In early December, 2015 I came across a Crowd Supply campaign for the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard. Like many professional programmers, I have a mild obsession with mechanical keyboards and ergonomics. It didn’t take too much convincing for me to pull the trigger on my first (and still, only) crowd funding campaign.
I certainly wasn’t alone as the company raised ~$691,000 to build out this promising programmer’s dream keyboard. It took 48 project updates and nearly 3 years (they had originally planned on shipping in about 1 year, hah) but finally my package arrived in late July of 2018.
Was it worth the wait? Is it worth the estimated retail price of $275?
Here are my thoughts.
What is the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard?
The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard (henceforth abbreviated as “UHK”) is described quite succinctly on their homepage –
A fully programmable, impeccably built, open source, split mechanical keyboard designed for extreme productivity and ergonomics.
Let’s step through each of these claims.
Split Mechanical Keyboard
Obviously the first thing you notice when looking at the UHK is it has an interesting split design. The main benefit to having a split design is the enormous increase in ergonomics.
With a traditional full keyboard, your hands are too close when tying for optimal comfort. It’s much more natural to have your arms angled more straightforward than having to angle them inwards towards your center.
Also, when using a mouse with a standard keyboard, your right hand has to travel an awfully long distance back and forth when switching between mouse and keyboard. See the animation below –
Now with a split keyboard design, you gain several advantages. First, your hands can be split further apart so your hands don’t have to be so close together when typing.
Second, you can angle your keys as needed to fit your hands. If you’re at a keyboard right now, put your fingers on the home row and look at your hands. How much straight is going into aligning them to a perfectly straight line to fit the home row? If you relaxed your wrist, they would fit much better to the angled set of keys seen in the animation below –
Third, your mouse can be much closer to your typing keys which means less distance covered to move back and forth. However, the main reason for this saved space is removing the navigation and numpad from the keyboard altogether and instead placing them on another layer (more on this later).
There are some other keyboards out there with a split design. One popular option is the Microsoft Sculpt seen below. While not fully split, it follows the same principles of a split keyboard by adding extra space between the left and right hand keys, and angling the rows of keys to a more natural position.
The main drawback of the Sculpt for me is the lack of mechanical keys.
There is another split mechanical keyboard on the market I’m aware of, a copycat brand that launched after UHK’s successful crowdfunding campaign and actually beat them to market by over a year – Mistel. Their Barocco keyboard is split and features programmable layers but in my experience with it, the design and build quality is very poor compared to the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard. The UHK is just all around superior, and the Barocco has the 6 key on the right side when it should be on the left.
The UHK is available in 6 different switch varieties which is pretty great, but only two varieties use Cherry MX switches – Clear, and Green. I’m a big fan of Clear switches to begin with, and them being one of the few that come with Cherry MX sealed the deal for me.
The other switch choices use Kailh switches which are basically clones of Cherry MX, but if I’m paying hundreds of dollars for a keyboard I want the top switches on the market.
I’ve owned mechanical keyboards from all the top brands out there – Das Keyboard, Corsair, Vortex, Code, etc. The build quality of the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard is as good, if not better than any keyboard I’ve tried.
When looking at the UHK in person, it’s obvious that they didn’t allow their principles to be compromised anywhere along the long journey of getting this keyboard to market. Each piece feels solid and thoughtfully designed. The case can be removed via a series of screws as can the steel backplate, so I think this would be an easy keyboard to repair (relatively speaking).
If you’re familiar with 60% keyboard layouts, then you know about the concept of layers on the keyboard. Basically, since you have less keys to work with you instead rely on “layers” to make up for it. With the UHK, you can access things like the navigation key commands, F1, caps lock, etc by holding down the MOD key and then hitting the corresponding key. The standard MOD layer functionality is printed on the front of the keycap as seen below.
What really makes the UHK special and “fully programmable” is the Agent software you can download. This lets you set any key to do just about anything, and it saves it directly to the keyboard itself. This means you don’t need to install the Agent software on every machine you use, it’s all stored in the keyboard.
The software has a really nice and easy to use interface, as well.
The Mouse Button
Here’s another area where the UHK is extremely unique – you can control your cursor with your keyboard… and it’s actually pretty good.
You may have noticed the Mouse button where the Caps Lock normally is. By holding down this key and pressing the directional arrow keys on I, J, K, and L, you can move your cursor around the screen.
Need to move the mouse faster? Hold the Mod button on the left half of the keyboard for a boost. Need to go slower for precision? Drop that left thumb down to the clicky Space button to slow it down.
You can fully customize the speed at which the cursor moves with the Agent software as well to get that perfect fit.
Honestly, this sounded gimmicky to me when I heard about it but in practice I could see this being a big selling point for some people. If you’re primarily programming, you could definitely get by on a vacation or trip using only the UHK for both mouse and keyboard duties.
Ultimate Hacking Keyboard Accessories
You’ve seen in the photos I have a really nice set of wooden palm rests attached to me UHK. I picked these up with the crowdfunding campaign and I’m really glad I did. I can’t imagine using the keyboard without them (I installed them right away so I never really tried), they really enhance the experience for me and make my keyboard setup really comfortable. The wood has a metal plate which screws into the back of the keyboard, and the construction is every bit as nice as the keyboard itself.
Plenty of other accessories exist for the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard as well. For starters, there’s the legs that come with them that you can optionally install if you prefer some sort of tilt to your keyboard for enhanced ergonomics. I set my keyboard up as “tented”, which means the insides are higher than the outsides. This was most comfortable for me and if you ever wanted to change it, you could remove the screws to these legs as desired.
Perhaps the most interesting UHK accessories though are the mouse/pointer accessories which can plug into the keyboard as an additional module. There’s currently a trackball, trackpoint, and touchpad module which you can use with your right thumb for even better ergonomics.
I did not buy one of these modules, though they do look interesting. My main issue at this point is I don’t know which module I would prefer (if I even liked them at all), and $60 is a lot to gamble on something I have no experience with and no chance to try in person.
Is the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard Worth the Price Tag?
I can rave all day about how awesome this keyboard is, but at the end of the day it has a cost and this keyboard is far from cheap. I’m actually not aware of a more expensive keyboard actively in production today, especially at the future retail price of $275.
When I bought my keyboard and palm rests through the Crowd Supply campaign, I paid $230 total. Currently, to pre-order the same items (expected to deliver in October) you would need to pay $295 + $19 shipping for a total of $314. After October, the price is set to go up $55 between these two items for a total of $369 after shipping!
Which puts me in a tough situation. On one hand, the keyboard is amazing and I’m very happy I purchased it. I don’t think I’ll need to buy another keyboard until this one quits, which hopefully is very far in the future.
At the end of the day, I would suggest that if you’re a professional programmer and you spend 40+ hours a week behind a keyboard, buying the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard would be a wise investment, even at the $300+ price point. Other people that aren’t mechanical keyboard fanatics may think you’re crazy, but the productivity and ergonomic enhancements fully justify the purchase as it should last you for years and years to come.