If you’ve been hanging out on the corners of the internet that are obsessed with all things mechanical keyboard, you may have noticed some odd-looking designs: little rectangular boards with square keys in perfectly straight rows and columns. These are ortholinear keyboards, an interesting fad among the enthusiast crowd. What’s the deal? Let me explain for you.
“Ortho” is a Greek word meaning straight or rigid. It’s the same word we use as the base for orthodontics, the medical practice of straightening teeth practiced by an orthodontist. Combine it with “linear” to mean in a line, and you get ortholinear: an adjective that means something has a lot of straight lines.
What’s the point of a keyboard that looks so strange? To answer that, you have to wonder why you think a normal keyboard is, well, normal. The practice of staggering keys began with old mechanical typewriters: Because each key was connected to a bar that physically struck the paper. In order to fit multiple rows of keys, the keys were staggered in between each other.
In the video below, you can see the way the staggered arms on this 110-year-old typewriter activate the mechanisms that apply ink to the paper.
This design decision stuck around long after those physical bars were replaced with electrical signals, as the keys for electrical, then electronic typewriters adopted similar layouts to the old-fashioned designs. This, in turn, was passed on to most designs for computer keyboards. Because there’s no obvious downside to using staggered keys, once you develop the muscle memory for typing, there was no reason to adjust the design. This is now so common that we even use it on touchscreens.
It’s a lot like how the “Save” button is still represented by a floppy disk, decades after anyone’s actually used one in day-to-day computing. Designs made more than a century ago are still influencing how we interact with objects every day. Keep it in mind when you’re making small, apparently inconsequential choices.
Ortholinear keyboards don’t use a different key layout than standard keyboards, like the difference between QWERTY and DVORAK. Nope, they have the same general “map” of keys that you’re used to, just perfectly straight and parallel. To do this they usually cut some of the side keys, like Control, Enter, and Shift, down to just one key width (or they double up to 1×2 to keep it even).
So, what makes them better? Honestly, that depends on the user. Some users say that switching to a straight layout makes them faster typists because everything “makes more sense.” But of course, if you’ve been typing on a standard keyboard for a decade or more, there’s going to be an adjustment period as your fingers “learn” the slight differences from where your brain thinks the keys are supposed to be.
This learning period isn’t particularly long—nowhere near as long as learning a new layout. It seems to be about the same as the time it takes to adjust to a split ergonomic keyboard (and some users claim there are ergonomic benefits to the ortholinear layout, too). But of course, that period is going to be different for each user.
And similarly, there’s no telling how much benefit you’ll see after switching to an ortho layout … or if you’ll see one at all. It very much seems to be a point of preference from user to user.
Ortholinear keyboards aren’t a new invention: There are examples going back to the early days of computing. But the newer designs seem to bank on the fact that you can make them smaller to do just that: The one-space side keys can shave about an inch of the standard 60% layout, a few more if you go for a smaller 40% design. It’s worth considering if you’re trying to make the lightest, tiniest keyboard possible for a portable setup.
If you’re eager to try out an ortholinear board, you’re not alone. But you’re also not in such plentiful company that you can just find one on any Best Buy shelf. In fact, it’s pretty hard to find a premade ortholinear keyboard at all.
Because this is a trend that started in the mechanical keyboard community, the great majority of ortholinear keyboards out right now are homemade: Users buy a circuit board, a compatible case, and switches, and assemble all the parts with a soldering iron. They then have to plug the keyboard in (there are basically zero wireless examples) and program or adjust the key layout to their liking.
If you’re already a fan of building keyboards, great! Just look around for an ortholinear PCB with a layout you like, a compatible case, and supply your own switches. If you don’t want to do any of that, your options start to shrink very quickly.
The Planck design is generally where you want to start. This 40% keyboard has all the letter keys of a standard board but lacks a number or function row (and a lot of other keys). You have to use virtual layers to get to numbers. The Planck EZ is a version of this keyboard that comes preassembled, with switches and keycaps. It’s rather pricey at $230, but you can choose the color of the case and caps, as well as which switch you want.
Drop.com (formerly Massdrop) sells a version of this design, too, but it requires a bit of assembly. You’ll need to find your own compatible mechanical switches (which isn’t difficult). The kit costs just $110, and the sold-separately switches (you’ll want at least 48) will be $30-60 more, depending on what you choose. Drop’s listing may go in and out, so don’t be surprised if it isn’t active when you check it.
There’s one more fairly easy-to-find option: Koolertron. This company sells one-handed keyboards, also known as macro pads, in ortholinear layouts. Combine two of them and program them for the two sides of the keyboard, and you have a neat ortholinear board with an “ergonomic” split. The downside to this method is that you’ll need to buy two boards (which is still cheaper than any of the Planck options) and use two USB cords for the separate boards.
Koolertron One-Handed Keyboard
You can double up on these Koolertron keyboards, with some custom programming, to roll your own split ortholinear keyboard.
If you want a different keyboard, perhaps a larger one or something with more fancy options, you’ll have to track down the parts and build it yourself. It’s a bit of a chore, so I suggest finding a way to try out an ortholinear board first. You could buy one and selling it if you’re unsatisfied, or borrow one from a keyboard-loving friend.
If you’ve done your research and you’re ready to build your own ortho board, just do a search for a compatible PCB to get started. You’ll want a design that offers a case, too.
There are tons of different options here, mostly sold in small batches. The Planck design from OLKB remains the most popular, and it’s also easy to find cases for it. The ID75 is a similar design that’s a little larger (15 columns instead of 12), and might be easier to adjust to if you’re used to a full-sized board.
Once you’ve found the PCB and the case to go with it, add on some MX-compatible switches (and a USB cord if you don’t have one). Wait for your components to arrive, then heat up the old soldering iron.