I am not an expert when it comes to repetitive strain injury, or RSI. What I write here is simply based on my own observations and experiences, and may not apply to you in any way. This is just the story of my life at the keyboard.
In part 2 I was analysing which keypresses where causing discomfort, and how frequently they were used. I also found a replacement for the backspace key, namely ctrl-h. However, the return key was still an issue.
Some time before this I had started looking at different ergonomic keyboards, just seeing what was available, but when my symptoms got worse, I decided to actually go ahead and get one. The criteria I had were simple; it should be narrow enough so I wouldn’t end up with a similar situation as I described in part 1, and it should somehow alleviate the problems with backspace and return. Any other features would just be icing on the cake so to speak. I tried to identify the different features that were available, and this is the list I came up with:
- Narrow width
- Angle between left and right halves
- Tilt between left and right halves
- Separation between left and right halves
- Keys in column alignment
- Keys vertically staggered
- Less strain on weak fingers
- Mechanical key switches
There are a big number of ergonomic keyboards available on the market, and most of the common ones only address points 2 – 4 above. They have a standard QWERTY layout, and are mostly all around normal, the only difference being the separation of the left and right half of the keyboard, often arranged in a V shape, with a possible tilt. The separation can range from small, like in most of the Microsoft ergonomic keyboards, to entirely separate halves like in the Kinesis Freestyle2 and Matias Ergo Pro. Keyboards of this type may also have a slight curvature in the alignment of the keys, implementing point 6, as can be seen in the Microsoft keyboards. However, none of the keyboards of this type address the issue I was having with the keys used by my right pinky (point 7). The sections below are about the candidates that I took a more in-depth look at.
The first candidate that looked promising was the TypeMatrix 2030. It implements quite a few of the features in the list above. It is narrow, it has keys in column alignment, and most importantly, it places enter and backspace in the middle of the keyboard, allowing your index fingers to handle those. It does not have mechanical key switches, and costs around 100€.
Disclaimer: I did not have the possibility to test one out IRL, so the following opinions are only based on what it looks like in photos, and what is stated on the TypeMatrix homepage.
There were a couple of things that made me a bit hesitant, though. The first thing that sprung to my mind was the sheer amount of “extra buttons”. There are play, app, shuffle, dsktp, www, mail, and calc buttons that apparently start applications. There seems to be no possibility (in the keyboard) to reprogram these, and there is even a disclaimer on the page stating that “some multimedia/special functions are OS dependent and may not be fully implemented by OS X and others“. The other thing was the positioning of the modifier keys; shift looks to be in a good position, but the ctrl key is in the “traditional” position, and alt and command (if “start” is the command key) are really far down on the keyboard. My main use for a keyboard is programming, where the importance of the modifier keys is more prominent than when typing text. The final thing was that there is no separation between the arrow keys and the surrounding keys, making it harder to use the arrows by feel. However, there is a small bump on the down arrow, that might make it a bit better than other keyboards I’ve used that are lacking the separation.
The Kinesis Advantage is a really cool looking keyboard, and implements a lot of the features in my list above; it places the keys in concave key wells, reducing the distance your fingers have to reach, there is a tilt in the halves, allowing your wrists to be in a more neutral position. The mechanical keys are vertically staggered in columns, and there are separate thumb keypads for modifiers and enter, space, backspace, delete, etc. The keys can be remapped, and it also supports programming macros into the keyboard. The price is about 300€.
I got the opportunity to try it out for a few minutes while visiting our Sweden office. The feel of the mechanical keys was great, and the thumb keypads felt like just my thing. The one thing that concerned me was the bulkiness and width of the keyboard, it is almost the same width as a regular full keyboard with numeric keypad. It also lacks arrow keys in an inverted t or cross shape, instead, the up and down are located at the bottom of the right key well, and left/right on the bottom of the left. I wasn’t sure either that I wanted a tilt in the keys, and in this keyboard there was no way to adjust the tilt. The final thing that I was wondering a bit about was that the function keys were not regular keys, but smaller “soft-touch” keys. The Kinesis Advantage has almost everything on my feature list, apart from the narrow width. This might not be as big a problem since you are still able to have straight wrists since the keyboard is symmetric with regards to the middle of the keyboard (unlike regular keyboards).
Another keyboard that is similar to the Advantage (and actually predates it with many years) is the Maltron Two-Hand 3D Ergonomic, that also incorporates keys in the empty space in the middle. There seemed to be no (easy) way to acquire one of those, and I just include the mention here for reference.
ErgoDox and ErgoDox EZ
The ErgoDox is an “assemble your own keyboard” kind of deal. The keyboard arrives in a kit where you need to solder components and mount key switches, etc. It is split into two halves, which of course allows you to arrange and angle and tilt the halves how you want it. The keys are arranged in vertically staggered columns, and have the same thumb keypads as the Kinesis Advantage above. It looks on paper to be the perfect keyboard for me, but the process of acquiring the parts, assembling, programming etc felt too daunting for me, so I reluctantly removed the ErgoDox from my list.
It wasn’t until after I finally decided on and bought a keyboard that I found out about the ErgoDox EZ. The challenge of assembling the ErgoDox yourself prompted the creation of the IndieGoGo campaign for the ErgoDox EZ. The layout and key arrangement are just like on the ErgoDox, the only difference is that it is a complete keyboard, and not a kit. As stated on the page: “We merely wish to make this keyboard available to anyone who wants it, regardless of their soldering ability“. The keyboard comes fully assembled and pre-programmed (of course allowing you to reprogram it). There are also additional accessories available like a palm rest and a Tilt/Tent kit that is not included in the original ErgoDox design. You can choose from six different mechanical key switches, and between printed or blank key caps.
The ErgoDox EZ really looked like the perfect keyboard for my needs, and actually implements all of the features in my list above, but unfortunately it was not available at the time I was looking for keyboards. It is a strong candidate for my next keyboard though, if I can justify the price of approximately 300€ to myself.
While the ErgoDox took the bulkiness away from the Kinesis Advantage, but otherwise kept the same layout, the Keyboardio Model 01 has taken a slightly different approach. It is split into two halves like the ErgoDox, but it is milled from solid maple, has an arc of thumb keys instead of the keypads, and in addition, a palm key on each side. It is fully programmable and also supports macros. It even has RGB backlights for each key.
This is another strong candidate for my next keyboard, but it is even pricier than the ErgoDox EZ, coming it at around 330€. Unfortunately, the Keyboardio is not available yet, estimated shipping is summer of 2016.
The last keyboard I looked at, and ended up getting, was the Truly Ergonomic keyboard (TEK). It takes a more traditional approach by being in one piece, and just angling the left and right hand keys. The keys are arranged in vertically staggered columns, and there is a middle column with extra buttons, which in the default layout are used as enter, backspace, etc. It uses mechanical switches, and is quite narrow and compact. The key arrangement is fully modifiable via an online configurator and a small program to load the new firmware into the keyboard.
I had the opportunity to try out the TEK while visiting our Sweden office, and I immediately liked how it felt. The feel of the keys was excellent, and the size of the keyboard was just as I wanted it. It implemented the important features on my list, and on the whole felt like a solid piece of equipment. The one thing I was a bit concerned about was that it did not move as many keys to the thumbs as the ErgoDox or the Kinesis Advantage. However, the ones that mattered were moved to the middle column. An additional bonus was that the ctrl key was already in the (in my opinion) correct position. There were a few keys that were in a slightly weird location, but the possibility to fully remap they keyboard would take care of that. In the end, the TEK ended up being the best package for me at that moment, and it is my main keyboard currently. It cost around 250€ at the time, but depending on vendor and campaigns etc, you could get it for less. I will write a more in depth review describing my experiences with the Truly Ergonomic in another blog post.