30 Keys

In January 2022, I wrote about my newly-created 34-key split keyboard layout. It was another step on my journey from full-size keyboards — which have over a hundred physical keys — to TKL boards, then to 65%, then 40%, and so on down.

When you get into mechnical keyboards, and then give yourself permission to explore some of the more unusual form factors and fewer keys, what you tend to find is that the reduced finger-movement on smaller keyboards is very attractive. It has a fluid feel, and it transfers the burden of typing in what for me is a lifelong pleasing direction: away from the physical, and towards the mental.

The challenge of a small keyboard is in mastering its configuration, and learning how to quickly and accurately type characters that are now mostly hidden on layers rather than bound to an actual key. The instinct, for me and many others, is to try to remove as many keys as possible while still being able to type and control everything you need to. Accordingly, having reached a high level of comfort with my 34-key setup (three rows of five keys, plus two thumb keys below, per hand), I wanted to go further.

Here’s a diagram of my first 30-key layout.

Diagram showing base layer of 30-key keyboard layout

(You can also view a full diagram of all layers.)

It’s very close to my earlier 34-key layout, with just a few reconfigurations. I took the opportunity to remove a few functions I wasn’t using, even though I still have room for them: screen brightness control, single-key Redo, the ultra-slow speed for mouse control, dedicated keys for asterisk and en-dash, a duplicate comma key on the numpad layer, and a duplicate one-shot Shift key on the base layer’s left thumb cluster. Those changes left me with the opening to facilitate dropping two of the three remaining keys I wanted to remove: the layer-switching keys.

First, though, let’s deal with Space. Having briefly tried Space as a combo (on B+N), and as the bottom-right corner key (with a hold function to give me question-mark), I found that the decades-long muscle memory of using my right thumb for Space was very powerful indeed, so I put my Space key where N used to be, and moved the N, M, comma, and full-stop keys each one position to the right. My forward-slash/question-mark key is in the numpad cluster on the Num layer. This means I can still use my right thumb to tap Space, but that’s not all it does. Let’s talk about the layer-switching keys.

They now exist on the B and Space keys as hold functions, i.e. the two bottom inner corner keys, analogous to where they were when I had thumb clusters. It turns out that this is pretty intuitive, and my thumbs still seem happy enough to trigger them. If I tap B, it’s B; if I hold it, it switches to the numpad layer until it’s released. I used the QMK firmware’s “hold when any other key is pressed” configuration option to ensure that, if I hold either B or Space and then tap another key immediately (even before the usual minimum period required in order for the press to be recognised as a hold instead of a tap), it immediately holds the layer-switching key.

This gives me a 30-key layout that’s a very good approximation of my previous 34-key setup, with just a small amount of reorientation. Getting to fewer than thirty keys will be a challenge, but never say never.

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to talk about this, I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter.