KEYBOARD MODDING: GET YOUR OWN PHYSICAL COLEMAK KEYBOARD
For many users of these forums, leaving the old QWERTY keycaps in place may be the most rational option – a completely blank "ninja" board being a stylish hardcore alternative. There may be the issue of compliance with QWERTY-using household members, or the fact that you use multiple boards through the day so you'd better get used to ignoring QWERTY markings anyway. But to be honest, I do like my keys properly labeled; if for nothing else, then so my kids will grow up with Colemak! They look at the keyboard and type what they see there of course. For some Colemak converts, a physical Colemak keyboard can be a great boon.
The DAS Keyboard Ultimate may be too mystical for you – unless you happen to love the idea of key cap ninjaness?
A good physical Colemak board solution will maybe make the casual keyboard users take Colemak more seriously. This effect should not be underestimated I think. To many users, the hardware is more than just a means to accessing the software. We who live "inside the box" must not forget that many users aren't quite there, and must see the "box" to trust its existence.
However, if you want a good solution care must be taken. Moving the key caps around works fine on most laptops and some flat keyboards but not on the majority of stationary boards where the keys aren't of equal elevation and not even on all flat boards. If you want to "mod" a keyboard by moving the caps, make sure it's a "slim" board with caps that can actually be swapped around.
Even getting someone to put together and sell a physical Colemak board (great as that would be!) might not suit everybody's needs: Some want a national/locale board where symbol and punctuation characters are in different places from the US layout, and there may be special characters (e.g., the Norwegian letters ÆØÅ). Furthermore, I'm quite picky and generally prefer black boards to grey/latte ones. And a board from a special provider might easily get expensive. Tricky.
One plus of such a board would be that its scan codes could be Colemak right off the board, eliminating the need for installing and setting a layout or running a program. You could plug it in at your friends' computer or even a gaming console and type Colemak immediately. But I don't think this matters a lot: After all, the software options are strong and flexible, and easier to carry around on a USB stick than a physical keyboard anyway. And you may not get the mod variant you prefer anyway: I use a combination of ergo mods which probably won't be found premade anywhere. A fully programmable board or QUICKIE device (see below) solves this, but again those things are somewhat expensive.
Stickers to put on the keycaps can be bought quite inexpensively; transparent ones can even show both the original QWERTY markings and new Colemak ones at once. But stickers may not give the right feel and look for the discerning user. I'm worried they may wear off or something, but this may not be a problem. Searching the net for examples, I found Hooleon Corp.) which offers a plethora of DIY options including build-your-own-keyboard, standard or custom-made robust stickers and a clear protective cover that would protect the stickers as well as the keyboard from wear and tear (and spillage!). Not sure how typing on a keyboard with such a cover feels. If someone tries, let us know!
An example of the many key label sets available from Hooleon (marked 'Dvorak' but just as good for other layouts I'd think!)
Hooleon even sells blank labels: These could be used to blank out a board you like so you don't have to see the QWERTY. Some users have a particular board they love because of special keys, ergonomy or whatever; maybe labels are the way to go then - but if the keycaps have a special ergonomic shape (like the Microsoft Natural keyboard) stickers might not work well.
Hooleon also has relegendable keys that have a hard plastic transparent cover to click over each key after labeling it to your desire. Looks nice, but expensive ($2.75 for a single key; there's a quantum rebate but still). You'll need to use the right kind of keys for a particular board brand/type.
You can get stickers made especially for the Colemak layout, from 4keyboard.com. Basically, that's just a sheet of stickers like any other but it has the letters prearranged so that it's easy to apply in the Colemak layout. Your board will get a neat default-markings-to-the-left, Colemak-markings-to-the-right look available in at least yellow and blue colors optimal for dark/bright keys, respectively. Useful for newcomers especially - but if you consider buying a set of stickers then why not help out the people who dared to produce this?
4keyboard stickers (the blue variant is shown here; they also come in yellow)
You can even get super-reflective stickers that'll lend your keys a 'glow-in-the-dark' quality (as long as it isn't actually totally dark but then your screen will be off and you won't really be typing anymore I guess?). Looks nice.
4keyboard glow-in-the-dark key stickers
I'd like to mention a board that nobody here will likely buy because of the small production line (200-400 per year) and high price tag (starting at 1,490 $US!). But the Optimus Maximus (http://www.artlebedev.com/everything/optimus/ or http://community.livejournal.com/optimus_project/) is so cool it just demands attention.
Under each of the 114 translucent key caps sits a small OLED screen that can be programmed to show just about anything in vivid colors. On-the-fly display of AltGr modes, different layouts, special shortcuts and customized application icons are the bread and butter of this futuristic marvel. No wonder it's expensive, then.
ArtLebedev's magical Optimus Maximus. A glimpse of the future?
Typing on such a board must be an interesting experience indeed. I feel confident that they're making it good on the fingers since they're putting so much effort into this, although it does seem very flat and has that bad old key row staggering intact. At least they made index finger bumps.
ODD INPUT SYSTEMS
I've also thought about crazy systems like the Ergodex DX1 Input System that lets you put the keys exactly where you want them exactly when you want them there. Again there's a price tag hurdle, this time set at $140. For gaming it sounds like great fun to modify your setup exactly as you want it without remapping a single key in the software, and it looks like it's got nice clicky keys. But I strongly suspect that once you've set this bad boy up a few times you tire of shuffling keys and leave it at your standard setup. You'd get your Colemak all right, but you can after all get that cheaper elsewhere if you won't be moving keys anymore after all. For the typist in need of something special (a non-staggered, localized, control-key-swapped, ergonomically-spaced, experimental dream creation of yours begging for testing maybe?) it might be interesting indeed. You could make it a TypeMatrix-oid, Kinesis-oid or vaguely Maltron-oid (a flat version of course) test board on the fly to find out what's best for you. An exciting board for developers. To get national glyphs I suppose you'd have to use stickers on some keys.
Where do you want to type today?
The TypeMatrix 2030 (or the wider 2020) is a board that some may find attractive - although it does cost $110. The TypeMatrix has a non-staggered ergonomic layout, compact design and some other special keys and features (http://www.typematrix.com/features/?key … 6n9SZ1sq7H). The caps seem readily movable judging from the description, although one problem with moving the caps from a QWERTY TypeMatrix around is that some letter keys double up as NumPad or other keys (using the Function key) and those would be garbled. If you prefer not to do this and don't want a completely blank board either, there's another approach: Buying a clear, unlabeled cover for it and using sticker labels (see above) on the keycaps. With the clear cover over the stickers, they won't get worn as easily and hopefully will hardly be felt. One could also use stickers for different nationales as mentioned above. But I'm still a bit skeptical for my own part because:
a) I use all the keys on my standard board for games and apps which puts me off a compact design that hasn't got all keys available on one click
b) I'm quite picky about looks and those boards don't strike me as very beautiful in their unskinned grey (this is of course entirely subjective!)
c) The many special keys and function keys would make a blank option very hardcore, even with stickers for the normal key functions
d) As mentioned, the thing is expensive
e) I don't like the Dvorak key on it; it should've been a programmable "Your Layout" key! ;)
The TypeMatrix 2030, shown with a Dvorak labeled skin in stylish black; no Colemak skin so far?
I guess one could try writing emails to TypeMatrix and other companies asking for a Colemak layout, but it won't happen soon I'm afraid. With TypeMatrix it wouldn't be so hard to do since all they would have to do would be printing a new softcover which would be inexpensive. But I'm a little afraid that they're Dvorak aficionados over there, since they even have a physical Dvorak key on their board. That might put them off promoting Colemak with a special product such as a Colemak skin. Or maybe they can be turned? :)
There are several more modern matrix boards and some are even reprogrammable. I'm not a big fan of square matrices myself, but there are variants with stagger and curved surfaces and split boards and whatnot.
[In this topic by Rajagra, Liquid_Turbo says that the TypeMatrix 2030 now comes with Colemak programming (so you could get Colemak on a system using the US QWERTY mapping simply by hitting Fn+F5)! In 2010, they were still considering whether to make a labeled skin to go with it...?]
User Korivak mentioned the Apple/Mac keyboard as a good alternative:
The Apple keyboard has identical keycaps in all three rows, so it's easy to swap the keycaps on. It's also widely available, well built and works with both Windows and OS X.
kalixiri's Mac keyboard, showing a Colemak-Wide ergo mod for ANSI
These days you can actually get a board that's got the key caps already arranged in the Colemak layout! One such board is sold by Hooleon, under the name Colemak 104 Key J Enter Keyboard for about US$40. From the image, it looks like a decent board that most users could enjoy. Comes with USB or PS/2 connectors (but there's no info on rollover that I could see). The key mechanism is your garden variety rubber domes which may put off key switch aficionados (like myself), but most people won't care about that I guess since other key types are more expensive and some of them are louder. A note though: I've checked with Hooleon and they do use T and N caps with homing bumps and F and J caps without; this is as it should be but it means that their advertised ease of converting to QWERTY or Dvorak isn't quite true. Not that anyone would want to do that, obviously... right?
Note: This isn't a scan code remapped board, which I think is okay because sending out-of-position scan codes is a bit of a hack since scan codes ideally should correspond to physical key position and the system should remap those to the right virtual key codes (using the Colemak layout in this case). In some cases, a reprogrammed board would be very handy of course, but this isn't it apparently.
Hooleon "Colemak 104 Key..." board
I haven't got one of these (yet). That said, the TextBlade from WayTools looks awesome for an ultra-portable USB/BlueTooth keyboard solution, and you can order a Colemak-printed version of it. Check it out. I'm convinced – and thanks to user Dave for the post that tipped me off! One thing that'd make it even more awesome though, would be the inclusion of an internal, reprogrammable layout converter chip (maybe using TMK?)!
WayTools TextBlade ultra-portable keyboard, available with Colemak key markings
Now my own projects: I've bought and converted a Saitek Slimline Multimedia board. It's dirt cheap, slimline, keycaps are easy to move, it's black and red and passes my critical eye, it comes in national variants and it has a bunch of extra keys some of which are readily customizable in Windows. I've befriended the left-hand scroll wheel and left/right scroll keys (rarely in use but every now and then they're good to have there), and the speaker volume wheel, as well as the back/forward/close/switch keys; the Copy/Cut/Paste keys would've been great if I were still on Dvorak but they don't see very frequent use unless I do a lot of copy-pasting all at once. The board has special functions for F keys, but fortunately not the "F-Lock illness" that Logitech invented (the F keys weren't the default state and after every restart you'd have to push that damn F-Lock key to get your function keys back). One minus is the lack of LEDs to show the Lock key states. There are small icons in the system tray if you use the Windows driver, but these can't be seen if the task bar is hidden (e.g., all full-screen apps). I've found that a bit annoying.
My old Saitek keyboard; nice and shiny
This is not a board for people who need an adamant microswitch feel to their typing. But I like it so far, and I don't personally need that "heavy feel". One aber is that if you use the stands to angle the typing surface towards you, the row of multimedia keys at the top will give way just a little which feels awkward. I tried keeping the stand down for a while but I like having it up so I decided to live with the slight sway and now I don't notice it anymore.
One word of warning if you're swapping keys on this board: Each key has a small conelike rubber thingy under it, that provides spring. I managed to topple one of those, resulting in a key that felt wrong. I had to pick the "cone" up with a pair of pliers and carefully put it back (it's not attached in any way). After I had done that, the key was perfect. Just don't lose any of the little guys while moving keys around!
I also found a "slim" board in the electronics garbage bin at the hospital where I work (the things people throw away, pfft!). I converted that and made new home row bumps, and it works very well. It's of the Siemens KBPC type which I've seen marked Siemens Fujitsu Electronics or only Siemens. They're much sturdier and more "no-nonsense" than the Saitek board. Gray, German and high quality judging from appearances. They have good sturdy stands, and come in national variants.
The Siemens KBPC S ("S" for "Slim"?) board I converted had readily movable keys, except for the "bump keys" F and J that had an extra ridge on the stem, ostensibly to aid montage. I got it off easily enough using a sharp knife, and the keys worked without any trouble.
A Siemens keyboard, now redeemed from its dirty QWERTY past
The Siemens Fujitsu KBPC XP board is also found at my workplace. From inspection, the keys are moveable except that there are stems at two opposing corners of each key and the bottom row has these placed differently from the middle and upper rows. Luckily, this only affects the J and K keys. I think one could simply remove the stems with no adverse effects, except the risk of the two keycaps falling off if the board were to be held upside down. That would be a minor problem indeed. A more elegant solution would be to make new holes in the keyboard for the J and K keys' corner stems. A soldering iron would be too thick for that unless you have a special tip, but maybe one could heat a wire to melt a hole with? I don't really think it'd be worth doing though.
There are other KBPC boards from Siemens Fujitsu that also seem to share the flat-key design and probably support conversion to Colemak. The SLIM MF looks classy. Of particular interest is the hinged KBPC E. I saw a web page saying that it's practically identical to the Kinesis Maxim board but substantially cheaper. I couldn't see any contraindications to its moddability.
I have a Unicomp Spacesaver "IBM Model M type" keyboard. Mechanical keyboards often have completely moddable key caps so they're a layout modder's paradise in addition to having more ergonomical keys. Nuff said? ;-)
My Unicomp SpaceSaver Buckling Spring (IBM Model M type) ISO keyboard with "American/Ninja" caps, splendidly sporting the Colemak-CAW layout.
INDEX FINGER BUMPS
One easily noticeable hurdle to moving your keys around, is the loss of the index finger bumps (the F and J keys on QWERTY). Those are surprisingly useful for touch typing!
One might get used to homing in by finding the left-hand "F" bump on the top row with the middle finger, and then spacing out the hands which should be possible with some practice. I easily home my left hand, but the right hand often feels insecure without a proper bump. The better option in my opinion is making bumps for the new index finger home keys T and N.
On my IBM-type keyboard I have some blank "black ninja" caps, and two of these have homing bumps on them. So I ended up replacing the T and N keys with blank ones as in the image above. Looks kind of spiffy, actually.
For some of the boards I've converted, I made new bumps for the T and N with an electronics soldering iron. Very carefully does the trick, as you only want the tiniest bump (the index fingers are very sensitive so you need less than you may think). Practise on the back of the board or some other piece of hard plastic first. I merely nudged the right spot on each keycap with the hot iron, thus pushing up a tiny ridge of plastic. The ridge pointing away from me was whittled off with a knife.
The old F and J bumps were left in place as I don't think they cause any trouble at all. If they annoy you, you could whittle them away carefully; don't overdo it though or you'll make an unseemly depression even if you only took a little too much. Easy does it.
My modified Siemens keyboard showing the new index finger anchors
If you don't have a soldering iron you might try heating up some suitable implement. But be warned that I don't think a candle can heat up a screwdriver enough to melt even this easily meltable plastic with. Maybe a gas torch could, but don't sue me if that doesn't work.
Obviously the board needs to be made of a moldable plastic, but almost all stationary keyboards are. Again: Try it out on the back of the board first. If for some reason you cannot use this method then maybe cutting a small notch in the keycaps will make a recognizable anchor; I have my doubts as to its efficiency though.
I noticed that Hooleon sells home row bump stickers. One cheap set of these contains spares and they'd be very easy to use, but I still prefer my soldering iron method as a more permanent and satisfying solution. If you use stickers on your keycaps though, you should probably get sticker bumps as well.
A word of warning: Laptop keys can sometimes be rubbery and may not take well to melting nor cutting attempts! Sticker bumps should work on such keys, unless they have a too rough and porous surface. However, the forum user Kalixiri has made me aware of the fact that most laptops have a much shorter space bar! (See the image of Kalixiri's "ColeMacBook"!) On these machines it will therefore be quite simple to home in using your thumbs on the space bar, if you're willing to get used to this technique. Sounds useful to me. Incidentially, a variation of this method ought to work well on moddable split keyboards too. If I do get hold of that Siemens KBPC-E I'll try it out.
I think this is well worth doing for a touch typist! I tried without for a few days, but was quite frustrated and kept feeling around for the right position. With the index finger anchors back in place, that good safe feeling for the home position has returned.
Just moving the keycaps will of course not change the board's scan codes. Unless you change the system setup the computer will still think you're typing in QWERTY. That's okay with me; I can change the setup in software. If you want to recode the scan codes of a keyboard there are some options such as programmable keyboards or a QUICKIE – see my USB-2-USB topic!
Sometimes recoding doesn't work for all purposes though, as I've seen games bypassing the system layout and working with the scan codes directly. Games are generally concerned with key placements more than letters. In such situations, you may want to keep the keys producing the standard scan codes for, say, the WASD movement block (with surrounding keys) so you can still control the game normally without twisting your hand. Of course, many modern apps/games also have a remap function so you could for instance change the default WASD block to an aptly named WARS block if the game sees your Colemak setup!
In some cases though, like the poorly implemented but sometimes needed Microsoft Word for Mac, a recoded keyboard would be advantageous as the application doesn't use the virtual keycodes from the operating system properly, and tweaking system files (registry remappings in Windows) can be too drastic. On a computer that you're not the sole user of, you could easily plug in a removable converter and type Colemak as needed while you wouldn't get away with system tweaks that render the machine incompatible with QWERTY.
Another application where a hardware scan code remapping would be handy: My Playstation and other gaming consoles can use any USB keyboard, but obviously(?) I can't set its keyboard layout to Colemak. For rare OSes such as Solaris where no system remapping is ready (maybe someone have one but it may be hard to find) it's the same story. A board/device that can switch back and forth between layouts is great for such cases.
In conclusion, getting your own Colemak board isn't hard to do, can be done about as low- or high-cost as you like and it's quite rewarding. My Colemak keyboards put a proud smile on my face and even though I type without looking at the keys they're useful whenever I lose my concentration or have to enter rarely used passwords. Plus, it's a visible message to the world that Colemak is a reality!
Øystein Bech Gadmar ("DreymaR"), 2007–2020+