Angry Miao is at it again with another unique mechanical keyboard that costs a small fortune. This time it thought, “Hey, wouldn’t you love to use perfectly straight swipe gestures instead of physical arrow keys?”
This new board is called the AM Compact Touch. Angry Miao calls it a 65 percent board, but it doesn’t have arrow keys. Instead, it has a small touchpad on the front for swiping your up, down, left, and right directions. If that sounds tedious and finicky, well, you’re right, though this keyboard is much more than that. It’s also a mixed bag of impeccable build quality, excellent typing feel, and some confounding design decisions. It’s set to launch February 2nd on Indiegogo, ranging in price from $398 to a hefty $615 depending on the chosen build and bundle.
At first glance, the AM Compact Touch looks similar to the Happy Hacking Keyboard (affectionately referred to as HHKB), a unique mechanical keyboard with a hardcore fanbase that loves its layout and thocky-sounding Topre switches. However, the Compact Touch’s nods to the HHKB are skin-deep. While the symmetrical design with “blockers” (blank spots in the corners where the Control keys usually go) is pure HHKB, the Compact Touch lacks its other hallmarks, like a split Backspace key or a Control key in place of Caps Lock. If you’re an HHKB loyalist, you’re probably howling and pulling your hair out right now. I can lend a sympathetic ear to rants about the inefficiencies of overstretching your pinky to hit Backspace — though frankly, I’m used to living in sin like that, and it’s easy enough to remap Control to the Caps Lock key in Angry Miao’s custom software.
HHKB mimicry aside, the Compact Touch shares some traits with other Angry Miao keyboards. Inside, it uses leaf springs like the AM AFA, allowing users to tweak the board’s flex and firmness. In prebuilt form, it comes with pre-lubed icy silver linear switches — the brand’s hot-swappable switch of choice. Its metal case is CNC-machined from a single block of aluminum, using a similar process to the wildly expensive Hatsu. The company says it takes a total of five and a half hours to make each Compact Touch chassis. And at the base of that chassis is the familiar wireless charging pad that lets owners of the Cybermat go wire-free.
The Compact Touch is launching in seven different colorways. Some take inspiration directly from pop culture: “8-Bit” has Nintendo Famicom-like colors, “Back to the Future” shows some semblance to its namesake DeLorean (and with that name, is perhaps asking for a cease and desist from Universal Pictures), and there are special editions dubbed “Laser” and “Mech Love.” Those last two are pricier, with the former having a blacked-out design with Tesla-headlight-like front RGB spill lights — because, of course — and the latter is black and white with predistressed wear and tear and illuminated cutouts inspired by Love, Death, and Robots.
The variety of colors is a welcome addition, in my eyes. I think most of them look pretty sleek — even if some, like the hiragana sub-legends on the 8-Bit keycaps, approach tryhard cringe levels (par for the course with Angry Miao). And I’m quite relieved that we’re starting to see AM’s often-used smoked see-through keycaps with much cooler gray printed legends in place of the ugly pea green it so often used before.
Angry Miao says its goal with this board was to shrink down the popular 65 percent layout to a smaller, more symmetrical, and aesthetically pleasing design. Sure. But a 65 percent board has dedicated arrow keys by definition, and the Compact Touch doesn’t. Instead, Angry Miao gave it a front-mounted touch panel, which measures about two inches wide and a half-inch tall. While it allows you to input arrow key swipes in all four directions, it’s often hard to do so without making mistakes. This leads to many occasions of moving my cursor up when I wanted to move it left or down when I meant to move it right. You can swipe and hold for continuous inputs (the equivalent of holding down a physical arrow key), but it’s easy to overshoot. I’ll acknowledge that this is user input error. But since Windows and Mac operating systems are not built for this, you either have to learn to live with the occasional misguided arrow or “git gud” at these perfectly straight swipe gestures — like you’re playing the worst game of one-thumbed Fruit Ninja.
The best part about the touch panel is that you don’t have to move your right hand from the home row to use arrows, though other boards have figured this out already with the use of function layers and keys like J, K, L, and I — or even the HHKB’s Fn + [ ; ‘ and /. And any time you save moving your hand about six inches is lost when your cursor inevitably jumps to the top or bottom of a paragraph or line instead of the next letter. If Angry Miao had some kind of software solution to allow the touch panel to control the cursor like iPhones allow when you long-press the virtual spacebar, that might be a game-changer.
Also, Angry Miao missed an opportunity to make this keyboard a little more left-handed friendly, as the touch panel is centered on the front of the keyboard case and not centered to where your hands rest on the home row. This gives the Compact Touch cleaner, more balanced lines and a sleeker design, but it also means the touchpad is positioned better for your right thumb than your left. It might have been nice to make it more ambidextrous, but it’s little surprise that Angry Miao will sacrifice functionality for A E S T H E T I C S.
There can be a small sense of satisfaction when you nail the correct arrow movements like you’re landing a well-timed combo in a fighting game, though it’s hard to deny the feeling that all you’ve managed to do is overcome an obstacle you laid out for yourself. And this became most apparent to me once I noticed I was more frequently reaching for the mouse for text selection and cursor movements — because our brains are wired to find the path of least resistance. Perhaps this is why small format boards like the HHKB use function layers to mimic their lost arrow keys. You can customize the Compact Touch to do just that, though if the touchpad goes entirely unused, you may question what you spent this money for.
But I give Angry Miao credit for trying something novel, and — arrow woes aside — this has become my favorite AM keyboard in actual use. I’m a sucker for compact keyboards in the 60 to 75 percent range, and the Compact Touch does indeed have a lovely design, typing feel, sound, great battery life, and fast pairing and swapping between up to three devices via Bluetooth.
Part of me wishes Angry Miao just went for a standard HHKB layout and didn’t bother with the touch gesture fiddliness. But then, frankly, it wouldn’t be an Angry Miao keyboard without some quirks.
Photography by Antonio G. Di Benedetto / The Verge