I recently fell down the rabbit hole of minimal keyboards. Having have been interested in mechanical keyboards since seeing the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard on Twitter a few years ago, but my interest in minimal keebs began when I saw DistroTube review the Planck EZ (recently discontinued). I have previously seen smaller keyboards before, of course, but never thought that they would be useable. After seeing that DT was able to use it, and explain how easy it is to use, I was interested. As the Planck is (was) very expensive, I started doing research before making a commitment. And like anyone researching keyboards, I stumbled on Ben Vallack's keyboard playlist on YouTube.
Ben began his journey with a Planck EZ, but wound up removing keys, with the original stated goal of no key being more than one key away from the home position. He finally settled on an 18-key layout that works well for him.
Fuck that. I want all my letters available at once. I am currently using a MK-47 from MicroCenter, which I picked up for about $50. This includes mediocre switches (no-name reds) and RGB lighting. Not the best keyboard by any means, but it gave me an idea of whether I should go any smaller than the 60% I was using before. I have been using it for almost a month now, and while I will not be sticking with it, that will be due to the limitations of the board rather than of the form factor. I will post a full review of this keyboard in the next few days.
I got this board to try smaller form factors, but have been quite curious about the 34 key layout. It seems to have the perfect number of keys to make each one easily accessible. In one of Ben's earlier videos, he created a 36 key layout on his Planck. I did something similar and trimmed mine to 35 keys. I use a 34 key layout, but when watching videos at work (my day job is tech support so I have time to kill between calls) I have to be able to pause them quickly when the phone rings and the 2U spacebar works well for that. I'm limited to 4 layers total, so I have a base, navigation, symbol, and number layer. They are based on this layout by kkga, but with a few personal modifications. Let's go through, layer by layer.
Base layer 0
This layer is a no-mod Colemak layout, but with the semicolon replaced with the quote as I don't have the outer pinky columns. I am still adjusting to Colemak, but that is another post for another time. The thumb keys, in order:
- Go to nav layer 1. When tapped 5 times it switches to nav, useful for reading long documents.
- Play/pause on tap, or go to num layer 3 when held
- Go to symbol layer. This one is a one-shot as I normally only need one symbol at a time.
Nav layer 1
The right side of this layer has navigation arrows in VIM config, with paging controls above. I have escape, enter, and tab right below and backspace on my pinky. I do several screenshots a day, so this was a good place to put print screen, and forward delete under backspace just makes sense. The password key is a macro that enters my password and hits enter.
The left side has RGB lighting controls on the top row (and holding shift while hitting them decreases the values instead of increasing) with the spacebar toggling lighting, one-shot mods on the home row, and undo/cut/copy/paste on the bottom, along with a macro that just pastes then presses enter for me, which is incredibly useful.
Symbol layer 2
This one is pretty straightforward, lifted directly from the kkga, and is the best-designed symbol layer I've seen. Has the home row one-shot mods on the right hand. I really like the open and close pairs being home and bottom row as editors usually complete the close automatically. I may put something else where the angle brackets are as they are also available on the home layer, but for now this is fine.
Number layer 3
The right side of this layer has a numpad with period and minus to the right, and backspace, enter, and tab easily accessable for filling out forms. Left side has media controls below modifiers, and these are regular rather than one-shot since sometimes I need a regular mod key.
I have been using this setup for a few weeks now. I will admit that having moved within two months from 65% QWERTY to 40% Colemak has not helped my typing speed (it has gone from 95wpm to around 55wpm), I can defiantly feel the difference in my hands. This layout is more comfortable, I make fewer mistakes, and I don't have to look at my hands to find symbols. I can do everything without taking my eyes off of the screen. I was never able to do that with a standard QWERTY. I will be dialing my layout in a bit more, but overall I am quite pleased with this layout and find that long typing sessions are much easier on it. I have ordered a new keyboard which will allow combos and other QMK trickeries which will also make it easier to use, but after just a few weeks I can't see myself ever going back to anything over 50 keys, and will possibly wind up going smaller. If I do, I will post about it here.