The Big Lure of Tiny Keyboards

Look down at your computer keyboard (if you’re reading this on your phone, just work with me—picture it in your mind’s eye). Now imagine that keyboard being smaller. Much, much smaller. Like nearly the size of a king-sized candy bar. There are no number keys, and the space bar is super-tiny, just two keys wide. OK, now imagine typing on it all day. If this seems appealing—if your regular keyboard has always felt just too damn big—then welcome to the tiny keyboard movement.

Devotees of mechanical keyboards are often known for their benevolent obsession with building custom peripherals. Aside from their satisfying clackiness, the big draw of mechanical keyboards is their infinite customizability. Spend a few minutes on the r/mechanicalkeyboards subreddit and you’ll get a sense of how some people spend hundreds to thousands of dollars assembling different boards with elaborate “artisan” keycaps. All that dedication has led to a growing movement of enthusiasts who want to simplify the devices down to their purest form: the tiny keyboard.

Another of Toby Dan's custom-built small keyboards. Toby Dan

Custom-designing a tiny keyboard, proponents say, fosters creativity through constraint. When there’s only three or four rows of keys to work with, every key counts. Color, shape, and even key placement varies from board to board. Looking at some of them feels like gazing at the array of multicolored tubs in an ice cream shop. What they have in common is, well, that they’re tiny.

The 40 percent keyboard is probably the most popular mini configuration. As the name implies, it occupies less than half the space of a traditional keyboard. A standard full-sized keyboard with a number pad has somewhere around 101 keys (give or take a couple depending on the brand). The keys of a tiny keyboard aren’t any smaller than normal, they are just fewer in number. The 40 percent gives you somewhere between 40 to 49 keys to work with, depending on whether you want your spacebar wider than a single letter key.

“Honestly, it’s adorable,” says Erez Zukerman, CEO of the Canadian company ZSA Technology Labs, which sells the Planck EZ 40-percent keyboard. “It is a super cute keyboard. My developer in Japan, when I sent him the first prototype, his four year old asked him if he could have a bite.”The Planck EZ is sold preassembled, but most people who use tiny keyboards build them themselves, either from kits or from scratch. Toby Dan, who works in software sales in Atlanta, Georgia, is a mechanical keyboard enthusiast who builds and designs layouts for small boards.