Why do people use 40% (or 60%) keyboards?
Small keyboards look nice but could be intimidating for first-time users. In this piece I present the benefits of these form factors.
Let's right dive in!
- Less finger movement.
- Great for touch typers.
- Cheaper to build.
- Easier to build.
- Unusable by others (security/privacy).
- Special cases (chording).
Less finger movement
On the standard ANSI/ISO keyboard your fingers, hands and probably even your arms have to move a lot. Unnecessary movement is very inefficient.
For this reason, ergonomic keyboards often ditch the function row, the numpad and the navigation and arrow cluster. In addition, many boards come without the number row.
Having all the keys in maximum 1u-distance (one key away with respect to the home positions) results in reduced finger movement.
There's no need to have dedicated keys for all the symbols and functions since they can be accessed via logical layers. What do I mean by that?
On a keyboard, we don't need keys for capital letters, right? (Well, on most boards.) You still can access them on a secondary layer (while holding Shift).
Numbers and function keys can be accessed the same way by pressing and/or holding various modifiers.
Any key can be turned into a modifier with the QMK firmware. The most hardcore method is probably the home row modifier concept: having Alt, Shift, Ctrl and Fn right under your fingertips on the home positions when hold.
Press J to type J. Hold J and it turns into Shift or any other modifier.
Great for touch typers
The proper way of typing is one without looking at the keyboard.
A touch typer's reward for using a small keyboard is increased productivity with fewer errors.
An experienced typer always returns to the home row and distinctly shaped homing keys (F and J on a standard QWERTY keyboard) help to reposition their fingers.
Still, after a row change or row jump (hurdle) there's a chance of typing errors due to inproper repositioning.
Less keys help with this issue: less movement results in less typing errors, thus, in improved productivity.
Compact form factor
The compact form factor may be important for users with limited desk space.
Mouse interference may be also an issue, which can be completely eliminated by using a small keyboard.
Some people take their keyboard to school or to work. Carrying a fullsize keyboard would be cumbersome and strange.
Instead, a keyboard with a 60% or smaller form factor easily fits into your bag.
Cheaper to build
Many people build their own keyboards. In this case, going with less keys results in significantly lower prices.
Less keys mean an instant discount when building: you need less switches and caps, smaller plate, and cheaper microcontroller.
Your cheapest choice for a controller is probably a
$3 Pro Micro development board with 18 easily accessible pins Pi Pico.
Easier to build
With less keys you need less soldering, less diodes, etc. Less keys result in a less complicated matrix too.
All in all, building such a keyboard is quicker and easier.
Small keyboards look cool. Tiny boards look even cooler.
Well, I have to confess that I find the look of ortholinear ones the coolest even if I wouldn't recommend them (if not split) because of ergonomical considerations.
Small boards may feel strange for the first time and it takes some time to get used to.
This, especially combined with a unique logical layout, may provide some additional level of security. Random people won't be able to easily mess with your computer when sitting to your desk.
Some special cases, like chording, require even less keys.
Steno machines, i.e. chording keyboards used for stenography have only 23-25 keys.
The fact that stenographers produce text with insane speed (real time captioning) should be enough proof for the efficiency of small keyboards.
Small keyboards are not just cool and cute but have some major benefits too: less finger movement, more space on your desk, portability, cheaper and easier to build. I use my custom 46% keyboard for many years and don't miss any key.