Weakness: Odd Key Sizes + Programmability
You get to pick which keys do what, but you’re supposed to memorize their functionality. You can’t buy a stock set of interchangeable keycaps, either. Notice how the keycaps are a few different sizes and orientations? That means a manufacturer would have to produce a whole lot of keycaps in different sizes.
My solution: an old-school $40 labelmaker. It works – but it just makes the Ergodox look even crappier. I started with grand ideas about building the perfect layout for what I do most often, but after three rounds of keyboard programming in the first day alone, I just left the labelmaker on my desk for a while.
After labeling the keys, I liked the Ergodox a lot more and got more comfortable with using my programmed shortcuts.
Until I went on the road, where my laptop now has a completely different layout. I’d grown used to hitting enter with my left thumb, backspacing with my right thumb, and so on. Ugh. Because I jump back and forth so often, I’m not sure the tradeoff is worth it. If I stayed at home full time, or if I traveled with the Ergodox, sure, but this context switching is rough. I can’t just remap my laptop keyboard, either, because the Ergodox’s available keys are so very different than my laptop.
So let’s talk about the new laptop.
The MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar
I wouldn’t have bought the new MacBook Pro except Erika needed a laptop for travel, so I gave her my old MBPr. I had a MacBook 12″ as my backup laptop – I carry two laptops in case I have a presentation problem – so getting a new MBP let me get down to a single set of USB-C cables for everything.
Let’s set aside all the other controversies – yes, the new MacBook Pro only has USB-C ports, it’s still capped at 16GB RAM, it’s overpriced, yadda yadda yadda. The keyboard is fine – I’m a fan of Apple’s thin butterfly keys – and the huge trackpad is fantastic. Let’s focus on the most controversial input device: the Touch Bar.
With a normal laptop, your eyes look at the computer screen.
Your fingers rest on the keyboard and get tactile feedback in memorized areas.
The Touch Bar is a stupid hybrid idea that doesn’t work for either your eyes or your fingers. You have to look down, away from your work, in order to figure out where to touch on a tiny strip. Even if you memorize when/where the Touch Bar will display something you want to touch, you can’t reliably touch in that place every time, so you have to look down to use it.
Either disrupt my eyes, or my fingers, but not both.
If the screen was just a touchscreen, then I could move my hands up to where my eyes focus. Touchscreens are huge, and I can interact with any app – not just apps coded to support it.
The lack of an ESC key is even a problem if you don’t think you use the escape key. I’m used to clicking on things – say, a Twitter link to an animated gif from @Swear_Trek – and while it loads, moving my finger over toward the escape key. Unfortunately, merely by touching my finger on the escape key area, I’m hitting the key. The gifs disappear before they even load. (Which, frankly, was great for my productivity initially.)
Touch ID sounds fantastic at first – I love using my fingerprint to unlock my iPhone instantly – but it’s not quite as compelling for Apple Watch owners. My Watch is already set to unlock my computer automatically when I walk up to it, so I haven’t typed a password in a while anyway. Right now, the only thing TouchID really helps with is unlocking 1Password.
But even if I loved the Touch Bar – which I don’t – it presents a problem because it’s laptop-only. Even if Apple goes wild and crazy and builds a desktop keyboard with a Touch Bar, it’s not gonna be ergonomic – which means I’m not going to use it.
The way I figure, Apple built this because it’s hard to copy, not because it’s a better idea than a touchscreen. Since Apple controls the OS and dictate application development standards, it’s easy for them to get Touch Bar support across all their apps. At that point, marketing can say things like “only we have a Touch Bar.” It’s kinda like when Microsoft switched the Office UI over to the Ribbon – it wasn’t necessarily better, it was just patentable.
Recap: Specialized Isn’t Necessarily Better
Both of these input devices required me to break habits and take my eyes away from the screen for a while.
Both of them purport to make me a better user long term – but unless I have the same input devices available everywhere, then it just doesn’t hold up. I keep breaking habits every time I switch contexts.
For a long time, I’ve wanted touch screen support on OS X. These experiments only make me even more certain that it needs to happen. Give me the same interaction mechanism everywhere – home and on the road and on my phone. Let me touch my damn screen.