Improving ergonomics: the Atreus keyboard

Back in March, at the start of the lockdown, I had a lot of free time. I also had a lot of ideas for personal projects and functionalities for my server, so I started coding a lot. I realized that since I was spending a lot of time on my computer, without any time constraints, I could use the opportunity to try things I was always "too busy" to try. Things that I knew would make me more efficient on my computer, but had a steep learning curve. For example, I started using i3, which I eventually changed for dwm, and I started using neovim as my main editor (I had some experience with vim, but never used it for day-to-day tasks). I now use dwm exclusively and vim nearly exclusively.

Both programs disregard the mouse completely (or nearly1), and most other programs I tried or got more comfortable with during the lockdown also used text as the main input method. With all these changes towards a more keyboard-centric system, I couldn't help but think: can I improve my keyboard experience? I already touch-type, so that area didn't have a lot of room for improvement. I could get a mechanical keyboard, but back then, I had only used membrane keyboards and I felt perfectly comfortable, I didn't think there was a lot of room for improvement there either, and I could not justify the economic cost of such a change. That sounded just about everything I could improve on, so I guess I already had a pretty optimal experience.

Wait a minute...

Why are the keyboards arranged the way they are? Is it the optimal position? Apparently, not even close! If you look around, you will see that there are a lot of different kinds of keyboards with the keys arranged in very different ways. Keyboards designed to be more comfortable than regular ones are normally referred to as ergonomic keyboards. I did some research and I tried to understand—although it was hard to evaluate without trying them—why they are considered more comfortable. Each keyboard had it's own pros and cons, and after looking at many, I decided that my perfect keyboard would have the following properties:

  • Arranged in columns: it makes no sense for keyboards' rows to be staggered. Indeed, the reason for that design is that typewriters had to be staggered so that the levers could all fit under the keys. With computers, this isn't an issue anymore, and columns are more comfortable.
  • Make use of thumbs: my right thumb's job on a normal keyboard is to press one big space bar and my left thumb doesn't even have a job! I would rather have a small space bar and fit a couple more keys for each thumb.
  • Minimize the movements of my fingers: ideally, no finger would have to press any key that's not adjacent to it's "resting" key (diagonally adjacent is fine).
  • Easy to type modifier keys: as I use the keyboard instead of the mouse as much as I can, I use modifier keys often. I would like them to be reached easily.
  • High distance between hands: for a better posture when writing on my computer.

In short, I wanted to maximize the comfort of typing while minimizing the movements my hands had to make. Additionally, I didn't want to spend a lot of money (I didn't know if I was going to like moving to a different keyboard) and also would rather not have to build the keyboard myself, although it looked like that was the only option.

After all the research, only one keyboard seemed to fulfill all my needs: the Atreus keyboard. The Atreus seemed great, I would have liked it more if it had an extra column on each side (like the Atreus62), but it wasn't a big deal. The reviews on the Atreus were all great, so I decided to give it a try.

Luckily for me, back then Keyboardio had just launched a Kickstarter campaign for that precise keyboard. It had a good price for an ergonomic keyboard and I didn't have to build it on my own. The only problem was that I'd have to wait until the end of August to receive it, but time wasn't an issue for me, so I bought it. Fast forward five months to two weeks ago, the keyboard finally arrived! (There were some delays, although the people at Keyboardio always kept us informed, great experience overall.)

I have been able to use the new keyboard for some time now and it looks good so far2. It took some time to get used to the columns instead of staggered rows, but I am doing a lot better now. It also took some time to get used to the layers (I had to re-learn where every character is!), but after I changed the layout to make it as intuitive as possible, the learning process has been a lot faster.

Although I am liking the keyboard so far, I don't want to evaluate it extensively while still getting used to it and I think I shouldn't reach any conclusions until I feel more comfortable with it. I will probably write about my experience with the Atreus in the future.

  1. In my case, I deactivate the mouse completely in neovim, as the only thing I use the mouse for is to select text to easily paste it with the middle button on another application, but I like the cursor staying where it is when I do it. For dwm, you can selects tags with the mouse, but I rarely do that. 

  2. I don't want to use it for day-to-day tasks yet, as I am still a bit slow and feel more comfortable with a regular keyboard, so I haven't used it that much.