Earlier this month I posted my review of the TECK, an ergonomic keyboard with mechanical switches that’s looking to attract users interesting in a high quality, highly ergonomic offering and don’t mind the rather steep learning curve or the price. The TECK isn’t the only such keyboard, of course, and I decided to see what other mechanical switch ergonomic keyboards I could get for comparison. Next up on the list is the granddaddy of high-end ergonomic keyboards, the Kinesis Contour Advantage.

Similar to what I did with the TECK, I wanted to provide my first impressions of the Kinesis, along with some thoughts on the initial switch and the learning curve. This time, I also made the effort to put together a video of my first few minutes of typing. It actually wasn’t as bad as with the TECK, but that’s likely due to the fact that I already lost many of my typing conventions when I made that switch earlier this year. I’ll start with the video, where I take a typing test on four different keyboards and provide some thoughts on the experience, and then I’ll provide a few other thoughts on the Kinesis vs. TECK comparison. It’s far too early to determine which one I’ll end up liking the most, but already I do notice some differences.

Compared to the TECK—as well as many other keyboards—the Kinesis Advantage feels quite large. Part of that is from the thickness of the keyboard, with the palm rests and middle section being much thicker than on other keyboards. Looking at the way my hands rest on the Advantage, though, I have to say it seems like it should be a good fit for me once I adapt to the idiosyncrasies. I discussed some of the changes in the above video, but let me go into some additional detail on the areas that appear to be causing me the most trouble (and this is after the initial several hours of training/adapting to the modified layout).

My biggest long-term concern is with the location of the CTRL and ALT keys. As someone that uses keyboard shortcuts frequently, I’m very accustomed to using my pinkies to hit CTRL. Reaching up with my thumb to hit CTRL is going to take some real practice, but I can likely come to grips with that over the next few weeks. Certain shortcuts are a bit more complex, however—in Photoshop, for instance, I routinely use “Save for Web…”, with the shortcut CTRL+ALT+SHIFT+S; take one look at the Kinesis and see how easy that one is to pull off! Similarly, the locations of the cursor keys, PgUp/PgDn, and Home/End keys is going to really take some time for me to adjust. On the TECK I actually didn’t mind having them located under the palms of the hands, but here the keys are split between both hands and aren’t centralized.

With that said, the Kinesis keyboards do have some interesting features that may mitigate such concerns. For one, there’s a built-in function for reprogramming any of the keys, so it’s possible with a little effort to change the layout. Of course, for that to be useful you also need to figure out a “better” layout than the default, and I’m not sure what that might be—plus I wanted to give the default layout a shot first. The Advantage also features macro functionality, allowing you to program up to 24 macros of approximately 55 keystrokes. Truth be told, I haven’t even tried the macros or key mapping features yet, but I can at least see how they might prove useful.

There are a few other items to mention for my first impressions. One is that I didn’t like the audible beeping from my speakers at all; I think the keys sound plenty loud when typing (not that they’re loud, necessarily, but they’re not silent either), so adding a beep from the speakers wasn’t useful for me. Thankfully, it’s very easy to disable the sounds with a quick glance at the manual. Another interesting feature is built-in support for the Dvorak layout (press PROGRAM+SHIFT+F5 to switch between QWERTY and Dvorak; note that switching will lose any custom key mappings). Finally, unlike the TECK, Kinesis also includes a USB hub (two ports at the bottom-back of the keyboard near the cable connection).

As far as typing goes, the Cherry MX Brown switches so far feel largely the same to me as on the TECK. I haven’t experienced any issues with “double pressing” of keys yet, but then I didn’t have that happen with the TECK for a couple weeks either. Right now, it’s impossible for me to declare which keyboard is better in terms of ergonomics—and in fact, even after using both for a month I fear I might not be able to come to a firm opinion on the matter—but one thing I do know is that looking at the video above, I can see that my hands and arms move far less when typing on both the TECK and Kinesis. I also know that at least from a technology standpoint, the Kinesis is more advanced than the TECK, what with a USB hub, key remapping, and macro functionality, but it’s also more expensive thanks to those features.

Reviews of this nature are inherently something that will take a while and they end up being quite subjective, but within the next few months I hope to have a better idea of which mechanical switch ergonomic keyboard I like the most…and I have at least one if not two more offerings coming my way. Hopefully you can all wait patiently while I put each through a month or so of regular use. If you’re looking to spend $200+ on a high quality ergonomic keyboard, you’ll probably be willing to wait a bit longer, but if not I believe many of the companies will offer you a 60-day money back guarantee—the TECK and Kinesis both offer such a guarantee if you’re interested in giving one a try.

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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 27, 2013 - link

    The macros are stored internally in the keyboard ROM, so if I unplug the keyboard and move it somewhere else, the macro is still there. The same goes for the key remappings I believe. It's not enough of a difference to make it the clear winner, but it is something extra. That said, I tried to create a macro to input my full signature:

    Jarred Walton
    Senior Mobile Editor

    It's actually too long (cutting off around the http part), apparently because the way they store the macros stores every key (including shift I think), and some keys may require more than one "character". So, 55 characters on the standard model might translate to more like 35-40 typical characters. I might find the macro functionality somewhat useful on occasion, but it's definitely not a necessity.
  • zanon - Thursday, March 28, 2013 - link

    The macros are stored internally in the keyboard ROM, so if I unplug the keyboard and move it somewhere else, the macro is still there. The same goes for the key remappings I believe. It's not enough of a difference to make it the clear winner, but it is something extra.

    In all seriousness, we live in the net age: between everything from cloud services to one's own server or even just a USB stick, something as simple as user driver preferences exist everywhere anyway. I guess if you're constantly using various random machines as a guest and still wanted to take the fancy keyboard then it'd be of some use, but that's such an ultra, ultra niche case that I still don't think it's worth anything extra. In fact even server syncing is likely over thinking it, with most people using such a device with their main system(s) and that's that. And as you mentioned there, dealing with it internally rather then with the full power of the host imposes significant limitations. I don't think someone who cares about macros at all would be satisfied with a downgrade vs cheap/free software that'll handle anything.

    That's not to argue that all "extras" aren't without value though. The USB hub for example is something I miss in the Ergo 4K, and is good to see added, particularly in a premium product. Another nice extra (missing here, as with the TECK) is additional keys, I wouldn't mind a keyboard given a little credit for that too (and from that point of view it's a little disappointing the Kinesis doesn't take more advantage of all that empty space).

    Overall though this is all great stuff and I'm looking forward to the review. One request if possible: I'm definitely curious about how well these keyboards would work from the perspective of working with the command line, programming, and general heavy use of combos in all applications. You do specifically call out here how some combos might be hard to hit, and in my own use there are definitely a lot of 2 and 3 metakey combos, though most aren't as bad as Save for Web (which I remapped long ago, Adobe what were you thinking). Purely looking at the layout some of those look harder to pull off, but only day-to-day usage impressions would make it clear.
  • shinjin - Thursday, March 28, 2013 - link

    "I'm definitely curious about how well these keyboards would work from the perspective of working with the command line, programming, and general heavy use of combos in all applications"

    If it helps, I'm a software developer and have had no problems using this keyboard with an assortment of languages (C/C++, Delphi, Java). Sure the curly braces/square brackets are in a slightly awkward location - right ring & pinky, 2 rows down from the home row. So I use an adaptation that works for me. I type both the open & close characters, then hit the left-arrow once to back-fill with whatever is needed. It ends up faster than typing them in the 'proper' order and has the side effect of reducing omission syntax errors. Granted, this isn't something uniquely suited to the Kinesis, but does feel oddly awkward to me when I use it with a regular keyboard.

    As for the command line, no problems there either. Some might argue that it has some conveniences, such as using ALT+LEFT ARROW (or RIGHT ARROW) to 'jump' between words on the command line. The arrow keys are built into the key-wells, meaning you don't have to move a hand over to the separate arrow keys that a standard keyboard would have.

    Unfortunately, the left/right arrows are in the left key-well and the up/down are in the right key-well. That takes some getting used to.
  • shinjin - Thursday, March 28, 2013 - link

    I rarely use the macro functionality. Software typically implements it better.

    One key remap that I tend to set up is mapping Insert to the | (pipe) key in the left key-well.
  • olyar15 - Thursday, March 28, 2013 - link

    I've only had my Advantage for about a month, and am still getting used to it, but I do like the comfort and layout. It is also a decent gaming keyboard, provided that you can remap all or most of the commands to one bank. Otherwise, it gets awkward. I also like the foot pedals. However, there are a couple of gripes with this keyboard. First, given the cost, I would have expected better build quality and materials. The shell feels a bit cheap. However, the biggest problem I have is that my BIOS doesn't recognize the keyboard. I need to use another keyboard for that. Strange. Works fine once I get into windows.
  • cgunhouse - Thursday, March 28, 2013 - link

    I have the original release model of this keyboard, close to 20 years old, since I bought the keyboard for a hand issue that was short term I have been able to use both it and a standard. I found that my brain just knows what keyboard it is using, kinesis or standard, in fact it isn't until I start thinking about it that I have problems. The Ctrl and Alt keys, not a problem. I am faster on the kinesis, less unnecessary hand movements.
  • kenyee - Thursday, March 28, 2013 - link

    I've had this for a long time too...since I had tendonitis in my wrist and it's helped immensely.

    One thing to note is that the escape key eventually wears out...pretty annoying, but it's only $10 to get a replacement and then some minor soldering glueing inside.
    I had a PS/2 one that ended up w/ that issue and the repeating keys problem when I flexed the cable in the back...sent it off for refurb and got a nice new top back (bottom of shell was old). USB one is getting along fine w/ the R and N keys slowly being rubbed off. Apparently the labels are stuck on because it's a lot less expensive :-(
  • kenyee - Thursday, March 28, 2013 - link

    p.s., I'd like to see a DataHand review too. I looked into that when I had my wrist issues and ruled it out for being too expensive and quirky. People who use it seem to love it though...
  • hrbngr - Thursday, March 28, 2013 - link

    I have multiple versions of these keyboards (USB and PS/2). I'm not sure if you mentioned this but at least one of the versions comes with a footswitch in addition to the keyboard. The footswitch plugs into the keyboard and can be mapped to any key or macro(I think). I use the footswitch for the "shift" key, so I do not have to use my pinkies at all to type capital letters. This has saved me a lot of wear and tear on my weakest fingers, and I would absolutely recommend you giving that a try.

    Organists use both a keyboard and footpedals when the play music, so it's not something that is too difficult to learn. I got pretty good using the foot pedal with both my left and right feet as well. Good luck!
  • bitwiseshiftleft - Friday, April 5, 2013 - link

    I've used the Advantage for maybe 7 years. I use a Dvorak layout (on the Mac Q/D Switchable model) with the modifiers mapped around (Windows on the left thumb, Ctrl+Alt on the right on Windows; Cmd on the right for Mac) but otherwise vanilla. I'm a big fan of the shape of the keyboard, the switch action and the choice of thumb keys (though Shift would make an interesting addition). I've had the switches on one keyboard wear out.

    The keyboard did take a few weeks to get used to, but afterward I could type faster and much more comfortably than before I switched.

    That said, the Advantage definitely has a few issues. The function keys are terrible, and some keys which are useful to programmers are in strange places. I can mostly get used to this, but it's still slightly annoying. The lack of a dedicated keypad on such a huge and expensive piece of hardware is also a major oversight -- perhaps they could have put it in the center.

    The beeping and clicking is just silly, but everyone who buys this keyboard turns it off within 5 minutes and then doesn't think about it again.

    Beyond that, there are quirks in the keyboard's firmware. For example, if you hit the "=" and "c" characters at the same time, the keyboard will type out its firmware's copyright. I don't trigger this very often -- maybe once or twice a year, even when I have variables that might be equal to c -- but it's a silly "feature" for a keyboard to have.

    The keyboard's firmware is also buggy in other ways, or at least it was on my first keyboard (the one which wore out). It occasionally will have stuck modifier keys (which can be released by pressing and releasing that key). More seriously, I've seen a lot of devices misbehave when chained onto the Kinesis' USB hub. This is probably either a firmware bug, or else it can't reliably distribute enough power to downstream devices.

    With any remapped keyboard, you will also have some trouble with keys like "menu" or key bindings which distinguish left and right Ctrl or Alt keys, but this is hardly Kinesis' fault.

    All in all, the Kinesis is an excellent piece of hardware and I recommend it on ergonomics, but you'd think it would have fewer bugs and oversights after being sold for so long.

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