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Planck EZ 40% Mechanical Keyboard Review: Portable Power

By Christopher Coke on October 02, 2019 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

Planck EZ 40% Mechanical Keyboard Review: Portable Power

We’ve looked at full-size keyboards. We’ve looked at TKLs. We’ve examined 75-, 65-, and 60-percents, split keyboards, wired, and wireless. You might say we’ve seen it all. Not quite. Today, we’re looking at the Planck EZ, the smallest, most portable keyboard we’ve ever used. With only 47-keys, it’s as trimmed down as we’ve ever seen but it’s also one of the most customizable keyboards around. Are you ready for the tiny keyboard life? Let’s find out.

Specifications

  • Current Price: $180 (Standard), $195 (Glow)
  • Key Switches: Cherry MX Brown/Blue, Kailh Gold/Thick Gold, Silver, Copper
  • Layout: Compact, 47-Key, Ortholinear, QWERTY
  • Backlit: Per-key RGB (optional)
  • Keycaps: Tai-Hao, Double Shot
  • Programmable: Yes, Firmware-level programming (multi-layer support)
  • Open Source: Yes
  • Cable: USB-C to USB-C (Type-C to Type-A adapter included), 80cm
  • Additional Features: Built-in sound chip turns your keyboard into a musical keyboard
  • Warranty: Two-year

Introducing the Planck EZ, a Collaboration with OLKB

The Planck EZ is the first of its kind of ZSA Technology Labs, whom we first came to know with the impressive ErgoDox EZ keyboards (see our reviews here). It was created in partnership with OLKB, the team who currently pioneers the Planck keyboard DIY kits popular within the enthusiast community. The Planck EZ, on the other hand, comes fully assembled and ready to go out of the box. It still has everything fans love about the Planck: the minimalist 47-key design, the uniform 1-unit (1u) keycaps, and full open-source programmability. The Planck EZ takes it to the next level with ZSA’s online programming tools, active community, and, of course, the fact that you don’t need to solder it together to actually use.

The other element at play is that ZSA is a known commodity in the pre-made keyboard world. If you’ve heard of the ErgoDox, you’ve probably heard of the ErgoDox EZ and the wide acclaim each version of it received. We at MMORPG weren’t alone in loving it. Linus, from Linus Tech Tips, and RandomFrankP of YouTube were also big fans of its quality craftsmanship and easy programmability. In short, ZSA took a known commodity, the ErgoDox keyboard design, and gave it their own spin with improved customization, user-friendliness, and a high-end build.

ZSA Technologies is also a company who puts their money where their mouth is. Their keyboards aren’t the cheapest but they insist on taking care of their employees. Every keyboard is handmade in an office building in Taiwan, not a factory assembly line. Employees are given full benefits and paid time off. Recently, for the Climate Strike, they shut down their entire site for a day and have committed to send 10% of the gross made from the ErgoDox EZ (not profit) for a whole month to the Rainforest Action Network. It’s refreshing to see a company stand on their courage of their convictions and sacrifice their bottom line to support the planet and their fellow man.

Let’s talk about why...

I have to be honest: the first time I saw a Planck, my first thought was why anyone would ever want that. There are no numbers, no function keys. All of the buttons except the space bar are exactly the same size and contour, so hitting buttons like Return and Shift seem harder. On top of that, there’s no stagger at all; every row and column is exactly lined up. So… why?

The answer, just like sixty-percent keyboards, is that despite its small size you’re not actually losing any functionality at all. Everything you would expect to be there is present, including numbers, the function row, and even macro keys. They’re just on separate layers to keep physical size down. This makes the Planck EZ an amazing keyboard to travel with because it can easily drop into a bag or a purse with room to spare. You can take the luxurious typing experience of a high-end mechanical keyboard anywhere. As someone whose office only supplies old, creaky membrane keyboards assuredly bought by the pallet, I appreciate that.

The keyboard is also ortholinear, which means that there is no stagger between the rows of keys. It makes sense even if it does have quite the learning curve if you’ve spent years typing on normal keyboards. Think of how your fingers move. When you flex your fingers in and out, they move in a straight line which is what ortholinear keyboards cater to. They’re more ergonomic and better for the long-term health of your hands.

But the Planck specifically is built to take that a step further. By stripping the keyboard down to the basics and putting “Raise” and “Lower” keys on either side of the space bar to access everything but the basics, every single key is within two units of home row. This means less overall movement and more efficient typing. Once you get used to it, you feel more efficient, literally.

That carries through to gaming, too. You might not think anything of reaching for a macro column right now, but get used to typing on the Planck EZ where you never need to move your hands and you’ll feel just how streamlined your gaming experience can become.

A closer look at the Planck EZ

The above is true of any Planck but what about the Planck EZ? ZSA’s version of this keyboard brings all of that to the mainstream by removing the need to assemble the entire keyboard kit. When you place your order, you can choose either White or Black, your choice of printed or blank keycaps, and what type of key switch you prefer with popular options from Cherry and Kailh. Likewise, you can also choose to save a few dollars if you don’t care about backlighting but I’d recommend you pay the extra. This is a keyboard about customization, after all.

The keyboard is absolutely minimalist. There’s virtually no bezel to speak of, just a pure rectangle of floating keys and glowing switches. The only indicator lights are on the bottom to either side of the space bar, indicating when Raise or Lower is being held.

The keycaps, manufactured by Tai-Hao, and are great. They’re thick-walled and dense for a satisfying typing sound and double shot so the legends never fade. They’re also lightly textured to prevent oils from your fingers from showing. They very much remind me of the ErgoDox EZ keycaps which have held up fantastically over time.

Underneath, ZSA has also made the switches hot swappable. This is one of the best features you could hope for on a mechanical keyboard because it means that they can be changed at anytime to make your board feel brand new. Interested in trying a new switch type? Buy a set and plug them in! Even on a full-size keyboard this is far cheaper than simply replacing the board and because the Planck EZ has so few keys, it’s cheaper still.

There are a couple of things I’d wish for in a revision, however. The EZ sits flat with only six rubber dots on the bottom to protect your desk. Tilt feet. I need them. It may not be the most ergonomic but it’s definitely more comfortable and the extra angle personally makes the jump to ortholinear a bit easier on me. The second is simply that the cord is too short. At 80cm, it’s barely enough to reach the back of my office desk top and just doesn’t give me enough room for positioning. If you’re using it with a laptop, it’s perfectly fine.

What’s it like to actually use?

Here’s the thing, if you looked at the Planck EZ and thought it would be hard to use, you’d be right - at least for a while. In the beginning, I made more typos than I can count. I’ve used ortholinear keyboards before (the ErgoDox EZs are also orthos) but making the jump back always takes some time. Adding to this the smaller Shift and Return keys, plus memorizing where every other major key was on the invisible extra layers, it was a rough start.

But I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. My first move was to use ZSA’s excellent online configurator to map my own layout that was closer to a normal QWERTY keyboard. Even still, for a couple of days, I gave up and just looked at the board as I typed. It helped. I printed out my layout so I’d know where the extra keys were. I made mistakes. My typing speed plummeted. In those dawning hours of use, I would be surprised if I typed at 30 WPM when my normal speed is closer to 100.

Slowly but surely, I started to get the hang of it. The hardest part really is re-training your fingers for the ortholinear layout. It didn’t take long to memorize where my most common keys were, so my productivity quickly returned. After the ortho-hurdle was conquered, my typing speed started to return.

After a couple of weeks with the board, I can see why so many people love it. It seems extremely odd not to have a number row at first. I was worried it would be cumbersome to have to hold Raise and Lower keys but it surprisingly isn’t bad. Your thumbs are naturally there anyhow, so it becomes like second nature to press them, especially if you’re already used to using a Fn key from another compact keyboard.

For gaming, it’s shockingly capable. I’ve tried to be frank here about my first impressions of the Planck (as a concept, not necessarily the EZ). On the surface, you would think there would be a clear disadvantage by having fewer keys. The design makes the extra layers so easily accessible, I never actually felt that way once I got used to it. In fact, thanks to ZSA’s online configurator, I was able to turn most of the Adjust layer (holding Raise and Lower at once) into a makeshift macro pad. Remember, you’re not having to move your hands, just your thumbs, to do this. As the community creating profiles clearly shows, there’s a huge array of possibilities to make the Planck EZ completely your own and the most comfortable and intuitive for you. It’s honestly very cool how ZSA has rolled it out.

On top of that, we also have all of the advanced functions ZSA has developed too. Things like Dual Function keys, where tapping them sends one command and holding them sends another; multiple ways to access near limitless layers; customizable auto-shifting so you never have to hold shift to send punctuation again. You can add mouse commands to the keyboard to control your cursor. You can adjust your electrical debounce time and add international language modifiers from around the world.

Did I also mention that the keyboard has a built in sound chip? You can enter Music mode where the top three rows become octaves of a scale. Useful? No, but it is silly fun to sit there and peck out a quick song when you’re bored.

The best part of all of this is that it’s all saved right to the keyboard itself. You’ll need software installed to actually apply the changes but once you do, every command, macro, and remap will travel with you and work on any system.

Final Thoughts

The Planck EZ won’t be for everyone. If you despise layers, this isn’t the keyboard for you. If you want a sweet mech to throw in your bag that you can customize the ever-loving daylights out of, then you should definitely consider it. Be prepared to spend some time learning its ins-and-outs, but if you do, it provides an experience you won’t find anywhere else.

Pros

  • Extremely customizable
  • Small and lightweight, perfect for traveling with
  • Ergonomically designed
  • Made ethically and with top-of-the-line materials
  • Hot-swap switches and great keycaps

Cons

  • Expensive for the size
  • No tilt feet
  • Short cable

The product discussed in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.

Christopher Coke / Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight