The Esrille Nisse: Three Years Later

2019-11-13*
hardware, esrille, cherry mx

Over three years ago, I wrote a post describing the Esrille Nisse keyboard. This post is a reflection on the keyboard, more than 3 years later.

Layout

Ultimately I settled on a different layout than the one described in the old blog post. This was a result of many hands-on trial-and-error sessions over a period of weeks which turned into many months. In my old post I described writing a program to help find the optimal layout. This proved very difficult in practice, because encoding the optimization rules turned out to be non-trivial. One aspect that was particularly difficult was that the actualy physical shape of my own fingers played a part (some fingers were not as versatile as others, for example the pinky finger, and so the key-distance for certain fingers had to have different “weights”, and this was too much to translate into code).

Anyway, I read this post by Peter Norvig forwards and backwards, and used the values there to guide the design of my layout. One big realization after actual usage was that I could not let go of the QWERTY hjkl keys on the home row. There was just so much muscle memory built into these four keys (the only other key I could not let go of was the spacebar key that I used my left thumb for), that I had to “fix” them on the layout first. I then focused on getting the commonly-used keys right.

All that being said, here is my current layout.

      LEFT-SIDE     RIGHT-SIDE
    ---------------------------
    □ □ □ □ □ □     □ □ □ □ □ □
    □ □ 0 □ □         □ □ 0 □ 1
□ □ □ y o p z 1     2 f d t r □ □ □
2 / a i e u w ;     " h j k l n 4 : <--- Home row
  3 . x q v '         b m g c s 3
      8 5 6 7 4     5 , 6 7 8 <--------- Thumb row


Left-side legend
0) Escape
1) PgDn
2) Enter
3) Shift
4) Control
5) Super (Windows key)
6) Space
7) Caps Lock (remapped with xmodmap to Hyper key)
8) Right Alt (aka "AltGr" for US International Layout)

Right-side legend
0) Tab
1) Delete
2) PgUp
3) Shift
4) Backspace
5) FN2
6) FN
7) Alt
8) Right Alt (aka "AltGr" for US International Layout)

The main thing to note is the reduced number of keys that are mapped at all. I like this aspect a lot (not having to move my fingers around much at all) — I never have to reach for a particular key because everything is just so close.

I also dedicated a key just for the colon symbol (as a “Shift + semicolon” macro), because it comes up often enough in programming.

I should also note that the function keys (F1-F12) are situated on the topmost row, left-to-right. I just didn’t bother adding them to the legend because of symbol space constraints.

FN layer.

      LEFT-SIDE     RIGHT-SIDE
    ---------------------------
    □ □ □ □ □ □     □ □ □ □ □ □
    □ □ a □ □         □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ 7 8 9 □ □     □ □ \ _ = □ □ □
□ □ 0 4 5 6 □ b     b - { ( ) } a : <--- Home row
  c . 1 2 3 `         □ [ < > ] c
      □ □ □ □ □     □ □ □ □ □ <--------- Thumb row

Left-side legend
a) ~/ (a macro that inserts the string "~/")
b) End
c) Shift

Right-side legend
a) Backspace
b) Home
c) Shift

The FN layer has the majority of the punctuation keys I need. You might notice that some symbols like !@#$&*^ are not in here. This is because the numeral keys on the left side are actually the same numeral keys on the top row (not the Numpad) of a typical QWERTY layout. This means that I can just press FN+Shift to get these keys. This is the main trick that allowed me to reduce the number of keys used overall.

The “~/” macro in the left side is particularly useful as well.

FN2 layer.

      LEFT-SIDE     RIGHT-SIDE
    ---------------------------
    □ □ □ □ □ □     □ □ □ □ □ □
    □ □ □ □ □         □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □ □ □     □ □ □ □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □ □ □     □ a b c d □ □ □ <--- Home row
  □ □ □ □ □ □         □ □ □ □ e □
      □ □ □ □ □     □ □ □ □ □ <--------- Thumb row


Right-side legend
a) Left Arrow
b) Down Arrow
c) Up Arrow
d) Right Arrow
e) Shift + Insert macro (for pasting X primary buffer)

This layer is mostly empty, but it is used surprisingly frequently. I really like how the arrow keys line up with my hjkl keys in the main layer.

For the latest changes to my layout, check out this repo.

Typing Speed

It took me roughly 3 months of everyday use to get somewhat familiar with the layout, and probably another month or two to reach upwards of 60wpm.

It was painstakingly slow at first (it felt a lot like learning how to type all over again), but still “fun” because I noticed that I was getting better with time.

I think these days (after having used this keyboard every day for both my home and work PCs (yes, I have two of these!)) I can go higher than 60wpm.

Suffice it to say that there is never a time when I think “oh, I wish I could type faster” on this layout. My speed on this keyboard is about on par as with my old typing speed on QWERTY.

My typing speed on the old QWERTY layout hasn’t really changed. I still have to use it for when I use the keyboard on laptops. And surprisingly, my brain knows to “switch” to QWERTY when I’m typing on there — granted, this instinct took some time to kick in.

Was it worth it?

Yes.

The biggest thing I love about this layout is that I don’t have to move my right hand around when reaching for the typical “hard” keys on QWERTY (such as `[]{}`). I rarely (if ever) have typos when typing punctuation keys. The numeral keys being just underneath my left hand in a different layer is nice, too.

There are some “downsides” though in everyday life:

I don’t really play games that much though, and when I do I am usually on the separate gaming PC that just use a regular QWERTY layout so it’s not really a negative.

I guess the biggest downside of all is that the keyboard form factor on the Nisse is one-of-a-kind on the planet. If Esrille goes under, I would be worried about taking very good care of my keyboards in case one of the components breaks for whatever reason. I imagine that at that point, I would have to just create my own keyboard or make do with a shabby imitation using ErgoDox or some other form factor. I sincerely hope that that day never comes…!

Happy hacking!