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Atreus keyboard review

I feel hesitant reviewing the Atreus because I’m gonna come off so stupid for ordering it because the issues I have with it I shoulda been able to predict.

For background I have the HHKB Pro 2 and am very happy with its switches and layout and general form-factor. The reason I want to switch away is primarily that I don’t trust the HHKB Pro with my USB setup. It acts weird (sometimes stops responding) and it makes other stuff act weird. Also, I’m on my second HHKB Pro 2 (both have had these issues), and I occasionally remove the caps (not the switches) to clean under, and on this second one, the first time I did that the left shift got weird. It sometimes takes a while to pop back up.

Enter the Atreus. I thought the main appeal with is was that the layout was settable in hardware, which isn’t a big deal on Linux where it’s so easy to remap, but great on other weirdo devices amassed over the years.

On the HHKB, each keycap is molded to be perfect for its position, meaning you can’t easily switch keys around (so I have blank keycaps on mine). On the Atreus, each and every cap is the exact same, which doesn’t feel great (it’s easier to get lost on the keyboard) but has the advantage that it’s possible to remove and remap freely. Also on the HHKB when removing keycaps they can break so you always need to be careful doing that, here they are stuck on more like Lego pieces, doesn’t feel iffy at all to move them around.

My current layer #0 layout.

I moved over the five “;qjkx” keys one step to the right from normal dvorak (to better match what I’m used to from traditional staggered) and I even moved the x key over an extra step. I’m used to using my right hand to type that letter.

What’s not visible in that image but what’s like the best feature is that the Z key and Enter key, both on the lower right, double as an extra shift and an extra control, respectively. I love having that, I love having symmetric shift and control. When I’m in the typing position I use the opposite hand’s shift or control. When I’m drawing or browsing and I wanna do keyboard shortcuts w/o going all home row, I use the nearest shift or control.

The butterfly image key is delete (I like having a dedicated delete key for Inkscape. I put backspace on Fun+h) and the Any key is compose. Tapping alt sends esc.

Thumb-rolling

Basically in general, my philosophy is that a li’l bit of pinky-stretching is fine, good even as a break from the monotony of typing, whereas “thumb rolling in under the hand” is awful. It makes my hands hurt right away.

So while typing is mostly fine (this whole review was typed up on the thing), every time I need to use one of the keys under the fingers, it absolutely sucks! I hate doing that! I’m talking about the four keys that by default is Tab, Cmd, - and ’. On my current layout they are `, Super, - and . They are unreachable while there are two more that are reachable but a little bit uncomfortable. Shift and Fun on the default layout, Tab and / on mine.

Now, once I get settled in and figure out some positions for those keys on the upper layers, maybe I don’t have to break my arm every time I have to type a hyphen, but I haven’t yet. Layers? Yeah, that’s a cool thing about this kbd, that there are so many layers—although that’s also bad for lovers of vi or god-mode or other modal editing setups based around the idea that chording is way more straining than just hitting keys.

But it’s not only that there are those four keys that are completely unreachable. It’s also all the waste of easily accessible keys that are just gone. Listen, I used the HHKB w/o arrow keys or numpad but it’s not a stretch on HHKB for me when I’m on the homerow (dhtns on Dvorak) to reach up and easily type 67890. It’s easy to reach those numbers. On here, my pinkies to either side of the keyboard and all eight fingers on top of the keyboard, they reach out and it’s just air there. It’s like I’m using only half of my easily accessible range.

It’s like, the one thing I love the most about the HHKB is that the lower row is used so sparingly and only for super and alt things (window management, basically).

On their webpage, they have a li’l paper keyboard you can set up and print out and pretend typing on and I did that and I didn’t realize these issues until I started typing on the real thing. I plonked it down on the desk and felt physical keys as opposed to just printed squares on a flat paper, and like whoa, there could’ve easily been a key to the left of the A and to the right of the, uh, ; in the default layout and S on mine. (On the HHKB, I have Control there.)

But. I shoulda, coulda remembered that I had already thought appreciatively about these qualities on the HHKB. How one of the reasons I went to HHKB in the first place was because I hate the thumb-rolling on over-crowded laptop keyboards.

No direct access to numbers

At one point many years ago I did an experiment where I mapped the top row of numbers to !@#$%^&*(). I.e. I exchanged shift and non-shift for that row. That experiment lasted just a day or so because I ended up realizing how much I really appreciate being able to just easily type in numbers. Not only for data entry but also for things like prefix args in Emacs (especially with god-mode).

Why the heck didn’t I remember that experiment before ordering this thing? I’m kicking myself for that.

Sending non-ASCII chars

This one is the third instance of me and my tremendous stupidity—not to keep hammering the self-deprecation but I really had a huge lapse of judgment when ordering this thing. My decision process was one I’ve used many times: read up on something, be like “OK, that looks a really nice item, let me hold off on ordering that”, have it sit in the back of my mind for a few months, and then after those months have passed be like “OK, now it’s time to go for this thing!” And that’s a process that’s frankly bad, if judged by track record. A lot of really bad purchases have slipped through that process, while some other things that I really love, I coulda gotten faster or cheaper if I hadn’t hesitated so long. Or other things that I did buy right away have ended up being among my favorite things.

Basically the more waiting, the more expectation, and the more disappointment.

Uh, wait, this section was labeled “non-ASCII chars” so let’s get to that.

OK, so normally I type using US Dvorak (since I was a teenager in the 1990s) using various weirdo input methods and compose sequences to get non-ASCII chars like å or 南. Which means… Using a keyboard on other devices is a hassle. A huge unique selling point for this thing was that the remap is in hardware. Something I used to roll my eyes at back in the day before Android, weird game consoles etc. On Linux, Windows and Mac it was easy to change keyboard layouts. So I thought this is gonna be great, I’m just gonna be able to plug it in anywhere that expects a us qwerty and I’ll be in dvorak heaven and can still type international b/c the layers.

But. Of course no keyboard can send non-ASCII chars. And I knew that, on some level. I just temporarily brain-lapsed. Which means that if I wanna use this on Android (which I haven’t tried yet, I’d need to get some OTG cables—and on the desktop I’m gonna need a longer USB cable. As it it, I’m daisy-chaining it through the HHKB, which kinda defeats the purpose of getting away from the HHKB’s iffy USB stack in the first place), I would still need to fiddle with keymaps or weird settings in order to type unusual chars.

Which kinda defeats the purpose of hardware remapping in the first place.

Lightning Round

Non-conclusion

I just really don’t know what to do. I’m not really eager to keep using the HHKB because of the USB issues.

I respect that there’s a learning curve—this is after just one day—and that I need to get my upper layers sorted out better.

Some of the issues are fundamental. It’s setup to favor chording over modal. That’s just how it’s designed. I’ll experiment some more with layer locks and one-shot–layer-switching to mitigate that somewhat.

Also my fingers do hurt on this thing. That’s hopefully more to a passing lack of familiarity than anything else.

Updates

So I switched to a newer version of Chrysalis and was able to better make use of secondary functions.

I put a hyphen on Fun. I also added some more symmetry to the modifier row. The center isn’t symmetrical, it’s still Alt and Compose, but inside out from there I put Layer #1, Layer #2, and Super, all on secondaries. The primaries aren’t symmetric. The left hand has a hyphen where the right hand has a Space, the left hand has a Tab where the right hand has a slash etc.

So that’s in good news. In bad news it’s stills, there’s still sometimes a slowness to typing in emacs, a problem I occasionally had with the HHKB and which was one of the reasons why I wanted to switch to this. Maybe there’s some issue with it, like a huge rcirc buffer in the background or something. But it’s just one more of the reasons why I wanted to switch that’s proving itself to be a moot reason (like the non-ASCII thing).

Also it attracts dust and fibers like nothing else I’ve ever had. I vacuum twice a week and I don’t have any pets but I’m ashamed of posting that picture up top because it’s already so gross after just one day.

The thing is that using the primary+secondary thing, i.e. that some keys do one thing when you tap them and another when you hold them, make those keys worse at both. They just feel worse, slower, less responsive.

Putting a secondary on space ended up being a really bad idea. I can’t have that on the most used letters, and space is like the most used letter. I removed that, breaking the symmetry. Having it on z and Enter is fine.

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