The Launch Keyboard

I was asked to share my experiences about the System76 launch keyboard, and a Mastodon post would not provide enough space - so a blog article it is.

My setting and needs

What’s my environment like, making me consider a 285$ keyboard?

Since forever, I did not pay much attention to the keyboards I use.
In the last 5 years, I mostly used the keyboard build into Thinkpads, with German and English layout. From a trip to Korea I brought an external keyboard back with me which I used at work, also here I used English layout. I use Linux, and ibus and fcitx5 as input switch methods, so I can input German, English and Japanese characters.

Since I moved to Japan 5 years ago, I live in a small room in Tokyo, considering carefully which hardware I buy and which not. So far, I constantly used Thinkpads with open lid, in front of a 24" monitor. The Thinkpad keyboard is quite nice, and because of their fantastic track pointer I do not need a mouse. In my setup, I do not use the Thinkpad montor when an external monitor is connected, so it just wastes space on the desk, and collects dust.

So, do I need a keyboard at all? After all I try to stay lean, to not buy more things which I do not use eventually.
When we were forced to clean our desks at the office, I had taken the Hangul keyboard home with me, refurbished it and tried it for home use. I liked having real keys, but it was to bulky for me, took to much space.

The reports on the System76 launch keyboard looked nice:

  • it has an open firmware, can be patched with fwupd
  • an OpenSource software is available to do key remapping
  • it’s small: an 80% keyboard. Just look at it: it’s reduced to the really essential parts - but these are of high quality.
  • it’s not only connected via USB to the computer, it also has a USB3 hub, one can attach a mouse, USB sticks, the mp3 player for uploading podcases and the mobile phone directly.

launch keyboard sun

Market watch: which other keyboards are out there?

I had seen reviews of the Launch keyboard and considered it as my first choice - but before buying a keyboard for that price I had to do a proper research of what else is on the market.

Many people build up their own keybards, I did not want to do that. The ‘happy hacking’ keyboards are everywhere, and similiar in form factor to the Launch. They also are easily obtainable via many online stores, while System76 only sells directly from America. But then, ‘happy hacking’ feels like a buzzword name to me.
System76 produces open firmware for the keyboard, and then they are also active in other OpenSource areas, for example with an own Linux distro. So, I ordered the Launch keyboard.

Using the launch

Shipping to Japan: 285$ for the keyboard, 85$ for shipping, plus 1700円 (15$) tax which I had to pay when the keyboard arrived.

It’s heavy enough to stay on the desk, comes with some replacement key caps. After connecting, I had to reconfigure the Sway window manager, and noticed that one of the 2 shift keys did not slide up after it got pressed down. A tool for removing the key caps came with the box, I removed the key cap. This certain key is quite big, below the cap is one switch and 2 stabilizers. After moving the stabilizers up and down a few times, and again placing the key cap on top, everything works as it should.

By default, the LEDs behind the keys shine with a rainbow pattern, constantly moving. The ‘keyboard configurator’ has some dependencies, but can be compiled on Fedora without issues, and then allows to configure the LEDs: disabling, different animation patterns, brightness, all configurable. On the Thinkpads, the LED makes the key cap inscription readable, but on the Launch, the illumination is not much helping with readability. On the day after receiving the keyboard, I was typing in the LUKS disk encryption passphrase when it was dark - and needed 3 attempts.

LED brightness can be configured without the software, just pressing certain keys on the keyboard. More complicated changes are done in the software, and is then uploaded to the keyboard.

I also used the key remapping function of the software: I changed the key caps on the bottom to match the Thinkpad order, details are here. With that change done, I feel now quite comfortable when using the keyboard.

launch night

Fascinating the Launch has just exactly the keys I need. The F-keys are there, and I heavily use ctrl + cursor keys for switching virtual screens. If I find out that I need more, then I can still use a modifier-key which I do not use today, and map further keys which I can press together with that modifier key.

More restructuring

Apart from plain keyboard usage, more on my desk changed.
So far, I used the camera in the Thinkpad lid for online conferences, and often also the Thinkpads microphone and speaker. With the new keyboard, I closed the Thinkpad and moved it behind the monitor. That frees up space on the desk, but for now I have to use an external webcam, and for audio a bluetooth connected headset. These 2 pieces are an inconvenience compared to the old setup, but for other video conference participants this improves audio/video quality.

I had thought that through before buying the keyboard. One nice thing which turned out nicer than expected: the Launch includes a USB3.2 Gen 2 hub, and offers 2 Type A and 2 Type C connectors, hooking up mouse, USB-sticks and so on is convenient, and fast.

Last modified on 2021-12-26