Ultimate Hacking Keyboard

A surprise new keyboard arrived in the mail a few days ago, the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard. I had completely forgotten that I had ordered this over two years ago (March 2016)!

It took me a little while to get used to it, but after using it for a couple of days, I think I've decided that I like the Kinesis Gaming Freestyle Edge more.

Here's it's layout:

And the Kinesis, for comparison:

The good:

  • It's really solid, and heavier than it looks. It's a very nice build.

  • Key switches are... ok. They say they are "Cherry MX-style", which I gather means "Kailh Brown", but they are definitely mushier than the real Cherry MX Brown switches that I have in the Kinesis.

  • Ctrl, Opt and Cmd on both sides! Finally! Why do manufacturers always omit some on the right?

  • After attaching the tenting legs, it was at exactly the angle that I like, and the default connecting cable is long enough, after giving it a good stretch.

The bad:

Most of my complaints stem from, I'm guessing, that their top priorities in designing this thing were:

  • Make it as physically small as possible;
  • Make it dock together into a square keyboard;
  • Control the mouse.

I literally could not care less about any of those things, but those decisions forced most of the bad stuff to happen.

  • It's is 5 rows tall instead of 6. This means that there is no Function / Media row, and most critically, no Escape key.

  • I'm going to say that again to let it sink in. There is no Esc key. You type Esc by holding Mod and typing tilde. (Just a hunch, but their "ultimate hacking" probably doesn't happen in vi.)

  • There's no arrow cluster, and no right navigation column (Home, PgUp, etc.) You type arrows by holding Mod and typing IJKL.

    So because of the Esc and arrows thing, I find it damned near impossible to use Photoshop or Illustrator at any speed. It's a horror.

  • As if that wasn't bad enough, the weird little half-height Mod and Space keys that are beneath the "real" keys (so that you have both Mod and Space on both sides) are not real keys, they're microswitches. They require a lot of pressure, and you have to hit them way over at the end. I hate them. Hate.

  • So, that Mod key. There's no spacebar on the left side, because you need to use Mod all the time to get at navigation and function keys. You can only type Space with your right hand, or, under duress, you can type it using the horrible microswitch on the left.

  • The chord keys in the bottom row are Ctrl, Opt, Cmd, Fn. The "Fn" key is how you get to the Media keys (which is weird, because it seems like those could have been added to the Mod layer, but whatever.) Anyway, the very presence of this key is a problem, because it means the Opt and Cmd keys are too far to the left. It's hard to type singled-handed Cmd/Opt keystrokes without contorting your hand into an uncomfortable claw.

    At least, I think that's what going on? I'm not sure. I just know that typing single-hand chords is uncomfortable.

  • There's a big 3 character 9-segment LED display on the keyboard that tells you which keymap you are using (Mac QWERTY, Windows EBCDIC). I don't know about you, but the frequency with which I change my keymap is: exactly once ever. So I don't really need this thing glowing at me. You can turn the light off, but even when unlit it's still ugly as sin. It begs for a piece of electrical tape over it. Also, I'm baffled that they chose to devote so much physical space to such a useless indicator.

  • The 6 is on the left only. There should be one on each side.

  • No USB ports, so nowhere to plug in your mouse.

  • While fumbing around trying to figure out how to type a function key, I accidentally put it into EBCDIC. This is a time bomb that I do not need. (I then remapped that key away, but still.)

  • I might like to have palm rests, but the ones that they sell are woodgrain. Ew ew ew, no no no.

What would make me like this keyboard would be:

  • Arrow cluster at bottom right;
  • Add top Esc/Fn row and navigation column;
  • Fix the bottom row layout by omitting Fn and Mod.

As is, this keyboard would be good for you if you:

  • Can't quite commit to switching from a rectangular keyboard to a split keyboard;
  • Want it to fit into a small bag;
  • Have some weird fetish about moving your mouse with IJKL;
  • Don't use arrow keys or ESC.

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25 Responses:

  1. Michael Sternberg says:

    I was just as shocked by the lack of ESC for vi when the iPad Smart Cover came out. But the downright primeval fallback Ctrl-[ came in handy and avoids having to fiddle with whatever onscreen dingus an ssh app would provide. YMMV, but I got used to it pretty quickly.

  2. Line Noise says:

    I'm pretty happy with my Keyboardio keyboard. It was a huge learning curve but I'm at least as fast, if not faster, at general typing on it than a normal keyboard. I'm much slower when coding than I used to be but I don't code much these days so my muscle memory hasn't had a chance to get patched for the new locations of all the punctuation keys. At least it has an Escape key and the arrow keys map to hjkl which is nice for a vi user like me.

    It's all wood grain, I'm afraid. They might offer a non-wood version some day. It would certainly make manufacture easier as most of their QA rejections have been poor finishing of the wood.

    • jwz says:

      Yeah, I have zero patience for learning exotic layouts like that.

      Also what the fuck is these people's obsession with leaving off the top row and putting half the keys under another chord?? How is having 6 rows instead of 5 such a hardship, especially when they waste so much space on tailfins and greeblies as that thing does? Gaaaaahhhhhh.

      • brone says:

        Amen. May your fame help spread this opinion far and wide.

        If you want a non-split keyboard with nice keyswitches, you've got plenty of choice, including normal keyboards with 100-and-whatever normal keys, including function keys and navigation keys and numpad keys and all the other ones that people have got used to over the past 20 years.

        But if you want a split keyboard? Your options are shit. You can buy one of a wide variety of freaks of nature (such as this thing), or you can buy one of the well-designed keyboards from Microsoft, all of which have keyswitches that range from bad to merely not quite awful. I wish I knew what it was about the combination of proper key switches and the split layout that makes keyboard designers go mental. For a device that relies so much on muscle memory you'd think that people would be more inclined, not less, to design their keyboards with the buttons in the same place as every other.

        TL;DR somebody please just copy the MS Natural 4000, but with proper switches.

        • dwc says:

          A tenkeyless version of the Microsoft Natural 4000, with proper switches, would be my dream keyboard. Or a Cherry MX version of the Microsoft Sculpt that actually feels solid.

          I could never get over the extra set of keys on the left-hand side of the Kinesis Freestyle keyboards, and I like having function / media keys.

          • Freik says:

            Before I started down the "weird keyboard layout" rabbit hole I now find myself in (hit my name to see what I'm current typing on), I disassembled 2 MS Natural 4000's to cut off their keypads with a bandsaw. They're both still in a closet in my house somewhere...

            As far as function keys go, when I was on Windows constantly, the function keys were a hard requirement. Now that I'm on Mac, I never use them. And I've mapped my KB so that caps lock is my "do stuff" modifier, so caps-q sends cmd-q on Mac (quit) and alt-f4 on Win (quit). The idea of making a MS Natural 4000 layout (ten-keyless) with good switches is pretty interesting. Maybe once my current project is all done. I do have a spare Teensy laying around, and a bunch of unused key switches & keycaps. Or, alternatively, just recreate the matrix that's already there and reuse the MSFT electronics...

        • MetaRZA says:

          One wonders how hard it would be to hack a Natural 4000 with Cherry switches.

      • david glasser says:

        While I'm in no way attempting to convince you that the Keyboardio is what you want in your life, I have to say that the palm-chording with its Fn key does work way better than other kinds of chording — I missed the arrow keys for a few weeks but not having to move my hands to get palm-chorded arrows feels just fine now.

  3. johnh says:

    Their keymapping program lets you remap keys in the keyboard. The first thing I did with mine was right-shift the control/super/alt/fn modifier keys, fixing the "too far away problem". Since keymapping is in the keyboard (and not your OS), it's transparent.

    But yes... needs hardwired arrow keys as an add-on option. They have planned several add-ons (trackpad, etc.). I hope they consider arrow keys and pageup/pagedown.

    • jwz says:

      I didn't feel like just remapping those keys would fix it. I think their physical positioning is still... wrong somehow.

      I guess I could just get a numeric keypad that has arrow keys on it (and waste another USB port). Or, I could just go back to the Kinesis!

  4. RFlaum says:

    How can they call it a hacking keyboard when you need a modifier to type a curly brace?

  5. Christoph says:

    You type arrows by holding Mod and typing IJKL.

    They screwed even that. It should be HJKL (or AWSD for gamers - does that still hold today?).
    I do well enough with "simple" keyboards - like the G83 here on my desk (cheap, "works for me" and durable - hey, this one is still from the "ZF Friedrichshafen" era...

    • Gabriel Rosenkoetter says:

      Note the immediately preceding point: "(Just a hunch, but their "ultimate hacking" probably doesn't happen in vi.)"

  6. Not Frank says:

    Looking over the layouts before reading the rest, I completely missed that Esc required a modifier, because how stupid would that be?

    Pretty stupid.

  7. J. Peterson says:

    I'm still wondering why CAPSLOCK is still a thing in 2018. I know everyone remaps it, but still.

    • EMS says:

      I don't get it either. Mine is always remapped to Control (I guess I got used to emacs keybindings and Sun Type 5 keyboards which always had the Ctrl key there).

      I'm rather fond of my Das Keyboard 4 Pro with the "quiet" keyswitches (Mx Brown? I forget). Too bad they don't sell one with the Control Key where I like it (it's a common thing to map it there). It's a plenty solid keyboard that reminds me of the old IBM Model M in tactile feedback (plus it weighs about the same), but much quieter. Quite durable too, so I expect to have it for a long time to come.

    • Doodpants says:

      Whereas I don't understand the complaints about caps lock, especially from people in hacker communities. Do people not still use programming languages where the convention is to use all caps for names of constants? I use caps lock on a fairly regular basis for this purpose. I mean, I don't use the key all that often, but certainly more often than, say, the tilde/backquote key.

      • Bill says:

        Tilde on any Unix box and back quote for lisp macros. CapsLock never gets used.

      • JRB says:

        Hey that's me, I fuck around on z/OS and work in COBOL on the side. The trick is to remap it to control, And have a Xmodmap that toggles control on a Shifted Caps. I've been eyeing up split keyboards for a while, but you really do need those PFkeys, and if you can get a board with 24 of em, fuckin' rights.

        Honestly, the UHK looks pretty slick and comfy after you customize the crap out of it. Can you really use Vi mode without swaping tilde/caps? :)

  8. Hi Jamie,

    I'm László Monda, founder and lead of the UHK.

    First of all, thanks for the constructive criticism about the UHK. We appreciate it, and we'll always be working on improving our products.

    As for the majority of the cons that you mentioned, they're simply due to the form factor of the UHK. It's a 60% keyboard which means that only the alphanumeric block is available, and other keys are omitted on purpose. You could try any other 60% keyboard and come to the same conclusion.

    The advantage of 60% keyboards is that you don't have to move your hands around the various blocks of the keyboard. You only have to move your fingers. But then, you have to use heavier chording to access the remaining keys via layers. In other words, it's a deliberate tradeoff that many love, especially programmers, but it's not for everybody.

    To be perfectly honest, I'm rather surprised that you purchased the UHK. The lack of Esc, F keys, and navigation cluster should be apparent by taking a look at our website. People who buy 60% keyboards are usually aware what they sign up for.

    You also criticized the default functions of the keys. We created an unusually powerful, yet easy to user GUI configurator called Agent. With Agent, you can easily remap the top left key to Esc, or the modifiers of the bottom row according to your preference. You can check out the web demo of Agent or install it on your computer.

    I could say a lot more, like that application-specific keymaps justify the presence of the LED display, or that people love the gorgeous wooden palm rest, or that we have a lot of vi users who remap IJKL to HJKL, but given your dissatisfaction with the 60% layout in general, this is clearly a lost cause.

    Eventually, we plan to design a 80% UHK that will contain dedicated Esc, F keys, and a navigation cluster. I'm sure that'd be a way better fit for you.

    That's about it. Keep on hacking, and have a great weekend!

    • jwz says:

      As for the majority of the cons that you mentioned, they're simply due to the form factor of the UHK. It's a 60% keyboard

      Sure, I mean, I said that. You decided that priority #1 was "only have 5 rows". Most of my complaints stem from that decision.

      The advantage of 60% keyboards is that you don't have to move your hands around the various blocks of the keyboard.

      That's one way of putting it. Another way is, you have to claw-hand 40% of the keys that you want to type.

      To be perfectly honest, I'm rather surprised that you purchased the UHK.

      Well, as you're no doubt aware, there are not a whole lot of options out there for two-piece keyboards. I ordered it when I was trying to find any reasonable alternative to the Matias that also had good switches, and I don't think the Kinesis Gaming had even been released yet when I ordered the UHK, 2+ years ago.

      The lack of Esc, F keys, and navigation cluster should be apparent by taking a look at our website. People who buy 60% keyboards are usually aware what they sign up for.

      I was aware of the layout. But I also hadn't used one before, so I figured I'd give it a try. So now I know: I vote "six rows".

      You also criticized the default functions of the keys. We created an unusually powerful, yet easy to user GUI configurator called Agent. With Agent, you can easily remap the top left key to Esc,

      Well sure, but then I have to put tilde and backquote somewhere else, and it turns out, those are also keys that I type with some regularity. No amount of remapping is gonna make that sixth row show up.

      I could say a lot more, like that application-specific keymaps justify the presence of the LED display, or that people love the gorgeous wooden palm rest, or that we have a lot of vi users who remap IJKL to HJKL, but given your dissatisfaction with the 60% layout in general, this is clearly a lost cause.

      You know, it's not actually a surprise to me that as the person who made these decisions, you think that all of these decisions are good ones. I disagree. I wrote a review.

      But I'm a "lost cause", I guess.

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