We were fortunate to get an early release sample of a new ergonomic keyboard, X-bows, which launches today on Kickstarter. The X-Bows is a USB ergonomic keyboard with mechanical keys. It’s compact but offers a full keyboard experience and works across Macs, PCs, Chromebooks, and Linux machines. What is unique about this keyboard is what the company calls a “cross bow radial design” where the keys are arranged in a pattern to reduce the amount of lateral movement your wrist and fingers need to travel to type. If you use this keyboard properly, you can do the vast majority of your typing without needing to move your wrist around laterally. Below is our video review followed by our written review.
Overall Build – Made Quite Well
This keyboard appears well built. I dropped it a couple of times and pried on the keys a bit, of course not with hulk-like strength but with enough force to expose el cheapo products. This one passed. Being a mechanical keyboard, every single key had the same tactile response and my unit came with Gateron Blue switches. You can pop off and pop the keys back on but you can’t switch the underlying mechanical key structure. In other words, you can remove just the tops of the keys for cleaning and pop these caps back with no problem, but you can’t change to a different type of mechanical key. I believe the Kickstarter launches with just the Gateron switch in red, black, blue, or brown. The company said they may offer other options like Cherry MX switches. I initially thought my sample came with Cherry MX. I can’t really tell the difference! They are both excellent switches.
The first thing I noticed with this keyboard was the standard
Micro USB USB-C port (sorry I stand corrected…it’s not Micro but USB-C…I looked over that quickly and assumed Micro). Over the years I have damaged a couple of USB cords for my keyboards. Having one that uses any Micro USB USB-C cable makes this issue go away. If this cord breaks, get a new one and you are back up and running. Notice also the gap between the base of the keyboard and the keys. No doubt stuff will get into this gap but this design should make for easy cleaning. A can of compressed air should clear out this keyboard in seconds. Not sure what colors are available but I like black. Hides the crap that will cover your keyboard as time goes on. A Bluetooth keyboard would be a nice upgrade though I have been using wired keyboards for the past decade so the cord didn’t bother my setup.
The back of the keyboard has two tabs that allow you raise up the angle of the keyboard so it slants from front to back. Flipping these tabs up adds about half an inch of height to the back. These tabs don’t have setpoints. You either keep the keyboard flat or move both up to the max height for that small adjustment. I wish it came with wrist pads that fit this compact design and was just told wrist pads will be an option! There are also rubber pads on the bottom to keep your keyboard from slipping. I have a dog and so far after a couple of weeks I don’t see any dog hair so it’s not particularly magnetic towards dog hair 🙂
Typing Ergonomics – Very Good
Quick backstory: this keyboard was invented by a medical doctor who specializes in medical imaging. In his practice, he was seeing a similar injury over and over again and created this design to offset the symptoms of RSI- repetitive strain injury for his patients. Now on to the ergonomics…
I think it’s a general rule that the better the ergonomics, the longer it will take to get back to your original typing speed. Because of this, some really great ergonomic designs may make the learning curve too steep for many. See our review on the Kinesis Advantage for an example. This keyboard is not the easiest to adjust from a standard keyboard and my guess is you will need 2 to 3 days to get back to a decent typing speed. And that’s a good thing as the ergonomics are excellent. The keys are laid out to force your hand into a more natural position and is laid out so your fingers don’t have to move laterally as you type. You won’t be able to type on this keyboard using harmful wrist and hand positions.
The company designed a unique layout for this keyboard. I found a couple of adjustment areas I should point out:
- There is only one Shift key and your right thumb presses it near the center of the keyboard. Try and type a capital A. You need to move your hand most likely your left pinky presses the ‘Shift Key’ and your left ring now presses the ‘A’ key. This design allows your fingers to remain in place and your thumbs now control the ‘Shift, Space, Enter, Control, and Backspace’ keys. Over time this becomes second nature and I guess you should be able to type a bit faster. I haven’t used it long enough to see that speed gain.
- Switching to other keyboards may become tricky. I guess over time like playing multiple musical instruments you should be able to adjust to this keyboard and others on demand with little issue. I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’ve used the X-Bows at home for a couple of weeks and a Kinesis at work. Switching between the two was tricky at first and has gotten better so far, but not yet totally natural.
The company notes that the keyboard is completely remappable. I didn’t test this out as I don’t see that as a super common feature to use. They do note that you can set keys for shortcuts that you use frequently and am assuming if you already do this you can also do this on this keyboard to create the shortcuts you need.
This image highlights their unique cross-bow radial design. The regular keyboard above shows the lateral movement we need to make as we type. This design allows the fingers to go up and down while maintaining a natural wrist position. They note that the area boxed to the right in purple is for people not yet used to the design and that ultimately you’ll stick with the main keyboard and use the green boxed area and keyboard shortcuts which can be customized to keep your fingers and wrist in one place. I didn’t get there just yet. For the first week I was using the backspace key on the right in that purple box area and didn’t even notice that there is a second backspace key right in the middle that I can access with my index finger without moving my wrist at all. That was a nice find and good bold key placement!
One thing I wish I had were wrist rests made for this keyboard. I asked and wow they already had them planned! They sent me this render below and will be adding this as an add on option for $25. That’s a good deal and I like the dark color. I’ve had gray wrist rests that look nasty after just 3 months of use.
Compatibility – Works Across All Major Platforms
I tested the keyboard on a Dell Ubuntu laptop, Microsoft Surface Pro, Lenovo Chromebook, and Macbook Pro. All of these laptops worked fine out of the box no configuration though I do have tips for Mac users who may need to go through one more step. When I first plugged in the X-Bows into my Macbook Pro, I was asked to choose a keyboard type. For me this was an obvious choice (ANSI for the U.S.). This is not a Japanese keyboard and I am not sure about European language support so my guess is you will go with the ANSI option also. I did go into the keyboard preference manager for my Mac and that got confusing. When I clicked on identify keyboard it asked me to “Press the key to right of the left side Shift Key” which doesn’t exist on this keyboard. I ignored that screen. You won’t need to do this. Also for Mac users, the ‘Windows Key’ is what you use for the Mac command function. I got the “PC” optimized version for this test though if you order one you can order the “Mac” optimized layout. With this layout the “Alt” key on the original X-Bows will become Apple’s command function and the keycap will have the appropriate design. The windows button will become alt/option. The F-row will also change to look like that of Apple’s products. Am moving more towards Chromebook full time even for software development so I think I got the right layout for my needs…seem to be using my Macs less and less nowadays.
The Built-In Light Show (Backlighting Galore)
I think backlighting is a critical option, if you write in dark places. I do. When using my other keyboards like the Kinesis Freestyle I have to use a spot lamp to see my keys. The X-bows come with backlighting on steroids. Here is what the standard backlighting looks like at night.
It’s more light show than backlight. See our video review above for an example. The lights pulse and change and wave across the keyboard. If you are easily distracted I guess this could be a problem. My boys thought this was the coolest keyboard in the world purely because of this light show. You can change the lighting effects directly on the keyboard. The manual will have the instructions such as “Hold Shift and Fn +Right Space bar to change logo lighting color. You can change the horizontal effects, color changes such as turning on a “color breathing effect,” adjust brightness, speed, etc. Again check out our video above to view these options. When I first started playing with these options I was pleasantly surprised! You can tweak the keyboard to create a subtle, low-light backlight or go nuts with pulsating bright rainbow colors that wave back and forth on your keyboard anchored by a logo lit up in your selected color.
Having a big Star Trek-like logo lit up in the middle of this keyboard may make it a cult favorite for all you Trekkies. I think they should put ads into upcoming Trek conventions booklets! That arrow is huge and does make a statement.
Each of the keys has transparent parts for the letter or symbol allowing the LED backlighting to illuminate each letter and symbol. This works well in the dark. They did use a somewhat artsy font for the keys on my test unit. Notice the O and P keys here to the right. These are not hard to read in but show that someone at this company really wanted to add subtle non-standard elements into this keyboard to make it stand out. I’ll guess they probably had a few meetings to decide on the font to use and glad they chose something different.
Quite Compact with Full Sized Keys
I am most impressed by the size of this keyboard. It’s no bigger than your standard compact keyboard. Many of us, myself included, have limited areas for our keyboards. At home I use a pull-out keyboard drawer. Many split ergonomic keyboards simply don’t fit in that space and most don’t leave room for a standard mouse or trackpad. This keyboard fits well in tight spaces while still providing excellent ergonomic design. This one fits in my other home desk keyboard drawer where I can fit the keyboard and any mouse or trackpad that I want. Impressively compact! If you have limited space and have struggled to find a good ergonomic keyboard to fit in your limited area, this may be a great option.
Overall, I can tell the company that makes this keyboard spent a ton of time in meetings working out details. They created a unique design with enough attention to detail to show they wanted to balance ergonomics with cool design, like the font choice on the keys and the standard USB-C connector port.
If you are ready to commit to learn how to re-type in a healthier position and don’t mind typing really slow for a day and then slowly building back up to and maybe even faster than your original typing speed, this is a good keyboard to consider. I am a bit torn. I like the compactness of this keyboard but if I start to use as my daily driver I will need to get a couple so I can have one at work and one in my home office. This is definitely one of the boldest compact designs I have ever seen.
This one is priced between $99 and $129 which is a really good price for an ergonomic keyboard with mechanical keys. For a comparison, you can check out our review of Matias Ergo Pro Keyboard which has mechanical keys and costs about twice as much. You do get the split design and wrist rest for that price. You can get non-ergonomic mechanical keyboards with backlighting for $75 or so on Amazon but you won’t get good ergonomics.
Oh for those of you worried about crowdfunding projects, this one is pretty real. The build is already solid and I have been using this for a couple of weeks. I have been burned on Kickstarter projects in the past and don’t think this one is going to fail to deliver.
I recommend this keyboard for its ergonomics, compactness, and value pricing. Without a doubt, you are going to have a keyboard that is bound to attract attention wherever you use it. If that is not your thing, steer clear. However, if you consider yourself an ergonomic ambassador you are going to strike up a ton of conversations when people see this keyboard. Having used and love split keyboards for quite some time, I personally am leaning towards keeping split keyboards for my daily driver. Who knows…going to give this keyboard another couple of weeks. My boys certainly want me to continue using the coolest keyboard in the world.