A quick refletion on a start into a new typing experience.
I have owned and been using a Glove80 keyboard for about three weeks now. My time with it has been surprising. I have been using a split columnar keyboard for about 1 year at this point. I knew what to expect in rough terms.
But the Glove80 is so ergonomic that it made me realize problems I did not even know I wanted to solve, until I started using it.
I started using a split columnar keyboard, specifically the Ergodox EZ, because I was completely frustrated with touch typing on a normal keyboard. I had some touch typing experience as a teen, and was relatively fast on a normal QWERTZ keyboard (German keyboards swap the Y and Z), but with a decisively improper technique using maybe four or five fingers. When I tried for more, I found the row offset impossible to work with, especially on my left hand. Curling my short pinky in and down or up and out, was just not happening.
This felt like a more than annoying obstacle to get things out of my head and into the computer. Fighting with my hands only made me angry for two reasons.
Generally, I loved my Ergodox, even if the initial transition phase took me months. I did not go “cold turkey” with adopting the new keyboard, and so for a couple of months I learned a new layout and a new keymap (with Colemak-DH) until I felt comfortable enough to switch full-time and not lose anything.
My general typing speed and experience improved, but I also hit some frustrating obstacles.
Since these keyboards have fewer keys than a “normal” keyboard and are programmable, the philosophy is to bring the keys to the fingers instead of your fingers to the keys. The Ergodox comes standard with a second layer, an alternative mapping of the keys to actual key signals sent to the computer, performed right in hardware on the board. These layers are activated by pressing trigger keys; often they are placed on the thumb cluster. In the large library of user-made maps for the keyboard, I found many that put brackets and symbols on one layer and the keyboard of large keyboards on another layer. In many ways, this felt much swifter than reaching for a number row or reaching for modifiers — especially the “Right Alt” modifier used on German keyboards quite a lot.
Reaching the layer keys wasn’t happening without a movement of my wrist, however. The two large keys on each side were reserved for space, backspace, shift, and enter. I found that my pinkies were too short to really reach the top of the pinky columns with ease.
The Ergodox was also wired and only so portable, and I was looking at moving it between places a lot. I also found myself quickly running out of space for adding more custom programming. And in a time when I was using the programmable RGB to indicate layers and as a homing aid to locate keys on the layers, the lack of LEDs under the periphery and thumb cluster keys was annoying.
One decision I stand by was putting an empathis on keys. While the folks at ZSA manufacture newer boards, I always liked having enough keys so that if I wanted to place common keys or special macros for things like launchers, searches, note entry, clipboard manager, or window manager on my keyboard, I could. Fewer keys just felt up-front restrictive.
Enter the Glove80.
For me, what made the Glove80 interesting was that it promised to fulfill every limit I had hit with the Ergodox.
- Programmable RGB under every key
- A better thumb cluster, where I could imagine reaching even the outer keys better
- highly portable with Bluetooth Low Energy connectivity and integrated batteries
- Curved keywells for improved ergonomics
- more powerful hardware with more space for custom logic
- 80 keys, with six keys on each thumb cluster
So when Batch 2 became available for order, I placed one.
The general typing experience has been wonderful. The Glove80 fits my hands very well. Especially my short pinky, which struggled even on the Ergodox, now reaches the keys with ease, because the row is closer to the wrist and has a shallower curvature than the keys for the ring and middle fingers.
But getting the Glove80 was more than just a portability and hardware upgrade. This keyboard is so comfortable, it makes you aware of every little typing sin you still hold — and it makes you want to optimize them away.
At first, I ported over my Ergodox layout to the Glove80. (Flashing the firmware is a joy — certain and fast — and without the use of a paperclip to depress a hidden switch.) And that worked. But I still found some minor hand movements when I wanted to trigger my symbols and number layer. And that started to annoy me. Usually when typing, my hands rest very comfortably on the wrist rest, and the finger movement on the curved well is very low-strain. But every bracket and number was a disruption from that.
I didn’t get how people make keyboards work with 36 keys until this moment with the Glove80. Having a keyboard so comfortable that you don’t want to move your fingers from the home row is one experience.
The trick to using so few keys is that your keyboard is a stateful computer in its own right. How long you press what keys, what keys you press together, if you double-tap them — all of those patterns can be interpreted right on the hardware. The people creating open-source firmwares like QMK and ZMK have given us a treasure trove of features.
A classic of advanced programming espoused in the Glove80 community are the home row mods. The idea here is simple: your home row keys behave differently if you hold them instead of tapping them. Hold your index finger keys at a time, and you have a shift key. Middle fingers for control. Ring finger for alt. Pinky for the system key. By having the mods on both halves, you use one hand to set the mod(s) and the other to type the modified key(s).
I don’t use home row mods per se because I don’t want to figure out the timing while fast-typing. But there are other options. Another very cool option enabled by ZMK are combos. Press two (or three, or four, or….) keys together within a time window you can adjust (I use 50 to 75 milliseconds), and the inputs are interpreted as a different key. (And what key that is you can program freely again.)
So on my keyboard, pressing two keys of the home row and top row together sets a mod. I don’t need to reach for the keys on my thumb cluster. A slightly different finger movement suffices. This trick works well with the Glove80s short-travel Choc switches and uniformly profiled keys.
A similar idea, but with two horizontal keys on the lower row, activates my numbers and symbols layer. And on the symbol layer, more combos for that specific layer let me type symbols without much fumbling. Most of my symbols I can type with just my index and middle fingers on one hand.
And that feels very nice. The flow feels incredible. My steadily improving typing speed is the positive benchmark.
And for the first time, I actually understand why some people swear by so few keys — and how they make it work.
The Glove80 was the first time that a keyboard was so comfortable, I cared to actually solve the problem of my finger movement — and unintentionally figure out a design and usage insight that had been circulating in front of my nose for a year or more.
I don’t really want to write a classical review of a piece of hardware here. More than anything, now I understand again that these things take a lot of insight and personality. People like me who aren’t afraid of writing keyboard behavior using domain-specific languages and hack their input devices until they fit perfectly in the intersection between brain, body and computer are not mainstream.
That said… the Glove80 puts that option on the table, and it is an option. The only place where it is opinionated is its ergonomics, and that works very, very well. If you do not want to go down the rabbit hole of programmability, the default layouts the keyboard comes with give you all the keys of a 120% keyboard without any fiddling, using just a single layer. And the curved keywell and very good thumb cluster put all of those keys within very easy reach all the same.
You might just find that eventually you want to tune things further, because this design is that good at reducing all the other noise. And then, if you want to, you can.