Input Club

Open Keyboards with Style

© Lead Image © Bruce Rolff, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © Bruce Rolff, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 201/2017
Author(s):

The open source keyboard community has been hard at work developing high-quality, customizable keyboard firmware.

Many of us spend eight hours or more each day at a keyboard, but keyboards have hardly evolved for decades. However, an open source keyboard community is working not only to change that, but to sell its hardware commercially under the name of Input Club [1]. The result is some of the highest quality, most aesthetic keyboards available today.

Unknown to most people except the participants, the keyboard community has been active for some years, designing and releasing keyboard firmware, printed circuit board schematics, and case designs. Andrew Lekashman, one of the founders of Input Club, lists TMK [2], QMK [3], and EasyAVR [4], as well as Input Club itself [5], as firmware developers. Input Club also develops the Keyboard Layout Language [6] "in the hopes that we could improve the overall user interface device ecosystem," Lekashman adds.

One of the first products released by the keyboard community was the ErgoDox split keyboard (Figure 1) [7], created by Dominic Beauchamp. Although not originally open source, the ErgoDox "gave us insight into the fact that people really wanted open source keyboards," Lekashman says, and a refined version of the ErgoDox has since been released as open hardware by Input Club [8].

Figure 1: The ErgoDox, on of the first open source keyboards built by the community.

Input Club itself got its start when Lekashman was working at Massdrop [9], a website that sells products built by online communities. Lekashman was responsible for a number of Massdrop communities, including tech, 3D printing, and e-cigarettes, but says that "I found myself, as a Bay Area startup person, using keyboards the most often. I started helping coordinate meetups with [programmer] Jacob Alexander [10], and one day we decided to build a keyboard together [and] assembled a team of people who really cared about what they were doing."

At first, Lekashman remembers, "we were just a group of people, but Massdrop's finance department wasn't comfortable sending checks for prototyping and supplies to a nonentity."

Today, Massdrop promotes and sells Input Club, and the two companies are distinct entities, although they continue to work together. The relationship appears to work – Input Club's K-Type keyboard (Figure 2), which was released on May 16, 2017, sold over 2,700 units in its first month, making Input Club one of open hardware's unsung success stories.

Figure 2: The K-Type is Input Club's first keyboard for general users rather than hobbyists.

The Secret Is in the Switches

Input Club currently sells four keyboards: the Infinity ErgoDox Kit [11], the Infinity 60% kit [12], the WhiteFox 65% [13], and the new K-Type 60% [14]. The percentage refers to the size compared to a full-sized keyboard: The 65% keyboards include arrow and navigational keys but no number pad, while the 60% ones have neither set of keys.

The kits must be assembled by buyers using a soldering iron and Input Club's online videos. Both the backlights (Figure 3) and the keys themselves on all models can be configured for characters and macros using the web-based configurator (Figure 4) [15]. All models work on Linux, Mac OS, and Windows.

Figure 3: The K-Type comes with configurable backlights.
Figure 4: Input Club's online configurator customizes characters and backlights for each key, as well as macros.

Besides being programmable, all Input Club's offerings are designed to be attractive to the eye, although none are as elaborate as Datamancer's steampunk keyboards [16], or as configurable as those being developed by Keyboardio [17]. Instead, the K-Type prototype I received for review has a minimal, Apple-like aesthetic, with white keys mounted on brushed aluminum. According to Lekashman, a shim on the bottom for angling the keyboard is optional.

However, what really distinguishes Input Club's keyboards is the attention paid to the mechanical switches used for the keys. Almost all keyboards available in stores are rubber dome, aka membrane keyboards [18], whose keys are pressure pads. However, hardcore typists and gamers have long preferred mechanical keyboards, whose keys each have a separate mechanism and offer tactile – and sometimes aural – feedback, as well as being more durable and repairable. Yet even among mechanical keyboards, Input Club's are somewhat special.

As Lekashman explains, "The most common form of mechanical switch, the Cherry MX style switches we use in our keyboards, have the benefit of a long 'travel' or distance the switch moves when you type. All too often, people overpress their keys when typing, bottoming out the key and applying stress to their fingers by repeatedly hitting the bottom of their keyboard. However, most switches 'actuate', or send a signal to the computer at the halfway mark, and it really isn't necessary to continue pushing the key all the way down. Some switches provide a tactile bump right before acuation, while others [may] include a loud click to let you know when you should release a key. Many people spend most of their day at a computer typing, so investing in a keyboard with a component that gives a longer life span, a more pleasant feel, and a superior experience overall tends to make sense."

Even so, Lekashman says, "Switches are the most important and most often ignored aspect of keyboards, even by companies that make mechanical keyboards." Before picking the switches to use, Input Club tested "all of the available options" extensively [19]. The resulting review by Jason Alexander [20] begins by observing that most reviews of switches are vague or rely on analogs at best, and goes on to detail the building of a gauge to accurately measure the force required to use different switches.

With the K-Type keyboard, Input Club has released its own switches: Halo True [21] and Halo Clear [22]. Manufactured by Kaihua and design by Alexander, both the Halo switches are designed as an improvement on the popular Cherry MX switch. Input Club claims that the Halo True is designed to greatly reduce the friction when a key is first pressed, making the press a single smooth action. By contrast, the Halo Clear reproduces the firm and smooth tactile feeling of the Cherry MX Clear switch.

Lekashman explains that the Halo switches have three advantages. First, they "dramatically reduce the preload, so that when you first press a key, there is little to no resistance." Second, they reproduce the minimal effort required to depress a key found in a Topre keyboard in a Cherry MX-like switch. Third, Lekashman says, they "add a special spring that makes it difficult to fully depress the key all the way to the base of the keyboard." When they buy, aficionados can choose to buy a standard switch or the Halo model they prefer after investigating the specs, while nonexperts can trust Input Club simply to make typing easier – and, quite possibly, reduce the chances of repetitive stress injuries.

Upcoming

Although the K-Type has just been released, Input Club is already developing a full-sized keyboard named Kira in partnership with designer Angelo Tobias. Those interested in Kira can sign up to receive updates on its development [23].

"After Kira," Lekashman says, "we intend to work on a trackball, as they are an input device that hasn't received as much attention in the last 20 years as they really ought to. All of our keyboards have mouse control as a feature, and we intend to make use of a mouse and use of a keyboard a seamless and fully controllable experience."

With a price of $199 from Massdrop, and a suggested retail price of $299, a keyboard like Input Club's K-Type is several times more expensive than most rubber dome keyboards. However, the technology, aesthetics and sturdy construction of Input Club keyboards make them worth considering. As Lekashman says, "having the right tool for the job makes all the difference, and using the right keyboard can improve every workday. Keyboards are very much a matter of personal taste, which is why we put so much effort into making our keyboards so customizable. One day, it is our sincere hope that our work developing open source keyboard hardware will push the entire industry forward." Meanwhile, Input Club must be considered an early open hardware success story.

The Author

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist and a freelance writer and editor specializing in free and open source software. In addition to his writing projects, he also teaches live and e-learning courses. In his spare time, Bruce writes about Northwest coast art. You can read more of his work at http://brucebyfield.wordpress.com

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