Years of hammering away at in-built laptop keyboards, and completely disregarding ergonomics, started taking its toll on my body.
When I felt the first few warning signs that something was off — a mild tingling in my wrist and aching in my hands — I did what many people do and ignored it.
The problem got progressively worse over the next 8 months and I started to get seriously worried.
My job depends heavily on using the computer. As an IT guy early in my career, I worried that if I didn’t fix this, my career could be over just as it was getting started.
I knew I had to make some serious changes to how I worked. Scheduling regular breaks, improving my sitting posture, and using an external keyboard (instead of the in-built laptop keyboard) were some of the first changes I made.
While these helped, it became clear that they weren’t enough. My wrist was still tingling.
What turned the tide for me was finally investing in a top-of-the-line ergonomic keyboard: the Kinesis Advantage2.
I also bought a great trackball mouse which helped a lot too, but in this review I want to focus on the keyboard.
Before I get into it, I want to say that this won’t necessarily be the right decision for everyone.
The Kinesis Advantage2 is not cheap, and there are other options for you. This is just a review of my experience and who I think it would help.
Things to consider before buying an ergonomic keyboard
When you’re selecting an ergonomic keyboard, you want something that is going to minimise unnecessary hand movement, reduce force needed and keep your wrist in as neutral of a position as possible.
Traditional keyboards do little to help you prevent these types of bad wrist positions and in fact often encourage them. For example, lumping all the letter keys together forces your wrists to angle inwards, which is one motivating factor behind the split keyboard design that has become popular in many ergonomic keyboards.
Be wary of so-called “ergonomic” keyboards that have the label in their name but have nothing about their design which would help you achieve the goals you’re after.
If you’re someone that needs to use a keyboard heavily for work (or play), it makes a lot of sense to invest in a decent one, one focused not just on productivity but ergonomics.
Considering you’ll be spending all day using this thing — most days of the week — it’s a decision that will have a near-constant impact on your life.
That said, if you don’t need to use computers heavily, then an ergonomic keyboard is less of a necessity.
If you’ve decided an ergonomic keyboard is important for you, there are a number of factors to consider before buying one. These include:
- Touch typing ability. If you don’t already touch type, an ergonomic keyboard is not going to be of much value.
- Physical layout. How are the keys arranged, and will this reduce strain? Is a “split” layout is used, or are the keys all grouped together? Generally, you want a split layout.
Are the keys arranged in columns (“ortholinear”), or staggered? You want to avoid staggered arrangements since these force extra lateral movement of the fingers.
Finally, where are the common control keys located? Are they easily accessible or will your fingers need to contort around the keyboard to hit them?
- Learning curve. How much time are you prepared to invest in adjusting to a new keyboard? Different ergonomic options vary greatly in how difficult they are to become proficient with. The Kinesis Advantage2, for example, can take a few weeks to feel comfortable with.
- Budget. Most ergonomic keyboards worth buying are a step up in price from a traditional keyboard. That said, there is still a big spectrum in price and obviously your budget is a key factor.
Good entry-level ergonomic keyboards start at around $100 and can run up to $700 at the high-end.
- Compatibility. Is the keyboard model you’re considering compatible with the operating system you run? I know you probably don’t need my review to tell you this, but can’t hurt to mention it! Easier than you think to totally overlook.
Kinesis Advantage2 Overview
The Kinesis Advantage2 is a contoured keyboard designed to maximise comfort and productivity. It is the most recent iteration of the immensely popular ‘Advantage’ line from iconic ergonomics brand Kinesis.
It claims to reduce unnecessary hand movement and force required when typing, as well as promote a neutral wrist position.
If you’re dealing with any sort of wrist pain or overuse injury associated with typing, the Kinesis Advantage2 may be a great choice. In my case, it was the single best investment I made to address my wrist discomfort.
That said, it is NOT cheap and comes with a fairly significant learning curve. It took me about a week to reach the “I can type most things without typos” stage, and maybe 2-4 weeks to feel comfortable on the keyboard.
So if you’re not prepared to invest that sort of money or time up-front into the keyboard, you should look for other alternatives.
- Fantastic for reducing finger movement & wrist strain
In my experience, the design features of this keyboard really do help reduce strain on the wrist and hand.
- Customisable layout and keys
With a press of a button, the layout can be toggled between the traditional QWERTY key layout and the more ergonomic DVORAK layout. Keys can also be re-mapped or trigger macros. Great for cutting down on difficult or unpleasant key combinations.
- Widely loved with an established “cult following”
This is not a keyboard that sells through gimmicks or by “seeming” ergonomic. Kinesis has been in the game for over 25 years and has attracted an army of raving users. In fact, this was what drove me to check it out in the first place.
- Compatible with Windows and Mac
Works out of the box with the major operating systems. I’ve personally tested it on Windows 10 and Mac OS X El Capitan & Catalina.
- Surprisingly light
Although a little bigger than most keyboards, it is deceptively light.
As mentioned, this keyboard currently sells at the higher end of the price range for ergonomic keyboards.
- Significant learning curve
Compared to some other options, it takes a little longer to get the hang of this keyboard
- Alt + Tab is awkward for small hands
Personally, I found Alt + Tab clunky to perform on this keyboard (initially my biggest gripe with it so far, since it’s used a ton on Windows). I do have quite small hands, so keep this in mind if that’s you too. Fortunately, this problem is quite fixable by a simple key remap, which took me about 5 minutes to do (in my case right Ctrl -> Alt)
- A little loud
The mechanical keyswitches, while great, can be a little on the loud side. This is mitigated fairly well in the “quiet” variant, which presumably was why Kinesis came out with it.
Key Ergonomic Features
So Kinesis claims this thing is designed to maximise comfort, but does it actually deliver?
To answer that, I’m going to step through the key design features and the benefit of each, in my personal order of importance
The Kinesis Advantage2, like many good ergonomic keyboards, utilises a split layout. In this layout, each hand has its own physically separate area, as seen in the picture below:
If you’ve only ever used a “normal” keyboard, you might be skeptical. At first, it looks really uncomfortable to use (“why are all the keys split? Why is there all that dead space in the middle?”).
I had the same thought the first time I saw this type of ergonomic keyboard. However, the split layout is actually a brilliant innovation.
What this design does is allow the arms to rest shoulder width apart, with the wrists in a neutral position.
Keeping wrists straight reduces wrist abduction and ulnar deviation. This is practically impossible on a traditional keyboard, as seen below:
Many people find the split layout is therefore excellent for preventing or reducing wrist pain and overuse injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome (disclaimer: I’m not a medical specialist, don’t take my opinion for medical advice!).
Once I got over the initial confusion, I found this layout a joy to use. The traditional “clumped together” layout started to make a lot less sense to me.
Thumb clusters for control keys
The frequently used control keys (i.e. enter, space, cntrl, alt, etc) are moved to the center of the keyboard, right near your thumbs:
This allows the workload to get transferred from overworked fingers to your stronger (and previously underutilised) thumbs.
Personally, I LOVE this feature of the keyboard. While it was initially disorienting, I found it quickly became far more comfortable than all the awkward finger reaching I was used to with traditional keyboards.
The keys are built into a “bowl shape” to minimise finger extension and better allow the muscles to relax:
Ortho-what? Easy for this feature to go ortho-in-(one)-ear and ortho-out-(the other)-ear… ok that joke was a stretch. Unlike what your fingers will be doing!
As alluded to earlier, what this means is the keys are all vertically aligned in columns, instead of “staggered” as in traditional keyboards.
In an ortholinear or columnar layout, the keys are aligned vertically
This avoids unnecessary sideways movement of the fingers and therefore lowers the strain on them.
Mechanical key switches
The Kinesis Advantage2 uses low-force, tactile key switches (the “Cherry MX browns”).
“Tactile” here means they provide elevated feedback in the midpoint of the key press, which lets you know the key press has been registered without needing to bottom out the key.
This reduces the occurrence of hard impact key presses and results in greater typing comfort.
As mentioned earlier, keys can be re-mapped or macros (i.e. key sequences) can be set up via the SmartSet programming engine built into the keyboard.
This allows you to set up easier alternatives for any awkward key combinations you need to use frequently. The customisation can be done in two ways:
- Activating the “remapping” or “macro” modes on the keyboard, then pressing keys to indicate what you want to change; or
- Editing a text file stored in the keyboard, which can be accessed as a drive in your computer
I’ve personally done this to greatly improve Alt + Tab, which previously involved an awkward stretch of my left pinky and thumb to hit the combo (made worse by my small hands).
See this video for a demonstration of the process:
What others have been saying
Like I said, what drove me to finally get this keyboard was the rave reviews I was reading online.
Take the experience of these hackernews users:
This keyboard style is absolutely amazing. I had pre-carpal style pain in my hands for years and tried every other keyboard out there, including all the ergo ones that came highly recommended. This is the only one that actually stopped the pain for me. 10+ years of satisfaction here – I’ve got one at every PC I use regularly now.robk on Aug 6, 2016 (source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12237788)
… I thought I’d have to change careers. This keyboard makes it possible for me to continue coding. …andrei_says_ on Aug 6, 2016 (source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12237788)
Other fans of the keyboard touched on some of the downsides too, including learning curve and difficulty returning to normal keyboards:
My experience with remapping my mind to the Advantage2 keyboard was that it took a week to be reasonably usable, and a month before I was back to my normal flow. All wrist pain gone. It is really nice to have many of your most used keys on your thumbs instead of your pinkies.idiracdelta on Aug 6, 2016 (source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12237788)
Kinesis keyboard is some of the best money I’ve spent on computing over the years. One downside: I now look like a moron when I go to type on a regular keyboard in a conference room or at someone else’s desk.sokoloff on Aug 6, 2016 (source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12237788)
Kinesis Freestyle Pro
This is a cheaper option than the Advantage2, while still delivering a quality ergonomic experience. Like the Advantage2, it features a split design, but instead does this as two fully detachable “halves” that can be separately positioned.
It lacks some of the more advanced features of the Advantage2 (i.e. concave keywells, thumb clusters, etc), but it is still a solid option that balances price with ergonomics.
Check it out here.
While in a comparable price range to the Kinesis Advantage2, this keyboard also receives a lot of love online and gets a lot right.
It features a fully detachable split design, heavy customisation options (arguably more than the Kinesis Advantage2), and an ortholinear layout.
It also has a certain “cool” factor, featuring a few different backlight options. Check it out here.
Dactyl keyboard (DIY 3D printing)
For the DIY enthusiasts out there, the Dactyl keyboard is a very interesting one to check out and could prove a cheaper option (if more time-consuming). It is basically a split design ergonomic keyboard that can be 3D printed!
The necessary 3D model files and construction methodology are open sourced, so anyone with access to a 3D printer (and a few other materials) can produce one of these. See the github repository here.
The Dactyl is fairly similar to the Kinesis Advantage2 in terms of design, although like the other alternatives it uses a fully detached split.
For a fantastic article on the process of building one of these, check this page out.
The Kinesis Advantage2, while not the cheapest or easiest to learn keyboard out there, has been one of the best investments for me personally when it comes to addressing my RSI issues. Many other users online have reported a similar experience.
If you’re suffering from wrist discomfort or tingling, I would definitely recommend considering this keyboard. Again, this is just based off my experience — I’m not a medical specialist, so don’t take this is as medical advice! It’s also important to remember that no keyboard by itself is a silver bullet and other measures should also be taken as well.
If you’re not dealing with any discomfort or RSI issues, this keyboard may potentially be overkill. That said, prevention is much better than a cure, so if you’re concerned about keeping your hands healthy — this could be a great preventative tool.