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A stream of consciousness.

Boardsource Lulu

Keyboards Split-Keyboards

Build details:

  • Lulu (V1 PCB) in space grey with clear encoders;
  • Boba UT4 62g tactile switches;
  • KAT Cyberspace keycaps.

The Boardsource Lulu was the board that runied everything for me.

Up until the Lulu I was perfectly happy with normal keyboards. I tended toward the smaller side – my ideal keyboard was probably a nice 60 per cent – but definitely within the realms of the mainstream, as far as keyboards as a hobby goes.

The Lulu started like any other keyboard. Somewhere (probably either Reddit or on GeekHack) a group buy was advertised, and I paid my money and waited a long, long time. Eventually, it arrived and I built it and the rest was history.

The thing with the Lulu is that it was my first split keyboard. Now split keyboards are all I want to use.

Boardsource Lulu split keyboard
Boardsource Lulu split keyboard

The Lulu, like the Unicorne, is a refinement of a longstanding design, in this case the MIT licensed Lily58 split keyboard. It comes with a nice aluminium case, with per-key LEDs and an OLED for each side. The PCB was pre-soldered – I don’t recall having to do anything other than assemble it. It also has two rotary encoders (knobs), which sit nicely flush with the case. Built with Boba U4Ts (62g), it even sounds great.

Like all of the (two) Boardsource products I’ve used, it’s very nicely done. It was easy to put together, was packaged nicely, and presents a nice, refined package which is much less scary than sourcing your own PCB and soldering everything onto it.

The problem with the Lulu was, as noted above, this was the keyboard that opened my eyes to split keyboards, to the extent that I re-learned how to type to use it (I did know how to type, but my technique, particularly my ability to keep my fingers on the home row, was too sloppy to work with a big gap in the middle of the keyboard).

Like a lot of people, I got into keyboards during the COVID-19 pandemic. I joined a bunch of group buys for keyboards and keycaps (and occasionally switches), and due to the general state of the world at the time a lot of these group buys took a long time to deliver. So when I got the Lulu and decided that split keyboards were my future, I still had a bunch of regular 60 and 65 per cent keyboards on the way. The bigger issue was that I had a bunch of keycap group buys that were still on the way.

Split keyboards tend to require some different keycaps to regular keyboards. Examples like the Lulu only use 1U (that is, the size of a normal letter key) keys for almost all of the keys, including keys that most keycap sets have as larger than 1U, like shift, tab, backspace, and so on. Additionally (and this is something I didn’t really appreciate until I was putting together the Lulu), most keycap sets have slightly different shapes for the keys that are on different rows (referred to as the profile), and with a normal keycap set, even if you can find a 1U keycap to fit, for example a modifier key, it may be the profile of the wrong row (which you may or may not be able to see).

Most regular GMK base sets don’t work well for split keyboards – generally you’ll need to get at least one add-on kit (often an ’ergo’ or a ’40s’ add-on, but the naming and contents is inconsistent), which requires more expense and often a bit of additional home-work. Even if there are appropriate add-ons, you may have to fork out a bit of money to get full coverage.

I went about covering the Lulu in keycaps in the most expensive way possible. I decided that KAT Cyberspace would look good on it (and it does). But I had got into the group buy long before I realised I needed to fill a split keyboard. When it eventually arrived I was able to get some additional keys as extras from where I originally ordered it (extras are generally in limited supply and always more expensive than the group buy). But I still wasn’t able to get all the keycaps I wanted, so I went onto one of the local Discord servers and waited until someone was selling some of the kits that I needed and bought them (along with a bunch I didn’t need, because that’s what was being sold). I don’t want to know how much I eventually spent, but the important thing is I’m happy with the result.

I think if you’re thinking of getting into split keyboards the Lulu (or something like it) is a good start. If you’re used to a 60 per cent you’ll find you’re not missing too many keys, and if you’re used to a 60 per cent you’re probably already using some layers. The Lulu/Lily58 is a common and old enough board that there are lots of example keymaps out there for inspiration, and using QMK and Via makes it all pretty easy to customise.

I use the Lulu as my work keyboard, so I still use it pretty much every (work) day. I’m in an open plan office, so it gets lots of comments, and you know no one is going to sit down at your desk and start typing on your keyboard, or mistake it for theirs.

Personally, however, I now prefer smaller keyboards, like the Unicorne. I use pretty much the same keymap on the Lulu as I do on my Cornes (which means I can ignore the top number row if I want), which makes it much easier to switch between the two of them.

Originally I was using the Lulu at home which meant that I was regularly switching between Windows and Mac layouts, so I set it up to switch between Mac layers and Windows layers, and described the general approach in a Gist, but these days I mostly just use the Windows layers and the Mac layers are a bit neglected. The approach I’ve taken in the Unicorne is to map a key to toggle between CMD and the CTRL, which gets me most of the way there.

If you’re curious about split keyboards there are cheaper ways to get into them than the Lulu, but if you want an easy experience and a nice-looking product, it’s a good choice.