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Tiny Keyboard Experiment: Living with the ‘Minivan’

The full-sized keyboard most people are familiar with has around 104 keys, but mechanical keyboard enthusiasts have been trimming that number down to make boards more compact and efficient. There are tenkeyless boards, 60% boards, and some that are even smaller. One of those “even smaller” mechanical keyboards is the Minivan, an almost mind-bogglingly diminutive input device.

I’ve been using this tiny “40% keyboard” for a week to see how well I adapt (if at all). It turns out there are some good reasons to use a keyboard like this, but there are also some drawbacks. Even if you don’t want to use a 40% keyboard, you have to admit this thing is cute.

The 40% Form Factor

The Minivan was designed by “The VanMan” from The Van Keyboards, who was also the designer of the Lightcycle keyset I used in my recent Tron homage build. The Minivan came into being a few years ago when The VanMan ordered a different 40% keyboard (one of the few available at the time), but became irked by a few inefficiencies in the layout. Whereas most people would just go back to a bigger keyboard, he decided to design something better.

A 40% keyboard is a step below 60% boards like the Poker 3, a layout that is almost mainstream now. With a 60% board, you have all the alphas, numbers, and modifier keys (like shift and tab) in the standard arrangement, but that’s all you get. Everything else is accessed in one or more function layers. A 40% board keeps the alphas, but drops the number row and some of the modifiers. Additionally, most modifiers are shrunken down.

The result is a keyboard that’s incredibly compact. The Minivan is just shy of 10-inches wide and 3.5-inches deep (thickness varies based on the case you have). One of the main space-savers here is doing away with the standard spacebar, which is 6.25 key units wide on most boards. The spacebar on the Minivan is a 2u key on the bottom row… right next to the enter key. Again, having the large enter key on the right side of the board would take up a lot of space, and there aren’t as many rows available in this layout. Moving enter to the bottom is a necessary concession.

A 40% keyboard would be virtually useless without multiple function layers, and the Minivan has three of them by default (in addition to the base layer). The Minivan is also fully programmable, so you can change any key or function layer action to whatever you want. So, all your arrows, symbols, and numbers are accessible by holding one of the function buttons on the keyboard. As The VanMan points out, a 40% keyboard can vastly reduce hand movement and lead to greater efficiency. You just have to get used to the function layers.

You need a computer to flash layouts to the Minivan, but the keymap is stored in the board’s firmware. That means it’s not dependent on a piece of software running on your computer. The Minivan will work the same no matter what device you plug it into.

Looking at a board like this, it seems unusable. There’s definitely a learning curve, but I was determined to give it a shot.

Building a Minivan

The first step in using a Minivan is building it. Like the WhiteFox or RedScarf, this is a kit that you need to put together yourself. You’ll have to get a soldering iron, but the Minivan is actually a good first project as it’s small and has just a few parts: the case, PCB (connects via USB Type-C), and stabilizers (the wires under longer keys).

Everything that comes in the Minivan kit.

One advantage to building the Minivan is that you can pick whatever switches you want. I decided to go with 65g Zealios, which are medium-weight tactile switches (there’s a “bump” but no click). The kit doesn’t come with keycaps, which is common for custom builds. However, the unusual layout of the Minivan can make it challenging to find a compatible set. The VanMan offers a few sets specifically for the Minivan — the set I used for this build is called GMK 80s Kid. Just like the GMK caps I used in my mega-orange gaming board, these are thick doubleshot ABS caps of the highest quality.

The Minivan is a PCB-mount keyboard, so there’s no plate into which you plug the switches. They nest directly in the PCB, and you solder them in place. There are two layout options, one that has arrows and one that doesn’t. The arrows take up too much space on this board, so I used the arrow-free layout knowing I’d have to use a function layer to access them. It’s not the end of the world; even 60% boards have arrows on the function layer.

My okay soldering job.

Each switch has two solder points, and I didn’t add LEDs. So, that’s under 100 total solder points for the entire build. It went fast. The kit comes with a very nice milled aluminum case in which the PCB is secured. Just a few screws, and the board is assembled. The kit comes with small bumpons for the bottom, but there are also optional holes for larger feet (which make it more comfortable in my opinion).

Despite being so small, the Minivan has good heft — it feels expensive, but not bulky. Fun fact: the Minivan is made entirely in the USA. The VanMan tells me that wasn’t the goal from the start, but he didn’t have the connections in China that many keyboard designers use to get things manufactured on the cheap. At this point, though, saying the keyboard is a US product has become a point of pride.

Assembled and ready for caps.

With the build complete, I turned my attention to the firmware. The VanMan has a handy visual editor on his website that lets you build a .HEX file compatible with the board’s TMK firmware. A third-party app is needed to interface with the controller and flash the file, but there are good instructions. The whole process only took a few seconds.

Using a Minivan

When I first plugged in the Minivan, I couldn’t log into my PC. You see, I have special characters in my password, and I didn’t know the function layers. That was rough, but things improved over the next few hours.

The Minivan has a few clever tricks to make the most of its limited key count. For example, the Fn key next to the “colon” is actually the apostrophe when you press it. Hold it down, and it toggles the first function layer. There are a few other keys that have different actions when you press and hold, and you can set them to do whatever you want by changing the layout.

I printed a cheat sheet.

I still had to figure out those layers, though. I decided to print out the function layers and leave the page on my desk so I could glance over whenever I needed a hint. After the first day, I flipped the sheet over so I couldn’t look as easily. I still have moments when I need to peek — I don’t use underscore often enough to remember it’s the “D” key on layer 2. That said, my efficiency has steadily increased, and I’m almost as fast on the Minivan as I am on a larger board.

I’m surprised how easily I adapted to having the enter key on the bottom row, but I do still forget sometimes. The default layout is probably good for most people, but I ended up making some tweaks to the base layer and first function layer. It’s nice to be able to hold a key and have the arrows suddenly appear under the home row or a number pad activate on the right half of the board.

The Minivan on top of a Corsair K70.

I see the appeal of this board. It’s fun to use, portable, easy to build, and highly configurable. I don’t know if I’d be able to switch to the Minivan full time, but I can definitely get some work done with it. I wrote this post with it, in fact. The Minivan shows up in waves on The Van Keyboards. There are a few kits available now for $ 250, but remember that doesn’t include switches or keycaps. It’s not a cheap project, but custom boards are always pretty expensive. If you want a tiny keyboard, this is an excellent one.

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