What is a Compact Keyboard? (And Why Would Anyone Want to Type On One?)

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“That is a tiny keyboard! HOw dO YoU EveN tYpe on iT?” -Innocent Office Passerby-ers. You fell right into my trap – and now, I’m going to tell you all about compact keyboards.

There are tons of big bulky cheap mass produced keyboards out there that take up plenty of space on your desk. Do you really even need a full size keyboard? Let this be a sign that it’s time to switch to a more optimized layout. In this article, I will try to answer some of the basic questions around compact keyboards.

If you’re going to spend a decent amount of money on your custom keyboard, why not spend it on something you can take along with you? Maybe you’re like me and want a neat and minimal setup – without a massive eyesore of a keyboard. Or maybe, you fancy a more optimized way to type. In this article I’ll talk about why I, among many others in the mechanical keyboard hobby, exclusively type on and game on a compact keyboard and how it might be a great switch for you!

Contrary to what you might think, there isn’t really a steep learning curve when switching to an optimized keyboard layout. Before you know it, you’ll be clacking away as usual except maybe faster, more efficient, and with a little more elbow room. Sounds exciting right? WRONG. SLOW DOWN – don’t hit “check out” wherever you are shopping just yet! I’m here to tell you exactly what you might be looking for in a new compact keyboard and help you decide if it’s right for you. I’ll even throw in some recommendations at the end.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll define a “compact keyboard” as any keyboard that is not full-sized. Full-sized keyboards include a full numpad, extra function key row, and additional modifiers as shown below:

A full sized keyboard crossed out with a red x with compact keyboard ticked with green tick

Why I Prefer Using a 40% Keyboard

So what do I know about compact keyboards? Well… I type exclusively on them. And to add, I’m a special type of keebnerd that takes it a step further and types only on 40% keyboards!

If you were to look at every keyboard I’ve typed on since I got into the hobby you would notice that each new keyboard gets smaller and smaller. While I may be on the more extreme end, my personal preference is ultra-compact 40% keyboards – and I’ve even spent hours building a few of them from scratch!

40% Keyboard

I love the portability of 40% keyboards as well as the optimized keyboard layout I created featuring an underlying numpad. My work day typically consists of a lot of number crunching so it was convenient to not have to reach over to a numpad every time it was time to work some Excel magic. Besides the numpad, I also have additional layers for intuitive controls like media, a function “F” key layer, and a quick screenshot key combination.

Typing numbers on a 40% Keyboard

The second layer is activated by my left thumb key from the split spacebar. This key is programmed to be “Enter” when tapped and activates the second layer when held down. Here’s a picture of the second layer’s keymap:

Second layer keymap

Beyond functionality, 40% keyboards are visually striking as they are so compact. Chances are that if you end up joining the 40% club (One of us! One of us!), you’ll be the only one within your social circle with it. You’d get to feel all warm and fuzzy and unique and special <3

Embrace the Minimalism

Minimalist mechanical keyboard setup
Photo by u/ChillinninSpace from Reddit’s r/MechanicalKeyboards

A compact sized keyboard is a great way to get a minimal aesthetic on your desk set up or at the very least, help you declutter. No matter how you use your desk to work, extra space should always be welcome. A smaller keyboard not only looks great on a large desk but frees up a lot of room as well. Sometimes less is more but with compact keyboards and layer features in your keyboard’s firmware, you are saving space without sacrificing any functionality.

/u/ChillininSpace’s setup is a perfect example of an elegant, clean, and minimal set up featuring a compact keyboard. Keeping only the necessities on the desk brings the focus to the beautiful KBD75v2 keyboard and the monotone theme of the entire set up brings everything together. I definitely wouldn’t mind spending the day working on this set up!

Do you really need a full-sized keyboard anyway?

The whole idea behind a compact keyboard is optimization through reduction. If you have worked on a full-sized keyboard in the past, you probably wondered about the purpose of some keys like PAUSE/BREAK. Depending on the user, some keys on a full-sized layout may never even be used. So why have a dedicated key for them?

Compact keyboards utilize “layers” to access less frequently used keys. This is similar to how some laptops have “Fn” keys to hold down to access some functionalities. You can also think of these layer activator keys as a “shift” key but instead of accessing capital letters and special symbols, you can access other less used inputs. Taking it a step further, if you have a 40% keyboard without a row for numbers, you can use layers to access the numbers the same way I detailed above. This can all be customized to cater to your personal needs, especially if you have a keyboard compatible with QMK firmware (a powerful keyboard layout firmware).

More often than not, a full sized keyboard just takes up more space than a keyboard should. You can free up some of that much needed desk real estate by switching over to a more compact layout.

How difficult is it to learn to use a compact keyboard?

There is certainly a learning curve when typing on a compact keyboard layout for the first time. As with most things worthwhile, it will take some time to get used to. When switching to a 40%, my biggest concern was whether I would be able to type on a “normal” keyboard again. I learned that typing on anything is like learning to ride a bike – you don’t really forget. What made the change easier was the customization aspect. If you spend a lot of time catering your keyboard layout to your needs, you will undoubtedly end up programming a keyboard to what feels most intuitive to you. In turn, you will be typing on your new keyboard more efficiently than you could on others.

Unless you are switching to an ortholinear layout like the Planck, most of the keyboard will feel the same. You really only need to learn where you prefer to put your other keys. Drop.com usually has good inventory on the OLKB Planck keyboard if you ever wanted to try out an ortholinear layout:

OLKB Planck keyboard

Quick Pros and Cons of using a compact keyboard

Pros:

  • Optimized and Customized Keyboard Layout with Layers
  • Unique Aesthetic
  • Portability
  • Desk Space

Cons:

  • Keycap set availability – always check for compatibility before buying!
  • Adapting to other keyboards – not that difficult at all.
  • GUESTS – None of my visitors understand how to use my keyboard… Which I might not be a bad thing. I think of this as an added layer of security πŸ˜‰

Best Amazon Finds

PFU HHKB Professional Hybrid Type-S White PD-KB800WS
RK ROYAL KLUDGE RK61 Wired 60% Mechanical Gaming Keyboard RGB Backlit Ultra-Compact Hot-Swappable...
ANNE PRO 2, 60% Wired/Wireless Mechanical Keyboard (Gateron Brown Switch/White Case) - Full Keys...
Drop + OLKB Preonic Keyboard MX Kit V3 β€” Compact Ortholinear Form Factor, Programmable QMK PCBA,...
PFU HHKB Professional Hybrid Type-S White PD-KB800WS
RK ROYAL KLUDGE RK61 Wired 60% Mechanical Gaming Keyboard RGB Backlit Ultra-Compact Hot-Swappable...
ANNE PRO 2, 60% Wired/Wireless Mechanical Keyboard (Gateron Brown Switch/White Case) - Full Keys...
Drop + OLKB Preonic Keyboard MX Kit V3 β€” Compact Ortholinear Form Factor, Programmable QMK PCBA,...
$325.00
$49.99
Price not available
$88.80
-
It's pricey! This keyboard is a classic and really pioneered the use of multiple layers. Unique typing experience with uncommon switches.
Budget pick - Bright RGB and a perfect entry-level keyboard. Hot-Swappable.
Great 60% keyboard. Popular with gamers and supports wireless mode!
Offered by Drop - check the Drop section below in case it's on sale direct!
PFU HHKB Professional Hybrid Type-S White PD-KB800WS
PFU HHKB Professional Hybrid Type-S White PD-KB800WS
$325.00
It's pricey! This keyboard is a classic and really pioneered the use of multiple layers. Unique typing experience with uncommon switches.
RK ROYAL KLUDGE RK61 Wired 60% Mechanical Gaming Keyboard RGB Backlit Ultra-Compact Hot-Swappable...
RK ROYAL KLUDGE RK61 Wired 60% Mechanical Gaming Keyboard RGB Backlit Ultra-Compact Hot-Swappable...
$49.99
Budget pick - Bright RGB and a perfect entry-level keyboard. Hot-Swappable.
ANNE PRO 2, 60% Wired/Wireless Mechanical Keyboard (Gateron Brown Switch/White Case) - Full Keys...
ANNE PRO 2, 60% Wired/Wireless Mechanical Keyboard (Gateron Brown Switch/White Case) - Full Keys...
Price not available
-
Great 60% keyboard. Popular with gamers and supports wireless mode!
Drop + OLKB Preonic Keyboard MX Kit V3 β€” Compact Ortholinear Form Factor, Programmable QMK PCBA,...
Drop + OLKB Preonic Keyboard MX Kit V3 β€” Compact Ortholinear Form Factor, Programmable QMK PCBA,...
$88.80
Offered by Drop - check the Drop section below in case it's on sale direct!

Drop.com Premium Finds (The Good Stuff)

I will always be sure to indicate in any links if a product is sold by Drop. Moving forward, I will include a link to Drop’s shop as well if they appear anywhere else. This is because they often run exclusive discounts if you purchase their products directly!

DROP + OLKB PLANCK MECHANICAL KEYBOARD KIT V6 (link)

OLKB PLANCK MECHANICAL KEYBOARD KIT V6

The best ortholinear 40% keyboard, hands-down. I have typed on one of these for a few months and… after writing this I’m seriously considering buying another! Many color options available.

DROP + OLKB PREONIC KEYBOARD MX KIT V3 (link)

DROP + OLKB PREONIC KEYBOARD MX KIT V3

The Planck’s older brother! Includes an extra number row for those that prefer it. The kit also comes in many colors πŸ™‚

BM WORKSHOP BM43A 40% PROGRAMMABLE KEYBOARD KIT (link)

BM WORKSHOP BM43A 40% PROGRAMMABLE KEYBOARD KIT

A true 40% with a split keyboard layout – just the way I like it. This one is affordable, well-made, and … adorable. Available in many colors and compatible with most keycap sets that offer 40% extras.

And that’s it! Basically, everything you’d want to know about trying out a compact keyboard layout. I hope this guide helps you choose your next daily driver – as always, feel free to shoot me an email or comment if you need help picking one out.

Last update on 2023-01-31 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API