I’ve suffered from tendonitis in my hands and wrists for several years; having chosen a career in computing, this seems to be a logical occupational hazard. However, as anyone who suffered from a repetitive stress injury can tell you, the condition can be excruciatingly painful, not to mention debilitating. When I first read of the Handeze gloves in TidBITS, I ran out and bought a set. I found the gloves helpful, but I continued experimenting with different desks, chairs, keyboards and whatnot.
In keyboards, I found remarkable differences between different models. For my hands, a good, solid QWERTY keyboard seems to aggravate my condition the least. An AST keyboard I formerly used was wonderful, while the keyboard on a colleague’s Hewlett-Packard system sent me screaming down the hall. Being a Mac user, I was thankful that Apple’s original Extended keyboard does not cause me pain. The Extended II is almost as good; however, I find the AppleDesign keyboards mushy, which causes me to push the keys harder and aggravates my tendonitis. On the other hand, I like the keyboard on the PowerBook G3 Series. But these are all standard keyboards – what about odd-looking ergonomic keyboards?
Ergonomic keyboards profess to be less abusive to the human body than a standard 101 key unit. For one reason or another, I didn’t find them helpful: the keys on the Apple Adjustable Keyboard were mushy, lacking in tactile feedback. Although I liked the keys on the Microsoft Natural keyboard, I found that its design forces my fingers to reach even farther afield from the home keys – more extension and effort brings more pain. Meanwhile, the alternatives which place the keyboard in an A-frame (e.g. the BAT) or rely on key chording seemed too unusual for my profession, which requires the use of many different keyboards on a daily basis.
Then I tried the Kinesis Ergonomic Contoured Keyboard.
Doing the Splits — Kinesis’s Ergonomic Contoured Keyboard is broken into halves, following the touch-typing lessons of the QWERTY layout: left-handed and right-handed keys. The keyboard is about as long as a standard 101 keyboard, albeit with the halves placed at the outer edges of the keyboard. This placement puts the hands closer to shoulder width and avoids forcing the hands into severe ulnar deviation (where the wrists bend outward, forming an open "V" angle) as happens with standard keyboards. In addition, Kinesis placed the left and right key sets in concave bowls, so your fingers automatically land on the home keys when at rest. This arrangement solves the problem of finger travel, since Kinesis angled and elevated the keys so each key is within the natural range of motion of the appropriate finger. (You don’t have to stretch forward to hit the 8 with the middle finger on your right hand. Just straighten your finger a bit, and you can’t help hitting the 8.) On the Macintosh model, Kinesis placed the power key on the back of the keyboard; this seems odd to one used to Apple keyboards, but it’s only a minor inconvenience.
Kinesis placed the modifier keys (Command, Option, Control, Alt) in two pads toward the middle of the keyboard; you press the buttons on these pads with your thumbs. The keys for space, backspace, forward delete, page up/down, home and end are on the pads as well. The modifiers on these pads present the most difficult transition, and you have to learn the placement of these keys from scratch. Most users will probably find it necessary to move some of these keys around. I had to remap the location of the space key, since I use my left thumb for spaces; Kinesis puts it on the right pad by default.
Even having made that modification, however, I felt as though I was learning to type again. The first several days, my keyboard seemed to produce Newton poetry. My every other word was punctuated with a cry of "Agh!" as yet another unimaginable typo appeared on the screen. (Do not switch to this keyboard while in the middle of a large project!) However, my speed and accuracy returned to normal quite rapidly, and I’m now a faster and more accurate typist than before. I’m convinced that the key arrangement, in concave bowls and with elevated and angled keys, is responsible for this improvement. I’ve simply found it easier to type.
Pain-Free and Loving It — The proof, however, is in the lack of pain. After owning the Kinesis for four months, my hands and wrists no longer hurt, even after hours at the keyboard. Where I once felt crippled on a daily basis, I now feel like a normal, able-bodied person. It’s the only keyboard I’ve ever used that didn’t cause my hands to hurt. At all.
Kinesis sells several variations of the Ergonomic Contoured Keyboard that can be used with Macs, PCs, and Sun workstations. All models are PC compatible, but Mac users should probably get the MPC models, which are switchable between the Mac and the PC. You can choose varying degrees of key remapping and macro programming capabilities: Essential (none), Classic (some) or Expert (tons). The keyboards are also available with QWERTY or Dvorak key layouts, or even dual-legend keycaps.
Finding Kinesis keyboards can be a challenge, as they’re not carried in most computer stores. Fry’s Electronics carries the PC-only Essential, which I found handy when trying it out. (While trying the demo unit at Fry’s, I decided to get the Classic model so I could remap the space key.) Fortunately, Kinesis provides a list of resellers on their Web site.
Penny-pinchers beware: these keyboards aren’t cheap. Anyone who can’t imagine paying more than $100 for a keyboard is due for a case of sticker shock. My Mac/PC Switchable Essential QWERTY keyboard cost $239, and I consider that a bargain. However, that price is extremely reasonable compared to the potential costs in terms of money and suffering. Most important, my hands don’t hurt.
[Having pursued a career in computing, Andrew Laurence is the black sheep in a family of writers. He currently provides care and feeding for the Macintosh ecosystem at the University of California, Irvine.]