TypeMatrix

I’ve recently bought a TypeMatrix keyboard. Here’s my thoughts.
QWERTY model

There’s two things to comment on really: the physical construction and feel, and the new layout. I’ll start with the former.

Key travel is good, a little harder to press than my Thinkpad keyboard but with better feel. It’s short with relatively smooth pressure feedback; I’ve had to get used to pressing the keys slightly harder, but otherwise I like it. I use the silicon skin; without this, keys require a lighter press and feel like they bottom out more suddenly — a more sudden shock to the finger than with the Thinkpad keyboard, but more precise too. I couldn’t say which of these is best for the hands — to be honest I find all three variants perfectly good enough, with the minor down-side to the TypeMatrix with skin being that I tend to press the keys slightly harder than absolutely necessary to make sure letters get pressed in the correct order.

The physical construction of the device — it feels high quality, if a bit heavy. Size is small, although it’s not especially thin. Some people reportedly carry the keyboard with them but I certainly prefer leaving it on my desk due to weight and the captive cable. It has no extra ports, switches, etc., just the keys on the front and one protruding cable.

Angling the two halves out in a fan might be slightly more ergonomic, but I don’t think it would actually be significant — ergonomically I find the keyboard very good (except that the right-shift key requires a long reach with the pinky).

Moving on to the layout, the most striking thing is that keys are vertically aligned in a grid. I’ve only been using the keyboard 1-2 weeks and am still getting used to the layout so I can only talk about initial impressions, which are that this arrangement of keys feels much more natural and works well with a little adjustment (I am typing this article on the keyboard, and at my normal typing speed). Dropping old habits (or switching back to a “normal” keyboard) takes a little effort though; in particular you have to reach for the keys on the lower row (ZXC…) quite differently, and reaching to where you expect the B key to be tends to result in pressing both B and Enter simultaneously.

Another thing that takes some getting used to is the large grid of keys on the right hand side with little about them you can feel to tell where your fingers are. There’s the usual tactile lump on the index finger keys (F and J on QWERTY) and another on the down arrow key, but getting used to where the arrow keys are and in particular the right control key in relation to the arrow keys takes a bit of getting used to. (Note: I use the silicon cover. Without this, keys feel crisper and the tactile lumps are easier to feel, which does improve the situation.)

Other changes are easier. The tall shift keys and central enter and backspace keys do feel strange at first but aren’t actually hard to get used to. I’ve actually hit the shift keys several times intending to hit either Enter or Capslock (which I use as backspace); this is not so bad since it results in nothing happening instead of what you expected (on the other hand, I’ve hit enter unintentionally a few times, submitting forms with incomplete input).

Other things: the home/end keys by the arrows are easy to get used to. The two keys on the bottom-right corner function as page up/down normally and back/forward when ‘fn’ is pressed, which also works well (though I’d have preferred not to have to use ‘fn’ for back/forward). The three new cut/copy/paste keys (used with ‘fn’) function perfectly (various linux software), but just seem redundant (and are shifted to the left compared to what you’d expect). These keys (without ‘fn’) also work fine, but seem a bit strange (the app-switch key is just redundant as is the desktop key, “right click” is not where you’d expect it and the play key… I sometimes press accidentally).

The number-pad area works fine, but I pretty-much never use those so won’t comment further.

Across the top there are ‘eject’, ‘power’, ‘sleep’ and ‘wake’ keys. For me, ‘power’ shuts-down the computer (which I didn’t want it to, so disabled it), ‘eject’ and ‘wake’ do nothing, and ‘sleep’ works correctly. I’d have preferred a ‘lock screen’/’screensaver’ key.
There are also calculator, mail and browser keys on the right edge, which are useless to me. I might remap them as forward/back or alternate media controls or something.

F-keys
: if you use them a lot, you might find the TypeMatrix layout a little annoying. They’re separated between F5 and F6 instead of the usual three groups of four, and — as with a lot of special keys on the TypeMatrix — there’s not much tactile feedback to tell you which buttons are which. This is another area where I prefer the (2010/11) ThinkPad layout.

Overall, I like this thing a lot and think it’s well worth the money if like me you spend a large portion of your day using a keyboard. Not having each row of keys shifted by some strange amount makes the layout feel so much more natural — easier on the fingers and easier to remember. I don’t understand why virtually no-one else makes keyboards without the stupid shifted rows (it’s awkward switching between the two to be sure, but worth it IMHO).

Making the keyboard so compact seems unnecessary in my opinion, or rather, some of the layout on the right-hand-side seems a bit strange. I prefer the Thinkpad keyboard for placement of the arrow keys and probably also the shift key. The stated reason for the compact size is so that the mouse can be placed closer to the right edge; I actually find it more ergonomic having my mouse below the keyboard (so it’s just a small bend of the elbow to reach it).

What I’d like to see:

  • A cheaper version, probably based on standard laptop-style keys. Not because the $110 version isn’t worth the price if you’re working day-in, day-out in front of a keyboard, but because a cheaper version would be much more affordable for a second keyboard left at home and to recommend to friends. There are enough people interested in alternative keyboards because of RSI or ease of learning, but unless such models can compete with the dirt-cheap keyboards sold in electronics stores everywhere they don’t stand a chance with most people.
  • A laptop-integration version (specifically, one I can put in my thinkpad).
  • Better separation of the arrow keys (really clear tactile feedback is good).
  • An integrated USB hub. So useful.
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About dhardy

A software developer who landed in Switzerland, I love conjecturing over a few things computer-related, open collaboration, and quietly promoting linux/KDE as a desktop OS.
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3 Responses to TypeMatrix

  1. Claudiu says:

    Nice review. How do you feel about it almost 2 weeks later? (writing this using the same keyboard, but with a Workman layout). I can say that my transition is even more tougher because of the different layout, but my hope is that it will pay dividends.

  2. dhardy says:

    Good question. I’ve no idea about Workman vs. Colemak except that Colemak with my modifications serves me fine 😉

    But for the rest of it, I’ve taken to using the TypeMatrix keyboard without the silicon cover due to the lower typing force required (and less squashy feel to the keys). That left me with a totally unlabelled keyboard, so I labelled the function keys (F*, arrows, etc.) with a permanent marker — not so pretty, but more practical (couldn’t TypeMatrix offer a keyboard labelled like this — like they’re universal skins?).

    Typing speed wise, moving between keyboards is still annoying. I would still say I prefer the overall layout of the ThinkPad except for the staggered rows, and probably also the home/end key placement on the TypeMatrix. Were you use only a single keyboard, you could probably learn to type faster (and definitely more comfortably) on the TypeMatrix; if you have to keep switching like I do accuracy does suffer, still, the TypeMatrix layout is definitely more comfortable on the hands.

    So now I’d say: if you can use ONLY the TypeMatrix keyboard and do much typing, I’d enthusiastically recommend it. If you need to switch a lot (laptop on the move), you’ll have to think twice — it’s likely to be a lot healthier for your hands, but constantly switching will be a nuisance!

  3. Claudiu says:

    I decided to only use the TypeMatrix, since I’m not forced to switch between keyboards. I even carry it with me from home to work and back home for that. I’m doing a lot of exercises with MasterMind Typing tutor and KTouch. I’m currently mastering the home row.

    Like you said I would recommend to only use the TypeMatrix, at least in the learning phase.

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