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Monday·30·March·2020

How do you type on a keyboard with only 46 or even 28 keys? //at 08:51 //by abe

from the you-can-do-it-if-you-really-want dept.

Some of you might have noticed that I’m into keyboards since a few years ago — into mechanical keyboards to be precise.

Preface

It basically started with the Swiss Mechanical Keyboard Meetup (whose website I started later on) was held in the hackerspace of the CCCZH.

I mostly used TKL keyboards (i.e. keyboards with just the — for me useless — number block missing) and tried to get my hands on more keyboards with Trackpoints (but failed so far).

At some point a year or two ago, I looking into smaller keyboards for having a mechanical keyboard with me when travelling. I first bought a Vortex Core at Candykeys. The size was nice and especially having all layers labelled on the keys was helpful, but nevertheless I soon noticed that the smaller the keyboards get, the more important is, that they’re properly programmable. The Vortex Core is programmable, but not the keys in the bottom right corner — which are exactly the keys I wanted to change to get a cursor block down there. (Later I found out that there are possibilities to get this done, either with an alternative firmware and a hack of it or desoldering all switches and mounting an alternative PCB called Atom47.)

40% Keyboards

So at some point I ordered a MiniVan keyboard from The Van Keyboards (MiniVan keyboards will soon be available again at The Key Dot Company), here shown with GMK Paperwork (also bought from and designed by The Van Keyboards):

The MiniVan PCBs are fully programmable with the free and open source firmware QMK and I started to use that more and more instead of bigger keyboards.

Layers

With the MiniVan I learned the concepts of layers. Layers are similar to what many laptop keyboards do with the “Fn” key and to some extent also what the German standard layout does with the “AltGr” key: Layers are basically alternative key maps you can switch with a special key (often called “Fn”, “Fn1”, “Fn2”, etc., or — especially if there are two additional layers — “Raise” and “Lower”).

There are several concepts how these layers can be reached with these keys:

  • By keeping the Fn key pressed, i.e. the alternative layer is active as long as you hold the Fn key down.
  • One-shot layer switch: After having pressed and released the Fn key, all keys are on the alternative layer for a single key press and then you are back to the default layer.
  • Layer toggle: Pressing the Fn key once switches to the alternative layer and pressing it a second time switches back to the default layer.
  • There are also a lot of variants of the latter variant, e.g. rotating between layers upon every key press of the Fn key. In that case it seems common to have a second special key which always switches back to the default layer, kinda Escape key for layer switching.
My MiniVan Layout

For the MiniVan, two additional layers suffice easily, but since I have a few characters on multiple layers and also have mouse control and media keys crammed in there, I have three additional layers on my MiniVan keyboards:


“TRNS” means transparent, i.e. use the settings from lower layers.

I also use a feature that allows me to mind different actions to a key depending if I just tap the key or if I hold it. Some also call this “tap dance”. This is especially very popular on the usually rather huge spacebar. There, the term “SpaceFn” has been coined, probably after this discussion on Geekhack.

I use this for all my layer switching keys:

  • The left spacebar is space on tap and switches to layer 1 if hold. The right spacebar is a real spacebar, i.e. already triggers a space on key press, not only on key release.

    Layer 1 has numbers on the top row and the special characters of the number row in the second row. It also has Home/End and Page Up/Down on the cursor keys.

  • The key between the Enter key and the cursor-right key (medium grey with a light grey caret in the picture) is actually the Slash and Question Mark key, but if hold, it switches me to layer 2.

    Layer 2 has function keys on the top row and also the special characters of the number row in the second row. On the cursor keys it has volume up and down as well as the media keys “previous” and “next”.

  • The green key in the picture is actually the Backslash and Pipe key, but if hold, it switches me to layer 3.

    On layer 3 I have mouse control.

With this layout I can type English texts as fast as I can type them on a standard or TKL layout.

German umlauts are a bit more difficult because it requires 4 to 6 key presses per umlaut as I use the Compose key functionality (mapped to the Menu key between the spacebars and the cursor block. So to type an Ä on my MiniVan, I have to:

  1. press and release Menu (i.e. Compose); then
  2. press and hold either Shift-Spacebar (i.e. Shift-Fn1) or Slash (i.e. Fn2), then
  3. press N for a double quote (i.e. Shift-Fn1-N or Fn2-N) and then release all keys, and finally
  4. press and release the base character for the umlaut, in this case Shift-A.

And now just use these concepts and reduce the amount of keys to 28:

30% and Sub-30% Keyboards

In late 2019 I stumbled upon a nice little keyboard kit “shop” on Etsy — which I (and probably most other people in the mechanical keyboard scene) didn’t take into account for looking for keyboards — called WorldspawnsKeebs. They offer mostly kits for keyboards of 40% size and below, most of them rather simple and not expensive.

For about 30€ you get a complete sub-30% keyboard kit (without switches and keycaps though, but that very common for keyboard kits as it leaves the choice of switches and key caps to you) named Alpha28 consisting of a minimal Acrylic case and a PCB and electronics set.

This Alpha28 keyboard is btw. fully open source as the source code, (i.e. design files) for the hardware are published under a free license (MIT license) on GitHub.

And here’s how my Alpha28 looks like with GMK Mitolet (part of the GMK Pulse group-buy) key caps:

So we only have character keys, Enter (labelled “Data” as there was no 1u Enter key with that row profile in that key cap set; I’ll also call it “Data” for the rest of this posting) and a small spacebar, not even modifier keys.

The Default Alpha28 Layout

The original key layout by the developer of the Alpha28 used the spacbar as Shift on hold and as space if just tapped, and the Data key switches always to the next layer, i.e. it switches the layer permanently on tap and not just on hold. This way that key rotates through all layers. In all other layers, V switches back to the default layer.

I assume that the modifiers on the second layer are also on tap and apply to the next other normal key. This has the advantage that you don’t have to bend your fingers for some key combos, but you have to remember on which layer you are at the moment. (IIRC QMK allows you to show that via LEDs or similar.) Kinda just like vi.

My Alpha28 Layout

But maybe because I’m more an Emacs person, I dislike remembering states myself and don’t bind bending my fingers. So I decided to develop my own layout using tap-or-hold and only doing layer switches by holding down keys:


A triangle means that the settings from lower layers are used, “N/A” means the key does nothing.

It might not be very obvious, but on the default layer, all keys in the bottom row and most keys on the row ends have tap-or-hold configurations.

Basic ideas
  • Use all keys on tap as labelled by default. (Data = Enter as mentioned above)
  • Use different meanings on hold for the whole bottom row and some edge column keys.
  • Have all classic modifiers (Shift, Control, OS/Sys/Win, Alt/Meta) on the first layer twice (always only on hold), so that any key, even those with a modifier on hold, can be used with any modifier. (Example: Shift is on A hold and L hold so that Shift-A is holding L and then pressing A and Shift-L is holding A and then pressing L.)
Bottom row if hold
  • Z = Control
  • X = OS/Sys/Win
  • C = Alt/Meta
  • V = Layer 3 (aka Fn3)
  • Space = Layer 1 (aka Fn1)
  • B = Alt/Meta
  • N = OS/Sys/Win
  • M = Ctrl
Other rows if hold
  • A = Shift
  • L = Shift
  • Data (Enter) = Layer 2 (aka Fn2)
  • P = Layer 4 (aka Fn4)
How the keys are divided into layers
  • Layer 0 (Default): alphabetic keys, Space, Enter, and (on hold) standard modifiers
  • Layer 1: numbers, special characters (most need Shift, too), and some more common other keys, e.g.
    • Space-Enter = Backspace
    • Space-S = Esc
    • Space-D = Tab
    • Space-F = Menu/Compose
    • Space-K = :
    • Space-L = '
    • Space-B = ,
    • Space-N = .
    • Space-M = /, etc.
  • Layer 2: F-keys and less common other keys, e.g.
    • Enter-K = -
    • Enter-L = =
    • Enter-B = [
    • Enter-N = ]
    • Enter-M = \, etc.)
  • Layer 3: Cursor movement, e.g.
    • scrolling
    • and mouse movement.
    • Cursor cross is on V-IJKL (with V-I for Up)
    • V-U and V-O are Home and End
    • V-P and V-Enter are Page Up/Down.
    • Mouse movement is on V-WASD
    • V-Q
    • V-E and V-X being mouse buttons
    • V-F and V-R is the scroll wheel up down
    • V-Z and V-C left and right.
  • Layer 4: Configuring the RGB bling-bling and the QMK reset key:
    • P-Q (the both top corner keys) are QMK reset to be able to reflash the firmware.
    • The keys on the right half of the keyboard control the modes of the RGB LED strip on the bottom side of the PCB, with the upper two rows usually having keys with some Plus and Minus semantics, e.g. P-I and P-K is brightness up and down.
    • The remaining left half is unused and has no function at all on layer 4.
Using the Alpha28

This layout works surprisingly well for me.

Only for Minus, Equal, Single Quote and Semicolon I still often have to think or try if they’re on Layer 1 or 2 as on my 40%s (MiniVan, Zlant, etc.) I have them all on layer 1 (and in general one layer less over all). And for really seldom used keys like Insert, PrintScreen, ScrollLock or Pause, I might have to consult my own documentation. They’re somewhere in the middle of the keyboard, either on layer 1, 2, or 3. ;-)

And of course, typing umlauts takes even two keys more per umlaut as on the MiniVan since on the one hand Menu is not on the default layer and on the other hand, I don’t have this nice shifted number row and actually have to also press Shift to get a double quote. So to type an Ä on my Alpha, I have to:

  1. press and release Space-F (i.e. Fn1-F) for Menu (i.e. Compose); then
  2. press and hold A-Spacebar-L (i.e. Shift-Fn1-L) for getting a double quote, then
  3. press and release the base character for the umlaut, in this case L-A for Shift-A (because we can’t use A for Shift as I can’t hold a key and then press it again :-).

Conclusion

If the characters on upper layers are not labelled like on the Vortex Core, i.e. especially on all self-made layouts, typing is a bit like playing that old children’s game Memory: as soon as you remember (or your muscle memory knows) where some special characters are, typing gets faster. Otherwise, you start with trial and error or look the documentation. Or give up. ;-)

Nevertheless, typing on a sub-30% keyboard like the Alpha28 is much more difficult and slower than on a 40% keyboard like the MiniVan. So the Alpha28 very likely won’t become my daily driver while the MiniVan defacto is my already my daily driver.

But I like these kind of challenges as others like the game “Memory”. So I ordered three more 30% and sub-30% keyboard kits and WorldspawnsKeebs for soldering on the upcoming weekend during the COVID19 lockdown:

  • A Reviung39 to start a new try on ortholinear layouts.
  • A Jerkin (sold out, waitlist available) to try an Alice-style keyboard layout.
  • A Pain27 (which btw. is also open source under the CC0 license) to try typing with even one key less than the Alpha28 has. ;-)

And if I at some point want to try to type with even fewer keys, I’ll try a Butterstick keyboard with just 20 keys. It’s a chorded keyboard where you have to press multiple keys at the same time to get one charcter: So to get an A from the missing middle row, you have to press Q and Z simultaneously, to get Escape, press Q and W simultaneously, to get Control, press Q, W, Z and X simultaneously, etc.

And if that’s not even enough, I already bought a keyboard kit named Ginny (or Ginni, the developer can’t seem to decide) with just 10 keys from an acquaintance. Couldn’t resist when offered his surplus kits. :-) It uses the ASETNIOP layout which was initially developed for on-screen keyboards on tablets.

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