Pertinent Layers

After using my 40% keyboard for two-and-a-half months, I’ve managed to map out a layer that works for me. While most of you are probably wondering, why did I bother with such a small keyboard in the first place? I already have a standard sized keyboard on my laptop.

Well, when you’re spending so much time in front of the computer, wouldn’t you want to type on something that feels good? I know I do. The laptop keyboards if definitely sufficient, but it’s not great. Lack of travel, feedback and programmability. And of course, most importantly, a e s t h e t i c s.

The 40% board is great for traveling – I can’t leave my keyboard at work, so having something light and portable is important for me. It may not seem that much smaller than a 60% keyboard but when you have a tiny backpack like me, every cubic centimeter saved is important (gotta pack more bags of drugs in there).

For non-mechanical keyboard enthusiasts out there, you’re probably wondering how on earth someone could possibly use such a tiny input device. Well, after experimenting with many different layouts on the Vortex Core, I’ve come up with something that works for me and the work I do. It’s nothing fancy, but with it I can easily type characters like ‘ and / which weren’t mapped to the non-function layer by default. I’ve also mapped control, alt and windows to the HHKB layout (I’ve gotten so used to it) and moved escape to a function layer so tab is next to Q. I’d love to do a lot more, but I’m limited by the current functionality of the board.

I still miss the number row when entering passwords, but I’m dealing with it. I even put the number row key caps on my keyboard to help me out in that department. Eventually I will have them all memorized. After using this layout for a while, I’ve come to realize that I could even do away with 3 of the keys on the keyboard, which would make something like the Pearl usable for me (damn, those sexy blockers) – something I would have never dreamed of before using a 40% keyboard.

Anyway, here is a diagram of the layout that I currently use. Feel free to use it or offer any suggestions if you think that you can make it better! I didn’t put down the Shift + Fn1 layers since those can’t be changed (they symbols are mapped from !@#$%^&*() on Ctrl to L respectively).

I can’t wait for Vortex to make the Core completely customizable, I already have plans for how I want to tweak this board even more in the future.

Touch Typing

Over the weekend, I was looking up for some tips to improve my touch typing skills and I learned something I can’t believe I had never thought of before: keep your index fingers on the home keys (F and J on a QWERTY keyboard) if you’re using your pinkies to hit keys like escape, backspace, control, tab or shift – this will allow you to quickly return to the home row and reset your fingers in the correct typing position. It was something so simple yet effective. This prompted me to scour the net for more tips that I could use. Turns out, there aren’t many tips available online that I didn’t already know. Unless there’s a hidden cache of advice hidden available somewhere on the internet, the only other thing I’ve managed to takeaway is that practice is everything.

Like playing the guitar or a video game, typing is very much all about muscle memory. Think about words you type very often: your own name, words like you, me, them, they, the – I’m pretty sure most of you can touch type them without any effort. However, if I were to give you a word like adscititious, it would probably take you a moment to type it out. But if you keep typing the word over and over again, you’ll be able to type it quickly. Basically, you have to practice typing until you are at the stage where you’re typing words instead of letters. It’s like being so familiar with a guitar chord that you can press it without having to look at the fretboard, or pulling off key combinations to execute a special move for your video game character.

While I don’t think I’ll consistently surpass 100 wpm anytime soon (I type fast enough for my current job anyway), it’s something I hope to achieve naturally in the long run – once I’ve typed the most common English words enough times to make them all muscle memory. But for those of you who are interested in learning how to touch type, here are some helpful sites.

Keybr– a site that helps you memorize where each letter is on your keyboard and analyzes which keys you’re struggling with.
10fastfingers – a great site for practicing the most common English words
Type Racer – a popular online typing game where you race against other people by typing out a passage of text quickly and accurately

Topre and Me

A couple of years ago if you told me that I’d be spending an exorbitant amount on keyboards, I would have told you that you were crazy. Well, fast forward to now and I eat my own words. Ever since I fell in love with the hobby (if you can even call it that – since I don’t assemble my own boards yet), I’ve been on the lookout for new keyboards to try out. Different layouts, sizes and switches.

However, one of the switches that I never had an opportunity to try were the polarizing Topre switches. There were a lot of people raving about them and on the other hand there were people saying that Topre switches were just expensive rubber domes. I had to find out for myself – but that was an impossible task since I didn’t have friends with Topre boards for me to try out and retail stores here didn’t carry them either. Fortunately, I had a friend in Japan last week and thanks to him, I have one of the most iconic 60% keyboards in existence – the HHKB Professional 2.

While I had never tried Topre before, I was a fan of the keyboard’s design and layout so that made it an easy buy for me. Also, I figured, if I wasn’t a fan of Topre I would have no problems reselling it on the secondhand market. Turns out, I don’t even need to consider that option because man, I’m in love with the switches. Tactility is different compared to the almost non-existent bump on MX Browns, and it’s at the top of the key press instead of midway. It feels great to type on – each keypress when bottoming out gives a nice, solid ‘thock’ that sounds like music to my ears.

In terms of aesthetics, the retro colorway and non-gamer Sans Serif font is perfect for such a timeless keyboard that hasn’t really changed since 1996. Despite it having a plastic shell, the keyboard feels extremely sturdy and is heavier than I expected.

The learning curve is pretty much zero, since I’m used to 60% boards and I’ve been using a similar layout for the past few months. My only real complaint with the keyboard is that my control key rattles more than I’d like it to. Other than that, I love the HHKB Pro 2 so far. It’s only my first day with the keyboard but I can see myself using it until it gives up on me (which hopefully won’t be any time soon!).

Learning a new 60% layout

During my time trying out different kinds of mechanical keyboards, I noticed that I had to adapt to a few different typing styles. This was very noticeable when I was typing on my Vortex Core – a 40% keyboard. Without a number row and the lack of certain dedicated punctuation keys, it changed the way I used the keyboard significantly. After using the Core for a month daily, I adapted and now I can type on it almost as fast as I did on a full-sized keyboard. In fact, it felt like training wheels – when I went back to a full-sized layout, I was able to type faster than before. I’m not sure if it was in my head and I was limiting my typing speed to begin with. For what it’s worth, I’ve come to appreciate having a dedicated number row on a keyboard now.

Since I have a new 60% keyboard coming in later this year (parts by parts, sadly – building your own keyboard is a test of patience) which utilizes the layout of the HHKB (Happy Hacking Keyboard) I decided to get used to it in advance. So right now, on my Anne Pro, I’ve remapped certain keys to reflect the HHKB layout. My Caps Lock key is now Control, my \ key has been swapped with Backspace, and I’ve mapped the HHKB arrows to the board as well. The learning curve hasn’t been as steep as using a 40%, but I immediately noticed the benefits of the layout. I can accomplish a lot more with my hands now, while moving a whole lot less than before.

Muscle memory still kicks in for some shortcuts (Ctrl + Z/W/C/V), instead of backspacing I hit the \ key, and I also keep hitting Control where it used to be + Backspace to delete words. It will definitely take a while before I’m completely comfortable with this layout, but I think it won’t take a long time to do so. Maybe the blockers on the keyboard will help with this issue in the future.

As yes, you’ve read it right – I have decided to get a DIY mechanical keyboard. Fortunately the model I was interested in doesn’t require any soldering, so it should be a walk in the park to assemble. The bad part is it that all the parts to build it won’t be arriving until August – assuming there are no delays. Fingers crossed! It should be a fun activity that I’m looking forward to. I might even stream the build process on Twitch, we’ll see. I ordered myself a Tokyo 60, Kailh Box Navy switches and GMK Red Samurai to deck the board out. I’ve only seen renders and photographs at this point, but I think it’s gonna be siiiiick. Maybe I’ll get brave enough to learn soldering after this board. We’ll see.

So anyway, earlier today when I was fumbling around for some hotkeys on my keyboard, I was thinking to myself – is it worth sacrificing how I type currently to relearn a new method of typing? Are the hours put in to learn a new typing style worth the gains when using another? I know I’m not going to be a world record holder at typing fast, and neither am I aiming to be one, so why am I throwing myself all these challenges? I guess I enjoy challenging myself with such menial tasks. It’s like unlocking a new skill in my typing skill tree. Next step would be typing on an ortholinear keyboard, and then maybe learning Colemak or Dvorak.

The Magic of Layers

It has been two weeks since my initial post about the Vortex Core, and I’m pleased to say that things have improved a lot for me. I’m hitting at least 70 wpm when I don’t have to type too many symbols. I decided that the default layout was not the best for me so I made some changes that have made life much easier for me.

First up, I noticed that I was only hitting the space bar with my right thumb. Since the right space bar was mostly untouched, it made sense to rebind it to something useful. The right space bar is now my Fn key. I moved the directional arrows to Fn + WASD, and I changed the default Fn key to ‘. I put volume up and down on Fn + Q or Z. Page Up and Page Down are now Fn + L or ;. Home and End are now Fn + O or P. My brackets are now on Fn + Del or Fn + Backspace. Fn + X or C is Ctrl + Left or Ctrl + Right.

I noticed the improvements immediately. Using the Core was so much more pleasant after the adjustments I made. I still can’t type numbers without looking at the keys, but I don’t hesitate so much anymore when hitting Fn + Tab to get 1. $, %, ^ and & still require me to look at the keyboard, but I can hit ? with muscle memory more than 50% of the time.

I’m sure there’s a lot more I can reprogram to be more efficient but this is working for me so far. I also read that there’s a Vortex Core layout editor available online that allows me to rebind every single key on the keyboard, so I’ll be looking in to that in the future.

I’m still in love with the form factor of the keyboard. It slips easily into this soft case I have, which takes like 2 seconds to pack, and it allows me to bring it with me everywhere I go. I’m waiting for my magnetic USB cables to arrive from China so the Core’s port won’t be damaged due to my frequent plugging and unplugging.

I’ve already replaced two keycaps (Esc and Enter) since I’ve already got those keys memorized (`~ and =+). I can’t wait to get everything in my head so I can go ahead with a full replacement of the keycaps.

Speaking of keycaps, there’s a set that I’ve been eyeing for some time now and I’m trying to decide if I should pull the trigger. They look so damn good. Just picture them on a HHKB layout 60% Kreygasm.

Anyway, I think this post concludes my successful transition to 40%. I’m really happy I stuck with the keyboard and managed to get over the initial hurdles of using something this tiny. In the future, I’d definitely be keen on picking up more 40% boards but for now I’m content (even though the MagicForce 48 running on massdrop now looks quite tempting haha). I haven’t used my Anne Pro or AK33 in a while, I wonder if I’ll have issues going back to them next time.

Also, MX Browns aren’t a bad switch. Sorry, just had to put it out there because I don’t think they deserve the hate they get.