December 28th, 2020

Moonlander Split Ortholinear Keyboard Review

While the Moonlander is not my first foray into ergonomic keyboards, that goes to many versions of the Kinesis Freestyle keyboard, the Moonlander is by far the biggest deviation I've taken from a standard keyboard layout. The most striking thing to start is the thumb clusters on the keyboard.

Gone is the standard spacebar and command keys, in their place you find four keys meant to be accessible via your thumbs. Let's dig into my Moonlander experience

Getting Started with Your Moonlander

Out of the box ZSA provides a great dedicated web page to help you get started with your Moonlander. There really isn't another resource you need to get started but that single page. From places to practice your typing, and typing practice for programmers which I'll talk about in a minute, to videos on how the keyboard works. Their getting started page is excellent.

Programming your Moonlander

After reading through the getting started page you need to look at programming your keyboard because that's where the power of the keyboard is shown. The Moonlander uses their online graphical configuration tool called Oryx. Once you've setup your profile you compile it and download it. Then you drag and drop the file onto Wally and use a paper clip to reset the board. A few seconds later your new keyboard profile is active.

I use a DVORAK layout and while there are some minor annoyances with the Moonlander DVORAK and iPadOS, I still love it. You can find my Moonlander profile here. I started with another DVORAK profile and tweaked it slightly to my needs.

As I was learning the layout I would have it visible on my other device to reference. So if I was typing on my Mac Mini, my iPadPro would have the layout on screen for reference. I ended up needing to reference a standard keyboard a few times as well because there is no secondary legends on the keys to show you the extra brackets and symbols you can access with the shift key.

Typing Experience

The first day with this keyboard I was barely able to type 30 words a minute, which was a drastic decrease in my typing speed. But as they suggest in their getting started guide, I was learning a new keyboard layout not switching to a standard keyboard. Practice is crucial and within around 5 days I was up to 80+ words a minute consistently. My top typing speed has only ever been around 90 words a minute so 80 is pretty close. More practice will help me get back to my previous speed.

One great resource I wasn't aware of before the ZSA Moonlander getting started page was typing.io. More than a typing practice pad, it's a programmers typing practice area. I used their PHP example to identify some keys I needed to tweak on the DVORAK layout I had started with so that I could do my programming work.

I purchase the Kalih gold switches with my keyboard because I hadn't tried them. Unfortunately I think I went wrong with this purchase. They feel far to light for my taste. I regularly register key presses when I'm resting my hand on the key. Luckily this is a hot swappable board so I have a set of Kalih White switches coming. I love these switches on my Anne Pro 2 and I'm hoping I love them with the Moonlander as well.

One drawback I already see to the Moonlander key caps is that they're white and after a month I can already see some hand residue on some of the keys. I wish you could purchase a white body with black keys. I'll have to look at cleaning them or purchasing darker keys that don't show hand residue as much.

Another issue is a common DVORAK one. I'd love to switch the keys around so they map properly to the DVORAK layout, but then I'd looks the homing keys for F and J with their bumps. I'll be on the looking for a set of keys that has homing keys in the proper spot for DVORAK and is compatible with an ortholinear layout...which is likely to be hard to find.

Issues with DVORAK the Moonlander and iPadOS

I know I'm out on my own in many ways here with wanting to use DVORAK on an iPad with this keyboard but I haven't had the same issues with other standard keyboards like the Anne Pro 2 that I have with the Moonlander in iPadOS. Typically I've used the software in my operating systems handle the switch to DVORAK by simply changing the keyboard settings. With the Moonlander I found this to be unworkable though.

Because of the programming changes I had to make to the keyboard the software DVORAK settings simply don't work. This has meant that I need to leave my settings on my operating systems standard, and set my keyboard to DVORAK instead.

The problem here on iPadOS is that both of the Apple keyboards I use with my iPad are QWERTY keyboards that I need the software to change over to DVORAK. In daily work this means I need to head into keyboard settings when I move between my desk setup on my Moonlander and my portable setup with an Apple keyboard case.

Nope, it's not world ending but if you're DVORAK on an iPad and use it in a desk setup it's something you'll want to know up front.

Ortholinear, Split Keyboards and Thumb Clusters

This is all the "odd" stuff on the keyboard. For deeper dives into why these things may matter check out Ben Vallack's YouTube channel. He has a bunch of content on the Moonlander and ortholinear keyboards in general.

To keep it short, your fingers aren't staggered but keyboards are. A layout like the Moonlander has reduces the distance your fingers have to travel to reach keys. Most things can be reached with a single key movement of a finger. In theory this reduces strain.

The biggest "issue" so far in my use is the red buttons on the thumb clusters and the buttons furthest away. Both of my red keys are set to escape as is the standard position for caps lock. I only ever use the one placed in the caps lock position though. At some point I'll have to set up a macro or some other programmable feature on the others. Also, I couldn't even tell you what is on the keys furthest away from my thumbs. They feel awkward to press and so I don't use them.

Should You Purchase the Moonlander?

Yes Kinesis makes a mechanical keyboard, and yes that keyboard is much cheaper. Their keyboard is not ortholinear though, and that has some theoretical disadvantages. I was hesitant to purchase it because my latest versions of the Kinesis Freestyle keyboard stopped working reliably within 2 years. Keys simply don't register anymore, which makes it a fairly useless keyboard. With the hot swappable switches in the Moonlander a key could fail and I'll just stick a new switch in it and have a functioning keyboard.

If you have wrists issues and are wanting a fully programmable mechanical keyboard, then the Moonlander is a good option. If you're really looking for a hot swappable ergonomic mechanical keyboard I'm not aware of another option, though I'm sure there are some around.

If you have serious wrist issues, and want a mechanical keyboard with multi-layer programmability, then this is a great keyboard. I'd say it's worth the investment if you know that a standard ergonomic keyboard is helpful for your wrist issues. Maybe don't start with this one of you're not sure and look at a standard Microsoft Sculpt or the Kinesis keyboard, but having owned both of those the Moonlander is the one not sitting in a drawer unused in my office.

The Moonlander also offers you nearly unlimited options in key switches due to it's hotswappable nature. I already said I don't like the switches that came with my keyboard so I'm changing them out as soon as my new switches get here. None of the other ergonomic keyboards I've seen offer this flexibility to customize your keyboard to your needs without needing to solder.