Subjective Evaluation: Give and Take

Reviewing keyboards is about as subjective as it gets with computer hardware. What one person loves, another could very well despise, and that’s true of everything from basic $20 membrane keyboards up to the $200-$350 mechanical switch ergonomic offerings like the Kinesis Advantage, TECK, ErgoDox, and Maltron offerings. I’m lucky enough to have had the chance now to test and review the TECK and Kinesis, and I have an ErgoDox on another system that I’ve poked around at as well. Which one is the best overall keyboard is very difficult for me to say, even after using all three of them for the better part of a month each.

There are a few things that all three of the ergonomic keyboards I’ve tested have in common. First, they all have a pretty rough learning curve for the first few hours of serious use. If you’re a touch typist that has been at it for a while, the changes can almost make you feel ill at first. With the TECK I hit a point an hour or so in where my stomach was knotted and I felt horrible; my son came by my office at one point and looked at me and asked, “What’s wrong, daddy?” I didn’t realize how irritated I was feeling until then, so it was a bit of an eye opener. I took a break for a bit, and then went back to learning the new keyboard. You do get past the hump eventually and can move on to improving your typing speed, but it’s still painful. With the Kinesis, adapting didn’t feel as bad, but that’s almost certainly helped by the fact that I had already totally rearranged my typing brain cells with the TECK, and even then there were struggles. It doesn’t really help matters that all three keyboards have differing layouts either.

That’s as good of a jumping off point as any to start the discussion of the Kinesis, though. There are differences from a traditional layout for certain, but it’s not at the same level as the TECK, at least I didn’t feel that way. On the Kinesis, the major changes involve using your thumbs for more tasks, plus the equal sign, tilde, cursor keys, and brackets are shifted to new locations compared to a traditional keyboard. On the other hand, Backslash, Tab, and Shift are all right where I’m used to finding them, which is nice if you switch between keyboards much (which I do every time I use a laptop). I could see some people struggling with using the thumbs for so many keys now—and in fact the manual that comes with the Kinesis notes that some typists may experience more fatigue in their thumbs after switching—but it didn’t bother me much. But the thumbs really do get a lot more to do on the Advantage than on traditional keyboards.

If you look at the above photo, you can see that the standard labeling gives your left thumb duties for Backspace and Delete in the primary positions (e.g. right where your thumb would naturally rest), with Control and Alternate keys up top and Home and End to the right. I have moderately sized hands for a 6’3” male, and none of the keys are hard for me to reach with my thumbs, but those with smaller hands might feel otherwise. The right thumb meanwhile gets the Space and Enter keys at the primary positions (and they’re large and easy to hit I should note), with Page Up and Page Down at the left of the group of keys and the Windows Start key and a second Control key at the top. As noted on the previous page, I ended up remapping the right Control key to being the “Context” key, as I use that pretty often and didn’t really miss having the second Control key.

The process of learning to use the Advantage went relatively smoothly for me, and after about two weeks I felt I was more or less back to normal typing speed for the vast majority of my work. The only things that still cause me a bit of difficulty are reaching down to the cursor keys, as well as the bracket keys (and every now and then the tilde). It can also be a bit trickier using certain keyboard shortcuts, and while some of that is again muscle memory, at least part of it just feels like I need to contort my hands a bit more.

For example, prior to using the Kinesis (and TECK), I would use my left hand to hit Control and then my right hand would hit Home, End, Up, Down, Left, or Right as needed; this is something I do fairly often when I’m typing and editing. Now I’ve got Control on my thumbs (except it’s just my left thumb now), and things like Control+Home or Control+End require me to move my hand and use one of my other fingers, or bring my right hand over. It’s doable but not what I would call perfect for all use cases.

One thing I notice with both the Kinesis and TECK (and ErgoDox, but that review is still pending) is that in general my hands do a lot less moving around while typing. Perhaps that’s what makes the need to move my hands for key combinations more noticeable.  I would rate the Kinesis as being more comfortable for me to type on than a traditional keyboard, and I think I prefer the larger separation of the hands compared to the TECK, but in terms of size the Kinesis is definitely larger and will take up more space.  In fact, compared to a standard keyboard with 10-key on the right, the Advantage is only about an inch narrower, but it’s fairly deep with no detachable palm rest option. It’s also rather thick, as there’s more depth to the keyboard in order to create the key wells.

I actually like the key wells that Kinesis uses, and for my desktop it fits in nicely and gives me a good setup for typing. However, the wells may cause some consternation for non-touch typists, as depending on your height it may be more difficult to see the labels on the bottom row or two of keys. I generally watch the screen while typing so it didn’t bother me, but it might be less desirable for some people. Then again, I figure if you have CTS, tendonitis, or some other RSI type injury related to typing on a keyboard, there’s a good chance that you’re a touch typist, in which case give yourself anywhere from a week to a month to fully adapt and you should be fine. Something else to note is that the function keys are a bit hard to reach, but I don’t use them so much that it’s a problem in day-to-day typing. They’re also soft and mushy compared to everything else, with membrane keys instead of mechanical switches; there’s definitely some cost savings on the function keys, but then they’re also smaller to make an already somewhat large keyboard not too big.

Getting back to key locations and key combinations, theoretically this is where macros come into play. With the Advantage you can create an easier-to-access macro for common shortcuts, or for a phrase you might type a lot like your address or signature. In practice, I didn’t find the built-in macro functionality to be all that useful unfortunately. For one, it can be a bit “dangerous”—or at least potentially troublesome—if you use a macro and then run some application that happens to use the same key combination, so I like things to be “stock” as much as possible. Anyway, let’s get back to key combinations and talk about the macro functionality for a moment.

One of the trickier key combinations for me that I use in Photoshop is “Save for Web”, Control+Alt+Shift+S. By default that requires a bit of hand dexterity to pull off even on a regular keyboard, but it’s even more difficult with the Kinesis. What I normally do (and this worked fine with the TECK as well) is to have my left hand use the pinky on Control, ring finger on Shift, thumb on Alt, and then my index finger hits the S. With the Advantage, I end up using the left thumb to hit CTRL+ALT, which is actually rather awkward for me; then I use the left or right pinky for Shift, and the left ring finger for S. Okay, so let’s use a macro...but what do I map it to? CTRL+S is used for regular “Save”, so that’s out, and the same goes for Alt+S, Control+Shift+S, etc. In fact most of other potential candidates that I might want are already in use. In the end, nothing really seemed to be better for me than just doing a bit of finger gymnastics when I get to somewhat odd key combinations.

Okay, but what about using the macro functionality for something else? Just for kicks, I tried remapping a few commonly used entries to keys I rarely access like Pause and Scroll Lock. That seemed harmless enough, but I ran into some problems there as well. I tried putting in my AnandTech signature, only to find that it’s a bit too long for a single “up to 56 characters” macro; this is what I ended up with:

Jarred Walton
Senior Editor

It’s close and might save me some effort on occasion, but the “56 characters” counts Shift (as well as Alt and Control) different from other keys, so my signature ends up getting just 44 printable characters (including newlines) with the Shift press/release each counting as a character. I end up missing the “” at the end, so I’d need a second macro to get a full signature.

The macro functionality still works as advertised, but wouldn’t you know it: every now and then I’ve accidentally hit the pause key while doing something else, so suddenly the keyboard goes nuts and tries to insert my signature. So far it hasn’t been a problem, but after the TECK issue where I typed “Windows” in Word but used Control instead of Shift (so basically I closed my document and told Word not to save), I’m a bit gun-shy. Even if you do find a good keyboard shortcut, you then have to remember where you put it for future reference. I can’t imagine having 24 custom macros, let alone 36 or 48, but maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, I’m not saying you can’t use macros or a remapping, but it’s not a panacea by any means. I did use the feature on occasion, mostly when I was doing some short-term repetitive task like converting PDF pages into slides for an article; then I could create a macro that would handle the Alt+Tab, Down, Alt+PrintScrn, Alt+Tab, New Document, Paste steps that I use with Photoshop, saving me from some finger gyrations. However, all of this functionality can be done via software utilities with any keyboard if you need it. With software, it’s also possible to take those macros along to other computers, there’s typically no limit to how long they can be, and you can basically do a lot more. The benefit for Kinesis here is that their macro record functionality is pretty easy to use, even if it’s limited, and Kinesis points out that their macros are stored in the keyboard, which also makes them transportable (if you carry the keyboard with you or switch PCs). If you like the idea of keyboard-resident macros, by all means go for it; I’d suggest investing in the Advantage Pro with its longer macro length though, as the 56 characters can go fast.

One final item I wanted to mention is that while I have no issues typing on the Kinesis, for playing games it can be a bit more troublesome. Often one or more of the keys that got moved onto the thumbs gets used by a game, and Control and Space in particular are often used in First-Person Shooter games. Control can be somewhat hard to activate in the heat of battle, and note that Space along with any numbers above 6 or other keys that are under the right hand are quite a reach. With your typical WASD control scheme, you’ll definitely want to change the keys to keep things in easy access on one hand, since your other hand will be busy with the mouse. I tried remapping one game, where I wanted to replace the Space (jump) action with Delete…except in the game configuration utility, Delete wasn’t a key you could map since it was used to clear a mapping. Oops. While I didn’t play a ton of games with the Kinesis, the few times I did load up something I found it less pleasant for gaming than a regular keyboard. The compact size and layout of the TECK didn’t give me as many problems by contrast, though I probably just didn’t load up the right game. There’s a reason we refer to other keyboards as “standard” keyboards, and if you go with a real ergonomic offering it can at times be a problem...or at least it will require the investment of a bit more time to customize the key bindings.

One reader commented about switching from WASD to ESDF for gaming, and that's very good advice as the left key well is designed so that your hand will work best with the middle finger on ED rather than WS. If you make that change, you will naturally need to remap the default keys in virtually every game, and you will probably also want to use the Kinesis remapping feature to switch out the Backspace and Delete keys to something you can bind (or maybe just remap the Enter and Space from the right thumb to the Back Spaced and Delete keys on the left thumb). Again, this goes back the the whole "standard keyboard" phrase, but now we're going with "standard WASD": the Advantage is ideally designed for something other than WASD and thus you have to resort to custom mappings (which should be a one-time affair). But the key action, number of keys you can use at once, etc. should not pose a problem for gaming use.

Overview of the Kinesis Advantage More Subjective Thoughts and Typing Speed Results
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  • proci - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    I have the same issue as the author, also the need of switching between workspaces (stationary/laptop). The natural ergonomic 4k is very good in this regard, as learning it goes fast. The only problem is the rubber dome.

    The Kinesis is nice, but it is big and expensive. The website of Teck compares it the whole time to the NatErgo, however for those who need to switch between workspaces, the Nat Ergo is better.

    Which leaves me with the problem, that Nat Ergo has rubber dome switches, and cherry mx red is much better to write on.

    Well, I hope some time MS will announce the Nat Ergo Brown/Red. I would definitively go for it. I have tried a Steelseries 6g v2 too, it was very nice to write on it, but it was a pain to my wrists, so it needed to go.
  • 2disbetter - Wednesday, July 10, 2013 - link

    Jarred, Thank you for this review. This kind of thing helps to bring attention to something that people who use computers for a living should be thinking about: Keyboard quality, longevity, and the improved health benefits a quality keyboard provides. I hope the Ergodox review doesn't take long. I'm super pumped to read about it. Will you be building your own, or did you have it made? I currently own a HHKB Pro 2, but have been thinking I may need to get something a bit more ergo. Thanks again!
  • phipywr - Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - link

    Have you tried the SafeType. The switch to it is easier and it's ergonomics are quite a bit different.

    I have one and I liked it for typing, but as a programmer I needed my 10 key pad too much. It has a 10 key but it's a little difficult to get to. For someone who does mostly typing, though it might work great.
  • GreenReaper - Monday, September 16, 2013 - link

    Macro-wise, can't you just cut the last line of your signature to ""? Problem solved!
  • timlin - Friday, February 28, 2014 - link

    Jarred - how did you map the Windows context key? I have a Kinesis Advantage and I don't see a way to do that. I really miss that key though.
  • lacc - Sunday, July 12, 2015 - link

    Another split keyboard that may be of your interest is - It'll be kickstarted soon.
  • mondalaci - Thursday, September 17, 2015 - link

    The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard is also a relevant keyboard that is compact and ergonomic.

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