3 things to know before remapping your keyboard
Make it your own.
No matter who you are, you could probably be using your keyboard better. Maybe you spend a lot of time working on spreadsheets and could use some extra shortcuts. Maybe you’re multilingual and want to quickly switch between alphabets. Or maybe you just love efficiency and hate wasting milliseconds moving your hand to press far-flung keys. Remapping your keyboard is the answer.
For the uninitiated, remapping a keyboard generally means assigning new functionalities to existing keys. If there’s a special character you use a lot, for example, you can assign it to a key you don’t use as often—maybe one of the bracket keys if you’re not into coding. That way, you can save yourself from learning the shortcut for that character on every program you use.
But remapping your keyboard also allows you to assign tasks to whatever keys you like. For example, hitting the “M” key by itself will result in the letter “M” appearing on your screen. But if you press it along with a function key, you might use it for muting your device. Combine it with another function key, and you can make that “M” do basically whatever you want.
It’s cliche to say it, but the possibilities are truly endless.
Make sure you actually have a customizable keyboard
It sounds obvious, but to remap a keyboard you need hardware that grants you the ability to customize it—and not all peripherals do that.
As a general rule, customizable keyboards tend to be more expensive than the basic ones you’ll find at megastores. Depending on the brand, the layout you choose, and the quality of the keyboard and its components, this type of hardware can cost anywhere from $30 to more than $1,000. But before you have a heart attack, understand that if you’re dipping your toe in the customizable keyboard pond for the first time, you should set your budget between $50 and $200. Peripherals on the lower end of this spectrum will tend to be made entirely out of cheap plastic and won’t allow you to easily swap switches or keycaps. Toward the $100 mark, you’ll find more high-quality materials, and as you go up the price range, you’ll usually find more versatile gadgets and more durable materials.
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If you’re not sure if you can customize your keyboard, a quick online search using the brand name and model will point you in the right direction. If you’re getting a new keyboard for the sole purpose of personalizing it, make sure the product description says it’s customizable. If you have any doubt, it’s always a good idea to check out user reviews and poke around online to see if there’s any mention of your keyboard on specialized message boards or other spaces where enthusiasts post.
Figure out what app or software you’ll need
As you might have imagined, you’ll need specific software to access your keyboard’s brain and reprogram it.
This can go one of two ways. If you buy a keyboard from a major brand like Logitech, for example, you’ll probably need to download specialized software the manufacturer created specifically to customize their products. If you’re new to remapping keyboards, this will make it super easy, as most of these apps are designed with a particular peripheral in mind and will give you highly detailed instructions during the customization process.
If you buy from smaller manufacturers or build a keyboard yourself, you’ll likely have to use Via or Qmk. These are free, open-source programs commonly used to customize keyboards. Although there is a steeper learning curve with these apps, they are easy to use once you understand how they work. There’s a lot of literature and tutorials online, and Qmk even has an online configurator you can use straight from a browser tab.
Learn how to create macros
Remapping your keyboard may seem intimidating at first, but you can start small and take it from there.
Once you’ve mastered reassigning keys, you can move on to the oh-so-satisfying art of creating macros. These customized key combinations can help you make most tasks—like navigating an audio or video file, for example—easier, or even replace known convoluted shortcuts with simpler ones.
To do this, you’ll need to learn about keycodes, which are a code version of a specific key on your keyboard. This is also the language in which programs like Via and Qmk can read shortcuts. We can’t get into all of that here, but imagine “KC” precedes every key on your keyboard. So if you want a certain key to take over for the classic Windows Ctrl + Z combo for “undo,” you’ll have to plug something like [KC_LCTRL, KC_Z] into your remapping software and assign it to your preferred button.
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But even though some coding knowledge can come in handy in keyboard customization, you don’t actually need to know how to code or learn an entirely new coding language to do it. You can find a full list of keycodes on the Qmk website, where you can also find a detailed tutorial that will walk you through everything you need to know when using the platform. Via’s website is not as beginner-friendly as Qmk’s, but keyboard manufacturer Keychron put together a comprehensive tutorial for how to use Via with their products, which you can easily extrapolate to other keyboards with a little online research.
Whatever peripheral you buy or platform you use, there’s a lot of content out there to help you remap your keyboard. Nobody was born knowing, so don’t be afraid to ask for help and take the “throwing things at the wall and see what sticks” approach. If all else fails, you can just reset your keyboard to get a clean slate and try things all over again.