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Ultimate Hacking Keyboard: Gimmick or serious productivity tool?

This split keyboard can save your hands, wrists, and forearms from overuse issues. Here's how.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard in use.
Jack Wallen/ZDNET

When I initially plugged the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard into my System76 Thelio desktop computer and laid my fingers on its stiff and noisy keys, I thought I wouldn't enjoy using it. After all, words are how I make my living and I type a lot. Because of that, I need a keyboard that's going to work with me to help make my daily routine easier. 

Also: The best typewriter keyboards you can buy

This keyboard was different than anything I'd ever used. Sure, I'd tried ergonomic keyboards before but, generally speaking, they were too bulky and didn't help my wrists all that much. I also had another split keyboard, but it didn't last all that long and the spongy wrist rest quickly disintegrated on me. 

The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard, on the other hand, is built like a tank. I've been pounding away on this thing for years and it's still going strong. But what is it about the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard that makes it so good?

Let me count the way.

View at Ultimate Hacking Keyboard

The most important thing about the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard is twofold: the split design and the ability to "tent" the two halves such that my wrists remain in a more natural state. Instead of having to twist my hands so they are parallel with a flat surface, they remain at somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees. That's just enough tilt to relieve the pressure on my forearms and wrists. 

Review: Dygma Raise: Elevating the laws of ergonomics

So, not only can you spread the two halves into the perfect layout to keep your arms from having to work parallel to each other, but you also don't have to twist your wrists. That combination does wonders for those who experience carpal tunnel or chronic tendonitis (such as yours truly).

The Mod key

This is where things get a bit tricky for new users. The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard uses a Mod key (where the left half of the space bar would normally be) that works in conjunction with other keys to make it possible to always keep your fingers on the home row. 

For example, instead of a separate Delete key, you use the key combination Mod + "P". Other combinations include:

  • Mod + Y = page up
  • Mod + U = go to the beginning of a line
  • Mod + I = cursor up
  • Mod + { = print screen
  • Mod + } = screen lock
  • Mod + ; = insert

It takes a while to get used to working with the Mod key. It looks like it would be really confusing and, at first, that assumption is correct. But once your fingers and brain are used to those combinations, it becomes incredibly efficient. Imagine never having to take your fingers off the keyboard home row and still being able to do all the things you need with your keyboard.

Alternate keyboard layouts

Of course, there's also the Super (think "Windows") key and an Fn (Function) key that works in conjunction with other keys. For example (and this is one seriously impressive feature for certain user types), with the help of the Fn key you can switch between different keyboard layouts, such as:

  • Fn + F1 = QWERTY
  • Fn + F2 = Dvorak
  • Fn + F3 = Colemak for PC
  • Fn + F4 = QWERTY for Mac
  • Fn + F5 = Dvorak for Mac
  • Fn + F6 = Colemak for Mac

You'll probably never switch keyboard layouts, but for those who do prefer Dvorak or Colemak, making the switch is very easy.

Also: The best keyboard for your Mac is not an Apple keyboard

Customizing the keys

You can also download the Agent tool to customize your keyboard and even update the firmware. Although most users probably won't bother remapping the keys on their keyboard, it's very important to download Agent so you can easily update the firmware. With Agent, you can modify all four layers of the keyboard (Base, Mod, Mouse, and Fn). 

The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard Agent tool.

Updating the UHK firmware is just a click away.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

The "Mouse"

That's right, the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard can also serve as your mouse. You'll actually find a mouse button where the Shift Lock key would normally be. Press and hold the Mouse key and then use the cursor keys (I, J, K, L) to move the cursor on the screen. There are also two buttons below the Space and Mod keys. If you hold the Mouse button and press either the left or right buttons, you'll get either a left mouse click or a right mouse click.

That, my friends, is efficient.

Also: Why I use an ergonomic trackball mouse (and how it can save your wrists, too)

How much is the keyboard?

This is where it gets a bit dicey for some. The base unit costs $320. That's a big sum for a keyboard. There are also modules that can be attached to the keyboard like a touchpad, trackpoint, trackball, and key cluster, all of which cost $65 each. But given how utterly incredible this keyboard is, it is worth every penny for those who spend a lot of time typing. 

The only complaint I have is the space bar key is starting to stick, which is making it a challenge to type efficiently. And given this is the first iteration of the product, it doesn't have some of the bells and whistles found in the newer versions (such as the backlit keys). I'm pondering the purchase of a new UHK and this time going with the silent keys with less force to make typing a bit faster. 

But other than those issues, this keyboard has seriously saved me from years of agony in the wrists and has made my daily grind considerably more efficient.

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