Cheap Keys

Probably the best bang for the buck of all the stuff I ordered for Christmas was… a €20 folding keyboard.

I have been dipping occasionally into the utterly insane rabbit hole of custom keyboards and nearly bought myself an Ergodox Planck in the past year, but I use an Apple Magic Keyboard daily and love it, so the lack of a low-profile, Bluetooth version made the Planck hard to stomach.

I can certainly build one of my own, and something like that may yet come to pass. I’ve been looking at various split keyboard, Bluetooth only builds, namely the Ferris Sweep.

I’ve even picked out firmware and keys (ZMK and Kalith Choc Pinks), but after spending several weeks patiently hunting for parts for another project, I’ve been slowly backing off from doing builds.

Sourcing parts for anything has become somewhat of an adventure during the pandemic, plus Portugal has recently raised custom taxes on non-EU shipments, pretty much making some items (like the couple of US layout Logitech K380s I got from AliExpress, or the various Raspberry Pi gear I used to order from Pimoroni) twice as expensive, and I don’t really want to hunt around for dodgy importers.

But I really wanted a keyboard that was smaller than the K380 for carrying around with my iPad mini, so I decided to take advantage of a Prime deal and got one of these for €20 (they go by literally dozens of brands).

In real life, the keyboard is actually wider than the Apple Magic Keyboard when open (and almost exactly as tall), so it isn’t worth getting one for saving desk space.

But besides being quite easy to carry around, there are a few surprisingly nice things about it.

Layout

It’s an US layout, which I prefer for all my mobile keyboards and have also been gravitating back to on my desktops since I mostly type in English anyway, and it makes coding a lot easier. The non-alphanumeric keys on right hand side (including the Enter key) are slightly compressed horizontally (more on that later).

The split may seem daunting at first, but I used a Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard for many years in the past so it’s something I notice for the first 3 seconds and then forget about (although I do find myself wishing the B key was on the right hand side sometimes).

Feel

The keys are a bit too clicky for my taste, but for €20 I can’t really complain. I touch type, so as long as I can find the home keys I’m good, and both space bars work fine.

The Enter key is US-style and big enough to hit reliably, but some of the adjoining keys are a bit narrow, so I did occasionally have to glance at the keyboard the first few days but the horizontal compression actually makes the keys easier to reach from the home position, so things canceled themselves out.

But what I like the most about it is that it’s flat, split layout is quite comfortable overall, since I can have my hands further apart than usual and keep my wrists straight.

Annoyances

As you’d expect, there are no dedicated function keys–you have to use Fn and the number row for that or iOS media keys, which is an OK compromise.

I spent a while trying to sort out Fn, Ctrl and Cmd, of which there is only one of each on the left hand side, but not enough to matter.

It has an Esc key, but you need to use Fn to activate it, and like all Bluetooth keyboards, iOS defaults to using it to take you to the Home Screen, which is annoying as heck.

So I’m resorting to another long-term, hard-coded reflex (Ctrl+C) inside vim, and trying to remember I’ve re-mapped Caps Lock to Esc – like when I had a TouchBar MacBook Pro, I end up forgetting about it and not using it regardless.

Finally, it charges via Micro-USB and can only pair with a single device at a time, which are minor things but that belie it’s low-end price.

Conclusion

In an ideal world, there would be Apple-grade versions of this, possibly with fully disconnected halves. But I’d settle for a modernized version with USB-C and multi-device support.

And, possibly, also some form of backlight, although I’m pretty OK without it, and I suspect the above would make it a lot more expensive than €20…