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Review: Planck EZ ergonomic keyboard – unique shape, great feel

The little keyboard who could.

planck 40 percent ortholinear keyboard
Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

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Ever since the early days of typewriters, the QWERTY arrangement of keys has been the standard, with its staggered rows that supposedly were designed to slow down typists so they wouldn’t jam up. Now, I’m not sure if the jamming was a thing or if it was a convenient myth, but the fact is that most computer keyboards also have this configuration.

The thing is, that layout was invented for typing, you know, writing in English. The languages typed on a computer have evolved in that time though. I mean, there’s all the world’s spoken languages for a start, then there are all the non-spoken languages used in coding. Is the staggered column arrangement still the best one?

Enter the ortholinear layout. Instead of staggered columns, all the keys on the keyboard are arranged in a sensible grid. Think about it, ortho and linear both mean straight. That’s a grid, like your downtown roads. Now, a guy called Jack Humbert has often been credited with the popularity of ortho boards, and that’s a nice segue into the keyboard we’re looking at today, since the Planck EZ is his design, turned into a mass-market keyboard with a warranty and the level of support that only a full company could provide.

Wait, that’s a keyboard?

planck ez keyboard

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Planck EZ was a large Hershey’s bar if it came with deep brown keys. It’s what’s known as an ortholinear 40 percent, with the keyboard having roughly 40 percent of the keys of a normal, 104-key plank. The Planck has 47 keys (one less than 48 because the custom space bar takes up two spots on the grid).

In those 47 keys, magic happens. See, tendon strain while typing is partly due to stretching from the ‘home row’, aka the ASDFGHJKL; line. I mean, the number row is a stretch, never mind the function key row above that. A 40 percent keyboard reduces that strain by having just the alpha keys and putting everything else on ‘layers’ so you don’t have to stretch.

planck ez keyboard

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

You’re already used to layers, possibly without realizing it. Every time you press “SHIFT + letter” or “CTRL + letter” you’re accessing another layer on your keyboard to send a second command from the same key. The Planck EZ just takes that concept further, with the Lower and Raise keys. Now, instead of just 47 keys, you’ve got 47 on the middle layer, 44 on the Raise layer, and 44 on the Lower layer. That’s 112 keys to program into your own layout, more than the 104-key keyboard you might be using right now.

keyboard configuration

Image: ZSA

Once you’re used to using your thumbs as a modifier, you can string together some impressive combos. Again, the Planck EZ takes this concept further. You can program two things to the same key (without using the modifiers, so tapping it does one thing, holding it down does another. You can also flash the board to auto-SHIFT, so tapping a key enters the lowercase, and holding it gives you the uppercase or symbol.

keyboard layout menu

Image: ZSA

Before ZSA got involved with the Planck EZ, the only way to get this keyboard was to buy a kit in a group buy, wait for that group buy to be manufactured, and then put it together yourself. That meant learning to solder, making this little ortho gem out of the reach of anyone who didn’t want to build their own keyboard.

Now, all you have to do is to specify if you want the basic or the Glow version (which adds per-key RGB), if you want etched or no keycaps (if you prefer to source your own), if you want black or white, and your preference of mechanical key switches from the 13 choices between Cherry and Kailh.

It’s also hotswap capable, so you can swap key switches yourself, without picking up a soldering iron. That makes it more customizable, allowing for a different feel for the modifier keys, or for the ones you have configured to serve as arrow keys on a second layer. It’s simple to do in seconds, and it fits perfectly with ZSA’s ethos of sustainability.

Sustainable development

keyboard switch up close

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

See, everything from the keyboard up is sustainable at ZSA. The keyboard switches are the most common failure point, and the hotswap sockets mean you can replace them when, or indeed if, they fail. It’s got a removable cable because that’s one of the other common failure points. You can even open it up with a Phillips screwdriver, but you’ll lose your warranty if you do so before the two years is out.

It’s running open-source firmware called QMK. The whole source code is up on GitHub, freely available to fork and brew your own version. I mean, can you think of another keyboard company that does that? Want the final word on how sustainable it is? iFixit gave ZSA’s other keyboard, the Ergodox EZ a 10 for repairability. A 10. Seriously. With the Planck EZ being a simpler design, it’s a fair bet that it’d get a 10 too (but only because the scale stops there).

The rest of the company is just as sustainable. The higher-than-normal price? That pays for employees who create your keyboard in an office space in Taiwan, when you order it. No assembly line factory here. They get overtime, benefits, holidays, all the things you associate with a responsible employer.

What’s it like to use?

planck ez keyboard on table

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

Okay, let’s get typing. Well, in a minute. I totally forgot to say how I specc’ed mine out. I went for the Glow, because per-key RGB is great, and I went black because it always looks better in pictures. Then it’s keycaps with legends, because I can only take so much relearning my typing at once.

The last part of the equation is the key switches, and I opted for Kailh Gold Speed switches, which are a faster, softer version of clicky switches. Honestly, I chose these because it’s a switch type I didn’t already have experience with, and the hotswap sockets meant I could change them out if I found I didn’t like them.

I’ve been using it for a few months now, and while my typing speed isn’t anywhere near my normal speed yet, it’s steadily improving. I’ve also noticed that some things are faster, like using the arrow keys mapped to a second layer so I don’t have to move my fingertips off the home row. My gaming performance has also improved, as my WASD fingers don’t get cramped with the backwards offset of most keyboards.

Couple that with using a layer as a macro pad, and you’ve got a super capable keyboard for MMOs, real-time strategy games, and any other game you can think of. Its tiny stature also benefits FPS players, reclaiming desk space that is better used by your mousing hand.

The only real annoyance I have with the Planck EZ? The included USB cord is only 80cm long. That’s about 2 ½ feet, and it’s too short for desktop use on my desk. It’d be totally fine if used with a laptop though, and with how portable it is, that’s a great use case.

So, should I buy a Planck EZ?

planck ez keyboard parts

Image: Joe Rice-Jones / KnowTechie

If your current keyboard is feeling a little large, or if you want a capable, configurable keyboard to keep in your laptop bag, absolutely check out the Planck EZ.

It’s $180 for the base model or $195 for the Glow version, and I really recommend getting the glow. You can always turn it off if you don’t like the lights, but you can’t easily add the LEDs…

Editors’ Recommendations: 

Just a heads up, if you buy something through our links, we may get a small share of the sale. Click here for more. A sample unit was provided for the purpose of this review.

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Maker, meme-r, and unabashed geek with nearly half a decade of blogging experience at KnowTechie, SlashGear and XDA Developers. If it runs on electricity (or even if it doesn't), Joe probably has one around his office somewhere, with particular focus in gadgetry and handheld gaming. Shoot him an email at joe@knowtechie.com.

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