Ultimate Gadget Laboratories (UGL) are a brand I don't expect you to know. Their website featuring a single statement, their purpose is clear: "We are Ultimate Gadget Laboratories. Working on the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard. The keyboard. For professionals." It's bold, it's to the point, and really it's all you need to know. They're confident in what they make, and honestly, they're more than right to be.
Before so much as purchasing your Ultimate Hacking Keyboard (UHK), you have a myriad of options to contemplate to really make it your own. With six switch types, four different keycap types, five case colours, and the choice between ANSI and ISO layout, there are a grand total of 240 UHK variants available to purchase. To give you a quick rundown of my choices, I have in front of me a UHK in a brilliant orange case, sporting an ANSI layout with Windows keycaps and Cherry MX Clear switches. Of the choices available, two things of note are the availability of blank keycaps and the range of switches. For such a customisable keyboard as this, blank keycaps are actually what I would advise. If I were a braver person, I'd have gone for them myself, but jumping to a split keyboard for the first time left me somewhat hesitant. What's nice here though is the fact I can still go back and order them down the line, which I very well might do. One amusing thing of note is that UGL will be renaming their orange colouring to mustard in the coming future to better reflect how it looks, but you can make up your own mind on the particular shade through the images.
My delightful choices both split and together.
When it comes to switches, UGL have largely deviated from the Cherry-heavy market, instead opting for Kailh alternatives where available. These are for blues, browns, reds, and blacks. The switches Kailh don't offer, clears and greens, are Cherry's own. Having tried variants of blues, browns, and reds in the past, I was eager to give something new a go in the clears, but I fear I missed a chance to critique their choice of Cherry competitor. Alas, the clears met my needs tidily. I was after a quiet switch that wasn't too trigger-happy, in blunt terms. My experience with reds in the past has shown them unsuitable for me when resting my fingers on the keys, the weight of my hands triggering them where unwanted. Clears are put simply browns with a bit more weight to them, with 65 cN actuation force in oppose to the brown's 60 cN. With the aim of this keyboard in my mind being to keep my hands rooted on the keyboard, the additional required force seemed appealing in avoiding the mishitting of keys.
Unboxing and Initial Thoughts
Arriving at my door well-packed in a suitably-sized and weighty box, I excitedly unwrapped my new split keyboard lifestyle. The keyboard and optional palm rest packaged in separate boxes, both looked clean and professional, matching the premium and quality image UGL appear to pride themselves on. Inside each box you find the products themselves, the keyboard and palm rest, along with their relevant screws, cables, and feet. You see, in their strive for customisability and choice, UGL let you decide how best to use your keyboard. The palm rest installation guide the box directs you to gives you a rundown of your three choices: positive tilt, negative tilt, and a tented setup. Positive tilt is likely what you're used to if you're coming from a standard keyboard, the back of the keyboard raised. Negative tilt is the opposite, with the front of the keyboard raised, and tented is something you can only really achieve with a split keyboard, the middle raised. Wanting to embrace everything a split keyboard has to offer, I went all in and set things up for the tented layout. There are a few things of note here. First, this process is incredibly simple and easy. It's a case of screwing a few feet into place, with no decision being final. You can change your mind whenever, so long as you're willing to unscrew the feet and put them in a different position. Second, and perhaps more dauntingly, a tented layout all but dooms you do a split life. With the keyboard centrally raised, joining the two parts is ill advised, the keyboard rocking from side to side as you type. It left me more eager so to learn the ins and outs of the split design, but I understand some will prefer the idea of joining the halves from time to time.
The overall quality and design really left me with little to complain about. The optional, though highly recommended, wrist rest screws securely into the UHK and provides great support. It also surprised me just how nice the beech wood looked next to the block-orange shell of the keyboard itself. Though plastic, the shell feels sturdy and well-made, with no noticeable imperfections. The keyboard halves are joined together using a coiled wire that takes me back to the landline phones of days gone by. I can best describe the connector as a smaller ethernet, clipping into place similarly. It expands and retracts well and I've had no issues with it managing to unclip itself through any force of nature. When it comes to the overall design, the only real critique I have is that the cable connecting the keyboard to the PC goes into the right half of the device. This means you have the option to use the right half alone, both halves joined using the wire, or both halves joined as a "full" keyboard. It feels as though they missed a trick here in not having the option to use the left half alone, this half favourable for gaming, potentially allowing the device to double as a gaming keypad. I understand this may not be the demographic UGL are trying to appeal to, but in their strive for options and customisation, I remain surprised all the same you can't use the left half standalone as you can the right. Minor critique aside however, first impressions are overwhelmingly positive.
Adjusting to Change
Coming from using standard keyboards for what is most of my life, I'm not going to pretend the UHK is something I could instantly get into. The box sending you to a start page, you're given a rundown of the ins and outs, but after this you're on your own. Though these short activities were handy, you can only really adjust to something like this through experience. Committed to this idea, I went all-in. One of the UHK's main selling points is its four layers of key mappings. You have the base layer, a mod layer, a function layer, and a mouse layer. Combining these together efficiently, the aim is for your hands to be able to do everything from one position. This means there's no arrow keys, instead you're pressing Mod with your left thumb and hitting IJKL with your right hand for the respective up, left, down, and right arrows. It sounds bizarrely unintuitive at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it feels. Similarly, to control the mouse from the keyboard, you hold the Mouse key where you'd usually find Caps Lock, and again use IJKL to manoeuvre. After two weeks of use, it all feels normal now. The exception to this is when I'm trying to do something like highlight a word in a text editor. Something so simple becomes a game of Twister for my fingers as I hit Ctrl, Shift, Mod, and J or L for their respective arrow. I know it's only an extra key being held here, but I haven't quite gotten used to it.
The UHK fully setup is a beautiful thing indeed.
For the minor tweaks required, like wanting to cut, copy, and paste while using the mouse controls, the UHK Agent software comes in handy. Perhaps the most intuitive and simple piece of keyboard customisation software I've ever used, it just works. You select a layer, you select a key, you change it to what you want, and you save it to the keyboard. No mess, no fuss, and you don't even need the software installed for these changes to be noticed. Macros are an equally simple act of recording what you want playing back and saving it to the keyboard. I honestly struggle to put into words how easy it is to use, and thankfully you can just try it for yourself with their web demo. Another nice thing worth mentioning here is that the keyboard can actually save dozens of full layouts, each composed of four layers. If you only ever use QWERTY like myself, that's plenty of room to play around with, giving you the opportunity to create specialist layouts and macros for games and apps as you see fit.
It's here I'll also mention the UHK's compatibility with specially designed add-on modules. While they are still in development, they stand as a huge part of what makes this keyboard so interesting. It's customisable to a degree I'm simply not used to, with these modules fitting next to the Mod key on the left half and the Space key on the right. The ones I'm most eagerly awaiting are the mouse control ones, the planned offerings being a small track ball, a touchpad, and a trackpoint. Placed in reach of your right thumb, these aim to improve productivity in allowing full access to the keyboard while doing your mousey movement. While I am disappointed I haven't got these to try now, I am eagerly keeping an eye on their development via UHK's blog and will definitely be picking at least one of these up when available. As soon as I do, expect an update here.
UGL have in my opinion created something spectacular. It's versatile and customisable to your every whim with so little effort, trivialising things that really should be trivial to give you a streamlined and quality overall experience. The one thing I am yet to discover is whether it really does increase my productivity, having only used it for a week and quite regrettably forgetting to do a typing test beforehand for comparison. At the moment however, I can say this much for certain: it feels great. Two weeks in, I'm still missing the odd character, particularly B as it sits the farthest from my left hand, but I can feel myself getting faster. I understand the reasons behind their design choices and I've embraced them to the fullest extent possible. I'm comfortable typing and I'm happy using it. Ultimately though this is a niche product, and with its price sitting at $275, it isn't going to be for everybody, but those tempted in will not find themselves disappointed.