What is it?
In April 2022 I bought the ZSA Moonlander. It's a customizable split mechanical keyboard, and each half can be tilted.
8 months later I bought the "Platform" accessory - a stand that adds a lot of weight and allows each half to be tilted up to 57 degrees. The extra weight and anti-slip pads stop each half from sliding and make the keyboard feel stronger and heavier.
I bought it partly as an experiment and partly as a toy. The review articles were glowing and I figured that I spend so much time with a keyboard that even a small improvement would create a big benefit over time.
Hardware setup and customization
The Moonlander is very customizable - you can change the angle that each half is tilted at, and of course you can position each half to be whatever distance and rotation you find comfortable. The keyboard caps are a standard size so you can replace them if you want to, though I haven't done this. The standard caps feel great, and the idea is to use the keyboard without looking at it.
Key switches can be added or removed manually, without needing solder. This is a big advantage because the switches are the main source of noise and tactile feedback. Being able to choose your own switches will make the keyboard fit in with your preferences more than almost any other feature, and being able to experiment easily is useful. I would have found it difficult to select the correct switches when ordering the keyboard without experimenting first.
The Moonlander has all the RGB light options you can imagine, and I use none of them. It also has a mostly undocumented musical keyboard setting. You could play happy birthday to your colleagues if you wanted.
I modified the keyboard by adding some foam packaging into the housing so that the sound is duller and softer when typing. I also replaced the switches with ALIAZ Silent Tactile Switches - these were the only silent and tactile switches I could find, and I realised after some experimentation that I really wanted to be able to type quietly.
The software to program what each key does is also very customizable, and there are a lot of tools to help you practice too. This is an area that ZSA are really outstanding in my opinion. The keyboard supports multiple layers of keys, as well as macros, modifiers and combinations.
I was surprised by the scope of the software and firmware tools that ZSA offer - it's clearly not an afterthought to the main product but a core part of their offering. The tools really help you setup and get the most out of the keyboard and for the most part they do it simply and intuitively, with good explanations.
Even though there are plenty of online and offline tools to setup and program the moonlander, the changes themselves are to the firmware. You don't need any software to make the keyboard work. Plug the keyboard into any computer and it will work as expected.
The learning curve
Getting used to a split keyboard is not easy or fast. The first few weeks are really tricky because it feels so unusual to have your hands far apart, and muscle-memory tends to work against you.
I had never given much thought to the most ergonomic way of hitting a comma or question mark, and it took me a while to figure out an approach I was happy with.
I also found the amount of customization to be almost overwhelming - you can design your layout almost anyway you want. I'd never used thumb clusters before and found it easiest to avoid all but the two nearest thumb-cluster keys until I was more comfortable with everything else.
I found that I prefer to have each hand oriented towards the left side of each half, and that I want to keep my fingers close to the home-row as much as possible. This means that my hands are not symmetrical, and therefore the easiest keys to hit are not the same on both sides.
You can see my layout history here. Its been a long and iterative process.
Change things gradually. You can't go directly from using a laptop keyboard to your optimal split keyboard layout, You will have to have intermediate layouts that you tweak as you get used to things. Because:
- You don't know what the optimal layout is.
- The learning curve is too steep otherwise.
- Optimal depends on what keys you can comfortably hit, and that will change as your hands become more used to various movements that are unique to thumb clusters and split keyboards.
I quickly became comfortable with the tilting but the split took longer to get adapt to, I was used to pressing
nwith my left hand, for example.
"The Platform" is an accessory that lets you tilt (or tent) the Moonlander even further. It also makes each half a lot heavier and grips the desk far better. I think its still in beta - ZSA seem to be doing limited runs. Initially I dismissed it as expensive and unnecessary, but came to regret this and bought one from the second product run.
It adds a lot of weight and rigidity to the Moonlander and really changes how the product feels. It raises the keyboard up about 10mm or so, increases the tilt of each half, and in my opinion makes the keyboard look better and feel better. Most importantly, the extra tilt is more comfortable and it's easier to type quickly and accurately.
- I've learnt a lot more about keyboard ergonomics than I bargained for.
- I know that being able to type silently is more important than any other switch characteristic.
- When choosing which keys to use for a particular action, some actions benefit from a big unusual movement (like switching application by reaching for a thumb cluster), whilst some actions feel best when making a small fast movement (like typing punctuation).
- Having bought new switches, and the Platform accessory, this has become a really expensive keyboard. If I use it continually for many years then I think its a great investment - I'll rack up thousands of hours with it.
- Its taken 8 months of more or less daily usage to feel like I'm more productive, faster, and accurate than with a normal keyboard. It was usable after a couple of months, but only now does it feel faster.
- Your time investment will likely be different based on how rapidly you iterate to your ideal layout. If you write a lot of code then you will need to consider punctuation carefully, if you mainly write prose then I think you could arrive at your ideal layout faster.