Review of the Ergonomic, Split Design “Ultimate Hacking Keyboard”

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A fellow ergonomic super fan recently told me that the holy grail of keyboards is a well engineered, split keyboard with mechanical keys. I completely agree. I’ve been using split keyboards for about a decade, This is the primary reason why the pain I had in my wrists were gone in a couple of weeks and have not returned! The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard (UHK), is a split design with mechanical keys. Is it a holy grail keyboard? Let’s jump in and find out. It’s a long review but stick with us. It’s worth the read.

Price and Ordering Options

The UHK costs $275. For comparison, the awesome ErgoDox EZ runs about $325. The UHK is a 60% keyboard which means that only the alphanumeric block is available. The keys are the same size as a normal keyboard but uses layers and additional keys to allow for things like escape, F-keys, or navigation keys. While is it much more compact, you still have all of the functionality of a full sized keyboard and can access all of the full keyboard keys without leaving your normal typing position. Here is a picture of the UHK next to a Kinesis Freestyle 2 for comparison.

Instead of moving the hands across the various blocks of traditional keyboards, only fingers move. The characters that are not directly available can be accessed via one of the four layers built into this keyboard.

You can order the UHK in one of 240 variations. Seems like overkill but it’s really just picking a key switch from 6 options, one of two layouts, one of 4 keycap printing options, and one of 5 case colors. I got the Kalih Brown switch, ISO layout, Mac keycap printing, and blue case. Color options also include black, dark red, orange, navy blue, and for those that can keep it clean white. Switch options also include Kalih Blue/Red/Black or Cherry Clear/Green. If you are not familiar with key switch options, the following table summarizes what’s available.

You can choose between ANSI or ISO layouts. The ANSI layout is used predominantly in the United States and the ISO layout is used in the rest of the world. Essentially the ISO layout splits the left shift key into two keys adding one for the | and \ characters. The ISO layout also has an L-shaped return key. The UHK version of ISO though comes with a bar-shaped return key. The founder of UHK has an excellent article ANSI or ISO? Which keyboard is more ergonomic that is worth a read. In a nutshell, ISO layouts force you to move further left and right hundreds of times per day to click the left shift and right return. You also can choose between Mac, PC, or Linux keycap printing to match the commands found on your operating system of choice. They only offer black keycaps though there are tons of aftermarket options to get whatever type of keycap you want and it only takes a few minutes to switch keycaps. I tested popping out a few keycaps and they came out with no problem and popped right back in.

We also got the UHK Palm Rest priced at $75 which is made from natural beech wood, which is then “machined, pickled, lacquered, and finally fixated to a powder-coated steel plate.” We are not sure what pickled wood is, but it sure is beautiful! This is my first wood palm rest and so far during testing it is comfortable. Unlike my other palm rests over the years, as this ages it should look better! If you use palm rests you know within a couple of months they can make you look like a slob as they get dirty and ragged.

Unboxing the UHK

We don’t usually care much about unboxing. You open up a product, set it up, then recycle the packaging. But the UHK begged to be noticed. Without question, it has the most elegant box, packaging materials, packing method, and attention to detail on par with any Apple product. The cardboard feels premium, has pop out tabs to make opening a breeze, and the foam packing material hugs so well I don’t think a bad day going through your favorite shipping service is going to dent this keyboard in any way. It currently ships from Hungary so maybe all of this padding is also strategic. It was a bit overkill, but with a name like “ultimate” maybe the company felt they needed to make an incredible first impression. The first thing that pops out is a thank you card from the founder. Well done UHK…now let’s get this set up!

Setting up the UHK

To help you setup your UHK, a message printed on the box says State with http://uhk.io/start. This interactive web guide will walk you through each step. First we had to select the type of tilting and had the following three options:

In general, negative tilting is going to be the most comfortable but this all depends on your desk height, your position on the desk, your chair height, and other factors. If you are unsure, start with the negative tilting to gently arc your wrist downwards in a comfortable position. If you want to change tilting later, it should only take you a few minutes to reposition the keyboard legs.

To setup, you need a small Phillips screwdriver. The site has clear instructions like “Use a Philips PH2 screwdriver to fix the palm rest to the UHK using the 4 palm rest screws that you can find in the spacer of the palm rest box. Partially tighten the screws, then pull the palm rest away from the keyboard while fastening it to make it perfectly parallel with the keyboard, and finally, fully tighten the screws.”

The attention to detail on the parts is appreciated. The tabs, for instance, have indentions that align with the keyboard making it almost foolproof to align the tabs properly. The hardest part was popping in the legs into the tabs. Go slow so you don’t break anything! Overall it took us about 5 minutes to set up.

Choosing your Keymap

The last step in your setup is to choose your keymap. Ours shipped with QWERTY for Mac as the default. You can switch between QWERTY, DVORAK, or Colemak for either PC or Mac directly on the keyboard by pressing the function key and a specific number. An LED light on the keyboard illuminates what mode you are in. On ours, it notes QWM for QWERTY Mac and the light is always on.

Some keyboards are configured ONLY for Mac or PC so having the option to switch to any of these combinations is a really nice feature! For example, when you use a PC Kinesis keyboard on a Mac, the cut and paste key combinations may not work due to differences between the operating systems. Not having cut and paste keyboard options make the keyboard unusable between operating systems. I use PCs and Chromebooks often so having on the fly switching is a really awesome feature. The setup instructions do note that if you change the keymap to something other than the default, it will revert to the default when the keyboard powers down and then back on again. You can easily change the default keymap using the UHK Agent software. We tested on a couple of macs, a couple of PCs, a Chromebook, and a Linux laptop. All worked with no issues.

For power users, you can use the UHK Agent software to create an unlimited number of keymaps for any type of layout. For example, you may want to create a layout for all of your Photoshop shortcuts or one for all of your video editing shortcuts. Then you can easily switch between these custom layouts to boost your application productivity.

Adapting to the UHK

Don’t expect to start typing at your normal speed right away. We estimate it will take about 10 days of typing to get back to your normal typing speed, and then if you start to use the productivity layers described later, you can increase your overall productivity. For comparison, it takes about 2 days to get used to a Kinesis Freestyle split keyboard and about 30 days to get used to an ErgoDox. The Kinesis however does not have layers and thus no additional productivity gains once you get accustomed to the layers, unlike the UHK and ErgoDox.

Learning how to Use the Advanced UHK Features

The key to getting an increase in your productivity is to type without leaving the home row. The UHK has the following four layers to keep your hands on the home row in your normal typing stance.

  1. The Base layer contains regular alphanumeric keys.
  2. The Mod layer contains navigation and function keys.
  3. The Fn layer contains media keys to adjust volume and switch tracks.
  4. The Mouse layer allows you to control the mouse pointer, click and scroll.

To make the core advanced features familiar, the web-based setup guide has an interactive tutorial! This was really nice and super simple. Don’t skip this tutorial if you are setting one up. The default key mappings and layers should work well for most folks but if you need anything to change, their UHK Agent software allows 100% customizations for any of these layouts.

The Mod Layer

We’ll start with the Mod layer. The Base layer is just your normal alphanumeric keys. There is one Mod button on the bottom of the left side keyboard, and another one on the right side which is part of the keyboard case. The following image summarizes all of the navigation features:

Most likely you are going to be using this layer the most. For me, I use the arrow keys a ton so I got used to pressing the Mod button with my left thumb and then using my right fingers to move the cursor around. I also like that escape was just Mod + q. It takes practice but after a couple of weeks you’ll use the Mod key to manage your arrow key movements, web browser tabs, page around, and switch between applications…all without moving from your normal typing stance. My favorite is Mod + d which switches between open applications.

The Function Layer

The Function layer contains media keys to adjust volume and switch tracks. It also controls the function keys on the top row. Pretty straight forward and no need to show that layout. I do use the Fn key + I and K to increase and decrease my volume. These are the up and down arrow keys so really easy to remember.

The Mouse Layer

This layer can be game changing if you take the time to master moving your mouse, clicking, and scrolling with your keyboard. As the image below illustrates, you can move your mouse in any direction, control window scrolling, and perform mouse clicks all without moving your hands from your normal typing position. If you plan to use these features, chances are you are going to need to adjust the Mouse speed settings in the UHK configuration app (discussed later). To be honest, it’s so hard to break jumping to my mouse but I do plan on taking time to try and master this layer.

LED Status Bar

On the upper left part of the keyboard, an LED status bar illuminates the current settings for your keyboard. Always illuminated is your keymap option. If you depress the Mouse, Function, or Mod buttons, a indicator light shows which button is being depressed. If you double click any of these three control buttons, you are locked into that layer and the button status light remains on. You just press that button again to unlock. This is useful for locking into the Mouse layer for instance so you don’t have to hold the Mouse button down to move your cursor around.

Using the UHK Agent to Customize the Keyboard

Chances are you’ll need to use UHK’s custom software configuration at least once. They offer a Mac, PC, and Linux version which you download from their website. This software is also open source and you can get the source code over at GitHub. Some of the features you can configure include:

  • Mouse speed
  • The LED brightness of the display screen on the keyboard (note the keys are not backlit but the software shows a future option to control backlighting).
  • Firmware updater
  • A key remapper which allows you to change any key to perform any function including custom macros.

Below is an example screenshot from the Mac version. Power users will appreciate the key remapper.

Modules Coming Soon

I am definitely going to order a module when they become available. These modules extend the functionality of the UHK by connecting to the inside of the left or right side keyboard. The touchpad module is most interesting to me. If it supports multipoint gestures, this would be the ultimate setup for my workflow!

Open Source Design

The UHK Agent (configuration application), the UHK firmware, and the UHK electronics design files are developed as open source and hosted under their GitHub account (https://github.com/UltimateHackingKeyboard). You can even design your own modules! As a DIY and person who loves to fix things, having all of the design and software available is incredible. The iFixit site noted, “[The UHK] is proof positive that even compact, performance-designed, single-purpose gadgets can be designed for repair, from the ground up—complete with repair documentation.”

Suggested Improvements

Overall the keyboard is extremely well designed but I do have three suggestions for things I wished were different. One, I wished that the keyboard had backlighting. More and more of us need to type at night and having backlighting makes typing at night a bit easier. There already is a configuration option in the Agent software for backlighting settings. I checked with UHK. They said it coming but don’t have an estimated date. They also noted, and I may try this!, that you can solder single color LEDs and they will work with the current version. If I end up doing this, I’ll post a quick story. Two, I wish that the LED display for the keymap was smaller. Once we set it to our desired keymap like QWERTY for Mac, we really don’t need to see it displayed as prominently. With the Agent software, you can dim this or even turn it off. If you are in an office, this LED light is, without a doubt, going to be a conversation starter! And three, I wished there was a silent switch option. If you are in an office without much space between you and your office mates, they are going to hear you typing. My ErgoDox has Cherry MX Silent Red keycaps that is as good as it gets to balance mechanical switch features with low noise typing. From my experience with lots of folks using mechanical keyboards, this Silent option is not a popular option. I did get a confirmation from UHK that silent switches will eventually be added.

Summary

I wrote this article using the UHK. The first half was a bit awkward as I had to reference keys constantly. But by the end of the article, I was starting to already see a potential productivity difference by keeping my hands in place. In a couple of weeks, without question, my productivity will increase. The UHK also forced me to stay on my home keys, which may even increase my normal typing speed. For instance, I didn’t realize how often I was moving my entire hand to press keys like the = sign. Now I am starting to reach for keys using all of my fingers! I should have been d0ing this years ago. This is happening to me I think because I see the wisdom of staying on the home row and am naturally looking for ways to not move my hands.

I’m committed to use this keyboard for six months and maybe come back with a long term review. I love it. Is it the holy grail of keyboards? With backlighting and access to a module or two and Silent Reds switches, maybe. Is it good enough for most ergonomic keyboard seekers? Without question, yes. It’s ergonomically comfortable, has mechanical keys, is entirely open source, repairable, built like a tank, will have 12 layers (see this Github thread that if mastered can tackle the bulk of computer interaction from one typing position, looks stunning, has three tent/tilt options, and is compact without being squished in any way. It’s also a keyboard that will get attention forcing ergonomic conversations wherever you type.

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