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[IC] Altair and Altair-X - Split ergonomic keyboard | GB Date Announced

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Altair and Altair-X

Latest update: GB date, keyset design and pricing, and more announced here

After half a decade of development and over two years of use as a daily driver, Altair and Altair-X represent ai03's current benchmark in keyboard design for productivity and comfort.
Going beyond just internals or mounting methods, the Altair family blends a fully-split ergonomic key layout with high-end keyboard visuals and internals to take typing comfort to the next level.

Third Time's the Charm

Altair's key layout is the third ergonomic layout iteration by ai03, having been revised after heavy real-world testing and years of use.
Altair's layout focuses on three important aspects:

Ease of learning.

While visually unique, Altair closely matches a typical keyboard in general key positions.
Care has been taken to make sure that anyone can learn the layout quickly, while also being able to jump between Altair and other keyboard layouts when necessary.

Typing Excellence.

Altair's key placement matches natural finger movement ranges closely, minimizing both finger and hand-movement during use.
This in return minimizes typing effort and strain, while also contributing to higher possible typing accuracy and speeds.

The Ergo Advantage.

Altair's layer switching keys are conveniently placed right next to the spacebars, allowing for convenient layer switching with minimal finger movement.
Taking full advantage of Altair's split design, an extra column has been added to the inner side of the G/H split - map this to your favorite macros for convenient access, or use them as dedicated bracket keys for programming efficiency.
They can also be used as a duplicate set of inner alphanumerics to help adjust to the layout, or even as a dedicated pedestal to display your artisan collections in style.

Form Matches Function

Carefully drawn curves wrap around the keys, integrating the ergonomic key layout into part of the visuals.

A unique mix of soft organic curves, geometric arcs, and bold straight edges create a dynamic aesthetic reaching far beyond the board's compact size.

A bottom emblem weight adds the final visual touch, while also serving as an acoustic damper and a crucial mass to anchor the compact board to the desk.

Tilt and Absorb

Altair features a unique PCB point-mount system which uses the circuit board as a key part of its internal structure.

Small gasket columns hold the PCB from below around the rims, allowing for effective vibration and impact absorption with no "rigid spots" close to mounting points.
Chosen after testing various materials, the specific material and compression ratio ensures a fine balance between comfort and reliable feedback which never devolves into mushiness.

All gasket columns can independently compress, allowing for the entire internals to tilt in all directions to absorb and disperse impacts.
Combined with the ergonomic key layout, Altair ensures all-day typing comfort.

Unique shoulder screws act as columns that keep the internals secured and aligned within the single-part case, making this internals system possible without the need for multiple case parts.

Sculpting and Engineering In Tandem

Altair is truly tailor-made - a custom case, custom PCBs, and even custom daughterboards work in perfect coordination to make the unique layout possible without compromising function or visuals.
The PCB edge bends and stairsteps to perfectly match the case, and the daughterboard precisely angles its USB connectors to match the rear curvature while minimizing interior cutouts.

Altair cuts no corners with high-end tuning and optimizations - with its seven-degree incline and a front ledge that drops down as low as 16.7mm at its tip, the keyboard remains comfortable to use even without assistance of a wristrest.

The Power of Two

Altair is a fully split keyboard - the keyboard halves can be placed to match your natural hand and arm placement, rather than the other way around.
A regular USB-C cable connects the two halves - the choice is yours for how long of a cable to use for balancing keyboard placement and desk clutter.

Ever wanted a premium single-handed keyboard for gaming, artwork, or macropad use?
Altair can take on the task by leaving the split cable disconnected - since each half is a fully functional keyboard, plug in just one half to free up keyboard space on your desk.

The Altair family comes with two variants:
- The Altair (five-row) features a numrow, making it as easy as possible to migrate from larger layouts.
- The Altair-X (four-row) lacks the numrow, condensing the keyboard down to the most easily reachable keys.

Beyond Just the Keyboard

Altair's default key mapping has been optimized over years of testing for easy usability, learn-ability, and minimized memorizing needs - along with the physical layout, Altair aims to be both accessible to the novice and practical to an expert.

A dedicated keyset has been created for both the Altair and Altair-X with custom legends matching the default keymap.
Combined with a planned Altair learning guide, the keyboard is designed to go beyond just dropping the board off in the mailbox, but rather to go the full way for allowing the user to learn and appreciate the ergonomic key layout.

For those who prefer the use of wristrests, custom wristrests that match both the Altair and Altair-X are in the works.


Note: Details are as planned at the time of writing the IC.

Typing angle: 7deg
Materials: Aluminum case, polycarbonate plate, steel or brass weight
Manufacturer: Expected to be Hongtu
Weight (both halves combined): ~1.2kg (Altair 5-row) | ~900g (Altair-X 4-row)
Dimensions (per half): ~143.6 x 126.4 x 30.0mm (Altair 5-row) | ~143.6 x 107.4 x 27.9mm (Altair-X 4-row)
PCB: 1.2mm thick; hotswap
Vendors: To be announced
Price: 300 USD for Altair-X (4-row), 315 USD for Altair (5-row); e-white to cost slightly more
Target group buy date: April 29 to June 3

- E-white

- Dark Grey

- Rose Gold

Accessories: Foam layers (midfoam, bottomfoam, PCB foam), tailored carrying cases, tailored wristrests, custom keysets
Custom keysets: 30USD for Altair (5-row), 27USD for Altair-X (4-row)

Feedback Form
To leave feedback, request features, or just to receive updates when the project goes live, submit the IC form here.
In addition, I'll be releasing updates on my Discord as the project progresses.


An in-depth look at Altair

While I usually keep ICs compact, there's a lot to write about with the Altair family, so I'll deviate from the typical format and describe the behind-the-scenes and reasoning behind aspects of the design.

A (not-so-)brief history

As stated in the earlier portion of the IC, Altair (specifically the four-row Altair-X) has been my daily driver keyboard for over two years at this point - specifically around two and a half.
In the span I've added numerous keyboards to my collection, but Altair-X has remained the one daily driver keyboard that I come back to - at least for my preferences, so far nothing beats the extreme typing accuracy, comfort, and effortlessness that this board provides.

My efforts at ergonomic keyboard design date back to the original Orbit which began in late 2018.
The inspiration was drawn from attending some of the earlier Tokyo keyboard meetups - it was a time when at minimum 9 out of 10 keyboards on display were ergonomic or non-standard layout units, and being able to try them for the first time gave me the desire to combine the metal cases and internals of the typical "custom keyboards" with the ergonomic layouts that go beyond just variations of the typical row-stagger.
Being my first split keyboard design, it took quite some effort and research to make it happen - learning split PCB design, configuring the firmware, and simply the task of designing around the non-rectangular key layout required plenty of time, and the knowledge gained from the task would eventually influence my other designs later on.

A total of 10 units were produced, being sold as effectively a semi-private group buy primarily for the JP audience.

By late 2019, I was already feeling the desire to build upon the design further, having noticed some aspects which I wanted to improve.
For example, the interconnect cable exiting from the thumb area was moved to the back, allowing for more freedom in placing the halves without getting the cables tangled.
After realizing that the hands and wrists move very little when using an ergonomic keyboard which limits the reach of the fingers, most of the outer keys and numrow was axed in favor of a compact layout with every key in reach from home position.
This revised prototype design, named the Orbit-X, arrived and was shown off for the first time at the December 2019 SoCal meetup - one of the very last meetups before the pandemic took the world by surprise.

A side note is that this was one of my earliest designs which combined internal case screws with a seamless design, an element which was effectively transplanted into the Vega which made its debut soon after.

From then on, I almost exclusively used the Orbit-X prototype as my daily driver - it was immediately evident that typing accuracy skyrocketed, with speed test accuracy scores rising from the mid-90% range on typical row-stagger layouts to effectively 100% with the ergo.
Combined with the decreased finger and hand movement, Orbit-X quickly proved itself much more comfortable to type on than the other boards on hand.

Yet once again, the desire to improve upon it came around - this time primarily in the internals.
Being a weightless top-mounted board effectively the size of a numpad, the acoustics quickly fell beyond my usual bar when compared to newer row-staggered designs, and due to the rigid screw mount points on the plate, certain keys near the edges were much stiffer compared to the rest.

In addition, there were many keys which proved themselves difficult to reach (primarily in the bottom corner areas commonly blockered-off in HHKB-style layouts), as well as very reachable areas without optimal placement of keys (near the thumb area, on the inner side of the split).

So once again the ergonomic design was revised - this time as Altair-X, removing the hard-to-reach keys, adding keys where reachable and convenient, and overhauling the internals to deliver the needed comfort and acoustics within the tiny board size.
In addition, I used the opportunity to redo the visuals, sculpting it in a much more intricate and organic manner compared to the Orbit-X which used just a combination of arcs and straight edges.

This design was followed with the five-row Altair by redoing the design with a numrow, in hopes that this modification would make the layout more beginner-friendly than the compact Altair-X.
From then on, the early prototype unit of Altair-X replaced the Orbit-X as my daily driver, and was subject to over two years of full-time use in a real-world environment:
- The board was transported around with unideal packaging to test physical durability
- The board was subject to at least 50 static shocks to test its onboard ESD handling circuit
- The board was used to write large software projects such as Hype V2 and the self-service portal
- The board was used to design effectively every board in the past two years (yes, I do CAD without physical arrow keys or a numrow).

Several issues were addressed during this testing, such as the placement of the rubber feet to maximize stability during use, and replacing the internal connection from the daughterboard to the mainboard with a flat ribbon (FFC) to reduce its impact on typing feel.
And after one more final round of prototypes to confirm that these changes were practical and effective, we finally arrive at the Altair family IC with roughly half a decade of development, redesigns, optimizations, and battle-hardenedness under its belt - also written on a unit of Altair-X itself.

This is probably the most heavily-tested and thoroughly-optimized board I've designed to date, and I hope that it is able to serve as not only a unique typing experience that places emphasis on aspects beyond the typical row-stagger layout, but also as a gateway to the wide world of unique layout keyboards out there.

The challenge of two
Due to its split nature, Altair(-X) is inherently two keyboards being sold as one.
This means two cases, two weights, two plates, two PCBs, two daughterboards, two of effectively everything - and if not done correctly, double the price tag.
This has been a huge challenge in making a practical split keyboard ever since I started with the Orbit - on that design, the price tag was simply left high.
On Orbit-X, I skipped the weight to cut costs, but always felt the desire to have one installed.

With Altair, I instead combined the top and bottom case parts into a single case component; this halves the number of large case parts needed, and brings down the price tag to far more accessible ranges.
In addition, due to the lack of case screws and seams to hold the parts together, there's quite a bit more freedom in designing the exterior - something I took full advantage of with sculpting the rear curvature.

The challenge of two also strikes when designing the internals - since the physical volume of the keyboard is divided in half, the next battle becomes trying to achieve typing feel and acoustics which can hold its own against boards 3~4 times in size... while also already limited to just a single numpad-sized case component per half.
After much headaches and numerous attempts, the solution to this challenge ended up being the PCB point-mount system as described earlier.
While there are physical limitations that prevent Altair from sounding exactly like a board multiple times in size, I believe that I've achieved a very satisfactory result acoustically that can be tuned to perform well, while also not compromising any aspects of typing feel which I find crucial to an ergonomic design.



Q: So Altair and Altair-X... which do I choose?

A: If you're new to ergonomic or compact keyboards, I recommend the five-row Altair, since it allows you to adjust to ergo with the numrow.
Once you get used to ergo and want to take things further, you can always repurpose the numrow keys as function keys, artisan holders, or similar.
If you're used to compact boards, I recommend the four-row Altair-X all the way - beyond the simple advantage of having all keys close to home position, it also has fewer switches for less tuning hassle.

Q: I'm scared to jump to an ergo design out of the blue... is it even possible?

A: I felt the same when I jumped straight from a TKL (~95 WPM, ~97% accuracy) to the Orbit-X for the first time.
My learning experience was as follows:
- Week 1: Typing speed slow, needing to look down at the keys often, making plenty of typing errors specifically around the Z/X/C keys.
- Week 2: Typing speed improving, little need to look at the keys anymore, typing mistakes decreasing significantly.
- Week 3: Typing speed and accuracy is roughly where it was with the TKL, no longer looking down at the keys.
- Week 5~6: Typing speed perfectly matches what it was before with the TKL, typing accuracy far exceeding what it was with the TKL and nearing 100%.
Note that while adjustment speed will vary from person to person, my results were with the obstacle of having to develop a usable keymap alongside learning the physical layout - since I've done that work for you beforehand with Altair, the learning curve may be even lower depending on your keymap preferences.
Also note that my typing speed never increased beyond the row-stagger in the short term while accuracy skyrocketed - it took another year or so until I realized I was typing slightly faster (~110WPM) than what I was achieving with row-stagger.
Ironic that it ended up this way since my original goal for trying ergo was to improve typing speed over everything else - turns out there was more to gain in other aspects.
Once again, these results might vary from person to person, but an interesting point nonetheless.

Q: Are there any specific things I should be aware of when planning my Altair build?

A: My first recommendation is to try a switch weight one or two tiers lighter than what you'd typically pick for a row-stagger build.
Ergos are often typed on with the wrists anchored rather than floating, since the wrists don't need to move much to reach most keys.
Due to this, the keys are pressed with just the force of the fingers rather than the full combined force of the hand and wrists - this leaves less force to press against the spring of the switches.
As a real-world example, I can type on 65~67g switches just fine in a row-stagger, but on ergo I often have trouble going over the 63.5g bar.
Altair's unique mounting system can make switches sound drastically different compared to how they behave in other boards.
This isn't that the board can't be tuned to perform - just that it needs to be tuned quite differently compared to a typical keyboard.
Some examples of what I've experienced:
- Gateron X switches, which I find to be typically loud and sharp-sounding in typical boards, sounds very dull and muffled on Altair.
- Unlubed Alpaca switches, which I find to sound somewhat thin and hollow on typical boards, sounds rather deep and full on Altair.
- Haimu Pastel Sky switches, which I find to be a balanced middle-of-the-road type of sound on typical boards, sounds shrill and hollow on Altair.
- I find Gateron Oil Kings to sound more or less the same on Altair as they do on typical boards.
Since the results are so unpredictable, my personal recommendation is to try a bunch of switches and to see what you prefer the most.

Q: What keyset compatibility do I need to fill the board?

A: Look for ortho kits - stuff that can fill a Planck, Preonic or similar.
Altair(-X) uses all 1U-keys, so an ortho kit should be able to cover it; in certain cases you might need to look for a spacebar kit to find 1U spacebars (or I guess convex space-keys, since it's not much of a bar at that point).
If you don't need legends, one set I recommend is the NicePBT blanks - it comes with the convex 1U spacebars and enough regular 1Us to fill the board.

Q: No tenting kits?

A: I don't have one planned this time around - adding tenting or variable angle capabilities either adds complexity that raises the board height and makes it difficult to type on, or adds mechanical complexity that raises cost in addition to the challenge of having to create two keyboards for the price of one.
Also, part of it comes down to personal preference - I originally tried a tented design with the Orbit, and found it too unwieldy to use without a wristrest; since I value keyboard versatility, I decided to ditch it altogether and optimize the board for a single-angle with a very low front height so it could be comfortably used even without tenting or a wristrest.

Orbit-X walked so Altair could run.

Itís about god damn time.


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