An ergonomic laptop keyboard

Custom Comfort

© Lead Image ©damedeeso,

© Lead Image ©damedeeso,

Article from Issue 245/2021

A first for laptops, Keyboardio Atreus offers an ergonomic, portable keyboard with customizable key programming.

Generally speaking, laptops are not designed for typists. On many laptops, the keys are smaller than on a full-sized keyboard. Almost always, laptops use chiclet keys (small, flat squares) that slow typing, take a toll on fingers and hands after a few hours, and can cause serious repetitive stress injuries (RSI) over time. Ergonomic keyboards for laptops simply do not exist. Or rather they did not until recently, when Keyboardio teamed up with keyboard designer Phil Hagelberg of Technomancy to produce the Keyboardio Atreus (Figure 1) [1]. Although not integrated into a laptop frame, this portable USB keyboard is the length of a banana, making it easy to carry. It fulfills the long-ignored need for an ergonomic laptop keyboard – although you might want to change the factory layout to suit your needs.

Figure 1: The Keyboardio Atreus is a portable, ergonomic keyboard – one of the first of its kind.

Keyboardio first gained attention in 2017 with its Model 01 [2], a split keyboard with ergonomic, programmable mechanical keys and backlights mounted on two slabs of maple. Able to go head-to-head with most other keyboards available for sale, the Model 01 outshines all its rivals in terms of sheer beauty. Sadly, the Model 01 is currently out of production, with a more advanced successor not due until the end of 2021, although slightly used ones are still available at just under the original price of $329.

Meanwhile, Keyboardio is selling its modification of Technomancy's Atreus design for $149. Although you might assume that a keyboard is a keyboard, the Atreus and the Model 01 could not be more different in design. True, both are programmable and use high-end mechanical keys. However, in contrast to the maple-mounted Model 01, the Atreus is starkly functional, black plastic, with key mechanisms plainly visible and no backlights. More importantly, keys are mounted on a single platform, instead of on two. In addition, the Atreus's keys are all cut from the same design instead of being individually sculpted like the Model 01's keys. To a certain extent, these differences do seem to lessen the Atreus's ergonomics: In my experience, while I can type for 10 hours on the Model 01, the repetition begins to affect my wrists after about seven hours on the Atreus. However, that is still almost twice the time I can type unaffected on a standard keyboard.

In its favor, the Atreus's keys are banked so that many users should be able to reach half the keys simply by stretching out one hand – even though the keys are full-sized. In fact, many users can probably reach two-thirds or more of the keys. Equally importantly, like the Model 01, the Atreus' keys are banked on a diagonal instead of being staggered like the keys on a traditional keyboard. Together, these arrangements are enough to reduce repetitive stress by reducing finger movement. Of course, any ergonomic features are far better than the typical laptop's total lack of such features.

Key Programming

The Atreus reduces finger movement by having an extremely minimalist layout. Where most keyboards have 101-104 keys, the Atreus has only 44 keys compared to the Model 01's 66. If you examine the Atreus, you will notice that a keypad and arrow, number, and function keys are missing, as well as other navigation keys like Page Up or Home. Instead, the top three rows of keys contain the basic alphabet and standard punctuation marks. Along the bottom of the keyboard, you'll find the Enter, Shift, Space, Esc, Tab, Ctrl, and Alt keys, plus the Fun key and Super key.

The Fun and Super keys give you access to additional key arrangements or layers, in the same way that the Shift keys give you access to uppercase letters on any keyboard. For example, pressing the Fun key followed by the U, I, and O keys gives you 7, 8, and 9 respectively, while S, D, F, and C act as arrow keys. Pressing the Fun key plus Z and X will produce square brackets. Similarly, press the Super key followed by U, I, and O to get the function keys F7 through F9. For easy reference, you'll find these layers displayed on a laminated layout card (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Atreus comes with three default layers, with room for another six.

These layers help to reduce the physical size of the Atreus, although they do take some getting used to. The names "Fun" and "Super" do not automatically suggest the function of the keys – in what way are numbers fun, for example? Moreover, they are not as conveniently organized as the Model 01's layers, which can be mostly ignored unless you want a number pad or function key. Another problem is that the keys' arrangement seems illogical. For instance, why is the 1 key linked with M, at the bottom of the keyboard, or 7 with U at the top?

Fortunately, you can program the layers and keys to suit yourself. For instance, if you want, you can switch the key assignments so that the number and function keys are placed across the top rows of keys – an arrangement that is close enough to that of a full-sized keyboard that you are unlikely to forget them. You can also choose to develop macros and assign them to a key. Not all keys on all three default layers are assigned, so unless you create a dozen or more macros, you are unlikely to have to make decisions about which key assignments to keep.

You can reassign keys in two ways. First, you can install Chrysalis (Figure 3) [3], the in-development graphic key layout application. In practice, Chrysalis seems occasionally flaky, but mostly it is serviceable.

Figure 3: To program your Atreus, you can download the Chrysalis graphical application.

Alternatively, you can work with Keyboardio's Kaleidoscope code [4] to flash the firmware directly, downloading the Atreus Sketch [5] – the firmware for the keyboard's ATmega32U4 MCU microcontroller. In the Arduino IDE, you can edit the text-based layout in the Atreus Sketch, using a standard key code [6]. Listing 1 shows the default layout.

Listing 1

The Default Layout

       Key_Q   ,Key_W   ,Key_E       ,Key_R         ,Key_T
      ,Key_A   ,Key_S   ,Key_D       ,Key_F         ,Key_G
      ,Key_Z   ,Key_X   ,Key_C       ,Key_V         ,Key_B, Key_Backtick
      ,Key_Esc ,Key_Tab ,Key_LeftGui ,Key_LeftShift ,Key_Backspace ,Key_LeftControl
                     ,Key_Y     ,Key_U      ,Key_I     ,Key_O      ,Key_P
                     ,Key_H     ,Key_J      ,Key_K     ,Key_L      ,Key_Semicolon
       ,Key_Backslash,Key_N     ,Key_M      ,Key_Comma ,Key_Period ,Key_Slash
       ,Key_LeftAlt  ,Key_Space ,MO(FUN)    ,Key_Minus ,Key_Quote  ,Key_Enter

In the same way, you can edit the other two default layers and even add another six layers, including macros for your favorite games or an alternative to the default QWERTY layout. Then, you can follow the instructions to flash the revised firmware while pressing the Esc key. On the whole, editing the Atreus Sketch is the more reliable way to change key assignments and not much harder than Chrysalis to learn.

Other Features

Three other products are available for the Atreus. If you have added many changes to the layout, you may prefer to order a set of blank keycaps, rather than deal with keys whose etched labels are no longer accurate [7]. You probably will want to order a travel case, although the keyboard and a USB cable are a tight fit (Figure 4) [8]. If you miss the beauty of the Model 01's maple mounts for keys, you may also want to order the walnut palm rest (Figure 5) [8]. The keyboard fits into the palm rest [9], adding a touch of beauty when you are not on the road. The palm rest does not fit into the travel case, although it might still fit into your laptop case.

Figure 4: The Atreus's travel case is an optional extra.
Figure 5: The optional walnut palm rest adds elegance for home use.

Last Words

A laptop with a built-in ergonomic keyboard still does not exist. Until one does, the Atreus is an acceptable substitute, if sometimes rough around the edges here and there. Be warned, though, that it may take a few tries to configure the keys to your liking, and as long as a week to get used to the layout. After that, you may find other keyboards awkward and lacking. All the same, if you use a laptop and prefer to customize your keyboard layout and type with fewer injuries, the Atreus is likely to be a must-have piece of hardware.

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