Ergodox EZ vs Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB Gaming

published : 2020-03-21 changed: 2020-04-30

category: global --> keyboards


I'm a big fan of the Ergodox EZ keyboard and have already written a hymn of praise here. I type a lot, in my free time (e.g. here) or at work. Since I actually spend 75% of my time on / in front of a keyboard, this is an important topic for me. The Ergodox-EZ was the first keyboard that I really used for years and it showed me what is really important when it comes to keyboard for my daily use.

Ergodox Review

I've been using the Ergodox-EZ (s) for more than 5 years now and I really can't complain so far. Because the keyboard is split, you can adjust it to your needs for your personal work - that's great and also indispensable for me. Because this also significantly reduces the strain on the wrists and shoulders. This is important for me, as the use of "normal" Keyoards caused paint (the motorcycle accident a few years ago left its mark).

The build quality is really good for a Kickstarter project. I got Cherry's keyswitches and they are really beyond any doubt, although the "color" must of course correspond to personal taste. I my opinion the "Cherry MX Brown" offer a good compromise, so that you also can use it in the office without getting everyone upset due to the noise.

However, there are a few minor "problems" (complaining about first world problems here emoji people:smirk) that annoyed me:

  • The small number of buttons - I always miss one or the other. I would particularly like to have cursor keys in "inversed T" shape and that is unfortunately not possible here emoji people:angry I now notice that I use the cursor keys a lot more on the Kinesis Freestyle than on the Ergodox where I always switched to mouse / trackpad when I wanted to place the cursor. It's somehow easier now.
  • Because you don't have "enough" keys for the entire German layout, you often have to assign keys twice. In my layout, CTRL and y are on the same key, if you type briefly, if a y is typed, if you hold the key, CTRL is pressed. That doesn't sound bad at first, if you then need CTRL, you have to wait a bit. Especially when working in the shell, you often need CTRL-A or CTRL-E - and you have to wait a few hundred milliseconds before you can press the 2nd key so that this is recognized correctly. When typing those keystrokes in the shell, this often leads to errors and it somehow feels "slowed down".
  • You have to get used to it if you use a "normal" keyboard again - which leads to strange mistakes there
  • The "Thumb Cluster" (the buttons that can be reached with the thumb) is ineffective - well, most of them. There are 6 buttons in total, but you can actually only reach 2 of them comfortably with your thumb. The others are strictly "useless" and are not used.
  • I think its strange that the "Wrist Rests" are separate, they slip again and again and you fiddle with things all the time. It would be better if they were attached to the keyboard
  • The tenting of the keyboard is good, stable metal, it is well made. But why the hell is it only 3 feet? So I can't really tilt the keyboard very far (maybe about 7 °) without a corner hanging in the air and then everything starts to shake when I type. It feels really uncomfortable. Again: good start, unfortunately not thought through to the end.
  • If you play a game from time to time, especially with first-person shooters or alike, the layout of the Ergodox is a bit of a hindrance. The defaults of most games cannot be used comfortably or things just do not work (like the double assignment for the y/ctrl key). That is why a separate layer is necessary so that you can adapt it to some extent. However, this may lead to the fact that you can no longer type normally ... a vicious cycle ...: smirk:
  • by having up to 32 such layers, you get confused about which switch is which

I would have liked a little more feedback for the last point, e.g. through LEDs, preferably RGB LEDs under each key...

Ergodox-EZ recently built something like this with the RGB LEDs, but only roughly. With the Ergodox Glow you can only "illuminate" the "normal" letter keys in the US layout. Unfortunately, for a German layout, those that are not backlit are also assigned normal buttons, e.g. the ä and the ß. I find that - frankly - stupid. I also don't understand why this is done so half-baked. The Ergodox Infinity keyboard sports LEDs on all keys. Unfortunately, it was only available as DYI-kit and the individual parts for it are currently no longer in stock anywhere.

I really think the Ergodox-EZ is a great keyboard, but this is a bit annoying.

In general, I think that they have held back a lot with innovation. There are now three variants of the Ergodox-EZ, the normal one, the Shine (has an LED strip on the back that you can program ... looks like ambient Light) and the Glow, which has RGB LEDs for part of the keys.

In addition to that they have now released the Planck keyboard: this is much smaller and anything but ergonomic. The thing is about the size of half an Ergodox EZ. This is practical to carry around, but what for? It sells somehow, but I don't think it's great.

The biggest "innovation" is that there is now a fantastillion number key switch types you can choose from. And that these switches can also be replaced on the board. Wow ... that's great when one's broken. But otherwise it doesn't knock my socks off. Sure, there are a couple of keyboard nerds who will go crazy if WSAD has other keyswitches than the rest of the keyboard ... it's not really important for normal typing.

Then a few words about software / firmware. This is not 100% "good" either. You can download the qmk firmware and create and compile a layout in C yourself. This gives you the most opportunities and flexibility. But in addition, that not anybody is capable of doing that, it's really annoying! Everytime you have to reinstall your computer you first have to install a GCC and cross-compiling environment, before you can change something on your keyboard. That is fun at first, but grows awful soon.

Ergodox-EZ has now released a web based configurator that you can use to configure your keyboard. However, there are a few features missing, which are very important imho. Such as:

  • Macros support - completely missing
  • The configuration is quite graphical, but sometimes cumbersome. In addition, support for German Mac layout is missing, which leads to strange effects
  • Some functions of the firmware are also completely missing, e.g. Leader Key (pressing the Leader Key followed by a certain combination of other keys within a certain time triggers a certain action) or Tapdance (pressing a key several times does something different than if I only press it once).

I used all of these functions in my layout, and so I am stuck to the QMK sources. That is not really a problem for me, but it is already cumbersome ... unfortunately.

Many of the functions are real gimmicks. For tap dancing e.g. I can hardly think of a practical use.

However, QMK solved the switching between the layers superbly! There are many different ways: as long as you hold a key, or toggling on / off, or if you type something, its normal, holding the key switches to another layer and and and ... This ton of options is really great. Some of those are also available in the Configurator, but - of course - the most complex ones are missing.

As I said, first world problems emoji people:smirk.

A special feature of QMK is that the layouts can overlap each other and are "stacked". For example: I have a default layer and in the next active layer only some changes are defined. The other buttons remain as they are defined in the default layout. So if I change the default Layer, all subsequent layers, that do not change that specific key, also get that change.

This is awesome when you can "stack" more than one layer. On the default layer, you add a layer for changing some keys for number keys, and then an additonal one to have an inversed-T cursor clustor somewhere else. But I do not have to have them both on at the same time.

Unfortunately, there is no "stagging" of the layers in the configurator either. But at least the fallback to default layer 0 remains.

Since one of my keyboards is starting to act crazy (after more then 5 years of heavy usage that is), I had really thought about ordering a new Ergodox EZ keyboard. But because some things are not 100% - at least for me - and because that thing is really expensive, I took a look around ... and after a lot of research I end up with the relatively new Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB keyboard.

Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB

I couldn't find a review on the internet that compared an Ergodox to Kinesis' Freestyle Edge. So, here is a review of Freestyle edge RGB by an Ergodox user.

Actually, RGB (i.e. LEDs under each key, which can shine in 16 million colors) is not absolutely necessary, but a nice gimmick, at least for the home office and to recognize the layers mentioned. with the Freestyle, however, it is quite helpful, because otherwise the different layers/profiles cannot be recognised at all.

Prices

Kinesis offers a similar keyboard without RGBs (Freestyle Pro), but that would have been more expensive, for whatever reason. Is 100% the same thing, but without LEDs. With the WristRest and the Tent Riser you end up at about 5 € more (depending on the shop and shipping costs of course, but you won't get it cheaper)

But the Ergodox Glow would currently be a even more expensive: you'd have to ship it from the USA (there is no reseller in Germany), so you have to pay import tariff. The base price with tent kit and palm rests is $ 354, - about 325 € + import tariff 62 € + processing fees, shipping etc then makes this about 425 €. There the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB with approx. 310€ including the tent kit almost sound like a bargain.

In contrast to the fantastic number of key switch types at Ergodox, you can only choose between 2 key types for the Freestyle Edge RGB: Cherry MX Brown and Cherry MX Red. The latter are gaming switches that have little tactile feedback but more speed. Oh yes, speed ... the freestyle has a response time of 1ms - I haven't been able to find out what that is with the Ergodox EZ, but as some keyboard manufactorers point that out quite loudly, it seems to be something good emoji people:smirk

If you compare the two keyboards, the Freestyle Edge RGB seems huge and looks as if you had sawed through the middle of a "normal" keyboard without a number pad. Only the keyboard has a few more keys - in particular the macro keys on the left side of the keyboard (11 in total, of which 2 are already programmed for with LED on and FN) are noticeable. You have full blown row of function keys F1 to F12 (which I really missed during programming) and cursor keys in "Inverse-T" alignment - and they had me: smirk:

The palm rests are very comfortable and well padded. In contrast to the dust magnets that come with the Ergodox. They really attracted the dust extremely. And feel really hard in direct comparison. The wrist rests on the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB are firmly attached to the keyboard. So they don't slip and you don't fiddle around all the time.

Advice: If you want to buy a freestyle edge or the freestyle pro, buy it in any case with the "Kinesis Edge Lift Kit" (unfortunately subject to a surcharge). Without that, the keyboard is only half as good!

The keyboard has a total of 98 keys, I think - have not found the number now, but at least significantly more than the 76 of the Ergodox EZ ...

build quality

The Kinesis board feels better than the Ergodox-EZ, it all feels valuable. This is particularly noticeable with the cables - with the Ergodox there are normal cables. They look like they were bought in the next craft shop around the corner. They look somehow cheap. Simply mini USB and a "stereo headphone cable" to connect the two halves. After all, the cables are removable and not soldered.

With the Freestyle Edge, the cables are braided and by default 50% of the connecting cable between the halves is stowed in one half of the keyboard. If necessary, you can prolong the cable up to 20".

Disadvantage: the cables are fixed and cannot be removed. Which is a bummer, it would be more flexible. But the quality is still much better than with the Ergodox EZ.

Keys and functions

There is a key cluster that sits on the top right half.

These keys are probably not mechanical - at least they don't feel that way, and you can't change the keycaps that easily. They are not lit either. There is a total of 4 buttons: Profile, Macro, Remap and a button that has a gear symbol printed on and is called the "SmartSet" button.

You can change the currently active profile by pressing the Profile button. There are 2 small white LEDs above the profile button, which indicate which profile is currently active. Anyone who knows the binary system knows that with 2 LEDs you can display a maximum of 4 different values ​​- 9 profiles and only 4 I can tell from the LEDs. The RGB lighting is almost imperative! The Profile button actually makes no sense for this, especially since you can only switch between the first 4 profiles with the button anyway.

With the Macro button you can easily define macros on the fly. With Remap I can directly change the mapping of the keyboard. The most important thing is this SmartSet button.

Attention: those makros and remapping is stored on the keyboard and it won't reset. This is a bummer... so you more or less only have permanent macros.

The SmartSet button, used in conjunction with F7-F12, numbers or the Profile key, then offers the following functions.

  • SmartSet button + Profile button: Reloading the current profile. This is very useful if you tweak the configurations (either using the software or by editing the file directly) and profiles and want to see / try it out.
  • SmartSet + F7: Status output:
FS Edge RGB
KBD Firmware: 1.0.98.us )4MB=, 09-04-2019
LED Firmware: L1.0.4-R1.0.4-BL1.0
Profile: 1 Reactive
Remaps: 16
Macros: 18
Macro Sped: 5
Game Mode: Of
NKRO Mode: On
Status Sped: 4
  • SmartSet + F8: This enables the so-called V-Drive, which is the internal storage of the keyboard, which is simply mounted as a drive via USB. And that's where the layouts and settings are stored - simple text files that are just as easy to edit. If you want to work with the SmartSetApp, the Vdrive must be mounted.
  • SmartSet + F9: Set playback speed of macros
  • SmartSet + F10: Switch on/off N-key rollover.
  • SmartSet + F11: Game mode - deactivates the Windows key ... no matter what the key is is mapped to emoji people:expressionless
  • SmartSet + F12: reset! Reset all.
  • SmartSet + key 1-9: activate the corresponding profile.

But we are already at a difference. There are no profiles at Ergodox-EZ. There are up to 32 layers. The Kinesis Freestyle Board has only 2 layers, but up to 9 profiles ... Well, actually there are always 9, they just do not differ. So that makes 18 layers in Ergodox terminology - just a bit more than half.

Well, who needs so many layers, you don't use that many anyway. And that's probably true. A total of 4-5 layers would be sufficient for most cases. But for switching between the profiles and layers on the kinesis, you are unfortunately pretty fixed. you can only switch between the profiles with a certain key ("profile") or by pressing the "SmartSet" key with one of the keys 1-9.

The button for changing from the normal to the "FN" layer (this is what the second layer is called) is freely assignable (thank god) and the switch can either be a toggle (so press it and you are in the FN layer until you press it again) or similar to Shift (i.e., FN Layer is active only as long as the key is pressed)

But you are not nearly as flexible in configuring the Kinesis as you are in Ergodox. But that doesn't have to be a problem, because you have enough keys available. And that is exactly the big advantage over the Ergodox - but also a small disadvantage, because it all takes up space on the desk. And you have to get your hand / fingers to those keys somehow. One tends to move more with the kinesis board.

The "problems" mentioned above with the Ergodox EZ do not exist this way with the Kinesis keyboard, but there are a few things that work differently:

  • There is locally running, dedicated software for the configuration (Windows and MacOS). The configuration itself is stored in "simple" text files on the keyboard. So you could also correct your mapping via vi. : smirk:
  • oh yes, you can change the mapping directly without the software using the keyboard. There’s a "remap" button that I mentioned above. This allows "on the fly" keys to be reassigned (e.g. very nice if English is accidentally set again instead of German to swap the y and z). But this changes the on board stored file, so this change is permanent.
  • You can also store predefined macros via the software
  • You can also define and play macros on the fly (those are added to your profile)
  • Unfortunately, you cannot put the switch to a profile on a specific key
  • there are no German keycaps from Kinesis directly ... This is not so tragic if you can touch type (like me), but it also irritates me. I got a replacement set from directly from USA (Maxkeyboard.com), without labels, but translucent to the LEDs. I left the special keys as they are now. Also the F keys ... because they are not assigned twice (as with the Ergodox), they can stay that way. The two space keys cannot be replaced at all, I have not found a shop offering keycaps with a width of 3.5U. So in the end it looks quite exciting ... and futuristic.

This is how "Translucent blank keycaps" look like on the kinesis freestyle edge rgb:

The whole thing requires a little getting used to in any case. No matter if you come from a normal "Ansi" keyboard, or from an Ergodox.

Details and review of Freestyle Edge RGB

I'm not quite through with the configuration, but as far as I can tell that I got almost everything working:

  • the most important: the two space keys are configured differently. As with the Ergodox I have space on the left and backspace on the right key. That makes so much sense, I don't want a keyboard without the feature anymore.
  • Since I have a few problems switching the layers, I had to be stick with FN a lot. I got the "Special" layer of the Ergodox layout (there are all brackets on the right half of the keyboard, helps a lot with programming) by just assigning the keys in the FN layer. The LEDs also highlight these buttons, which really improves orientation. I can also use ˚ and ^ to achieve what would have been a pretty monkey grip.
  • I have now saved the number keys in profile 3. on the ergodox I could switch to those with just hitting another Layer Toggle key. But on the Kinesis, I need to switch profiles for that. This can be achieved quite simply by pressing the "Profile" button twice. The LEDs corresponding to the number keys are then highlighted by the LEDs
  • I used Layer 4 for ADNW-XOY. I noticed a bug: when switching profiles the Tap'n'Hold keys do not work properly at first, they still show the behavior of the previous layer. You then have to select the layer again to get it working.
  • The configuration is really a bit cumbersome but good brain jogging. The software works exclusively with the English/US layout. That would not be much of a problem, but if you e.g. if you want to store a macro, you have to enter the characters as if you were on an American keyboard and type it in. For e.g. a text smiley :-) results in something like </( - not really intuitive
  • The software supports the dark mode of MacOS inadequately, because the macros are then displayed with black writing on an almost black background - not really legible.
  • for some reason you can't put macros on the modifier keys (CMD, Shift, CTRL, ALT) ... no idea what the reason is, but it's a shame. Funnily enough, I can assign "normal" keys
  • Unfortunately there are no German or OSX keycaps directly from Kinesis - at least not just like that. But with the blank keycaps from maxkeyboard.com it actually improved a bit as the keys are sculpted. emoji people:thumbsup

All in all, the software feels somewhat unfinished. Some things don't go the way you think. Sometimes messages pop up, telling you that Tap & Hold does not work on FN and when the same key as it in normal mode ... ok ... where does that come from?

In general, newer features of the keyboard are still a bit buggy. Tap & Hold e.g. has only been added with the latest firmware version. And in the "Reactive LED scheme", which highlights the pressed key a different color for a short time, does not work with keys, that have Tab'n'Hold enabled.

For example, you cannot enter Hyper in a tap & hold action via the software - however, directly in the layout file (with Vi: smirk :)

It all feels a little unpolished, unfortunately. The limitation of the keyboard to 9 profiles is probably due to the fact that it was not possible to assign more keys to it (switching is only possible with a SmartSet key + number - for the first 4 also with the Profile key).

What is also striking is that the keyboard is probably a little under-powerd in terms of computing power. When I press a button that changes Layer and therefore the the LEDs of several buttons (number cluser or something like that), I can almost watch the LEDs light up one after the other. Either this is programmed quite inefficiently, or the hardware is underpowered.

You can see that in some other places where the keyboard feels a bit "lame", especially with macros etc. I can hardly believe the 1ms response time here.

I expect more for that price tag and I really hope that they will improve here. You should be able to switch between the profiles on any key, defining it yourself. That would give the thing a real added value.

Then you should leave out the stupid profile button right away, because I cannot use it to call up profiles over 4. Conceptually makes no sense. or give it some additional useful functionality - or make it programmable, so that you can decide, what it should do.

The build quality is really extremely good. Nothing rattles (apart from the buttons :smirk :), even better than with the Ergodox EZ.

Typing feels surprisingly different than on the Ergodox, although both use Cherry-MX Brown switches. The typing feel on the Kinesis keyboard is "firmer" and I find it more pleasant.

Conclusion

Was the change good or bad now? Honestly, after a couple of days using I think so. At the moment I think it's all very good, I just have to get used to it.

I will probably play with the Freestyle edge RGB for a few more days / weeks, then let's see how it feels and post an update here.

But I can already tell: Typing feels more valuable, but the software still has problems.

But I would also like to put this into perspective: in comparison to the grotty software from the Razer Chroma keyboard, the SmartSet app for the Kinesis Freestyle Edge is a revelation! Razer's software force you online. Your keyboard does not work properly when you are not online. And a lot just didn't work as it should, especially on Mac OSX. And it was not really intuitive to use neither.

Just the automatic change between the profiles for the Razer Chroma is a feature that should also somehow find its way into the software of the Kinesis Keyboard. It would need some kind of API or something ... If they could build that in ... a dream.

So even with the perceived incomplete software, the Kinesis is clearly the winner in the sector against Ergodox EZ, even if the EZ offers significantly more features in programming.   If it weren't for the price difference of at least € 125 and the poorer build quality (cables - although you can buy replacement) and less suitable features for international users (LEDs only on the US letter keys), the two would be probably really equivalent.

So I have to say that the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB offers the more attractive overall package and you get more for your money.

Nevertheless, I miss the "thumb cluster" on the freestyle board. I really thought that the Ergodox was great from the idea, only the execution was rather poor, because - as already described - half of the keys in the thumb cluster cannot be used as intended.

One point that I have not mentioned above is the "ortholinear" layout of the Ergodox board. Since the keys are not staggered, as on a normal keyboard, but directly arranged one below the other. (The staggered layout was developed for typewriters).

Typing on an ortholinear keyboard is better, the keys are more "ergonomic", it seems. This is something where kinesis should have had more courage.

The bugs in the software and the missing functions are also a problem. Something has to be done by kinesis there. The best thing would be to install QMK.

Apparently the 100% keyboard just doesn't exist for me ... the question remains: what is the best compromise?

created Stephan Bösebeck (stephan)