Tuesday, April 22, 2014


I've talked a bit about ergonomics before. I use Colemak as my keyboard layout, but I learn more and more that layouts aren't as important to speed and maybe not so much to ergonomics (but I'm not going back to QWERTY ever because it is the pits.) I use a Microsoft Natural Elite as my keyboard and have for a few years. I expect to use it for years to come, because I've started to collect them. Goodwill is a magnet for old keyboards.

The Natural Elite
The one issue I have the the Elite is that it's very wide. Most keyboards like this are, the Kinesis Advantage is massive but also maybe the best ergonomic keyboard ever. The Truly Ergonomic Computer Keyboard is totally different. It's small, but really a work of art. It's something to behold. The Maltron Keyboards are probably the most awesome to behold. They're the most odd and perhaps the most awesome. Maltron, however, mostly makes keyboards for people with disabilities, but they do have some keyboards that compete with the likes of Truly Ergonomic and Kinesis.

There are many ergonomic keyboards to behold, and many people will shun them outright, without so much as a second thought. To me, there isn't much explanation before I was on board. I am a broad shouldered gentleman and as such I find typing on a standard keyboard to be annoying and uncomfortable. Cramped is the best word, but only children would find standard keyboards to be wide enough.

Maltron One Handed
The goal of ergonomic keyboards is to have hands rest at a natural position. That's where the name for Microsoft's ergonomic keyboards comes from. Allow your arms to rest at your side. You'll notice that your hands face toward your body, and maybe your palms face ever-so-slightly backwards like mine. Raise your elbow and your hand will stay at a 90° angle. Most ergonomic keyboards 'tent' in the middle in order to achieve this natural position, but there are only two keyboards that I know of that achieve this natural position

Kinesis Freestyle Ascent
There are also hoards of computer mouses which attempt this 'handshake' style position. They look really silly, but it's hard to argue the logic. Personally I don't think the benefit is better than adjusting some bad habits. Resting hands and wrists on palm rests puts much undue pressure on the body. Simply holding hands above the keyboard will alleviate some of the issues vertical keyboards were made to solve. Even the TECK ships with a palm rest. The only exception to this rule is the Kinesis Advantage which forces the typist to rest their palms on the mass of the keyboard but in a manner that wrists and shoulders aren't stressed.

Kinesis Evolv, Chair Mount Keyboard
Most 'cheap' keyboards, any keyboard under $100, use rubber dome/membrane switches. When a key is pressed, it stamps on a rubber dome and that causes a switch to connect and sends a signal to the computer. Laptops use scissor switches, which work much the same way except two pieces of metal hold the key in place just slightly above where the switch is. Scissor switches are small, which is why they are uses on laptops but also some really thin keyboards use them too (like the Microsoft Sculpt.) The main disadvantage to either of these is that they must bottom out to produce a key press, causing fingers to press down more than needed and also slam into the keys.

Cherry MX Blue Switches
Keyboards like the TECK and Kinesis Advantage (and older keyboards like the IBM Model M) use mechanical switches because they give are thought to be less harsh on fingers. Learned mechanical typists know when the keys actuate and reset, so they don't have to move their fingers as much to type. Some argue that this leads to a more rewarding typing experience, while others find the switches to be annoying, but there are many different kinds of switches out there. Cherry alone makes at least a half-dozen, so there is a switch out there for everyone. They just come at a price. Even the cheapest of mechanical keyboards cost more than Microsoft's most expensive offerings. Finding a Model M at a Goodwill is a fantastic find, but most mechanical keyboards start at $80, and ergonomic mechanical keyboards start at around $200.

I want to talk more about mechanical switches, but they really are a post for themselves. Cherry makes at least a half dozen popular switches, and keyboards like the Model M and Dell AT 101W use switches that aren't even made anymore. Just know that mechanical switches don't need to bottom out like rubber dome switches.

So, ergonomics. When it comes to keyboards, it's hard to say what's best. I can confidently say that a standard keyboard works against the wrists, that much I know (and have experienced) but it's hard to say what else is wrong. I use Colemak because I feel the benefits from it and I like it more. I use my Microsoft Natural Elite because I'm poor and it's wider than other keyboards (also, Microsoft just stopped making it, so I'm starting to collect them.) Standing has thoroughly proven to be better for a typist, but that's another game entirely. Mechanical switches are at least cooler than standard switches (just type on a Model M sometime and try not to have fun) but it's hard to say if they're an advantage over any other kinds of switches.

You know what? Just do what you want.


overscan68000 said...

Nice post. My hands ache a lot from computer use so I'm considering an ergonomic keyboard. My only experience so far was with the Logitech Wave.

I like the Truly Erfgonomic keyboard in principle, but that price! Difficult to commit to something that expensive eithout trying it first.

QWERTY is engrained in my brain now. I'm not sure I could switch!

Zac Manman said...

The logitech Wave is, at best, a half measure. Good ergonomic keyboards split the keys. This will put less stress on your wrists. You could also always consider just getting a mechanical keyboard. They're not too too expensive. Either a Unicomp keyboard, or a small 60% board like the Razer Black Widow Tournament Edition. Mechanical keyboards will help your hands and probably increase your typing speed.

The Truly Ergonomic Computer Keyboard is one of the logical conclusions of ergonomics. It's split, uses mechanical keys, reorients keys into columns, and staggers the keys vertically, to compensate for the bias of finger length. Other keyboards like this are the Ergodox and the Kinesis Advantage. They're all about the same price.

A nice link between those keyboards and lower-end ergonomic keyboards is the TypeMatrix keyboard. They're still a little expensive, more so than even cheap mechanical keyboards, but they're small and have a similar key layout. I have a TypeMatrix 2020, their older version. It was a little cheaper, but I like that it has a larger gap between the keys. Their newer keyboard, the 2030 , is much more stylish and has an impressive number of customizable skins.

You don't have to quit QWERTY, but if you wanted to change, be sure to know that it will take time and effort. When I switched to Colemak six years ago, it took me a month to get to 40 WPM, and then another six or so before I could break 60. Now I type at 100 WPM, and I don't think I would have typed this fast without the switch. I think that's because I made the conscious effort to type better, so even on QWERTY you could achieve speeds easily if you worked at it, but it's still an inefficient layout that's bad for your hands. Even after typing on Colemak for a week, struggling to type every word, I could feel the difference.

I advocate a switch, but it's a big change, and you might lose your ability to type on QWERTY. Also, no one you know will use Colemak, so typing on another computer (or someone using yours without knowing) will be a minor annoyance.