Every day at work, I sit down at my desk and type hundreds, sometimes thousands, of words for a living. But that hasn’t saved me from being a lousy typist. I’m not slow. I certainly don’t hunt and peck. But I am sloppy as all get out. I let my hands carelessly flail over the keys, with overall top-speed hindered by lousy form and less than stellar accuracy, overworking a few fingers while letting others go underused. It’s OK though! I catch all, well most, well… some of the typos! But now, thanks to this strange grid-like "ortholinear" keyboard called the Preonic, I’m slowly but surely improving, and I’m loving every frustrating minute of it.
What is an ortholinear keyboard?
The funny thing about modern-day computer keyboards, with their staggered horizontal rows and traditional QWERTY layouts, is that they have no real reason to look the way they do. These designs aren’t intended for comfort or efficiency. These now standard characteristics were designed for typewriters, to help ensure that the metal arms that pushed inked stamps into paper would be less likely to smash into each other and jam up while you type. Computer keyboards obviously aren’t subject to the same concerns but tend to stick to tradition for its own sake.
My lovely little grid boy, the Massdrop x OLKB Preonic Mechanical Keyboard to be specific, is a nerdy variety of mechanical keyboard that uses a different layout strategy known to ergonomic geeks as “ortholinear.” Instead of needlessly staggering keys to prevent non-existent jams, an ortholinear keyboard arranges its keys so that no heavily-used key is more than one space away from the finger assigned to press it. That way, the logic goes, your fingers don’t need to move as far and so can make their movements faster, and with less stress and strain. It’s a half-measure approach to improving ergonomics versus more extreme alternatives like switching away from QWERTY entirely.
What's it like to use an ortholinear keyboard?
Using a keyboard like this is uncanny. It’s almost like what you’re used to, so muscle memory takes over at first but it quickly leads you astray. Yes, the key is in roughly the same position your lizard brain expects it to be, but not quite. Sometimes you'll end up with an unexpected typo, or even a finger that lands between keys. This is, of course, a hassle, but it's also a big part of the point: When that happens, I’m forced to stop, slow down not just to make sure I’m hitting the right key, but also that I’m hitting it with the right finger. It's a persistent annoyance that injects mindfulness into your typing experience in a way that you probably haven't experienced since you first started typing.
The first few days were rough, but over about a week my speed has improved from “slightly below average with very strange typos” back up to “just about average.” Better yet, with better form, I’m making good use of all my fingers, instead of just half of them. Better yet? I’m not spending 30 percent of my time just riding the backspace key anymore.
What are the alternatives to an ortholinear keyboard?
Whether you're looking for a more comfortable typing experience, a more efficient one, or both, there are plenty of options. But they are, for the most part, more extreme than picking up an ortholinear.
The option that does not require new gear is to learn a completely different typing scheme. QWERTY is not the end-all-be-all. Alternate key layouts like the fairly popular "Colemak" exist. These complete revamps move different letters to different positions on a normally shaped keyboard. It's an extreme challenge, but with potentially huge benefits. The catch is that you'll literally have to learn to type all over again, and on a keyboard where the letters on the physical keys are all wrong -- keysets for alternate layouts are exceedingly rare. I, a huge nerd, have attempted to learn Colemak, but so far it's been a bust.
There are also other keyboards to try, on both less and more extreme ends of the spectrum. Normy ergonomic split keyboards like Logitech's K860 will help your wrist position and slot easily into your existing flow, if that's what you want. By contrast, extreme keyboards like the Ergodox, completely split the keyboard in half, give you keys for your thumbs, and adopt an ortholinear layout. This makes them incredible comfort potential, but also an incredibly steep learning curve.
Should you buy an ortholinear keyboard?
If you've come this far, I say go for it! Come on in, the water’s fine!
The Massdrop x OLKB Preonic Mechanical Keyboard comes as a kit so some assembly is required, but there’s no soldering involved so it’s no more complex than playing with Legos.