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Magicforce 49, a 40% keyboard

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2018.10.29

This article expresses the author's opinion at the time of writing. There are no guarantees of correctness, originality or current relevance. Copying the whole article is forbidden. Transcription of selected parts is allowed provided that author and this source are mentioned.

The current fad is the mechanical keyboard that skimps on keys and has tiny footprint. After the 60% keyboards got mainstream ("60%" meaning 60 to 68 keys) one needs to go the extra mile and use a 40% keyboard to show off as a hipster.

Until the other day, 40% keyboards were all works of craftsmenship. The Plank DIY kit was (and still is) relatively expensive for an input device most people know they won't use day in day out. But the Chinese listened to the prayers of "financially challenged" hipsters and released MagicForce 49.

Figure 1: Magicforce 49 keyboard layout

As you can see, a 40% layout omits numeric pad, function key row, numeric row (!) and some symbol key. Often they have a tiny spacebar. It is not completely unheard of; foldable cell phone keyboards employed a similar layout so they could be very small yet have comfortable key sizes.

The Magicforce keyboards are instances of a Chinese product class that is eating the world: inexpensive, well-made, pretty, durable, even though intellectual innovation is absent; it is often a "me-too" product that milks a trend. I do have two Magicforce 68 keyboards, which are almost-clones of the Whitefox. I've had two other 68's with different switches, and I can recommend them, hardware-wise.

The Magicforce 49 is a good product as well, that delivers its promises, no more no less. True to Chinese way of doing things, the "40%" concept is stretched to the limit: it has 49 keys, one could argue it is rather a 50% layout.

It may be a funny gift for the year-end office party, it is almost like a souvenir. It is a sure source of fun and laugh to see the recipient trying to actually use it to work.

Is this thing practical as a daily driver? Most probably not, not only because of the inherent limitations of a 40% layout, but also due to some design decisions of this particular model.

Figure 2: Magicforce 49 - back label

First off, the Magicforce is not programmable — a must-have feature in a 40% unit. Why? Because every person and every use case ask for different keys. For example, a Linux programmer needs the slash "/" and could go on without a dedicated "\" key, but perhaps it is the opposite for a Windows programmer.

In a programmable 40% keyboard, it makes sense to make all keys the same size, except perhaps by a Shift and the spacebar, that no layout can do without. MagicForce has many enlarged keys, making it more difficult to replace keycaps even if it became programmable in the future. (This point shows how well-thought out the Planck kit was, which justifies its price.)

Another layout decision that looks good, but it is not actually good, is the high number of keys dedicated to navigation. There is even a dedicated Delete key! Personally, I'd exchange them all for symbol keys, that I miss a lot in development and while using the vi editor. (I must admit that my POW, as a Mac user that uses Terminal most of the time, does not apply to the majority of users, even the users of a 40% keyboard.)

At least they had the guts to remove the dedicated Caps Lock key. It still exists in the form of a Fn-key combination.

Another aspect universally criticized is the position of right Shift. In general, the modifier keys seem to have been positioned without any serious ergonomic consideration. I bet nobody tried to use this keyboard for a week to validate the layout before it went to production.

But, even though the keyboard is not programmable, we have some room to rearrange the modifier keys a bit, in hardware. Following some hint found in the "darker Web" (perhaps Reddit, honestly I don't remember) it was possible to "fix" the keyboard.

Figure 3: Changing the layout by brute force, cutting PCB tracks and bridging with wire. Three modifier keys were altered this way.

I did the following changes: a) right Shift converted to spacebar; b) right Control converted to Fn, making it a "double-sized key" at least at electrical level; c) left FN converted to Windows/Command key. Naturally I used (or tried to use) the keyboard for some time before I decided for these changes.

Naturally, the usability problems cannot be solely blamed upon Magicforce; every 40% layout is compromised. Even though the numeric row is the first objection most people raise on sight, in practice the real stumbles are the "chords" — combinations of three or more keys. Having to press "Fn Shift W" to get "@" kills the productivity.

In the Mac, already full of chords like Command-Shift-Option-letter, simply moving through browser tabs takes a four-key chord (Command-Fn-Shift-H, which is the way to get Command-"{").

The Magicforce does make things worse by demanding chords that bear no relationship with 60%+ keyboards. For example, "Fn Shift F" to get "-" is weird since the "-" lives just right of "0" in any other keyboard.

After all, is there any advantage whatsoever of using a 40% layout? Yes, there is. The hands don't need to move at all, given all keys are within reach. I must admit this was the pleasant, if weird, sensation. If one invests a fair amount of time to learn the "chords", and their use cases don't need too many symbols and numbers, they might make good use of such a keyboard.

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