October 22, 2021

Patience - back in the saddle with the Ergodox

A year ago when I first got my Ergodox, I was of course enthused about a new gadget. I very quickly realized that it was going to take a significant effort to make this new tool an asset. I was busy then with some projects, and I ended up setting it aside for what turned out to be over a year. Now I am back at it with more realistic expectations. The first thing a person ought to do is some exploration and experimentation, which is what I am doing (and recording the often surprising results here).

Using it on my linux machine

I set this all up a year ago (details elsewhere) and was pleased to find that even after several updates of Fedora, I can still just plug it in and it works. I am also pleased to find that I can plug it into a USB hub on my desk and keep my old keyboard plugged it. Typing with two keyboards works just fine, which is helpful during the transition, although it is awkward even with a decent amount of desk space.

Learning to switch layers

The first thing to do is to print the PDF file of the standard layout (Ergodox makes this conveniently available). As I began working with some of their practice tools, I found to my dismay that something (who knows what) had shifted the keyboard to a different layer. So instead of "a" I am getting "#". How did this happen and how do I get out of it? It turns out that I am in layer 1 and a red LED on the keyboard indicates this. (Layer 2 is indicated by a green LED). On the diagram the key to get into (and out of) layer 1 is marked with a square box and "1". You have the same thing on both halves of the keyboard towards the center, it is the uppermost of two tall rectangular keys. This is what is called a layer toggle ("TG"). There is also a way to momentarily switch to layer 1 and this is the key at the extreme lower right and left sides of the respective halves. The left such key will produce a ' is you just press it briefly.

These concepts (and some others) are carefully documented by Ergodox, but finding the keys on the diagram is not at all clear and I was only able to figure this out by trial and error.

Dual function keys

The poster child here is the "z" key. Press it quickly and you get a "z", but if you hold it, it acts like a Ctrl key. Semicolon is the same thing, but if you hold it, you get a temporary transfer to layer 2. The backtick (extreme lower left) is the same thing, but holding it gives you a temporary transfer to layer 1.

LED control keys

My Ergodox EZ is the "shine" which has LEDs on the underside of the keyboard. On layer 1, there are keys in the left thumb section that are marked with a small and big "sun" symbol. Tapping the little sun causes the LEDs to get dimmer. Tapping the big sum causes the LEDs to get brighter. You can toggle them on and off altogether via the upper left key in the right thumb section. You can change their color via the upper left little key in the left thumb section. The upper right key in the right thumb section does something with the LEDs that I cannot figure out.

Note that it is possible to have the layer changes control the under the keyboard lights if you configure it that way. Something for the future.

Where are the symbols?

They aren't marked on the diagram on layer 0. I am looking for the "less than", "greater than", and even the question mark. I figured all that was on layer 1, but nope, they aren't there either. It turns out you get them by using shift and some key, and the same key you would shift if you were using a regular keyboard. The question mark is a shift-slash (just like a regular keyboard). The "less than" is a shift-comma and the "greater than" is a shift-period. The layout diagram just doesn't show them, which is unfortunate. You can get a pound sign (e.g. hash mark) by either shifting 3 or by jumping to layer 1 as per the layout diagram.

I read double talk online about these shift keys not being keyboard defined, but being handled by the operating system. This is true no doubt, but is neither here nor there for me as a typist. I have been using keyboards since time immemorial on all kinds of operating system and expect (as an example) shift-3 to give me a pound sign.

OK, but where are + and = ??

These have a key dedicated to them on my "normal" keyboard. Said key is to the right of the key that gives "-" and "_". Wait! I see them on Layer 1 on the right keypad. At the extreme lower right. Interestingly, the "+" key gives you "+" whether you shift or not. However, the "=" sign gives you "+" when shifted (like a normal keyboard) As a programmer, I use these a lot, and having them at an awkward extension of my pinky seems less than ideal.

In fact, as I think about layer 1, I am tempted to completely rework what Ergodox ships. First, I will put the numeric keypad on its own layer. That will free up the right side on layer 1 for whatever I want to do, which will be to move things like +,=,<,> and who knows what else there. My idea is that anything I use often should be one up or one down from the home row. Since I have not yet learned a layer 1 layout of any kind, I should do this ASAP and learn it. Odds are I will make little use of the numeric keypad layer anyway since I never use a numeric keypad on a "normal" keyboard.

Hyper and Meh

The observant user will have noticed two big keys marked in this way on the diagram. I have not found any official documentation, but have managed to get a general idea of what is intended via the links below.

My analysis up front -- these are useless and these keys can be redefined to be used for some other purpose.

The idea is that these are building blocks to set up hotkeys. The trick of course is having some software ready to do something when these never before seen key combinations arrive. These might be useful after all on linux, but you will need to track down whatever keyboard mapping utility is provided by your chosen desktop and see what is possible. For now, I have better things to spend my time on.

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!