Plank EZ mechanical keyboard

10 min

I became interested in mechanical keyboards a little more than 1 year ago.
I first saw them on Pinterest & Instagram, then I discovered the Reddit community and I got really really excited.

I bought my first mechanical in November 2020: a “Varmilo VA87M” with Cherry MX Brown switches.
I won’t go into details about mechanical keyboards and switches in this article, maybe in another article.

I don’t remember when and how I discovered the ortholinear keyboards, probably at the end of 2020 from Reddit, but as soon as I saw them, I was instantly hooked.

I checked videos about these keyboards and I read some articles and studies around the ergonomic aspect.
Some people say they are not as efficient compared to the staggered keyboards to deserve the switch.

From my point of view, no matter what anybody else sais, I have everything I need to make a decision just in front of me:
I look at my hands and they naturally sit like this: / \
Then I look at a staggered keyboard and the keys are slanted like this: \ \
It’s all I need to conclude that the staggered keyboard layout is just wrong.
I’m aware of the irony, because I didn’t even think about this until I bought my ortho keyboard, but I can’t unsee it now.

From all the models I checked, the Plank EZ from https://zsa.io/planck seemed the best for me, even if it’s way more than I ever imagined I would spend on a keyboard…

I ordered mine middle March and I received it after exactly 3 weeks.

I picked the Kailh Box Black switches, which are supposed to have the right amount of Click without any of the noisy Clack, which will be very useful in the future when I’ll use the keyboard in the office.

When I got it, I couldn’t type on it, I was way too clumsy… I waited 2 days before I plugged it in the work laptop, but I practiced after work on my PC.

If you ever buy this keyboard, please take my advice: if you never had a ortho before, DON’T buy the version with the blank keycaps!
Don’t do this to yourself! It will take you forever to learn the layout.
However, I would definitely buy the blank keycaps now, because I can type without looking at the keyboard.

I got used to it after a few weeks and I type just as fast as I used to type on the old keyboard. (Which is not that fast…)

I don’t use any other keyboard now. I have a Windows PC that I use for gaming and a Dell laptop with Arch linux for work. I just plug the keyboard and it works perfectly in both cases.

Let’s talk pros and cons:

Pros

Each and every key is programmable. You can also define key combinations and macros.
This is the second reason why I wanted this keyboard, because the Varmilo keyboards are not programmable.
The main reason was the ortholinear aspect, as I mentioned before.

You can have up to 32 layers, even if that doesn’t sound very practical. I have only 4 layers currently.
The secret with layers is to think of them just like Shift, or Right alt, because honestly they are not much different. They’re just a way to type other keys than the physical labels from the keycaps.

The software from the website is very easy to use to define any layout you want: https://configure.zsa.io/planck-ez/
There’s a lot of public layouts you can use as inspiration. I checked a few tens of layouts and I’ll check some more.
There’s quite a bit of really CRAZY layouts out there… I don’t know how people use them… Maybe they just plug the keyboard from time to time, they don’t use it everyday?
But nobody starts with a crazy keyboard from day 1. It evolves slowly over time and starts to look “crazy” to other people, because the small changes build up quickly.

Each and every key switch has a different light. You can program them if you like. I don’t use that yet, but I might.
I use one of the predefined color animations.

You can change any key-switch without soldering. Just take the keycap, pull the switch, insert another one and it works.
I changed the switch from my Space key, it was really easy.

Changing the keycaps, the switches, the layers and all that is really fun! Kind of like playing with LEGO, or like playing Minecraft.
It’s a way of creating your own thing from all these pieces. Infinite creativity. And it’s just the right amount of challenge.

It’s very small and portable.
While I was waiting for the keyboard to arrive, I checked the size on the website and I took a ruler to compare it with my “Varmilo VA87M” and I thought I know how it looks, but when I had it in my hands, I was shocked how small it is… This is a PRO for me, because I have small hands. People with big hands might hate it?

The keyboard like a chocolate and who doesn’t love chocolate?!?

Cons

After I used the Plank exclusively for a few weeks, I needed to type on my wife’s Macbook and it felt sooo sooo weird…!
I didn’t remember to type the numbers anymore… So that can be an issue when you have to use a “normal” keyboard again, especially if you build a “crazy” layout.

My Space key was very hard to press. It was really hard to use, especially as I was just learning the new layout.
I took the keycap off and replaced the Kailh Black switch to a Cherry Red and I took off the stabilizer. Now it’s perfecly usable.
It’s not a big issue, because you’re supposed to hack your keyboard, but I think it’s a CON because it wasn’t really usable from the start.

You don’t have many spare keycaps and you can’t buy any specific keys from the same set, from the official website.
It’s not a big issue, but these keycaps are hard to find, it would be convenient to order a few extra when you order the keyboard, or later, after you already defined your layout.

The keyboard boots up pretty slow on my laptop. I can’t immediately use it, like a regular keyboard, plug and instant use.
On the Windows PC, it lights up if the PC is plugged in, even if the PC is shut down and it’s available to type after a second.
But on the Dell laptop, after my Arch linux boots up, I’m waiting up to 10 seconds before I can type my user and password, so I usually use the laptop keyboard to login.
It’s not that bad, because it works after that even if the laptop goes into stand-by or it’s restarted, but it’s a bit frustrating at the start.

⏳ later update :: I discovered that the keyboard boots up immediately when connected to the PC only when I check "Disable USB startup check" option. When the option is unchecked, the keyboard boots in around 5 seconds from the PC, but only when the PC is running.

Sometimes it becomes pretty warm around the Space key, when I play games, which feels weird…

Xah Lee doesn’t like Plank layout :) and I respect his point of view: http://xahlee.info/kbd/planck_keyboard.html
He sais only 47 keys are too few. Everytime you have to type a number, or punctuation, or math + * = symbols, e.g. 2018-05-03 or 2 x^3 + x = 9, you need to hold a modifier key.
If you write lots of math or programing: () [] {}, the keyboard is bad.
It’s impractical to use for Chinese, Japanese, Russian, because, for example, in Chinese, you need to press a digit key every 3 or 4 keystrokes.
No arrow keys mean you can’t play Pacman while eating pizza.

And the last thing, not even a CON, more of a feature request: everytime I use Wally app to flash a new firmware, my current animation and the key colors are lost, so I have to navigate to my favorite animation, and choose whatever color I want. Again and again and again… Because I’m experimenting and learning they keyboard, sometimes I flash new firmware 10 times a day and I want to have the right animation when I’m using the keyboard.
Because all the animations seem to be hardcoded in the firmware already, it would be nice to have the option to select a default animation in the same way you can define the keys, so the keyboard would be ready to go right after flashing.

The layout

The Plank EZ has 47 keys. That’s 4 rows x 12 keys, minus the Space which is double size.
It doesn’t seem like you have all the keys you need, but to many people it’s plenty of keys.

You don’t have an exclamation sign on the keyboard, but you can press Shift+1 and you have the exclamation. In the same way, you press UPPER, or LOWER and you have tons of possible keys.
I actually have duplicate keys in the layers, because if I would use 4 layers x (47-2) that would equal 180 keys, way more than a regular 104 keys keyboard (47-2 because I’m subtracting the UPPER and LOWER keys).

This is my layout, feel free to fork it:

Where’s the numbers?

You can program them anywhere you like. By default, they are located on the UPPER layer, on top of the QWERTY keys.
I moved them on the LOWER layer, in the same place, because for me it’s more confortable to tap the left layer key.

Where’s the parenthesis, square and curly brackets?

By default they are scattered on the LOWER and UPPER layers.
I moved them all on the UPPER layer, because it feels more consistent to me and I use them daily for programming.

Where’s the F1…F12 keys?

By default they are located both on the LOWER and UPPER layers, which I think it’s too much, so I moved them only on the UPPER layer.

You don’t actually need the F keys that often. The only place that doesn’t work at all without them is BIOS, if you want to update the settings with F2, or change the boot order with F12.
There was another app that used them extensively: Total Commander file manager, but I don’t use it anymore.

In the browser there are some F commands like reload=F5, find on page-F3, select address bar=F6, open dev tools=F12, etc, but you have alternative keys for them.
On Windows, you could program a key to execute Alt+F4 if you really want, but you can still close a window with Alt+Space, then C, if you want to use the keyboard and not the mouse.

Where’s home, end, page Up/Down and delete?

Macbook Air and Pro don’t have them and they work just fine.
By default Plank EZ has Home & End on LOWER layer and Page Up/Down on UPPER layer.
I moved them all on LOWER, over the arrow keys, because they make a lot of sense to me.
I tried them on the UPPER layer over the arrow keys, but I was pressing them by mistake and it was very confusing.


To conclude, I love the Plank EZ keyboard.
I use it exclusively every day.
I can’t say that my productivity has improved in the few weeks that I had it, and I’m still changing the layouts, but for what it can do, I think it’s worth every penny.
My layout is not final and it will probably never be final, which is great. I’ll experiment until the end of days…

@articles #keyboard #plank