Portable companion keyboard

Hello Keyboardiosts,

What do you use as your Keyboardio’s portable companion keyboard?

The Keyboardio is quite large and heavy, particularly if you tent it. I use Z-flex camera mounts which gives me more tilt and takes less space than the bundled Octo stands. However, they protrude 2" from the base and add quite a bit of weight, being metal. Even without a stand, the Keyboardio has a large diameter due to its palm key and the wood base doubling as a wrist rest. A backpack with a laptop and Keyboardio becomes quite heavy and leaves little room for other things.

Hence my journey to find a more portable alternative, with as much as possible of what I like from the Keyboardio, began.

To start off, here’s my personal criteria for the portable companion:

  • portable/compact (obviously)
  • split
  • column stagger to a similar degree as the Keyboardio
  • options for tenting
  • thumb cluster
  • 6x3 or 6x4 finger keys

Most of these are self-explanatory, except for the finger keys. By that I mean the cluster of keys you type with your fingers, which for the Keyboardio would be all keys excluding the thumb keys and palm key. Sadly, it seems rare for split ergo keyboards to have an inner column of keys like the Keyboardio has for Enter, Escape, Tab and more. The popular ErgoDox EZ has this, but it’s ortholinear and not that much smaller (I have also seen lots of complaints regarding its thumb cluster being hard to reach). The Diverge has this as well, although it doesn’t seem to be available anymore from Unikeyboard. As you may have noticed, this extra column puts a toll on portability.

I ended up compromising on this column resulting in 6x3 or 6x4 finger keys. Why 6x3 then? Well, split ergo keyboards are often designed with the basis of reducing the distance your finger has to travel to reach a key, to 1U at the most. The number row is 2U away from the homerow, and therefore you see many designs cut it off. The same thing often happens with the column right of the pinky, leading to 5x3 which is quite popular. However, the selection of 6x3 keyboards is still excellent and some PCB’s allow you to snap off the outer column, leaving the decision up to the user. I personally prefer to have an outer pinky column as it allows more symbols (e.g., for programming) to be available without having to switch layers.

Let’s get into the keyboards!

The first obvious candidate is the Atreus. It’s definitely very portable, and not being split helps with this. However, it is mostly 5x3, with some odd inner keys/thumb cluster. I have read that the bottom row of keys towards the corners aren’t very reachable. The pinky stagger is also much less that of the Keyboardio, probably to make its base more compact. This might be a good solution for many of you, but for me these points combined with it not being split, meaning you can’t tent it, had me continue my search.

I have discussed above why I won’t consider any ErgoDox (including the Moonlander). This leads us to the strange territory of DIY keyboards. In this world, prices increase and you’re forced to solder and build the keyboard yourself, beyond some small-batch pre-soldered or pre-assembled keyboards that you’ll realistically only be able to catch if you had been following the project closely since its inception. There are thankfully services that will build the keyboard for you. Some I’ve found are FalbaTech in Europe, Keebio in the US, and Next Keyboard Club in the Philippines. However, this does limit your selection as they obviously can’t offer every DIY keyboard in existence.

On the topic of DIY kits, if you’re in Japan, you have even more to choose from at Yushakobo. They seem to stock a lot of kits that are local to the Japanese DIY keyboard scene. Some I like are Claw44 v2 and LunaKey Mini.

Here are some useful tools to navigate the vast seas of DIY split keyboards:

You’re welcome to get lost in this world to find the perfect portable companion keyboard for you, but now to introduce what I ended up with: splitkb’s Kyria.

You’ll find that most DIY split keyboards don’t have an aggressive stagger for the pinky column. On the Keyboardio, it looks to be offset by ~0.7U, while many popular keyboards like the Lily58, Iris and HeliDox/corne have a much smaller offset of around ~0.3U. (If you don’t require aggressive pinky stagger, you’ll find lots of boards with the inner column, both 7x3 and 7x4.) Some people can’t get used to this and switch to a board with more pinky stagger. The Kyria has a very similar column stagger to the Keyboardio.

Another issue with many kits is that tenting is not directly supported by the creator. This means you’ll have to screw in long brass standoffs to the bottom of the case, or 3D print platforms that tent the keyboard. Neither of these help portability. The final option would be to design your own case with a tripod mount or foldable legs, or get lucky and find a custom 3rd party case with support for tenting (again, these are usually small-batch and preorder-only). The Kyria solves this with an optional tenting puck, which gives the keyboard a solid metal tripod mount. A popular tripod is the Manfrotto MP3 Large Pocket Support. It is lightweight, with a footprint smaller than the keyboard and is only 10mm in height when folded.

The Keyboardio is a bit unusual with its 5 thumb keys for each split (including the palm key). Usually you’ll find 2-4 thumb keys on DIY split keyboards. If you factor in that the inner column keys of the Keyboardio have to be moved to the thumb cluster, you’ll likely find this insufficient. The Kyria has a whopping 7 thumb keys for each split, with the two inner columns having two rows. I find that this allows me to have what would be my Keyboardio inner column, as thumb keys.

The end result is I now have a portable companion keyboard to my Keyboardio, allowing me to keep the layers mostly the same, and not require too much adjustment of muscle memory when switching between them. I now don’t use the number row on my Keyboardio anymore as I have them on the home row (with symbols on the row above) on a layer. I find this faster and more accurate when typing numbers, but slower when interspersing numbers with letters, as you have to switch layers.

Here is a picture of my Keyboardio and Kyria, so you can compare their sizes (they weigh 1650g and 550g respectively, including tripods for tenting). The Kyria fits in backpack pockets the Keyboardio could only dream of fitting into, and it’s noticeably lighter on your back too. It would possibly also look less ridiculous when placed beside a laptop in a coffee shop…

And here is the beauty itself!

If the Kyria catched your eye, the Elora, a variant with an added number row, is coming out as a prototype towards the end of this year. The creator has said it will be available pre-soldered when it comes out. Similarly, he plans to sell the Kyria pre-soldered/assembled sometime next year. Join the splitkb Discord if you’re interested. Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with splitkb in any way - I simply wish to make DIY split keyboards more accessible.

Sorry for the long opening post. I hope it can function as an introduction to DIY split keyboards for those unfamiliar with it. If you’ve been on a similar journey and/or have a portable companion keyboard you use, please share!

7 Likes

I can tell you that there are not a lot of keyboards with the same level of column stagger as the Keyboardios. You’ve already named the one that matches the closest which is the Claw44 but it’s not readily available. The Kyria is close and it is easier to get if you don’t mind putting it together. If you are OK going smaller and putting it together then there are some interesting opensource boards but most are around 36-34 keys and a portion of those are setup for wireless use with Bluetooth leveraging Nice!Nano controllers. The wireless ones also do away with the cable connecting the two sides of the split. It’s possible to go pretty minimal if you don’t mind the trade-offs.

Anyway I’ve heard many people sing the praises of the Kyria so it looks like you found a great solution!

2 Likes

Thanks, sounds like I did my research well!

The very small 5x3 keyboards you mention did intrigue me. It seems like a pattern for many people to progress to fewer and fewer keys, with 34-36 keys being the final stop. Although I have also seen people return back to something with more keys. It does seem to require a lot of “firmware tricks” to make up for the fewer keys (like simultaneously pressing two keys to get a different key, and holding a key to make it act as a modifier instead of outputting a character).

1 Like

Just wanted to give you kudos for your research and the sharing of so much info and details. I am bookmarking this to share with others since,
especially for those starting down this keyboard path, it feels like it will be a huge help.

1 Like

It looks like there is an Open-Source re-implementation (approach) for the Claw44, called Elephant42:

Blog post:

Repo:

Info about key-caps used by the Claw44: