PROSCONS
– Compact
– Programmable [best with the QMK firmware]
– Choice of mechanical switches
– Sturdy
– Ergo design is flawed
– Quality control needs improvement*
– Non QMK programmable keyboards needs Windows
* 2 out of three keyboards have build flaws. One has a faulty board, the other has an uneven case that jumps as you type

After some months using this mechanical keyboard, it’s about time to write a promised review. I promised X-Bows I would write a report talking about the flaws that I found on this keyboard, or at least, about the issues that I think that are flaws. Maybe others wouldn’t see them the same way.

Since I started to use computers back then, I’ve been searching for the ‘right keyboard’, which has turned into a quest, just like finding the Holy Grail. In this quest, ergonomics plays the most important role, then keyboard size, aesthetics, then price. Of course, price is quite important. ErgoDox is nice but expensive, and also takes lots of space, so while I thought about it for some time I discarded it due to size and price.

Having limited space to put a keyboard on the table, the compactness of the keyboard is important, so the search for a compact/not expensive/ergonomic keyboard started. That is how I found the X-Bows.

Your keyboard is damaging your wrists. It’s time for a change. Once you’ve tried the patented X-Bows Cross-Radial key layout, you’ll never want to change back to your old keyboard.

X-Bows website info.

The Layout

X-Bows key layout is not staggered, not ortholinear, nor ortholinear staggered, it’s ‘Cross Radial’ (see picture 1). This layout, theoretically can reduce wrist pain by means of re-positioning the wrists in an aligned position with the arm, thus not forcing wrist rotation. Also, finger movement will go straight along the finger line, instead of moving around as in a regular keyboard.

Picture 1 – Hand-Wrist-Arm alignment (source: http://www.x-bows.com)
Picture 2 – Compare X-Bows CrossRadial finger activated keys (source: http://www.x-bows.com)

This layout looks like it’s going to take some time to get used to though, in the end, adapting to the keyboard is quite fast, and soon one finds out that fingers move quickly and muscle memory is soon readapted to this new layout. Having backspace, enter, control and shift in the center of the keyboard makes it easier to keep the fingers on the base row, index fingers on F and J and move from there, without moving the hands too much. Also no need to rotate right wrist to press enter key as can be pressed by any index finger. Hands will move less, wrists will rotate a lot less.

As seen in Picture 2, the main key columns, the ones activated by the four fingers (all but thumbs) are placed at an angle instead of being parallel as in an ortholinear keyboard (aligned columns):

Picture 3 – Plank EZ ortholinear keyboard (source: https://www.zsa.io/planck/)

The reasoning behind this angle, as stated by X-Bows, is that when the user moves the fingers forward to hit a key in their respective column, they open in an angle. This is true, you can do the test yourself: place your hand on the table, as you place it on the keyboard, with the fingers flexed, and then move all fingers forward, like you want to press the top key of the row. Fingers are not parallel, they open at an angle respect to one another.

Here appears the first flaw of the X-Bows keyboard, by design. If you look at your hand with your fingers flat on the table, most likely, the angle between each two of them is different from the angle between the next two, and in some cases, the angle is narrower than the angle present in the X-Bows layout. Of course, different people have different hands and fingers, and fingers will be separated at different angles, thus making it impossible to make a keyboard that fits all. In fact, there is no “The Keyboard that Fits All”. So need to find a compromise and pick a reasonable angle that, at least, would do for the majority of the potential users. For my hands, a smaller angle would be better, for big hands, a wider would.

Then, and as an extension of this flaw, the second flaw appears, and this is worse than the first one. This flaw has to do with the number of fingers we have and the number of columns that are present in any keyboard, in our case, the columns that are present in the X-Bows keyboard.
Taking a look again at Picture 2 above, each finger has a different color, and the columns it has assigned has its matching color. Let’s take, for example our left hand from that picture 2, and the base row would be ASDF, being A the baby, being S the ring, being D the midle and being F the index. All humans that I know only have those four besides the thumb. Baby finger has 2 columns assigned, the A column and the Shift+Caps+Tab… column. And the index finger has also 2 columns assigned, the F column and the G column. Have you noticed the flaw already?

The flaw, in fact, is adding an angle to those columns, the Shift column respect to the A column, and the G column respect to the F column. There is no ergonomic reasoning on why that angle is present, in fact, there should not be an angle there at all. Those angles (also in the right hand), make it harder for the baby finger and the index finger to reach the keys on the second assigned row. This forces an opening of the index and baby fingers or an unnecessary rotation of the wrist to get to the keys on said columns.

Picture 4 – Helidox scaled – ortholinear vertical staggered keyboard (source: https://mechboards.co.uk/shop/kits/helidox-corne-kit)

Picture 4 shows us the Helidox kit keyboard, vertical staggered, ortholinear and split (I just found this keyboard right now, looks ok but it’s split, I rather have a compact one if my space is limited 😉 ). Columns are parallel to each other, but they have a vertical displacement respect to each other to try to match the different span of each finger. This is another approach, which on the X-Bows is sort of achieved with the rotation of the columns.

X-Bows has done something in order to mitigate the chance of missing the farthest keys from the baby finger, that is, making them bigger than standard. These keys are 2u, so when you move the baby finger to hit those keys it won’t be so hard to reach them, there is a bigger area to hit, so will be easier to aim. It’s easier, I can assure that.

The next one is not a real flaw, just a personal perception on the backspace and enter key at the center of the keyboard. They are placed one on top of each other, so I end up using same finger for both instead of one finger from one hand for backspace and one from the other hand for enter. With symmetry in mind I would rather have backspace and enter as vertical keys to use each with each hand. Though that is a personal opinion on that matter.

Having CTRL and SHIFT at the center too, to be used with the thumb is really a plus, and eases key combinations quite a lot. After using this keyboards for a year, I wonder why not every single keyboard has this kind of layout. I mean compact keyboards, as most split keyboards have thumb keys.

And now, regarding symmetry, this keyboard is not symmetric. It’s a TKL (Ten Key Less) layout, well, sort of. I personally would rather have a symmetric keyboard, so theoretically would do as much movements with right and left hands. Theoretically, as some keys in a TKL keyboard are not used that much. Besides, with an ANSI layout, right hand is always going to be the one who has access to more characters, thus, theoretically, will do “more exercise”.

Another thing that is worth to mention is the split space bar. Another great invention. Wonder why not all keyboards use it.

Last (for layout) topic is the height of the keyboard. This keyboard is tall. It has mechanical switches too, so it’s going to be tall, this means that if you don’t have a palm rest it’s going to be hard to use. I made the palm rest myself, look at the first picture of this post, and you can see that the wood palm rest is moved towards the left hand. That is because if the palm rest is aligned with the keyboard, the left palm has no support. My bad. Thought about it after making it. With a symmetric keyboard I wouldn’t have that issue, though is my bad after all as I didn’t think about this before making it.

Programmable

Did I say that it is programmable? The one I own is only programmable in Windows. Modern models already come with the QMK firmware that allows the keyboard to be configured through a web interface, which is much more appealing to people like myself who use alternate OSes. When I plugged the keyboard on my box, which runs Haiku, it was fully recognized, though I found no way to program the keyboard to my ‘requirements’. The only chance is to install the software on Windows, program the keyboard on Windows, and then use it with Haiku. What I did instead is create the X-Bows layout for Haiku, which is finally merged in the OS and available to anyone who installs Haiku on their computer:

Picture 5 – X-Bows Nature Layout for Haiku

X-Bows keyboard (non QMK) offers users five layers, the first is the standard layer, can’t be modified, then 4 custom layers that can be accessed by pressing Fn+F9, F10, F11 or F12.

Programming the keyboard is something I didn’t do, as I felt way too lazy to install windows, the X-Bows driver software, program the keyboard and then remove everything. Thankfully, Haiku allows to create any keyboard layout to your liking, so just need to make the layouts needed and use the Keymap Switcher to alternate among the keymaps, this allows infinite layouts for the X-Bows Nature model I have, remember, non QMK, which is nice.

Nonetheless, I went through the manual (RTFM anyone?), and the process seemed quite straightforward and easy to achieve, but to be honest, I better don’t say anything about using the driver software provided by X-Bows as I never used it at all.

The fact that new models are programmable via QMK web configurator is a plus for those who use alternative operating systems that otherwise would never have a chance to program their keyboards. Great decision taken by the X-Bows team here.

Build Quality

Well, just recently one of the keyboards started to behave weirdly. The one I’m using right now. In fact, like by means of witchcraft it started to type ZEROS by itself, the number 0. I have to be careful and watch it because if I let it, it will start to type 0 one after another if I don’t press another key and it will type to infinity and beyond. Look HERE how it is the experience.

This X-Bows Nature uses Gateron Brown optical switches, and comes with the tools to take off the keycaps as well as the switches. Switches can be selected when picking your keyboard to adapt the switch to your liking, more clicky, linear, silent. Just pick the Gateron blue, red, brown when you configure the keyboard and done. Always good to have a choice.

I’m still trying to figure out what happened. It all started after a big electrical storm that came around a week ago. I replaced the switch without any success. I used compressed air with some success. At least now I can type, and if I don’t press the 0 key, no zeroes come on the screen.

Other than that, the keyboard is heavy and sturdy. Well built, even this model is made of ABS plastic and some aluminum for the base plate, is sturdy enough. The finishes are good all around, even the plastics. Mechanical keyboards are really a thing, and once you start using them, most likely there is no way back to the regular keyboards.

I presume that this keyboard will last for years to come, years of typing a lot, of course. Once I get the 0 key fixed completely. The fact that switches and keycaps can be easily removed is a plus to extend its lifespan, being ergonomic and eco friendly.

Looks like the only way to break it is by smashing it with a hammer. 🙂

Just Quality Assurance/Control needs to review better the devices. Besides the faulty board of the keyboard with the auto ZERO typing, another shows some bend in the case so it trembles while typing, which does not help to get a good feeling while typing.

Conclusion

Overall this X-Bows Nature (non-QMK) is a very good keyboard indeed. Built quality is quite good, it’s a programmable [Only in Windows!!!], somewhat ergonomic, mechanical keyboard where one can pick the switches. New models with the optical switches make it easier to change keycaps and switches too. The new QMK models even allow the keyboard to be used and programmed on any operating system, which is also a great improvement.

When one gets used to this kind of keyboards, I mean ergonomic and mechanical, it’s hard to change to a laptop keyboard. To address this issue, X-Bows is about to release an X-Bows for tablets, which will help keep your wrists away from RSI on the road.

I’m not going to search for any other mechanical keyboard now. If X-Bows improves the keyboard addressing the ‘flaws’ that I think are there, and the new keyboard is symmetric, I might consider it again. Other than that, the best chance that I change keyboard is that this X-Bows breaks or I build my own design. This means that I’ll have to build my own design, which I’m working on at the moment.