My UHK has arrived

My Ultimate Hacking Keyboard (UHK) finally arrived the other week.  It's only about a year and a half over-due, which I guess isn't really that bad for a crowd-funded product.  I was in love with this keyboard as soon as I saw the promotional video, so I've really been looking forward to getting my hands on one. 

If you haven't heard of the UHK, I recommend taking a look at it.  It's an extremely cool piece of hardware, even if you're like me and are neither a "gadget person" nor a keyboard aficionado.  It's a fully programmable mechanical keyboard that can control the mouse, splits down the middle, and has support for plug-in modules (not yet available).

Initial Impressions

Just taking the UHK out of the shipping box, it looks very nice.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised.  The packaging was very slick and professional - far more so than conventional keyboards I've purchased.  It came with a nice "thank you" card and minimal instructions that just point to the URL for their online tutorial (which I highly recommend new users try out).

The very nice UHK and palm rest boxes.

I purchased both the keyboard and the palm rests.  At first glance, both look exactly as nice as they do on the marketing site.  The palm rests are a beautiful, smooth wood mounted on extremely solid metal plates.  The keyboard itself has a solid-feeling plastic case.  The seam where the halves separate is magnetic and has all metal contacts - no visible wires, circuit boards, or weird connectors.  The bottom has some thick no-skid nubs to stand on and metal mounting points for the palm rest.  Overall, it feels much sturdier and higher quality than any single-piece conventional keyboard I've used.

The opened UHK box.

The open UHK palm rest box.

Setup

Setting up the UHK was a bit of a mixed bag.  In the most basic setup, you can plug one end of the USB cable into the keyboard and the other end into your computer and it "just works" - no additional software or configuration required.  And that's great.  But if you have the palm rests and want to set up something more ergonomic, it's a different story.

My configuration of choice was to separate the keyboard and use a "tented" configuration with the palm rests, so that the center part of the keyboard is elevated.  This is similar to the setup of the Microsoft Ergomonic keyboard I had been using.  And once I got it set up, I found it to be very comfortable.

Comparison of the UHK with my old Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard.

The palm rest and tilting setup was the only aspect of the UHK that I'm not crazy about.  The setup process was not especially difficult, and there were clear instructions for all the standard palm rest configurations, but you can't do it without a screwdriver.  Installing the feet for tilting was the most painful part.  The feet are a thick plastic, which is good for durability, but makes it harder to bend them enough to fit into the mounting brackets.  And you can't really get the three screws for the mounting brackets in or out with the feet in them.  So it's not really feasible to quickly switch between configurations - at least not if you're using the "tented" setup.  I found that a little disappointing, but I can live with it.  The up side is that the final setup is surprisingly solid.  I had been worried that the palm rest would wobble or that the feet would have some give, but that's not the case at all.

The Agent

One of the really cool things about the UHK is that you can configure everything, but don't have to install any special software to use it.  The configuration is stored on the keyboard itself, so as soon as you plug it in, all your settings are already there.  You do, however, need a special program to do the configuration.

Screenshot of the UHK agent software.

The "agent" software itself is pretty intuitive.  It's cross-platform (looks like an Electron app - there's a web-based live demo here) and consists of a few settings panes and a visual representation of the keyboard that you can use to remap keys.  It allows you to remap literally any key on the keyboard, including modifier keys and layer-switching keys.  You can even map different functions for different modifier keys

The agent also has some support for running programs or doing other system functions, such as controlling volume.  Initially, these seemed to be a little dodgy, but that seems to have been resolved when I upgraded the keyboard's firmware.  That upgrade also gave me support for keyboard macros, which weren't yet implemented in the pre-installed firmware version.  I haven't actually had occasion to try out the macro feature yet, but it seems like a really cool idea.

Adapting to the UHK

The biggest challenge with the UHK is adapting to using it.  When you first look at the keyboard, the most remarkable thing is how small it is.  As one of my teammates put it, "Looks like you're missing some keys there."  And that's because, compared to most standard keyboards, it is missing a lot of keys.  Instead of having a lot of dedicated keys, the UHK has a concept of "layers".

My UHK setup.

If "layers" doesn't ring a bell, think of the "numlock" key on a conventional keyboard.  When you turn it on, the numeric keypad types numbers.  When you turn it off, the numeric keypad keys function as arrow keys, "delete", page up/down, etc.  That's two "layers" - the "number" layer and the "navigation" layer, if you will.  With the UHK, the entire keyboard is like that, but with four possible layers instead of two.  They are:

  1. The "base" layer, where you do normal typing.  This is the "no layers selected" layer.
  2. The "mod" layer, which gives you access to arrow keys, page up/down, home/end, F1 - F12 keys, and a bunch of other things that would have a dedicated key on a conventional keyboard.
  3. The "function" layer, which gives you access to the kind of things associated with the "function" key on a laptop - media control, volume control, etc.  Note that this is not for the function keys as in "F1", which was initially slightly confusing.  Instead, the number keys on this layer are pre-configured to change the key map (e.g. form QWERTY to Dvorak).
  4. The "mouse" layer, which is used to control the mouse, including left/right/middle clicking, movement, and scrolling.

I'll be honest - this setup takes a little getting used to.  You can't just open the box and immediately be productive using this.  However, it's really not as bad as I feared it might be.  The key arrangement is standard, so you can type text on the base layer with little to no adjustment.  It's just the layer switching that is an issue.

For me, the first week was spent mostly getting used to switching layers and getting the different key combinations into my muscle memory.  The second week was spent on customization and figuring out what did and didn't work for me.  For the most part, the default key mapping is pretty good, but there were a few things that didn't work for me.  For instance, I had to swap the left "Fn" and "Alt" keys because I was used to "Alt" being right next to the space bar and kept accidentally hitting the wrong key.  I also converted the right "Fn" key into a secondary "Mouse" key because, frankly, I never use the function layer and it seemed more useful to be able to control the mouse entirely with my right hand.  After the second week or so, I found that I pretty much had the hang of the layer switching.  My control started to become much faster and more natural.  After about a month, I found that when I used my laptop keyboard, I would instinctively reach for the non-existent "mod" key because it was more natural than moving my entire hand to find the arrow keys.\

Conclusion

It's been a little over a month and I LOVE my UHK.  If it wasn't so expensive, I'd consider buying a second one to use at home.  (Also I spend most of my time at home on a laptop, which doesn't lend itself to an external keyboard.)  It's a physically solid device with lots of features and it's just really comfortable to use.  I'm really enjoying the whole "not having to move off of the home row" thing.  It's not cheap, but I would definitely recommend it to any code who is willing to invest $300 or so in a keyboard.  I have no regrets and am actually looking forward to giving them more money when the modules come out.

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