Atreus Keyboard Build

I will admit, I’m a bit of a keyboard nut. I must have thirty keyboards - I haven’t counted recently, but it’s a lot.

So why on earth would I buy yet another keyboard?

There are a number of reasons….

I learn more about keyboards over time. My perfect keyboard way back when was the keyboard that came with the DEC VT100 dumb terminal. It had a great layout, but was a soft feel, compared to what I’ve come to appreciate since. Then the dinosaurs - ah, sorry the dumb terminals - vanished, and I moved on.

Later I developed a great appreciation for the IBM Model M keyboard, and, much later, it’s successor, the Unicomp. That’s what I’m typing this post on, in fact, as I have a couple of them.

The primary advantage of the model M is it’s switches: mechanical keyboards are, for the advanced typist, the only way to go. It also has a large layout, which I prefer.

In more recent years, though, other excellent mechanical switches have become available - some that even rival the old Model M’s switches, such as the Cherry MX switches, or the Alps-inspired Mathias switches from Canada.

I’ve also learned that the model M layout has one substantial flaw - it has a numeric keypad. There’s nothing wrong with a keypad in and of itself, but it increases the reach distance to the mouse for us right-handers just a little bit more.

I don’t use a mouse much, but modern UIs sometimes require it, and I have no desire to damage my shoulder and arm any more than I already have by 35+ years behind a keyboard.

This began a long quest to find a mechanical keyboard that had no numeric keypad, but that used good mechanical switches.

The Atreus

I’ll document the quest in another post, but here I’d like to talk about one contender: The Atreus keyboard.

The Atreus is not a final product - it’s a kit. Although I was an avid amateur radio operator back in my youth, I haven’t picked up a soldering iron in a long time, so I was a little nervous about a kit. After some consideration, though, I took the plunge.

The Kit

The Atreus arrived in short order, and I opened the box to find a collection of parts reminiscient of the old Heathkit radio kits.

In a fine piece of efficency, one of the daughterboards for the Atreus uses the legs (wires) clipped from another component to create connectors. A fairly delicate bit of soldering attaches these legs to the daughterboard - this was maybe the hardest part of the build.

Soldering on the Legs

After that, each of the switches has to be soldered into position, one at a time…

Soldering on the Switches

Then the firmware is sent to the keyboard controller via a special app, and you can start testing. I was fortunate, I only had one minor flaw, a cold solder joint, readily fixed.

Putting on the switches…

Putting on the Keycaps

All the switches soldered on. The case of the keyboard is made up of layers of wood - that’s right, wood - which you finish beforehand then assemble onto the logic boards and switches.

All the Keycaps On

Starting to look like a keyboard, just lacking the final case and the bolts that hold it together.

Starting to look like a keyboard

The finished product

Here’s the finished product - much smaller than it appears in pictures, as it happens.

The finished product

Hands-On Use

One thing I’ve learned about ergonomic keyboards - you have to be prepared to learn the layout. Over the years, my fingers have learned the standard QUERTY layout, and, more specifically, the 101-key layout of the model M. Every time I vary from that layout, I have to be prepared for a period of adjustment, ranging from a few days to … well, in some cases, never.

There are a few keyboards I have whose layout I’ve never fully mastered to the point where it’s sufficiently automatic that I recover my typing speed.

Interestingly, this problem is almost worse if you’re a touch typist, which I am.

The Atreus has no labels on the keys, so there’s nothing to prevent you configuring it any way you want. Again, after many trials, I’ve learned to stick with the QUERTY layout - it’s not the best, in fact some propose it may be close to the worse layout for programming. The problem is that if you select another layout, you’re stuck to using your own keyboard: You can easily jump to another person’s keyboard, or even the standard keyboard on a laptop. Perhaps some folks can be efficient in Dvorak or other layouts and jump back and forth to QUERTY without their typing speed going to pieces - I can’t, and my current life as a roving consultant and developer means I often travel, and have to use whatever keyboard I find at my destination in many cases.

The Atreus opens an interesting option - it’s tiny, you can fit it in a small pocket on the outside of a laptop bag, so it becomes quite possible to simply bring your own keyboard wherever you go.

My first attempt to travel with the Atreus revealed I had a screw loose - well, my keyboard did in any case. I lost one of the bolts from the case somehow, but with Phil’s help (the maker of the keyboard) was able to find a replacement - this time, thread-locker will make sure I don’t come unscrewed again.

The switches of the Atreus are, as expected, excellent - it’s a bit noisier than my Mathias Laptop Pro, but that’s to be expected. It’s definitely quieter than the model M or the Unicomp.

I’m still building speed with the layout, and I may tweak it once I know what I like, and may even dabble in a full alternative layout again - the included software lets you do whatever you want with the Atreus.

There is a certain satisfaction to using a tool you’ve built yourself (or at least assembled), and the knowledge that you can alter what you want makes it incredibly flexible.

I’m sure it won’t be my last keyboard - I have an addiction - but the Atreus has started becoming one of my favorites, and I expect it will be with me for a long time to come!

Published: June 19 2015

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