I’ve developed an increasing interest in tools that can make my job easier over the past few years. These started primarily with software but have also included some physical tools to make work easier. I’m not talking about choice in operating system or the usual productivity improvements like dual monitors or a desk chair with a half dozen knobs, dials and levers though. I’m talking about things like switching from Sublime Text to Vim for writing code, and subsequently setting up Tmux and lots of useful Vim plugins. I’m also talking about switching from a standard keyboard or mouse to a more special purpose keyboard or mouse, things like that.
I’ll most likely write some more posts on the software that I use and various other topics, but I figured that the best thing to kick off this new attempt at routine blogging would be write a review of my latest gadget purchase, the Mistel Barocco split mechanical keyboard. I’ll go into a bit of history on why I was looking for this style of keyboard and what I’ve used in the past. If you aren’t interested in any of that, feel free to skip to the review.
You spent $170 on a keyboard?!?
I’ll just start off by saying that yes, the Mistel Barocco is an expensive keyboard. However, I discovered long ago that my hands and wrists were much happier with being asked to type for 10+ hours a day with a split, ergonomic keyboard. I have no idea what my first split keyboard was, I purchased it at Office Max in the mid to late 90’s. It was black and had an AT connector on it, and it was super nice to type on. I don’t remember if it was mechanical or not, I just know that I fell in love pretty much immediately.
Ever since that keyboard, I either put up with whatever normal keyboard I was provided at work or I had my company buy me a Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. It was actually surprising to me being a Software Engineer / SysAdmin / DevOps Engineer that a few of the places I’ve worked outright refused to buy the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 for me, instead telling me that even though it was less than $60 I was on my own if I wanted a keyboard other than the one they provided. Most places were cool though and they purchased the keyboard without question.
The trouble with the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 though is that, for some reason, I tended to wear them out after a year or so of use. The space bar would develop an indentation where I touched it (I only hit the space bar with my right thumb for whatever reason) and I’d have to put a piece of clear tape over the spot to make it somewhat slippery again, otherwise my thumb would start to hurt. The keys would start to feel really mushy and overall it would become rather annoying to type on.
A couple of years ago, while working on yet another failing Microsoft keyboard, I decided to have a look around for a mechanical split keyboard. I had wanted to make the jump to mechanical for some time, I’ve always loved the way mechanical keys feel and the feedback that they provide. Not to mention they should last a heck of a lot longer than the crappy membrane keys on the keyboards I’d been using. Not surprisingly, the landscape of ergonomic mechanical keyboards is pretty sparse. There are a whole lot of normal, straight mechanical keyboards on the market but not so many that are ergonomic. To add to that, I wanted a fully split keyboard so that I could separate the halves more than the tiny split that the Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard and its knockoff’s offered. That search left me with 3 options that I was strongly considering:
- Kinesis Freestyle2 (not mechanical but split)
- Matias Ergo Pro
- ErgoDox EZ
I pretty quickly discarded the Kinesis Freestyle2 from the running because it’s not mechanical and it costs pretty much the same as the Matias Ergo Pro once you get the tenting kit and wrist rests. Then it was just between the Matias and the ErgoDox. I really wanted to go for the ErgoDox but a few things held me back. First, the Cherry MX Brown switches were out of stock and it was going to be a few weeks before they would be back in stock. Second, the unconventional layout had me worried that I’d either absolutely hate it or at the very least it would take me months to be able to type properly again.
The Matias, on the other hand, had a number of bad reviews about the longevity of the board but there seemed to have been talk that Matias had resolved most of those issues. It had a standard layout and didn’t have a useless number pad taking up extra space. It was also over $100 less than the ErgoDox EZ. So, I placed an order and eagerly awaited its arrival. When it showed up, I was definitely impressed and really found it to be an improvement over the Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard, with a few exceptions… I wasn’t in love with the switches. They were better than membrane switches for sure, but they didn’t quite give the tactile feel that I would have preferred. Also, sometimes it seemed like I was hitting keys on an angle and they wouldn’t depress smoothly. And after a month or two of having the board the left shift key started getting stuck down at random, requiring a credit card or other object to pry it back up. That issue somehow resolved its self, but the others didn’t. To top it off, after a year of having the board, it started to exhibit random key repeats.
Fast forward to the middle of May 2019 and the Matias Ergo Pro left half stopped working entirely one morning and no matter what I did I couldn’t make it register any key presses. Reaching out to Matias support met crickets, so I had a year and a half old, $200 keyboard that was a paperweight :(
Back on the hunt
With a dead Matias Ergo Pro and, unfortunately, no backup of any kind, I took another look around at mechanical ergonomic keyboards and found a few new entries. This time around the list I was considering was:
- ErgoDox EZ
- Kinesis Freestyle Edge
- Koolertron Programmable Split Mechanical Keyboard
- Mistel Barocco MD600
To tide myself over and at least have an ergonomic keyboard, I purchased the Kinesis Freestyle2. I’ll do another post on my thoughts on that keyboard, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t really a fan and sent it back. To put it in a few short words though, the keys felt too small and the wrist rests were useless.
I went into this second search with some reservations about a fully split keyboard. After having one whole half of my Matias keyboard go dead, which seemed like a prettty common problem, I was hesitant to spend $150+ on another split keyboard that could potentially have the same issue. Ultimately, ergonomics and preference won out though and I took the plunge again choosing the Mistel Barocco MD600 RGB in white. I would have preferred a black keyboard, but the white RGB looked really nice and also the black was out of stock, so I went with the white :).
Why were the other keyboards out of the running again? Having disliked the feel of the Kinesis Freestyle2 I was 99.9% sure I’d similarly dislike the Kinesis Freestyle Edge, so I didn’t even bother. The Koolertron seemed like the kind of gadget that might get me into another Matias broken keyboard issue, especially with little info available on the net about that particular board.
I really, really would have liked to go with the ErgoDox EZ but still had worries about it taking too long to get used to, and also, the version I want is $354 and that’s just a lot for me to spend right now on a keyboard. It’s certainly at the top of my list though for a keyboard I want to try, once I have the funds to make the leap.
That leaves us with the Barocco, which appeared to have good reviews on Reddit and YouTube and a few other blogs that I came across. So, once again, I placed an order and eagerly awaited its arrival.
The Mistel Barocco - Overview
The Barocco default configuration in front of my 2018 Razer Blade 15 running Manjaro and i3.
One of the things that drew me to the Barocco is that it’s a 60% split keyboard. I hate all of the extra buttons on most keyboards, I never use them. I also hate keyboards that force a number pad on you, I don’t need it and it takes up extra space too. I was a little apprehensive about jumping all the way to a 60% keyboard though. The TKL (10 keyless) format seemed fairly ideal to me, still retaining a number and function row and having arrow keys. However, for no more than I use the function keys and how infrequently I thought I used the arrow keys I didn’t think it would be too big a deal.
The Mistel Barocco box with the included accessories.
One of the things that really struck me when the package arrived was just how tiny it actually was. Mistel packages the two halves of the keyboard on top of each other in their own boxes, with a 3rd box for the accessories and cables. That makes the package a rather small 7.5x5x5.5 inch rectangle. It was nice to see that they gave some thought to the packaging and made it as compact as possible while still ensuring the keyboard was nice and secure.
The box includes a nice key cap puller, a single replacement enter key in Orange (my favorite color!), replacement feet and two mini-usb cables for connecting the two halves together and also connecting to the computer. It also includes a small fold-out instruction manual which you will want to keep handy ;)
The Mistel Barocco in front of the box for size comparison.
The Mistel Barocco next to a Logitech GPro TKL for size comparison.
As you can see, the keyboard is quite small when in its stuck together, straight format. That is great news for desk space, especially considering that for my usage the two halves will be around 6” apart. The keyboard its self features legs on the front to tilt the front up with two setting for how high to tilt it. This is actually one of the things I don’t like about the board, but more on that in a bit.
Using the Mistel Barocco
The Barocco has 4 separate “layers”, which are basically just keyboard layouts. The default layer can’t be programmed but the other 3 can. You can enter programming mode on the board and reconfigure every single key on layers 1-3 to do anything you want it to. Each key can its self perform 32 separate key presses, which opens up more possibilities for programming than I can even begin to imagine.
By default, the keyboard is doing a sort of rainbow wave effect that while looking really cool would annoy the heck out of me in about 3 seconds while trying to actually use the keyboard. This is where the little user manual comes in handy because I’m sure you will want to set the backlight to a solid color, or maybe even turn it off entirely. Pressing PN + F5 a couple times will put you into single color mode. Then you can press PN + [F1, F2, F3] to adjust the red, green and blue color value. It’s nice that the F1/F2/F3 keys backlight color changes based on how much red/green/blue it is currently configured to emit to help understand about where you are for each value. The rest of the keys all illuminate in the currently configured color.
I had been targeting the Cherry MX Brown switches but unfortunately the version with those was out of stock at the time of my order, so I ended up going with the Cherry MX Nature White switches. After reading about the characteristics of switch https://techreport.com/news/29312/cherry-mx-nature-white-switches-take-the-bump-out-of-mx-browns I thought they sounded like the next best thing to brown switches for my typing-centric work. Overall, I’m quite happy with the selection. There is a decent amount of force required to press the keys without it being too much. For typing I find that I don’t bottom out the keys like I do with a membrane keyboard or even the keys on the Matias Ergo Pro. I also find them to be quite comfortable to type on for hours, however, I’m not 100% sold on them for gaming. I don’t game a lot but they feel a tad heavy to keep held down, so using the WSAD keys for running around in an FPS or driving in a sim I can feel it in my fingers after a little while.
Overall though, I find the switches to feel very nice. The double shot PBT key caps feel great and solid as well. Now, lets get to the first thing that I don’t like about the Mistel Barocco… There is no way to tent this board or apply negative tilt (front lower than the back). I consider tenting and negative tilt to both be requirements in an ergonomic keyboard, so the fact that you just can’t do it is unfortunate. There is also no wrist rest, so you are on your own for finding a good solution once you’ve split the two halves apart. Now, I should point out, I knew this when I purchased the board so it didn’t come as a surprise. My plan was to come up with a wooden wedge or standoff’s or something to accomplish the tilting and tenting.
My hacky tilt/tent setup using the Matias Ergo Pro wrist rests.
One thing I loved about the Matias Ergo Pro was that it was a solid chunk of keyboard and it had some fantastic wrist wrests bolted right onto the keyboard. After fiddling with the Barocco for a bit and wondering how I was going to tilt/tent and get wrist rests, I looked over at my sad, broken Matias and a light bulb went off in my head. I’m currently using some cardboard standoff’s to hold the Matias wrist rests up in the air and using the short tilt setting on the inside of each keyboard half while resting the back half on the Matias wrist rest connector plate to achieve the same tilt/tent configuration that I loved on the Matias Ergo Pro.
I’ll get around to making a bracket to hold everything together a bit more solidly eventually, but for the past couple of weeks this has been working great. If Mistel could offer a similar add-on then I think the keyboard would probably be just about perfect.
Let’s write some code!
I write code all day, every day, so once I got the backlight set to a solid color (I went with default solid red to start with) I fired up tmux and vim to write some code. And that’s about when I discovered my first “oh crap” moment. My tmux modifier is set to back tick. On the Barocco, the back tick is a function modifier on the escape key. No way was I going to hit FN + ESC every time I wanted to activate the tmux modifier, so that had to change. Luckily I use CTRL + [ as escape in vim, so reprogramming ESC to Back tick wasn’t going to be a problem, except for the mechanics of actually getting it done…
I remembered that you can’t program the default layer, so I changed to Layer 1. Ahhhh!!!! The rainbow effect is back, OK, lets make this a solid color. I decided I should make it a different color, so layer 1 is a blueish green as seen in the picture above. The middle status LED also changes to red when you are on layer 1, so I don’t think I’d get confused as to which layer I was on, but changing the backlight seemed like a good extra bit of visual info.
It took me a few tries to get it right, even though I was following the manual, but I eventually got the escape key reprogrammed to a back tick. It essentially involves doing the following:
- Switch to any of layer 1-3
- Press FN + right ctrl, LED 3 lights up in a blue color
- Press the key you want to program, LED 3 flashes blue
- Key in the sequence you want to program and then press PN. In my case it was FN + ESC
- Press FN + Right CTRL to exit programming mode
Seems simple enough but I kept missing the “and then press PN” after keying in my sequence, so it took a couple tries and re-reading the instructions. While I was at it, I also wanted to reprogram the Caps Lock key to be a CTRL key, because I don’t use Caps Lock and I always configure the OS to remap that to a CTRL key anyway. That’s one of the things that I actually really like about the Mistel Barocco, the programming is on the board so if I move to another computer all of my key settings come along too!
Alright, I can hit back tick and Caps Lock is gone, lets write come code! This went well for a few minutes until I opened up my fuzzy finder (CTRL+P) in vim and realized I usually use the arrow keys to make a selection in CTRL+P. I quickly found that you can also use CTRL+J/K, which I prefer to the arrow keys actually, so no problem there. However, I quickly discovered other non-vim things that I use the arrow keys for a lot. On the Barocco you have to hit FN + I/J/K/L for arrow keys. The FN key isn’t in a super useful position sitting between right alt and the right MENU/PN key, IMHO. I don’t even know what finger I’d use to hit that AND the I/J/K/L keys, so it’s time to remap the FN key too.
It’s great that I only use the right thumb to hit space bar because you can actually reprogram both the left and right space bar to do anything you want, separately! So, I’ve remapped the left space bar to be my FN key and I actually love it. I can now navigate around pretty much anywhere I want without needing to ever take my hands off the keyboard or shift to arrow keys. This includes hitting the home and end keys. Also, giving my left thumb a job has made it clear to me that I would probably absolutely love the thumb clusters on the ErgoDox EZ, so one of these days I’ll get to confirm that!
What I’ve been using for the past two weeks now is a two layer setup. The default layer I use for gaming (having a proper ESC key is useful in games, back tick not so much) and my coding layer with the changes mentioned above. Keeping the backlight different colors has made it super simple to know which mode I’m in and it seems to help with putting me in the right “mood” for which ever activity I’m trying to do too. My only real complaint about programming the board is that it’s all done on-board, there is no GUI config tool that would let me create profiles and flash them onto the board. Also, the firmware update tool is Windows only and I’m 100% Linux, so if I ever need to flash the firmware it could prove to be a bit of a problem…
Holy shit, what just happened…
After the first week of using the board, once I had made my customizations, I was really loving it. Then, while writing some code one day the keys I was hitting and the output on my screen were not matching up. I thought maybe I had shifted my fingers on the board, but that wasn’t it. Then I noticed the left status light had illuminated blue and I realized that I had somehow switched to either colemak or dvorak. Quickly consulting the manual I found that FN + A changes the layout, so I toggled that a couple times and got back to QWERTY.
Then, almost immediately after getting back to QWERTY the board stopped registering the I key for reasons that I can’t even begin to understand. I tried fiddling with things for a bit but couldn’t get the I key to work at all. I ended up having to reset the board back to factory default, which thankfully worked. That meant I had to redo all of my customizations, which luckily weren’t very many. This is reinforcement that a cross-platform GUI configuration tool would be awesome because it’s a bit tedious redoing the settings one at a time.
I’ve been using the board for about 2 weeks since that incident and have thankfully not had it stop registering keys on me again. That had me really freaked out and just about ready to return the board, visions of the dead Matias kept flashing into my head and I didn’t want to be in that situation again.
I have, however, toggled to colemak/dvorak by accident a few times and that’s just annoying. I would much rather Mistel have made that configuration done via dip switches on the back of the board instead of FN + A, because that combo seems way too easy to activate. Especially considering that if someone wants colemak or dvorak they are going to want it to stay that way, so setting via dip switches would make a lot more sense.
So far after about 3 weeks of using the Mistel Barocco I absolutely love it. Once I made the few tweaks to get the keys I use frequently setup and easy to access it’s been a joy to use and I’m hoping it will continue to be a joy to use for far longer than the year and a half I got out of my Matias Ergo Pro. I have only, knock on wood, had the single instance where a key stopped registering and it’s only a minor annoyance when I, infrequently, toggle to colemak/dvorak by accident.
- Split keyboard, place the halves however you want
- Connector cable is micro-USB not a TRRS audio cable. I feel like that’s more reliable, no evidence that I’m aware of though
- Choice of Cherry MX Black, Brow, Blue, Red, Nature White, and Silver switches
- 60% layout means you don’t have to move your hands, especially once you program the board to your liking
- Every key can be programmed to do something else
- Multitude of backlight options for bling or functionality
- It looks really slick
- Toggling the layout to colemak/dvorak is entirely way too easy
- Programming is somewhat tedious if you are doing more than a few keys
- Firmware flashing software is Windows only
- No tilt/tent without hacking together your own solution
- Not widely available and finding it in-stock with your preferred key switches could be difficult
So, if you are looking for a mechanical, split, ergonomic keyboard and you aren’t ready or able to make the jump to the ErgoDox EZ, the Mistel Barocco is definitely a solid option and worth a look. Especially if you are able to handle the 60% layout, it’s a solid board with decent configurability and a good selection of key switches to suit your preferences.