You can watch the YouTube version of this review here: https://youtu.be/fVpinjluogQ
I joined the Kickstarter for the Dygma Defy back in July 2022. A year and a half later hear we are.
The Defy keyboard from Dygma, is a split, programmable, columnar layout, hotswap keyboard that you can use wired or wireless with either RF or Bluetooth. It’s got more lights than Las Vegas and enough thumb switches to keep a Rubiks cube addict happy for life, so lets have a look and see if this might be your end game keyboard.
Dygma is big on appearance. Even the cardboard box it is shipped in is branded, and they go to great lengths to make this feel like a high-quality product.
It comes in a carry case, which is virtually the same width and height as the Glove80 carry case. The Glove80’s is necessarily deeper due to the key wells of the Glove.
Now, sadly, the Dygma case doesn’t have a handle, so if you were thinking you could use it like a 007 briefcase as you enter the office, think again. It is roughly the same size as a 15” MacBook so will fit in any backpack that can accommodate something of that size. It also has this insert, which I’m not sure if you are supposed to keep in or discard. If it is needed, it’s not ideal that it is loose.
Aesthetically, I feel like the Defy skews to a younger audience than most split ergo boards, probably the first split columnar board I could imagine teenagers wouldn’t want to hide in the wardrobe if their mates come around. It has this kind of boy racer feel to it with the lights and incline. I can imagine it being just as popular with gamers as it is with programmers.
If I spec up this, pretty much top of the line version I have here on the Dygma website, you are looking at an eye-watering $605 dollars. That’s serious money for a keyboard. Let me tell you what that gets you.
All the Defy’s have an aluminium top panel, the bottom is plastic. All models get a mix of 62 MX switches for the main keys, and 8 Kaihl low profile switches for the bottom thumb keys. So you have a total of 70 keys to go at.
All keys have LED lighting and the keycaps are laser-etched ABS plastic. All Defy’s also get the case, palm pads, 5 USB leads and a USB-A to USB-C adapter. You also get keycap and switch puller, a set of thick and thin o-rings to stick on the stem of your switches if you want to change the sound signature and feel, a set of test switches and a microfibre cloth.
So that’s what you get stock. In terms of extras I have here, I have the built-in tenting, RGBW underglow lighting, and wireless Bluetooth and RF capability.
Now, you can obviously be more conservative, and when Dygma has stock you can pick up wired model with none of the extras I just mentioned for $329. So, an absolutely massive set of decisions to make when you are ordering, which can lead to a little choice paralysis and probably isn’t much fun for the Dygma warehouse team either.
So, lets assume you know what spec you want, what is this thing actually like?
In almost every way, this is a very solid board. The Defy has a very pleasing heft, it feels completely rigid and I couldn’t find any blemishes on the anodized aluminium top.
The palm pads are magnetic and work identically to the Advantage360s. However, unlike the 360, I did find it more comfortable to type with the pads on. They also have a little grip on the bottom which I appreciate, as it keeps them in place just a little better than the ones on the Advantage360.
You have four main rows of keys and six and a bit columns. The innermost column is just three keys. Your ‘home’ position on the finger area is where you would expect it, two keys in from the inner edge. With the thumb cluster, there is a homing bump on the third thumb key in from the inside. Which is handy if that is in the right position for your thumbs, but more on that in a moment.
The only thing that feels a bit low rent is the wireless switch, it’s just a tiny bit rattly. And because by necessity it needs to be flush, it can be a little fiddly to actuate if you have mole hands like me.
But nice inset screw heads that match the base colour, matching low height rubber feet, even if you can see the adhesive just a little. And four M3 threads in the middle for mounting the Defy to chairs, stands and such. These feet keep it nice and secure on the desk. It has enough heft and grip on the bottom that it is very stable on the desk. All good news there.
The tenting is pretty solid, and pretty elegant. It’s great having it built in the base, essentially invisible until you need it, and so quick to set up and get down thanks to the markings on the underside that let you easily set angle between 5 and 60 degrees. To get all that functionality, including the lighting, the RF and Bluetooth connectivity into such a svelte case is an impressive feat of engineering.
I haven’t used the tenting for a long period as I prefer my boards flat to the ground so can’t give you much of opinion as to how it fairs over time.
I started with the Defy wired, and I suggest you do too, as that will let you update the firmware and start making it your own with Dygma’s ‘Bazecor’ software.
But before you get to that, you need to plug it in and that might not be as straightforward as it might sound.
Sweet Jesus on a bike, Mary on the handlebars and Joseph in the basket, it took me, no exaggeration, about 20 mins to realise the neuron (which at this point I was calling the moron) needed to be connected a particular way.
I really hope that Dygma can get this thing marked up for future editions. There are three USB-C ports but what lead you plug in where matters.
The port nearest the fat end with the Dygma logo goes to the computer and then the other two ports can go to either half. Get that wrong and you will not be having a fun time. Especially if you have only just got the board and there is nothing obvious to consult.
This is one point where while, it is very nice to have a vast catalogue of YouTube videos to go and look at for reference, I would really have welcomed a straightforward PDF manual.
But with that fannying around with cables out of the way, when it does come to life, the Defy is a feast for the eyes because the lighting, even for a miserable git like me, does look very impressive. It really is quite mesmerising. With the board specification I have, with the underglow option, there is not just LEDs on each key but over 100 LEDs around the bottom. Naturally, not being a teenager myself, after 30 seconds I turned them all off but it was fun to watch for a short while.
But if lighting is your thing, this is the new world champion of split keyboard lighting. And although it isn’t for me, I can imagine some practical use cases, such as a colour change of the backlight when shifting layers for example.
To configure the Defy, it uses Bazecor, Dygma’s own native application, which is a heavily modded fork of the Chrysalis app that powers boards like the Keyboardio Model 100. And they both create Kaleidoscope firmware.
When I first plugged in, I was presented with a firmware upgrade message so tried to follow that procedure through. However, the initial upgrade process was worrying. It started off the firmware upgrade and then I was just left with a blank screen. Typically a firmware upgrade isn’t something you want to interrupt but how long should I wait here? 5 mins? A day? I checked the Dygma Discord and read it was OK to Force quit Bazecor, physically disconnect the board, restart Bazecor and repeat. 2nd time it worked fine and very quickly, updated the firmware on both sides. So that initial process was a little lacking in feedback but once past that, and putting aside some other limitations we will get to, I am a big fan of Bazecor.
Bazecor, like the Keyboardio Chrysalis software it is forked from, doesn’t run on the web, it’s a native application and the great thing about it, is you don’t need to flash the board when you have made changes. Well at least not in a manner you perceive. You make your changes, click ‘save’ and it’s done. You are ready to go. No build steps, or downloading files, heck you don’t even need to press a reset switch. In terms of a tight feedback loop, there is nothing better I have tried. And this can be done wired or wirelessly too over RF. Incredible and just so liberating.
If that wasn’t enough, where Bazecor triumphs most is that it remarkably accessible for beginners. If you are new to programmable keyboards, this is as user friendly as a keyboard configurator gets. I opted for the single view, and you just click the key you want to set, and then click the appropriate key in the full size keyboard below. I cannot emphasis enough how good it is to tweak the configuration without needing to constantly flash a file. I was able to get home row mods pretty sweet for myself in literally 5 minutes.
Now, this wonderful simplicity has a flipside. When you want to do something more difficult, like any dual use key, or set autoshift keys, you will need to make a separate ‘Superkey’ for each one. This process is a little more time consuming than I would have liked as things like Autoshift are a simple toggle for boards like the Voyager, but the Bazecor solution works fine. You make your super key, then choose where you want to set it. However, there is a limitation currently. I tend to have my home row mods with Hyper set on the column on the inside of my index finger, and you can’t achieve that with Bazecor. Actually worse that that, it lets you set it, it just doesn’t work right.
Apparently the ability to use multiple modifiers on a dual key is being looked at by Dygma, so maybe by the time you are reading this, the problem is solved.
Another limitation of Bazecor is combos, that is the feature where you tap two or more keys at once to get a different key sent. You have that in both QMK and ZMK firmware, but it isn’t a thing in Bazecor yet.
Now, here is perhaps the most contentious part of this review.
We need to have a talk about those thumb keys.
Like the Glove80, and Dygma’s earlier board, the Raise, the Defy has a thumb key cluster with two heights of keys. Where the Glove casing raises some thumb keys higher, Dygma achieves that by using a MX switch for the top keys, and a Kaihl switch for the lower. The different switch types do feel subtly different, but not enough to really notice or bother me.
Where I do have a problem is in the number and placement of the thumb keys.
Dygma expects your thumbs to rest by default on the thumb key with a homing bump. That would be great, if that was where I wanted to rest my thumbs. But it isn’t.
Maybe I have a naturally wider grip from throttling my children or something (I’m kidding, I wouldn’t want to get my hands dirty, I kick them instead — again of course I’m joking, that would mean touching them, I throw things at them).
The point is, only the innermost two keys are comfortable for me in a resting position. Actually between those two innermost keys is the most comfortable, but if I had to choose, it would be the innermost.
Here’s a pic of the ZSA Voyager on top. I find the main Voyager thumb key in a very comfortable position and you can see it sits above those two keys. So measure your hands. If you have a similar size to mine, and you like to rest your thumbs in that kind of shape, this may not be the most comfortable choice for you.
For me, any but those inner two keys are contorting my grip inwards. That was an issue I had with the thumb clusters on the Dactyl manuforms I built, and it ended up causing some pain, so I won’t be loading those keys up with anything I’ll use frequently on the Defy.
I just don’t understand how anyone can make use of those outermost thumb keys. And given you have that space anyway, why not just have four keys here for an arrow cluster? I just don’t understand how I am expected to make use of it.
Now, its right and fair we take into account hand size here as some of this is not going to be relevant for smaller hands, and perhaps more dexterous hands. I have already heard from a few people who tell me they have smaller hands and they tell me many of the keys on the outerside they can reach quite comfortably. I’m 20cm from wrist crease to tip of my middle finger and centre of my wrist to end of my thumb is about 15.5cm. So, measure your hands and think about that as there is a good chance this might simply not apply to you.
So that leaves me a little uneasy with the Defy in this regard. I can obviously map those keys to something but I Defy anyone (see what I did there), to comfortably use those outermost thumb keys with regularity.
I can’t recommend anyone gets into the habit of curling their thumb in under the palm multiple times a day, that seems like a recipe for problems down the line.
So that’s my gripes with the thumb keys. Let me change tack now and tell you about some of aspects of the Defy I enjoyed far more.
The Defy feels absolutely great to type on. I have Speed Copper switches in mine, and it feels super solid. There is no hollowness at all, and that gives it a really nice thockiness. Even completely stock it already sounds good. I imagine once the switches are hand-lubed, this will sound and feel absolutely sublime.
With the palm pads in place, your wrist is sitting very comfortably and well supported. There is a nice flat line from your wrist onto the board. It’s still pretty comfortable without the palm pad, but it can be a little cold initially on the aluminium for this pampered reviewer. So aside from my issues with the thumb cluster, comfort wise, the Defy is great.
The Defy isn’t uniformly flat like, say the Moonlander. I mentioned before it has this slight wedge shape so your fingers are reaching up at a slight incline. I haven’t found that to be a benefit or a hindrance, perhaps it is a mere aesthetic choice or some means of fitting in everything that needed to be housed in the Defy. After all, there are batteries, antennas and all sorts. Either way is gives it a dynamic kind of look.
If you look side on, you can see a useful detail with the keycaps. The top row gets a different cap height, using a different Cherry Profile. This is useful in practice as it serves as a useful bit of tactile feedback if your fingers have gone too far.
In terms of overall height, the tallest point of the Defy is 35mm, and the top of the lowest thumb key is 24.5mm. You don’t need to think too much about that as in terms of how your palms sit, as I mentioned they are very well positioned. It’s only really worth considering if you are short and don’t have a standing adjustable desk and you might want something as close to the desk as possible. In that regard something like the Voyager has the Defy easily beat.
So in terms of general typing, the Defy has great sound and feel. It feels sturdy, and feels comfortable and looks great on the desk, and yes, I’ll concede the lighting does look good.
Keycaps shine through, ABS etc
The model I have has black keycaps and I like that the legends are subtle. You can make out the legends in normal daylight, but you can also miss them. I like that, but if you need highly legible legends you will either want the lights on, or don’t opt for the black keycaps.
They feel and sound great. I personally prefer a rougher texture on PBT, whereas these are smooth ABS so they are likely to get a shine over time but plenty of people prefer ABS keycaps so that isn’t a judgement, just an observation.
Be aware that you can use standard MX keycaps on all but the thumb clusters which are completely bespoke shapes and remember that some of the thumb cluster keys are Choc format and not MX. You also don’t get any extra homing keys for alternative layouts like Dvorak or Colemak. Given you get a bunch of other stuff I could happily live without, like o-rings and different switches to test, that feels like a considerable oversight.
What is the wireless/RF like?
To use the Defy in RF mode, you leave the neuron connected to the computer, and switch on the wirless switches on the underside of each board. However, much like the initial setup with wired, I had difficulties at first. I kept flicking the wireless switches on and off at the back and Bazecor just couldn’t see it. After about 6 attempts is took the connection and worked nice and stable.
However, despite the initial problems, once it took, RF is really, really fantastic. It’s so refreshing to just turn on the board and have it instantly connected. I really like the fact that you can have RF as an option on the Defy, I think it is something more boards should do as it seems like a decent compromise over the notorious difficulties but convenience of Bluetooth and the reliability but compromised aesthetics of wired. Plus it’s killer feature for gamers who want to minimise latency but still enjoy the wire-free aesthetic.
If you do use wireless along with the lights, just be aware it is going to suck the power much quicker than running wireless without lighting. Each side has a 2370mAh battery but despite what the buggy battery reporting in Bazecor currently tells me, they won’t last for ever. For example, after starting with a full charge and running on RF for a couple of days, and Bazecor was still telling me that the halves had 100% and 99% charge respectively. However, if then connecting over Bluetooth it was advising me there was only 37% left.
Regardless of the buggy reporting, there are some smart settings to help preserve battery power when running the Defy wirelessly. For example, you can set the LED intensity really low, or even to nothing for only when the Defy is running wirelessly. And the lighting is so good in the Defy, I think even as low as 10 or 15 is ample for a decent effect. And again, all you need to do is click save to have the settings sent to the Defy to test.
The initial Bluetooth connection story was sadly just as fraught as both wired and RF. Although the online literature said you just plug in the Neuron to the back, turn on wireless and then click connect in the Bluetooth settings, in macOS it actually came up with a pairing request where you need to input a six digit code. Seems simple enough, except when I entered the code and pressed enter nothing happened.
After a couple of hours, and few trips back and forth to the Dygma Discord server, a workaround was explained to me.
Apparently this is another bug that is being worked on. At present, in terms of your keymap in Bazecor, the numbers in your keymap need to be just numbers. Not numpad numbers or part of a Superkey, just regular numbers. I had mine set to be superkeys so I could hold them to get the shifted version, and this was the issue.
That meant either using an older version of the firmware that doesn’t have the passcode request, or connecting by cable again, and adding another layer that just had normal numbers on. I added a layer with numbers, tried again and it connected first time.
If you are on the happy path and using the keymappings that the Defy comes with, you won’t likely hit the issue, but if you do, this is the answer until Defy fixes the issue.
Nothing more to report there, for the time I was using Bluetooth it worked exactly as expected, but it’s always going to come second place to RF for me. If you have that option I suggest you use it.
On the subject of support, Dygma has a very active Discord server. You can get help very quickly in there from other users and the Dygma team are very good stewards, you can tell that customer service is very important to them. I am not sure there is anything else you could ask for in terms of support. Anyone I have seen with a problem has had it addressed in short order, so I certainly think you can buy in confidence in that regard.
What’s more the Defy comes with a pretty generous 2-year warranty.
Let’s wrap this up.
If you want a solid and sleek looking split keyboard with the fanciest lighting possible. This is it. The Defy has a very gamer aesthetic so if you were looking for a split board that still keeps your cool credentials while giving you the benefit of a split columnar layout, plus the option of wired, latency beating RF and the convenience of Bluetooth, well, here you go.
Hardware wise, the Defy is a very solid build, and the vast majority of the board is very well considered. The tenting is generally elegant and built in, the magnetic removable palm pads are nice and comfortable and don’t move around in use. You have hotswap switches so you can try whatever your favourite MX switches are, and it comes with a high quality case to keep it in top condition.
My only significant reservation is with these thumb clusters. It’s possible I’m just not getting it but for me there are just too many keys here, just too much going on, with some keys in a position I believe it just inviting problems down the line.
I’d rather have some standard keys that I can move my fingers down to, directly down from their resting home row position. Or no keys there at all. This thumb cluster arrangement feels a little bit like a solution looking for a problem.
I did also have some issues with getting things up and running. I think Dygma could help matters substantially by labelling the correct port of the wireless Neuron and I found the Bazecor software, as I have been using it at v1.3.8 was a bit flakey. But when it works, Bazecor is a delight. It is incredibly nice to use and the feedback loop of having updates sent straight to the board with no build steps or visible flashing procedure is absolutely wonderful.
Now, it’s very early days for the Defy, I hope and believe the software issues I am mentioning will get ironed out. Dygma are a company that is very customer focused and they are always rapid to respond on their very active Discord or via email. If you buy a Defy and encounter any issues, hardware or software, I feel confident they are going to look after you very well.
In the same way that I spoke about Dygma’s Raise, I can appreciate that there is an awful lot about this board that is great; it probably has the biggest feature set of any of the off-the-shelf split keyboards, it just isn’t great for me. The things it excels at, aren’t the things I am most interested in with a keyboard. I’m too old to be bothered about the cool aesthetics and admittedly impressive lighting, and the thumb cluster doesn’t work for my physicality, but that doesn’t mean it might not be everything you are looking for.
There are a good 4-5 solid, off-the-shelf boards in the split keyboard world now, and the Defy is another one of them. They all have different strengths and weaknesses so it remains difficult for someone like me to tell you which is best. That’s an impossible question to answer but hopefully I’ve given you enough to think about to know whether this is likely the one for you.