Kinesis Advantage 2 - 30 days later

TL;DR: I spent 400 bucks on an obscure keyboard that forced me to learn how to type again. This post is a summary of how that is going, after 30 days of continuous use.

I’m a sucker for bad ideas, especially when attempting to fix an issue that could be fixed significantly easier, but in a less “cool” way. Specifically, in this case, the issue is pain in my hands and wrists when typing a lot, and the solution (or my attempt at one) is getting myself a Kinesis Advantage 2 for around 400 Euros.

If you are not that familiar with keyboards, especially obscure ones, you might never have heard of this thing. It’s an ergonomic keyboard, designed to reduce the strain on your hands when typing a lot and for prolonged amounts of time - which, coincidentally, is pretty much exactly what I do for a living.

However, while there are a lot of different keyboards whose design is focused on ergonomics, there are several not-even-remotely-subtle differences that distinguish the Advantage 2 from most other keyboards currently available on the market. And no, not (just) the price tag.

In fact I’d say the design is quite unique. The keys, which are arranged in vertical columns (rather than staggered ones), reside in concave keywells. That means that they are scooped into a bowl shape, with the keywells themselves being tented by 20 degrees. All of that sounds complicated, but is nothing more than a fancy way of saying that the keyboard tries to ensure that your hands are positioned as close to their natural position as possible.

That also means that the keyboard looks quite exotic, and comes with a definite learning curve, because most of the keys are positioned in a way that’s off enough from the layout your hands are most likely used to in order to ensure your muscle memory is next to worthless. Some of the keys, such as Backspace or Space, are situated at a completely different position than they would be on a “regular” keyboard.

Since my description probably sounds way too chaotic for anyone to be able to draw a picture in their head, here is a snapshot of the Advantage 2 ripped straight from the website of the manufacturer:

Official product picture of the Kinesis Advantage 2

I’m not going to lie to you, the first couple of days were really, really rough. I don’t remember it accurately, but the first time I have consciously touched a keyboard must have been around 1997. That means I have typed on “traditional” keyboards for close to 30 years, which is a long time for muscle memory to build itself.

Especially the first few hours were torturous, having to watch myself struggling to type short answers to chat messages from coworkers. I’m so glad that I didn’t have to respond to any emails the day the keyboard arrived, because that would have been an amount of suffering I don’t even want to imagine.

However: Things quickly improved. Looking back I’d say that it took me a couple of days of typing to get up to a reasonable speed that didn’t make me hate writing anymore. From then on I didn’t have to use up willpower for typing anymore, which greatly helped with training.

I’m not fully at my previous typing speed yet, and while my error rate has improved drastically, I’m still more error prone then I was before. But, given the previously mentioned close to 30 years of typing on “regular” keyboards, the improvements happened a lot more and a lot faster than I anticipated.

For the initial couple of days I did not notice any change in strain on my hands when typing. However it did feel like my hands and lower arms were generally a bit tired, which I attribute to not typing naturally, relaxed and without thinking about it, but rather more tense and intentional. That eventually changed towards the end of my first month with the keyboard. My hands and arms still feel a bit weird occasionally, but I’m relatively convinced that this is a physical thing rather than a physiological issue.

The tiredness has vanished entirely, and I’m starting to notice a difference. Especially when typing for longer amounts of time, my hands don’t get tired anymore, and I also don’t feel any discomfort. Quite the opposite, it feels like I’m easing into a flow-like state when writing, which is cool. And probably one of the reasons why my posts on this site are getting longer than before. Apologies, dear readers.

What was noticeable straight away was how the way I was using my computer changed drastically. I have been trying to rely solely on my keyboard as much as possible before getting the Advantage 2. The reason for that being none of the notions passed around on messageboards, about how abandoning the mouse would improve ones productivity or anything like that.

The reason was simple ergonomics, the less strain I put on my hands (especially once they have found a comfortable position on the keyboard), the better. And while GNOME is thankfully pretty gracious when it comes to being managed via keyboard, and even though I have a Firefox-AddOn installed that allows me to use vim-keybindings while browsing the web, I relied on my mouse almost as much as before attempting to use it less.

While my initial attempts of not lifting my hands off the keyboard were mostly forced, because I wanted to keep typing in order to get better at it, it soon became “natural”, in the sense that I felt a slight irritation whenever I was forced to lift my hands and use the mouse for a second. Looking at you, weird websites with unnecessary amounts of broken Javascript on them.

I don’t know what caused this change, but it’s surely a welcome one. Similarly, whenever I have to use another keyboard now, it feels “off”. And not just because my hands miss keys or because I make errors when typing fast, but because using the Advantage 2 made me realize how most keyboards, especially laptop ones, are physically the exact opposite of intuitive. I don’t know if it’s enlightenment or the zeal of the convert, but I have developed a disdain for laptop keyboards I definitely did not have before.

There aren’t any obvious issues that I have ran into so far, no fundamental incompatibilities between me and the device. Other than that it feels a bit too early for me to really talk about potential downsides, since I am definitely still in the learning phase.

There aren’t any obvious issues that I have ran into so far, in the sense that there aren’t any fundamental incompatibilities between my hands in this keyboard. There is one thing that I feel “meh” about, but I’m willing to postpone my final judgement until later in the year, because I consider it to be more than likely that these things aren’t the fault of the keyboard. Instead, chances are that I’m making a mistake using it correctly.

I use the default QWERTY-layout. As interesting as it might have been to try out Dvorak, which the Advantage 2 supports, I would probably have been committed to the psych ward if I would have done those two things to my brain and muscles at the same time.

(I suspect that) Because of this some keyboard shortcuts and character keys feel awkward and uncomfortable. Alt+Tab is the obvious candidate. Switching between windows on my GNOME-powered laptop requires my left hand to be stretched completely in order for my thumb to reach Alt, and for my pink to reach Tab.

Even worse to me is the backtick. I can either move my left thumb uncomfortably to the left, or my left ring finger in a way that also feels wrong. But since the latter feels wrong, but not uncomfortable, I suspect it’s my habits interfering again.

There are a further two things that are, in some sense of the word, “downsides”:

  • My model came with a “click tone” enabled, which mean that every time I pressed any key, the keyboard emanated a sound similar to clicking a mouse button. The feature is easily disabled by pressing F8 while holding the Progrm-button, so it’s not a big issue. But still .. why does this feature exist? The Advantage 2 has Cherry MX-switches, so it’s unlikely that I would accidentally press a button without noticing it.
  • I have to take my keyboard to the office when I’m not working from home. Which is obviously not the fault of the keyboard, but it’s still annoying. Not working from home permanently is one of the main reasons that I haven’t looked into the Kinesis Savant Elite2 Foot Pedals more closely. I like the idea of using my feet as well, but it doesn’t make sense to build a workflow around a setup that I’m not using all the time.

I haven’t touched any of the advanced features (such as the macro tools) so far because I wanted to become reasonably comfortable with and proficient at using the keyboard in the default state before unnecessarily complicating things for me (again).

My plan is to post an update post in a month or two, and then another one in about a year. I’m curious to see how my typing experience and habits have (hopefully) improved by then.

So far I’m cautiously positive that this very expensive experiment is going to work out. And if all else fails, at least I now own a keyboard that definitely none of my current coworkers will ask to borrow at some point. That has to be worth something. Although admittedly not 400 bucks, but we are not going to talk about that.