Hardware Review: Kinesis Ergonomic Keyboard

For mental health practitioners working extensively with clients online — particularly using text-based modalities like email or chat — it is probably only a matter of time before keyboard comfort becomes an issue that cannot be ignored.

Ergonomics and Repetitive Stress Injuries

We’ve probably all read about the importance of an ergonomically friendly working environment in front of the computer: hardware manufacturers almost always provide prominent advice with their products urging us to maintain healthy posture, position our monitors appropriately, adjust our seat height just so, etc. Some of this might seem like common sense, and some of it might seem not really worth worrying about — but if you spend a great deal of time at the computer, for instance as a mental health practitioner working extensively with clients online in text-based modalities, it can be very serious. If you have not yet experienced computer-related pain, or even symptoms of repetitive stress injury (also called ‘repetitive strain injury’), it is probably only a matter of time before you do. And when you do, it may have a very significant impact on your ability to do work.

In my own case, I felt my working environment had pretty good ergonomics, and while I was not very well-disciplined about taking regular breaks, I was able to get a great deal of work done and could ignore most of the pain I sometimes experienced. As a relatively experienced martial artist, I suppose I also have something of an ‘oh well’ attitude toward pain resulting from repetitive physical activity: it seems like something that just goes with the territory, rather than serving as a warning that something is wrong in my body.

But during 2004, I completed just under 500,000 words worth of email-based work with counselling clients, plus large chunks of work on developing several websites, and other projects that required keyboard time. In the last few months of the year, computer-related pain became increasingly difficult to ignore, and by the end of the year I was experiencing symptoms of repetitive stress injury in several fingers, both wrists, and one elbow. Something was wrong in my body. It quickly became apparent that the way I was working was simply not sustainable: I needed either to do less work at the keyboard, make what work I did do at the keyboard less stressful on my body, or both. I simply could not continue to do what I was doing.

Kinesis Ergonomic Keyboards

Kinesis ergonomic keyboard

Kinesis Advantage USB
ergonomic keyboard

Enter the Kinesis ergonomic keyboard…

Having read extensively about different ergonomic keyboards, and having tried split keyboards such as the Microsoft Natural Keyboard some years previously, I eventually decided to try a keyboard that seemed to stand out from the others. Being a little — shall we say, ‘different’? — I knew the Kinesis was going to take some getting used to, but if it would help rescue me from the pain I was experiencing, it would probably be worth it.

As you can see from the photograph, the Kinesis line of ergonomic keyboards features a split layout, with keys arranged into concave ‘bowls’. This enables you to type with both forearms and wrists in a straighter, more relaxed position. Likewise, your fingers can curl naturally into the concave bowls, rather than needing to flatten out as they would across a typical keyboard. In addition, many of the keys which would normally be operated by the relatively weak little fingers of each hand have been moved so that they are operated by the relatively much stronger (and usually under-utilized) thumbs.

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The keyboard can also be remapped as much as you like: in addition to built-in support for the Dvorak layout, you can simply put any key you like — even modifier keys — anywhere it’s convenient. In my own case, for example, I have reorganized some of the thumb keys to better support my extensive use of keyboard shortcuts and macros. And speaking of macros, the keyboard also supports macros in firmware, meaning you can assign sequences of characters up to 56 characters in length to your choice of key combinations. I have not personally tested this feature, since I already use a software utility to perform the same job, but if I didn’t have that software utility, I certainly would use the built-in macro capability.

First Impressions of the Kinesis Keyboard

Immediately upon taking the keyboard out of the box, my heart sank: in common with most keyboards on the market, the keys themselves fall into what I call the ‘chunky & clunky’ category, as compared to my personal preference for ‘soft & subtle’ keys. Probably the best example of ‘soft & subtle’ keys came with Apple Computer’s PowerBook G3 line (specifically, the models referred to as ‘Bronze keyboard’): although few people realized it when the machines first appeared, these were some of the most ergonomically friendly keyboards ever shipped, especially for a laptop. I remember one reviewer writing that it was an ‘almost sensual experience’ to type on one. With very short travel (i.e., the distance a key needs to be pressed) and a ‘springiness’ to the whole surface supporting the keys, the keyboard could be operated with very little effort, and the shock which occurred as a key ‘hit bottom’ was partly dispersed by the springiness of the keyboard, rather than by the soft tissue of the fingers.

So, my first hope was dashed: nothing soft & subtle here, and the travel on the keys was longer than what I’d been accustomed to on a stock Power Mac keyboard. On the plus side, however, the energy required to move the keys was much lower than on most keyboards — and in addition, as I soon realized, the longer travel actually meant that my fingers could begin decelerating before the keys ‘hit bottom’. The next best thing to having a soft & subtle impact on my fingers was, perhaps, having that impact occur at reduced speed.

Longer Term Impressions of the Keyboard and Its Impact on RSI

As you can probably guess by looking at the keyboard, learning the new layout wasn’t trivial. But actually, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be — within a week or so, most of my typing was fine. My main remaining problem now, even after using it for a couple of months, concerns over-reaching for keys. Because of the concavity of the two bowls, keys above and especially below the ‘home row’ can be reached just by slightly straightening or curving the fingers, with very little reaching required. So my long-practised movement of reaching for certain keys means that I occasionally wind up hitting numbers when I mean to hit top-row letters. Even more frequently, I hit the arrow keys (positioned below the ‘c’ and ‘v’ and the ‘m’ and ‘,’ keys) by accident, which of course wreaks havoc with lines of text when I suddenly find I’ve typed several words into the middle of a line above or below the one I thought I was typing!

My initial concern about the chunky & clunky keys has largely subsided, as I’ve learned to adapt to these keys and take advantage of their own characteristics as described above.

And most importantly, what impact has it had on my RSI symptoms?

The keyboard has made a huge difference!

The symptoms of repetitive stress injury which I had been experiencing have almost entirely disappeared. (The main remaining problem relates to my elbow and my use of a trackball and, as such, probably cannot be addressed by how I use a keyboard.) When I think back to how it used to feel to type on an ordinary keyboard, I cannot believe I put up with it so long!

While there are limits to every human body — and the ultimate ‘answer’ to computer-related pain may be simply to do less of whatever it is that hurts — I have found that this keyboard extends my limits, enabling me to do significantly more than I would otherwise be able to do for a given physical cost.

One Fly in the Ointment

With my own keyboard, one annoying problem appeared very quickly under regular use: two of the thumb keys began very occasionally ‘sticking’ (repeating even though the key was no longer depressed). Later, two of the regular keys began occasionally ‘stuttering’ (sending two characters for each keypress). Technical support has been very responsive, however, and when the replacement parts they sent for the keyboard failed to remedy the problem, the whole keyboard was replaced.

I will update this review when I’ve had a chance to test the replacement extensively.

The problem is apparently extremely rare, however, and since the company has been producing ergonomic keyboards for more than a decade, I suspect my own experience is an isolated incident rather than being indicative of any more general problem with build quality.

System Requirements and Pricing

You can read more about Kinesis Ergonomic Keyboards at the Kinesis site. Most of their keyboards (including the Kinesis Advantage USB reviewed here) are fully compatible with both Macs and Windows PCs and require:

  • Available USB port
  • Mac OS 8.6 or higher
  • Windows 98 or higher
  • No special drivers required

The Advantage USB model retails for US$299; a version with dual legends for Qwerty and Dvorak layouts costs US$325.

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