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Relegendable keycaps for your macropad, the best thing ever for developer productivity

Published: 06-09-2021 | Author: Remy van Elst | Text only version of this article


Table of Contents


macropad combo

My current macropads

As you might know, I've got a weird keyboard. It is an Ergodox EZ, it's split up in two halves and for me it's the best thing ever to combat RSI. I've also got a weird mouse, a left handed vertical mouse, for the same reason. Even 15 minutes on a regular setup and my wrists and shoulders hurt. The next best thing is my standing desk and number three is having regular breaks with small exercises. One downside to the Ergodox is that you have less keys than on a regular keyboard. This is solved with layers, just like when holding SHIFT or CTRL, a key does something different. SHIFT is the layer for capital letters and symbols, with the Ergodox you can define your own layers. I however cannot get used to layers, not even after 7 years of using the Ergodox. Not a problem, I've got an extra keyboard in the middle, next to my mouse, with 8 or 9 keys just for my most often used shortcuts. It's called a macropad, one I've soldered myself and one I've bought on a well-known Chinese webstore.

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One at work and one at home, both run QMK, firmware that allows me to program the macropad with my own shortcuts. Recently a video from Atomic Shrimp (awesome channel) showed off relegendable keycaps. Those are transparent keycaps with an insert for your own label. Before I had relegendable keycaps, I had regular keycaps for the macropad, for example, the L key sends CTRL+ALT+L to lock the desktop. Now, with these awesome keycaps, I have a dedicated LOCK key. This is such a big quality of life improvement, especially when using the CLion debugger shortcuts. This post covers my usage of the macropads, the re-legendable keycaps and shows you a few pictures of the macropads, both before and after.

Relegendable keycaps

Atomic Shrimp shared a powerpoint presentation with the exact printable format for the keycaps. They're 13x13mm squares. You can find my edited powerpoint here. Works great in LibreOffice.

Even though I know the keys on the macropad without keycaps, it still helps to take off a bit of mental load when using the macropad. I mostly use it when debugging C++ code, so my mind is very focused on the problem I'm trying to solve, having to take a glance at my board and thinking, was the O key for Step Over or for Step Out, (the ^ key is for Step Out), breaks that flow. Now the keycaps are written out and have a distinct colour. I even thought of printing the CLion debugger icons on the labels, but that went a bit too far.

The MUTE key is a blessing as well during video calls. No need to hover over the teams window and click a button, just press one key labelled MUTE. Pressing it again unmutes. Small thing, but so enormously nice to have.

Locking my workstation? Just one big black key labeled LOCK instead of finger gymnastics to get to CTRL+ALT+L.

It might be hard to get the message over in writing to you, but this macropad has been a real productivity boost for me when debugging C++. The new keycaps with descriptive labels are a step up on that productivity boost, having to think even less, which means, keeping all focus on the problem I'm actually working on.

The other big advantage is that you can change the labels later on. I have another QMK firmware file just for use in Windows with Visual Studio for .net C sharp development, with a few different keys like Live Reload, ALT+F10, Goto All (CTRL+T) (comparable to Shift-Shift in CLion) and Run All Tests (Ctrl+R, A). One of the RoMacs has special labels and has that firmware on it, so I can switch easily.

This is how a relegendable keycap looks, one bottom (key) part, your printed label in between and a transparent cover on top:

relegendable keycap

The links in this post to MechBoards are not sponsored. I have not bought anything there, they just happen to have nice listings with pictures.

SpaceCat Launchpad v2

Here is a picture of the new keycaps on the Launchpad v2 macropad:

launchpad after

This is the layout:

 ,-------------------------.
 | RUN        | DEBUG      |
 |------------+------------|
 | STEP OVER  | STEP INTO  |
 |------------+------------|
 | STEP OUT   | RESUME     |
 |------------+------------|
 | PLAY/PAUSE | LOCK       |
 `-------------------------'

Tapping PLAY/PAUSE 2 times in a row makes it Skip a song. Double-tapping RUN acts as the MUTE key combo (CTRL+SHIFT+M) for Microsoft Teams. QMK calls this a Tap Dance.

The topmost 6 keys are all for use with the debugger in CLion, Jetbrains' C++ development environment. I could have put all those shortcuts on the Ergodox, on a different layer, but as I said, I cannot get used to layers. In fact, layer 4 has a bunch of CLion shortcuts and I never use them. One of my Ergodox keys is mapped to Refactor/Rename (on the base layer) and I use that all the time. The macropad is very visual and distinct, just for one purpose.

Before the relegendable keycaps, I had cobbled together keys that were as descriptive as regular keys could be, I for Step Into, R for Resume, but those keys all had a different height profile, a minor annoyance.

Here is the before picture:

launchpad before

This board was a kit, I soldered it myself. It seems that SpaceCat Design has gone bust, since the site has a password login since late last year. At first they mentioned a reopen date in June this year, but in July this year that date was removed. A great alternative kit, I also have two, still for sale is the Romac Macropad. Here is a picture of the Romac I found online of someone else's board with relegendable keycaps. They have the different layer symbols on there as well:

romac keycaps

I love the aesthetic of that board, the visible electronic components under the transparent acrylic plate and just the overall cuteness. As said, I have two of those via a group buy, I switch the macropads around every month or so, they all have the same key combo's. At least, the 12 key RoMacs are the same as the YMD09 I'm describing below, with the bottom row unused (blank white caps).

YMD09

The macropad I use at home was not a kit, I bought it pre-built for about EUR 15 on a well known chinese website. I'm not linking to it directly because if I do that link will be dead in a month. You can search yourself or get the kit version here. This board is way more fancy than the SpaceCat. It has USB-C and it has RGB lighting.

Here is a picture of the macropad with relegendable keycaps:

YMD09 after

I couldn't care less about the RGB backlight but USB-C is nice. The Launchpad (and RoMac) use an arduino micro clone, which has a well known issue with the micro USB connector. I can snap off or become loose, which all of mine are. Now you can easily replace the connector, but in my experience the USB-C connectors don't have those problems. In new projects I do with an arduino, I now use clones with USB-C exclusively due to that.

This is the layout:

 ,-------------------------------------.
 | RESUME     | STEP OUT   | MUTE      |
 |------------+------------|-----------|
 | STEP OVER  | RUN        | STEP INTO |
 |------------+------------|-----------|
 | LOCK       | PLAY/PAUSE | DEBUG     |
 .------------+------------|-----------,

It has one extra key more than the Launchpad, I've assigned a dedicated MUTE key. The RoMac's share this layout as well. The middle RUN key has no special label on the picture, but that was an error during printing and afterwards the all the paper was used up, I fixed that later.

When the middle red key is held, the layer switches to a special layer which controls the RGB lightning (intensity, colour and profile). I almost never use it, except to reflash the board. It has one key that puts QMK into debug mode, allowing me to flash new firmware.

Here is the before picture:

ymd09 before

As you can see, that was a hodgepodge of keys I had lying around. No uniform height profile, the lightning bleeds out underneath and the keycaps are not remotely relatable to their functions.

If you want your own macropad, I recommend you get a kit with through-hole components. I find it fun to solder but SMD is just way too hard and small. The kits are cheaper that a prebuilt board and most other AliExpress boards require special windows software to configure it, often more limited than QMK. There are web based configurators for QMK as well as Via (Windows GUI software) to key your keymap without compiling QMK yourself. Check out r/MechanicalKeyboards on Reddit for the hottest macropad group-buy of the week, or get one in stock at a store close to you and enjoy building the kit!

Tags: blog , keyboard , keycaps , launchpad , macropad , mechanical-keyboard , qmk , spacecat , ymd09