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What is the difference between Staggered and Ortholinear layouts

We've already looked at a variety of sizes and layouts available in the mechanical keyboard world. There are a few more topics left to cover as we dive into the basics. This is the second of a handful of articles exploring the various aspects to consider for newcomers to this hobby. 
Topics include: 
  • Size/Layout
  • Staggered vs Ortholinear (you are here)
  • Low-Profile vs High-Profile
  • Build Quality

Staggered vs Ortholinear
What are Staggered and Ortholinear Layouts Before diving into the topic, a brief introduction is needed for those that might not know the terms. Staggered is a little easier to deduce from the word itself - keys are aligned vertically (going across a given row, the key to the left and right does not shift position up or down—in other words, the vertical rows are all in alignment) but are staggered horizontally (conversely, going up or down a given column, the keys above and below a key do shift position left or right). Ortholinear means that the keys are all aligned vertically as well as horizontally, most often in a perfect grid pattern. This is also sometimes referred to as a “matrix” layout, though this is less common in the keyboard hobby. There are also other types of staggering (uniform, symmetric, and columnar), but we won’t be covering those in this introductory article. 
Image Credit: @HoffmanMyster

History of Staggered Layouts While not critical to understanding the difference between the two layout types, some history seems appropriate at this point. Feel free to skip below if you’d prefer.  When typewriters were first developed, staggered layouts became a design necessity. Each key that the user pressed was connected to an arm (“typelever” or “keylever”) which was mechanically connected to the typebar. Pressing a given key causes the linkages to move such that the reversed character on the typebar is slammed into the ink-ribbon-covered paper, leaving that character inked onto the sheet. 
Image Credit: @livingspeedbump (GMK_Andy) This array of physical levers and bars within the inner workings of the typewriter meant that the four (at the time) rows of keys must all be staggered by a quarter key-width in order to fit neatly alongside each other. And thus was born our staggered layout, remaining roughly unchanged in the nearly century and a half that has followed.  Slightly less well-known than the origins of this staggered layout on the typewriter is an interesting stepping stone on the way to modern computers. Early computer input devices, particularly punch card machines like the IBM 029 shown below, used a sort of hybrid system of mechanical linkages found in typewriters and electrical matrices that would become standard later. 
Image credit: @HoffmanMyster It’s difficult to show everything connected (it buttons up real nice and encloses the interesting bits), but these arms sticking out of the top are the equivalent of the typelevers found in typewriters. That’s where the similarities end, however, as the arms in this punch card keyboard connect to an array of other mechanical and electrical linkages to convert the keypress into an electrical signal that the machine can understand. This part of the process is still a bit of a mystery to me—it appears to use a combination of more basic switches closing along with a “chord” mechanism to check a smaller number of potential switches for a specific combination that would correspond to a given key. 
Image credit: @HoffmanMyster Okay, enough historical digressions for now… Ortholinear Layouts The obvious follow-up question to all of this is, “why keep an old outdated standard if we don’t need to?” and the answer probably won’t surprise anyone—inertia. Changing standards is hard, and unless they absolutely must it’s really difficult to convince people to do so.  You may look down at your keyboard and notice something though—depending on the size and layout of your keyboard, of course. All of the keys added after the age of the typewriter follow the ortholinear design language. On a full-size keyboard, for example, the numpad, arrow cluster, insert/delete cluster, and F-row (save for those middle keys, centered for symmetry) all fit into perfect ortholinear groupings. Expectedly, these keys were all worked into the standard keyboard layout after discrete keyswitches took over as the dominant actuation mechanism.  While there was some experimentation into ortholinear layouts in the 1990s (Deskthority references the TypeMatrix line of keyboards in their wiki), the layout did not take off to any broad extent and remained a mere oddity and curiosity more than anything else. 
Image Credit: Webwit at Deskthority In more recent years, many keyboard designers and hobbyists have pushed the envelope further and done a lot to help popularize ortholinear layouts to a broader audience. This progress comes as a result of more home-built keyboards (it’s easier to wire up a standard matrix or design an ortholinear PCB/plate than work in the standard staggering) and custom keycap sets (we have more control over our keycap legends than ever these days). Some early ortholinear keyboards offered commercially were the Planck and Preonic, from designer Jack Humbert
Image Credit: @Sabao Since then, there have been countless ortholinear keyboards designed and released by community members. Most are one-off designs cooked up for a particular reason, but hey—that’s half the fun. If you haven’t looked into this world much, I recommend taking a look at some of the ortholinear posts on /r/mk.  Clearly I am just scratching the surface of the topic here. If this interests you, I encourage you to dig a little deeper and share what you find in the comments below. Thanks for reading! Edit: Formatting, clarification about punch card machine


Oct 19, 2022
Not enough said about the avantages of ortho in my opinion. Especially when it comes to touch typing.
Oct 19, 2022
You did a good job explaining the history of these designs, but you did not go into the implications of what all this means for typing at all. My personal analysis: It doesn’t make a huge difference, but there are one or two keys that are easier to reach on ortho. (It would be nice if somebody could link diagrams showing the reachability score of each key.) Other than that, I think ortho is also easier to learn/remember the layout (though this is highly subjective).
Oct 18, 2022
An IBM 29 isn't a computer. It's a card punch. The cards with holes in them that it makes are then taken to a card reader attached to a computer. That way, programs or data put on cards with the card punch can be read into the computer much faster than people can type, and so the computer wasn't tied up while people were preparing programs or data for it.
quadiblocVery true! I should have said "computer input devices", since that's really what the 029 is.
I am here for the Ortho representation!!! We need more of it! We also need more ortho boards and more ortho keycap sets. There is nothing more heart wrenching then seeing an awesome set and not having enough 1U keycaps to fill my boards.
"This array of physical levers and bars within the inner workings of the typewriter meant that the four (at the time) rows of keys must all be staggered by a quarter key-width in order to fit neatly alongside each other. And thus was born our staggered layout, remaining roughly unchanged in the nearly century and a half that has followed. " That makes too much sense
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