Ergonomic Keyboards

This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2745, , as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 12-16) and their website.

For people who spend a lot of time working at a computer, their comfort and productivity are dependent less upon the technical capabilities of the computer — such as how much memory it has, and the speed of its microprocessor — and much more upon the input and output devices attached to that computer. Yet the technical specs are typically overemphasized, while the I/O devices are oftentimes neglected as "peripherals" of little importance — cheap devices that just happen to come with the computer when it is purchased.

In the category of I/O devices, most of the input to the computer is done through a keyboard — even in today's Internet-powered era, in which people are using pointing devices more than ever, for navigating around Web pages. Computer users continue to type documents, email messages, and tweets; they utilize keyboard shortcuts and hotkeys just as much as ever; and the humble command line still holds the loyalty of countless people, particularly Linux enthusiasts and recent converts.

Yet most computer users continue to put up with cheap and poorly-made keyboards and mice that were clearly designed not to maximize the comfort and long-term health of the human being using them, but instead to minimize the short-term financial cost of the purchase — ignoring the long-term financial cost of lost wages and workers compensation, for those people who are unfortunate enough to become stricken with carpal tunnel syndrome or some other repetitive stress injury (RSI), any of which can cause persistent and debilitating pain in the wrists and forearms.

These problems have prompted the development of ergonomic research and best practices, books on RSI treatment and prevention, workplace safety consultants and even full-time employees, speech recognition technologies, and a wide variety of input devices intended to alleviate physical discomfort and damage from long-term use — including ergonomic keyboards, touch pads, and mice. In this article, I will survey the leading candidates in that first category.

My assessment of the keyboards discussed below is largely informed by over two decades of almost-daily computer usage, as well as my experiences from trying out most of the input devices and practices available. Ask any veteran programmer or other long-term computer user, and they should be able to tell you of harsh lessons learned from years of banging on "five dollar keyboards", and the strain it can cause to overworked fingers, wrists, forearms, and all the connecting muscles, tendons, nerves, and fascia.

Keys to Keep Your Fingers Well

I will start by looking at my favorite keyboard, designed by Kinesis, which is located in Bothell, Washington. Although the company currently offers eight different types of office ergonomics products — ranging from laptop devices to USB hubs — Kinesis is probably best known for its distinctly-shaped keyboard, known as the Contoured (also confusingly referred to by another name, the Advantage).

Kinesis Contoured
Figure 1. Kinesis Contoured

All of its keys are organized into four separate groups, with a majority of them in two separated key wells, which significantly reduces the strain of rotating one's hands outward simply to match the horizontal rows of keys on a traditional keyboard. Admittedly, a similar separation, though to a lesser extent, is offered by Microsoft's supposedly ergonomic keyboards, including the Wave (its original version), all of their current models, and the countless knockoffs that followed the original.

But that's where the similarity ends, because the Kinesis Advantage makes possible a much more natural position of the arms. Secondly, it allows you to drop your fingers down into the key wells, for less muscular strain, especially with the logical key positioning which requires less travel by the fingers. Thirdly, the most commonly used keys — such as the Enter, Space, Back Space, and Delete — are all controlled by the (more powerful) thumbs. Another advantage is the flat open space on top of the keyboard, between the two key wells, because it is an ideal location for a touchpad, if you choose to use one. That configuration allows you to kick back, put the keyboard on your lap, and avoid reaching forward to your desk to reach a mouse.

The Contoured keyboard is available in three different colors (including black, shown here), with a USB or PS/2 connection, and prices starting at $299 for the basic programmable model, and $359 for the Pro model, which allows for greater programmability. Both models make it possible for you to reassign keys at will, and even store commonly-executed keystroke combinations into any individual key or combination thereof. Consequently, there is finally a use for those otherwise obsolete function keys, F1 through F12.

Kinesis also offers two other keyboard lines, the Maxim (which looks similar to the Microsoft Wave) and the Freestyle, in which the two key groups are separated even further, into two separate but connected panels. Yet it is the Contoured for which the company is best known.

This is evidenced by the MALTRON L-Type, which largely appears to be a copy of the Contoured. It is available from PCD MALTRON, located in Stafford, United Kingdom. For the model lacking a built-in trackball, prices start at 375 pounds (about $615 at today's currency rates).

Figure 2. MALTRON L-Type

Like the Contoured, the L-Type has a built-in USB controller, so it can be used on both PCs and Macs without need of any conversion hardware or software. Also identical is the resultant positioning of one's hands and wrists, for greater comfort and safety. However, unlike the Kinesis product, the L-Type is not programmable — nor are the other models offered by MALTRON, including a single-handed keyboard that looks even more unusual than the dual-handed ones.

Not Prone to Pronation

One of the key factors that cause conventional typing positions to result in RSI, is having to twist one's hands out from the center line, with partial pronation, just to be able to get one's fingertips on top of the home row of keys, which are positioned in a straight line, with no gap between. This configuration may be optimal for the robots on a factory floor, manufacturing these devices with great speed and no feelings; but it is certainly not optimal for human beings equally confined to a cubicle, typing on these devices with great speed, and with feelings ranging from sharp pain in the wrists to numbness and tingling in the fingers.

Several ergonomic keyboards have been designed so as to place the hands in a much more natural, vertical position. For instance, the Kinesis Freestyle mentioned above, can be attached to a platform that places the two separate keyboard panels into vertical position, allowing the user to avoid the over-rotation demanded by regular keyboards. Oddly, the platform, known as a Multi-Tent Accessory, costs twice as much as the keyboard itself — $199 versus $99. The Freestyle is available in several international versions, including French Canadian, German, Swedish, and British.

Kinesis Freestyle Ascent
Figure 3. Kinesis Freestyle Ascent

The SafeType Keyboard is similar to the Ascent, in that it eliminates the aforementioned misalignment — technically known as extension, pronation, and deviation (and no, that's not referring to any kinky websites we may "accidentally" stumble upon). Instead, the vertical design allows one to type in an orthopedically neutral position.

SafeType Keyboard
Figure 4. SafeType Keyboard

Unlike the Ascent, the SafeType Keyboard panels are positioned so that the further keys are rotated even more away from you, which makes it impossible to see the keys you are typing — if it were not for the built-in side mirrors, which do give this keyboard a strange appearance. Of course, the same can be said of any decent ergonomic keyboard. But their purpose is not to win a fashion contest, but rather to win the hearts and minds and wrists of keyboarders everywhere.

The SafeType works with both PCs and Macs, supports USB, and is sold for $295.

Still somewhat lost in the haze of prototyping, the Grippity1.0 BackTyping keyboard — developed by Grippity of Israel — takes the idea of orthopedic neutrality to a new level, because instead of holding your hands and fingers straight out in front of you, and typing inward, you grip the back side edges of the Grippity1.0, and type toward yourself. The problem of the keys not being visible is solved by having the key letter labels facing toward you, with plenty of space between the key rows, so you can see the position of your fingertips.

Figure 5. Grippity1.0

The picture above shows the media center version of the keyboard. Unfortunately, the standard BackTyping keyboard is not displayed on the company's website, and may still be under development. But at least you get a good idea as to the overall principle, which is rather clever, and lends itself well to reclining while typing. In addition, the keyboard is smaller and lighter than even the cheapest mainstream keyboards.

These are not the only ergonomic keyboards available on the market, but they certainly represent many of the innovative ideas dreamt up by creative engineers and workspace optimization experts. If you find that using a keyboard and/or mouse is causing cumulative damage and pain to your own computing appendages, be sure to seek advice from your health practitioner, and definitely consider upgrading from the industrial-style keyboards of the past. It may require a financial investment on your part, or that of your employer, but bear in mind that your health and comfort are priceless.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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