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ZSA Moonlander Review

I am nowhere near qualified to review things objectively. Therefore this blogpost will mostly be about what I like about this keyboard. I plan to go into a fair bit of detail, however please do keep in mind that this is subjective as all hell. Also keep in mind that this is partially also going to be a review of my own keyboard layout too. I'm going to tackle this in a few parts that I will label with headings.

This review is NOT sponsored. I paid for this device with my own money. I have no influence pushing me either way on this keyboard.

a picture of the keyboard on my desk

Mara is hacker

Mara

That 3d printed brain is built from the 3D model that was made as a part of this blogpost.

tl;dr

I like the Moonlander. It gets out of my way and lets me focus on writing and code. I don't like how limited the Oryx configurator is, but the fact that I can build my own firmware from source and flash it to the keyboard on my own makes up for that. I think this was a purchase well worth making, but I can understand why others would disagree. I can easily see this device becoming a core part of my workflow for years to come.

Build Quality

The Moonlander is a solid keyboard. Once you set it up with the tenting legs and adjust the key cluster, the keyboard is rock solid. The only give I've noticed is because my desk mat is made of a rubber-like material. The construction of the keyboard is all plastic but there isn't any deck flex that I can tell. Compare this to cheaper laptops where the entire keyboard bends if you so much as touch the keys too hard.

The palmrests are detachable and when they are off it gives the keyboard a space-age vibe to it:

the left half of the keyboard without the palmrest attached

The palmrests feel very solid and fold up into the back of the keyboard for travel. However folding up the palmrest does mess up the tenting stability, so you can't fold in the palmrest and type very comfortably. This makes sense though, the palmrest is made out of smooth plastic so it feels nicer on the hands.

ZSA said that iPad compatibility is not guaranteed due to the fact that the iPad might not put out enough juice to run it, however in my testing with an iPad Pro 2018 (12", 512 GB storage) it works fine. The battery drains a little faster, but the Moonlander is a much more active keyboard than the smart keyboard so I can forgive this.

Switches

I've been using mechanical keyboards for years, but most of them have been clicky switches (such as cloned Cherry MX blues, actual legit Cherry MX blues and the awful Razer Green switches). This is my first real experience with Cherry MX brown switches. There are many other options when you are about to order a moonlander, but I figured Cherry MX browns would be a nice neutral choice.

The keyswitches are hot-swappable (no disassembly or soldering required), and changing out keyswitches DOES NOT void your warranty. I plan to look into Holy Pandas and Zilents V2 in the future. There is even a clever little tool in the box that makes it easy to change out keyswitches.

Overall, this has been one of the best typing experiences I have ever had. The noise is a little louder than I would have liked (please note that I tend to bottom out the keycaps as I type, so this may end up factoring into the noise I experience); but overall I really like it. It is far better than I have ever had with clicky switches.

Typing Feel

The Moonlander uses an ortholinear layout as opposed to the staggered layout that you find on most keyboards. This took some getting used to, but I have found that it is incredibly comfortable and natural to write on.

My Keymap

Each side of the keyboard has the following:

In total, this keyboard has 72 keys, making it about a 70% keyboard (assuming the math in my head is right).

My keymap uses all but two of these keys. The two keys I haven't figured out how to best use yet are the ones that I currently have the [ and ] keycaps on. Right now they are mapped to the left and right arrow keys. This was the default.

My keymap is organized into layers. In each of these subsections I will go into detail about what these layers are, what they do and how they help me. My keymap code is here and I have a limited view of it embedded below:

If you want to flash my layout to your Moonlander for some reason, you can find the firmware binary here. You can then flash this to your keyboard with Wally.

Base Layers

I have a few base layers that contain the main set of letters and numbers that I type. The main base layer is my Colemak layer. I have the keys arranged to a standard Colemak layout and it is currently the layer I type the fastest on. I have the RGB configured so that it is mostly pink with the homerow using a lighter shade of pink. The color codes come from my logo that you can see in the favicon or here for a larger version.

I also have a qwerty layer for gaming. Most games expect qwerty keyboards and this is an excellent stopgap to avoid having to rebind every game that I want to play. The left side of the keyboard is the active one with the controller board in it too, so I can unplug the other half of the keyboard and give my mouse a lot of room to roam.

Thanks to a friend of mine, I am also playing with Dvorak. I have not gotten far in Dvorak yet, but it is interesting to play with.

I'll cover the leader key in the section below dedicated to it, but the other major thing that I have is a colon key on my right hand thumb cluster. This has been a huge boon for programming. The colon key is typed a lot. Having it on the thumb cluster means that I can just reach down and hit it when I need to. This makes writing code in Go and Rust so much easier.

Symbol/Number Layer

If you look at the base layer keymap, you will see that I do not have square brackets mapped anywhere there. Yet I write code with it effortlessly. This is because of the symbol/number layer that I access with the lower right and lower left keys on the keyboard. I have it positioned there so I can roll my hand to the side and then unlock the symbols there. I have access to every major symbol needed for programming save < and > (which I can easily access on the base layer with the shift key). I also get a nav cluster and a number pad.

I also have dynamic macros on this layer which function kinda like vim macros. The only difference is that there's only two macros instead of many like vim. They are convenient though.

Media Layer

One of the cooler parts of the Moonlander is that it can act as a mouse. It is a very terrible mouse (understandably, mostly because the digital inputs of keypresses cannot match the analog precision of a mouse). This layer has an arrow key cluster too. I normally use the arrow keys along the bottom of the keyboard with my thumbs, but sometimes it can help to have a dedicated inverse T arrow cluster for things like old MS-DOS games.

I also have media control keys here. They aren't the most useful on my linux desktop, however when I plug it into my iPad they are amazing.

dwm Layer

I use dwm as my main window manager in Linux. dwm is entirely controlled using the keyboard. I have a dedicated keyboard layer to control dwm and send out its keyboard shortcuts. It's really nice and lets me get all of the advantages of my tiling setup without needing to hit weird keycombos.

Leader Macros

Leader macros are one of the killer features of my layout. I have a huge bank of them and use them to do type out things that I type a lot. Most common git and Kubernetes commands are just a leader macro away.

The Go if err != nil macro that got me on /r/programmingcirclejerk twice is one of my leader macros, but I may end up promoting it to its own key if I keep getting so much use out of it (maybe one of the keys I don't use can become my if err != nil key). I'm sad that the threads got deleted (I love it when my content gets on there, it's one of my favorite subreddits), but such is life.

NixOS, the Moonlander and Colemak

When I got this keyboard, flashed the firmware and plugged it in, I noticed that my keyboard was sending weird inputs. It was rendering things that look like this:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy yellow dog.

into this:

Ghf qluce bpywk tyx nlm;r yvfp ghf iazj jfiiyw syd.

This is because I had configured my NixOS install to interpret the keyboard as if it was Colemak. However the keyboard is able to lie and sends out normal keycodes (even though I am typing them in Colemak) as if I was typing in qwerty. This double Colemak meant that a lot of messages and commands were completely unintelligible until I popped into my qwerty layer.

I quickly found the culprit in my config:

console.useXkbConfig = true;
services.xserver = {
  layout = "us";
  xkbVariant = "colemak";
  xkbOptions = "caps:escape";
};

This config told the X server to always interpret my keyboard as if it was Colemak, meaning that I needed to tell it not to. As a stopgap I commented this section of my config out and rebuilt my system.

X11 allows you to specify keyboard configuration for keyboards individually by device product/vendor names. The easiest way I know to get this information is to open a terminal, run dmesg -w to get a constant stream of kernel logs, unplug and plug the keyboard back in and see what the kernel reports:

[242718.024229] usb 1-2: USB disconnect, device number 8
[242948.272824] usb 1-2: new full-speed USB device number 9 using xhci_hcd
[242948.420895] usb 1-2: New USB device found, idVendor=3297, idProduct=1969, bcdDevice= 0.01
[242948.420896] usb 1-2: New USB device strings: Mfr=1, Product=2, SerialNumber=3
[242948.420897] usb 1-2: Product: Moonlander Mark I
[242948.420898] usb 1-2: Manufacturer: ZSA Technology Labs
[242948.420898] usb 1-2: SerialNumber: 0

The product is named Moonlander Mark I, which means we can match for it and tell X11 to not colemakify the keycodes using something like this:

Section "InputClass"
  Identifier "moonlander"
  MatchIsKeyboard "on"
  MatchProduct "Moonlander"
  Option "XkbLayout" "us"
  Option "XkbVariant" "basic"
EndSection

Mara is hacker

Mara

For more information on what you can do in an InputClass section, see here in the X11 documentation.

This configuration fragment can easily go in the normal X11 configuration folder, but doing it like this would mean that I would have to manually drop this file in on every system I want to colemakify. This does not scale and defeats the point of doing this in NixOS.

Thankfully NixOS has an option to solve this very problem. Using this module we can write something like this:

services.xserver = {
  layout = "us";
  xkbVariant = "colemak";
  xkbOptions = "caps:escape";

  inputClassSections = [
    ''
      Identifier "yubikey"
      MatchIsKeyboard "on"
      MatchProduct "Yubikey"
      Option "XkbLayout" "us"
      Option "XkbVariant" "basic"
    ''
    ''
      Identifier "moonlander"
      MatchIsKeyboard "on"
      MatchProduct "Moonlander"
      Option "XkbLayout" "us"
      Option "XkbVariant" "basic"
    ''
  ];
};

But this is NixOS and that allows us to go one step further and make the identifier and product matching string configurable as will with our own NixOS options. Let's start by lifting all of that above config into its own module:

# Colemak.nix

{ config, lib, ... }: with lib; {
  options = {
    cadey.colemak = {
      enable = mkEnableOption "Enables colemak for the default X config";
    };
  };
  
  config = mkIf config.cadey.Colemak.enable {
    services.xserver = {
      layout = "us";
      xkbVariant = "colemak";
      xkbOptions = "caps:escape";

      inputClassSections = [
        ''
          Identifier "yubikey"
          MatchIsKeyboard "on"
          MatchProduct "Yubikey"
          Option "XkbLayout" "us"
          Option "XkbVariant" "basic"

        ''
        ''
          Identifier "moonlander"
          MatchIsKeyboard "on"
          MatchProduct "Moonlander"
          Option "XkbLayout" "us"
          Option "XkbVariant" "basic"
        ''
      ];
    };
  };
}

Mara is hacker

Mara

This also has Yubikey inputs not get processed into Colemak so that Yubikey OTPs still work as expected. Keep in mind that a Yubikey in this mode pretends to be a keyboard, so without this configuration the OTP will be processed into Colemak. The Yubico verification service will not be able to understand OTPs that are typed out in Colemak.

Then we can turn the identifier and product values into options with mkOption and string interpolation:

# ...
    cadey.colemak = {
      enable = mkEnableOption "Enables Colemak for the default X config";
      ignore = {
        identifier = mkOption {
          type = types.str;
          description = "Keyboard input identifier to send raw keycodes for";
          default = "moonlander";
        };
        product = mkOption {
          type = types.str;
          description = "Keyboard input product to send raw keycodes for";
          default = "Moonlander";
        };
      };
    };
# ...
        ''
          Identifier "${config.cadey.colemak.ignore.identifier}"
          MatchIsKeyboard "on"
          MatchProduct "${config.cadey.colemak.ignore.product}"
          Option "XkbLayout" "us"
        ''
# ...

Adding this to the default load path and enabling it with cadey.colemak.enable = true; in my tower's configuration.nix

This section was made possible thanks to help from Graham Christensen who seems to be in search of a job. If you are wanting someone on your team that is kind and more than willing to help make your team flourish, I highly suggest looking into putting him in your hiring pipeline. See here for contact information.

Oryx

Oryx is the configurator that ZSA created to allow people to create keymaps without needing to compile your own firmware or install the QMK toolchain.

Mara is hacker

Mara

QMK is the name of the firmware that the Moonlander (and a lot of other custom/split mechanical keyboards) use. It works on AVR and Arm processors.

For most people, Oryx should be sufficient. I actually started my keymap using Oryx and sorta outgrew it as I learned more about QMK. It would be nice if Oryx added leader key support, however this is more of an advanced feature so I understand why it doesn't have that.

Things I Don't Like

This keyboard isn't flawless, but it gets so many things right that this is mostly petty bickering at this point. I had to look hard to find these.

I would have liked having another thumb key for things like layer toggling. I can make do with what I have, but another key would have been nice. Maybe add a 1u key under the red shaped key?

At the point I ordered the Moonlander, I was unable to order a black keyboard with white keycaps. I am told that ZSA will be selling keycap sets as early as next year. When that happens I will be sure to order a white one so that I can have an orca vibe.

ZSA ships with UPS. Normally UPS is fine for me, but the driver that was slated to deliver it one day just didn't deliver it. I was able to get the keyboard eventually though. Contrary to their claims, the UPS website does NOT update instantly and is NOT the most up to date source of information about your package.

The cables aren't braided. I would have liked braided cables.

Like I said, these are really minor things, but it's all I can really come up with as far as downsides go.

Conclusion

Overall this keyboard is amazing. I would really suggest it to anyone that wants to be able to have control over their main tool and craft it towards their desires instead of making do with what some product manager somewhere decided what keys should do what. It's expensive at USD$350, but for the right kind of person this will be worth every penny. Your mileage may vary, but I like it.


This article was posted on M11 06 2020. Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.

Series: keeb

Tags: moonlander keyboard nixos

The art for Mara was drawn by Selicre.