Layout Evolution

25 Oct 2023

Believe it or not, I do actually use the weird keyboards I’ve made — the Corne at home, and the Manta when I go into the office. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the tiny number of keys they have, I can now type both more comfortably and faster than on a conventional keyboard. The thing that makes this possible is the layout — the arrangement of keys, and in particular key combinations.

I tweak this as I go, and it’s moved on quite a bit from the original layout I documented back in March last year. The QWERTY letters with the dropped P remains the same, and I’ve been really happy with the rest of the basic structure: the home row modifiers, the space-delete-enter arrangement, and the two layers behind the thumb keys. The contents of those layers, however, has evolved substantially.

My current layout

The biggest change was to move the numbers. When I started out with these minimal layouts, I assumed that having the numbers across the top row would provide the smoothest transition from the more standard layout (this was also the logic behind sticking with QWERTY). However, I soon came to find this cumbersome, so decided to try out a numpad arrangement. This turned out to be a lot easier, and the learning curve I’d worried about never materialised.

It also clarified the purpose of the two layers. The “Num” layer (activated by holding down the left thumb key) contained arrows on the left half of the split, and a numpad plus a few mathematical symbols on the right half. The “Pun” layer was dedicated to punctuation, spread across both halves.

This arrangement served me well for many months, but a little while ago, I noticed that it had a weakness. Numbers needed two hands. While I’ve never been a big user of the numpad on 100% keyboard, the fact that I needed to have both hands on the keyboard to enter a column of figures started to grate.

The solution is simple; switch the layers on the right hand half of the keyboard. I’ve just got round to making this tweak, resulting in my current layout as shown above. The layers are now less logically consistent, but make physical sense. I’ve renamed them “Left” and “Right” to reflect this.

Other notable changes:

  • I’ve dropped the single key Cmd and Enter on the second thumb keys; the Manta lacks these, and so I didn’t want to put anything significant on them.
  • The Left layer has ⌘-Z/X/C/V on the corresponding letters, to give convenient one-handed access those shortcuts
  • I’ve added preliminary support for Mouse Keys (on QMK only for now).
  • On the implementation side, there’s more consistent use of transparency on the modified layers.

The layout is personal to me, but if you want to borrow some ideas, or see how things are done, the QMK and ZMK configurations are available on GitHub. I’m certainly not done yet, but I’m pretty happy with the current state of things. If you have a keyboard where you can perform this kind of customisation, I encourage you to give it a go.

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