Today I finally finished my Levinson build, a week in the making. I powered through the initial build a week ago, soldering all the components and ready to flash QMK. Unfortunately, I left my poor AMJ40 on my desk at work which mean the only thing I had available to compile a QMK image was a Gherkin. Okay, that’s technically a lie, I did have my trusty ol’ MF68 lying in the next room, but I really wanted an excuse to utilize the Gherkin!
Since I didn’t do a build log, instead I’m going to review both the Levinson and the Zealios, as this build is my first experience with the two, as well as my first “full” ortholinear experience. I’ve used the board without acrylic middles, and therefore without tenting for a week at the time of writing this. It’s been… less of a struggle than I anticipated, to be honest. The first night, as I worked to tweak the layout/keymap.c in QMK was pretty rough. But on my second day with the board I used it through the work day with little issue.
The Levinson is an ortholinear split keyboard by keebio, based on the Let’s Split by wootapoot. The Levinson offers LED backlighting, options for two 1u or one 2u keys (for spacebars, or whatever — it’s fully programmable), as well as i2c support as of Rev 2.2. i2c can be used to add an OLED display, with new and interesting uses on the horizon. In other words, it took the Let’s Split and added all the bells and whistles. Everything you need to build the board, aside from keycaps and switches, are available on keebio. The PCBs come with diodes, TRRS jacks, mosfets, push buttons for reset, and 4.7k ohm resistors. Cases all include standoffs for assembly.
The biggest difference between this board and the AMJ40 that was my daily driver is the layout. The AMJ40 is a split 40% keyboard, utilizing a staggered layout as a standard ANSI keyboard would, but with some oddities in the bottom row and a handful of amputated keys along the right hand side. Since it utilizes a split spacebar, which I’d grown rather fond of having with the left side set as my enter key, I opted for the Levinson specifically because of the option for a the 2u keys in the bottom, inner corners.
For me, personally, the 2u inner corners functioning just like my split space bar on the AMJ40 was probably the thing that made it so easy for me to adjust. If you’re looking to jump at an ortho layout from a standard ANSI or ISO layout, really anything 60% up, without a split spacebar I’d recommend sticking with what you know there — even if only at first. From the anectodes I’ve read on ortho layouts, however, I’d say a split ortho is probably going to reduce the learning curve.
Why? Because you can tilt it, of course. Not by tenting, but simply by turning the keyboard inwards to you at a 40 degree angle. This kind of helps line things up to feel a little less severe than going with a straight, single PCB. Of course, with my only other experience in ortho being a Gherkin, it might just be that the Gherkin is so small everything feels craped, but my hands definitely don’t like sticking to it straight on for long. My wrists cramp pretty quickly using a Gherkin, whereas tilting the split ortho to the natural staggering of my hands, and probably the split itself keeping my wrists spaced more naturally, have resulted in a very comfortable experience.
Overall, ortho feels weird to me still. I’m averaging about 68 WPM on Typeracer, where typically I sit in the mid 80’s using a staggered keyboard. Depending on the content of a given typing test, I’ve still hit 87 WPM at least once using this board. That said, I’ve also been using this to retrain myself to type more “properly”. I may be a touch typist who averages in the 80 WPM zone, but my accuracy is low as I typically utilize 2-4 fingers on the alpha keys. So for me, trying to retrain my fingers has been a hell of a lot easier using an ortho than it was on a staggered board, which is probably why I gave up within hours every time I tried in the past. It may not be for everyone, but so far I’m pretty well sold on the ortho layout.
If you do want to try a cheap ortholinear, the $30 Contra from Cartel will hopefully be available soon after the Group Buy fulfillment, or at least another round may happen. It could be worth watching for one, at least if you’re really not convinced you’d enjoy a split ortho. If you’re not really keen on waiting for another round and really itching to get yourself an ortho, then of course you should head over to olkb.com and pick yourself up the original Planck keyboard, by Jack Humbert. You could also grab a Preonic there instead if you like the idea, but don’t want to lose your number row.
The firmware that powers most modern programmable keyboards, known as QMK, is also Jack’s brainchild. Planck and Prenoic are premium boards, with some fantastic cases available as well. Jack also holds a weekly Q&A over at /r/olkb, and the community there kicks ass as answering questions about the Planck, Preonic, and anything QMK related. I’m still pushing you to try going for the split, so read on before you make any decisions!
While I covered the advantages of using a split keyboard with an ortholinear layout, I really want to convey how much I freaking love the split board overall. I’m not saying I’ll never use another normal board, that’d be blasphemous, but I definitely will want to pick up another in the (hopefully near) future so I don’t have to lug the two (small) pieces around. Fatigue is already lessened, at least in my hands, although now that I was able to add tenting today I’m realizing I probably do want wrist rests for each if if I’m going to use it tented.
Since adding the tenting my wrists are now feeling a bit of stress and my shoulders I’m actually noticing less, at least in the long period of time I’ve been at the computer today. Overall, I feel like some sort of crazy sci-fi hacker, slapping away at the keys without the constant need to crack my knuckles and stretch my elbows. It’s great feeling. There’s a meme of me as Hackerman from Kung Fury circulating our small office at work, with my split keeb turned into a Nintendo Power Glove, when you’ve got a guy with three monitors and a split keyboard it’s pretty easy to crack a joke at his expense. The image is also now my Slack profile picture, as that’s basically how I feel using this thing! I guess I don’t really have much to say about a split board I didn’t really cover already, but I love it!
(You can fit a cat between them, too!)
You can pick up a Levinson, Nyquist (like the Preonic mentioned above, but split), and some other really neat stuff over at keebio (Check out the Iris for more ergonomics, or the Dilly if you think the Gherkin looked cool! My coworker is loving the Dilly I built him). If I sold you on a split board, but no in an ortholinear layout, keebio just announced the Fourier, a staggered 40% split board very similar the AMJ40 layout. If you’re looking to get one and just want to toss some PCB mount switches on a PCB to try it as cheap as possibly, Mehkee has the Let’s Split and all the components for sale without all the bells and whistles. They also offer cases, but so you can go for a full build as well.
Zealios are the way my feelios!
Mmmmm… butter. I love these switches. I build this board with 78g Zealios, using 62g springs from Cherry MX Blues in the modifiers as my pinkies aren’t quite proper and fatigue very, very quickly. I actually had to quit raiding World of WarCraft back in the beginning Warlords of Draenor because they began to hurt so badly. Back to the Zealios, despite the MX Clear style stem, with its super pronounced stem leg, they’re really smooth. It may be the in part the Krytox 204 (yes, I used 204 not 206), but the switch design in itself makes them smoother. They lack the scratch grind of a Cherry MX at actuation, which admittedly does hurt the tactility, but the result is still something warm and loving. As my office mate described them, “It’s like cutting through butter with a warm knife… in the sun, on a hot day.” That might be a slight exaggeration of just how smooth the switches are.
I’m still waiting for that perfect switch in terms of tactility. If I could keep the smooth actuation of the Zealio, with that crisp bump, yet keep it a little more pronounced, like “BAM YOU GOT BUMP” pronounced, I’d be golden. The Hako True and Hako Clear switches seemed really promising, but having only felt them on a tester and being one badly bottoming out typist, I didn’t find nearly enough tactility in them. I still love the concept and plan to utilize them in some build, but I’m still sticking with my not-so-cheap Zealios. They’re worth it.
You can pick some up for yourself over at Zeal PC, as well as their new silenced version, Zealencios. I’d hold out for group buy pricing if you can wait, though. If you just want to try them you can grab a tester from NovelKeys, or you can pick up a lot of other great switches there, especially if you’re into clicky switches (Try the BOX Navy!). There’s a lot cheaper options for tactile switches there as well, such as Outemu’s Ice Switches, Kailh Pro Purple, and Mike is working on a new tactile box switch from what I hear. Really, I’d suggest just unloading and trying everything you can get in a tester, or just grabbing a 10 pack of switches like the Hakos to try while you’re there as well. I may have picked Zealios for this build, but I’ve happily used some of the NovelKeys x Kailh collab switches in previous builds, like my Maxipad.
I bet you’re thinking what I’d be thinking right now, “That’s great, but how does it all sound!?” Well, since I’d be asking that, here’s a clip!
Unfortunately, my desk is super warped, so I had to put the parts next to each other on my oversized mouse pad. I may not play DotA 2, but this pad from a LootCrate is pretty great!
The Levinson is a great keyboard, I’m glad I went ahead and pulled the trigger on it. I had actually been waiting for a Planck, but after seeing the PCB with the option for two 2u keys I decided to go deep, and I couldn’t be happier. I’d been sitting on those Zealios for what felt like forever waiting for the right board to put them in, tempted to use them on my Gherkin build, on my Maxipad build, even the Christmas Tree Macropad tempted me! I held out, which is crazy patient for me, and it totally and completely paid off. I hope you enjoyed this write up, and if you hadn’t previously considered an ortholinear or a split board here’s hoping I helped you decide.