If you’ve been hanging out in the corners of the internet obsessed with all things mechanical keyboard, you may have noticed some strange looking designs: small rectangular boards with square keys in perfectly straight rows and columns. These are ortholinear keyboards, an interesting fad among the avid audience. What is going on? I̵
What’s in a name?
“Ortho” is a Greek word meaning straight or rigid. It is the same word we use as the basis for orthodontics, the medical practice of straightening teeth practiced by an orthodontist. Combine it with “linear” to mean in a line, and you get ortholinear: an adjective that means something has many straight lines.
What’s the point of a keyboard that looks so strange? To answer that, you have to wonder why you think a normal keyboard is, well, normal. The practice of wobbling keys began with old mechanical typewriters: because each key was connected to a rod that physically hit the paper. To fit multiple rows of keys, the keys were placed between each other.
In the video below, you can see how the staggered arms of this 110-year-old typewriter activate the mechanisms that apply ink to the paper.
This design decision stuck long after those physical bars were replaced with electrical signals, as the keys for electric and then electronic typewriters took a similar layout to the old-fashioned designs. This, in turn, was passed on to most computer keyboard designs. Since there is no apparent downside to using spaced keys, there was no reason to change the design once you developed the muscle memory for typing. This is so common now that we even use it on touchscreens.
It’s a lot like how the “Save” button is still represented by a floppy disk, decades after someone actually used one in everyday computing. Designs created more than a century ago still influence how we interact with objects every day. Keep this in mind when making small, seemingly insignificant choices.
What’s better about Ortholinear?
Ortholinear keyboards do not use any key layout other than standard keyboards, such as the difference between QWERTY and DVORAK. No, they have the same general “card” of keys that you are used to, just perfectly straight and parallel. To do this, they usually cut some of the side keys, such as Control, Enter, and Shift, back to just one key width (or double them to 1 × 2 to keep it even).
So what makes them better? Frankly, that depends on the user. Some users say that switching to a straight layout makes them faster typists because everything makes more “sense”. But if you’ve been typing on a standard keyboard for a decade or more, there will of course be an adjustment period, as your fingers ‘learn’ the small differences with where your brain thinks the keys should be.
This learning period isn’t particularly long – not nearly as long as learning a new layout. It seems to be about the same time as the time it takes to get used to a split ergonomic keyboard (and some users argue that there are ergonomic benefits to the ortholinear layout as well). But that period will of course be different for each user.
Likewise, there is no telling how much benefit you will see if you switch to an ortho layout … or if you already see one. It very much seems to be a preferred point from user to user.
Ortholinear keyboards are not a new invention: there are examples dating back to the early days of computing. But the newer designs seem to rely on the fact that you can make them smaller to do just that: the one-space side keys can shave about an inch off the standard 60% layout, a few more if you go for it. a smaller 40% goes design. It’s worth considering whether you want to have the lightest, smallest keyboard possible for a portable setup.
Where can you get one?
If you’d like to try out an ortholine board, you’re not alone. But you’re also not in such abundant company that you can just find one on a Best Buy shelf. In fact, it is quite difficult to find a pre-made ortholine keyboard at all.
As this is a trend that started in the mechanical keyboard community, the vast majority of ortholinear keyboards available today are homemade: users purchase a circuit board, a compatible case and switches and assemble all parts with a soldering iron. They then need to plug in the keyboard (there are in fact no wireless examples) and program or adjust the key layout as desired.
If you’re already a fan of building keyboards, great! Just shop around for an ortho-linear circuit board with a layout you like, a compatible enclosure, and supply your own switches. If you don’t want to do all that, your options start shrinking very quickly.
The Planck design is generally where you want to start. This 40% keyboard has all the letter keys of a standard board, but lacks a number or function row (and many other keys). You have to use virtual layers to get to numbers. The Planck EZ is a version of this keyboard that comes pre-assembled, with switches and keycaps. It’s quite pricey at $ 230, but you can choose the color of the case and caps as well as whichever switch you want.
Drop.com (formerly Massdrop) also sells a version of this design, but it requires a bit of assembly. You need to find your own compatible mechanical switches (which is not difficult). The kit only costs $ 110, and the switches sold separately (you want at least 48) will be $ 30-60 more depending on what you choose. Drop’s listing can go in and out, so don’t be surprised if it’s not active when you check it.
There is another reasonably easy to find option: Koolertron. This company sells one-handed keyboards, also known as macropads, in ortho-linear layouts. Combine two and program them for the two sides of the keyboard, and you have a nice ortholine-like board with an ‘ergonomic’ split. The downside to this method is that you have to buy two cards (which is still cheaper than all Planck options) and use two USB cables for the individual cards.
Koolertron one-handed keyboard
You can double these Koolertron keyboards, with some custom programming, to roll your own split ortholine keyboard.
If you want a different keyboard, maybe a larger keyboard or something with more upscale options, you will have to find the parts and build it yourself. It’s a chore, so I suggest first finding a way to try out an ortholinear board. You can buy and sell one if you’re not satisfied, or you can borrow one from a friend who loves the keyboard.
Ready to build
Once you’ve done your research and you’re ready to build your own ortho board, just search for a compatible circuit board to get started. You also want a design that offers a case.
There are tons of different options here, usually sold in small batches. OLKB’s Planck design remains the most popular, and it’s easy to find cases for it too. The ID75 is a similar design that’s slightly larger (15 columns instead of 12), and may be easier to adjust if you’re used to a full size board.
Once you locate the circuit board and its enclosure, add some MX-compatible switches (and a USB cable if you don’t have one). Wait for your components to arrive, then heat the old soldering iron.