the Kinesis Contoured Keyboard review

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Kinesis Contoured Keyboard Review and RSI

Xah Lee, 2006-06, 2010-06-12

A excellent, ergonomically designed keyboard is the Kinesis's Contoured Keyboard.

Kinesis Contoured keyboard

The Kinesis contoured keyboard. Source

Design Advantages

There are several quality designs that went into this keyboard. I explain each item below.

Palm Higher Than Finger Tips

Note the bowl shaped surface. When your hands rest on the keyboard, your wrists don't bend up. Your fingers naturally dip in and rest on the keys.

The Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, introduced in 2005, used the same ergonomic prinpiple, by tilting the palm side of the keyboard higher.

Key Columns Not Jagged

Note that key columns (e.g. 1QAZ, 2WSX, 3EDC...) are layed out straight, so that your fingers moves in a straight line, not slanted as in conventional keyboards.

The reason traditional keyboards have jagged columns, probably because the design are inherited from mechanical typewriters. Mechanical typewriters has the jagged columns, probably because it is a compromised design to keep the typewriter's mechanics simple, yet have some benefits of a split and angled keyboard. More specifically, typewriters inventors might have thought about split the typing area into 2 angled sections that makes a inverted V shape to suit the natural position of the hands, but such design would complicate the mechanics, so a compromise is to have a single rectangular layout but with the rows jagged, so as to emulate some aspect of the inverted V of a split keyboard.

Kinesis keyboard thumb keys

Thumb For Modifier Keys

Note that the modifier keys and other major keys such as space, enter, delete, shift, control etc are under the most powerful finger the thumb.

The Backspace key is the most frequently used key, yet on a conventional keyboard it is situated at the far upper right corner. Again, the reason for this is probably due to the need for mechanical simplicity at the time. (Also note, when something is just invented, aspects of secondary details cannot be the center of focus. The energy that go into the design of typewriters (or any invention) must necessarily be spend on making it practically work. Consideration of key layout, ergonomics, can only be later development. (The ergonomic consideration of keyboarding only began with computer keyboards, which is some 30 or 50 years after typewriters are in popular use.))

The modifier keys for today's computer keyboards such as the Ctrl, Alt, the Windows key, are aligned on the lower left and right corners of the keyboard. Effectively, only the Alt modifier is easy to use as it is right under the thumb. The Windows key, requires the thumb to curve far inward to press it. The Ctrl key, cannot be press comfortably using a finger. (A technique of pressing the Ctrl key is to use the palm)

The Kinesis keyboard solved this problem by moving these modifier keys right under one of the most powerful finger the thumb. So, moving the thumb to various positions, the user can hold down any of the modifier key, and other fingers of either hand can easily press the other keys to be modified with.

Layout

Here's the detailed layout diagram.

Kinesis-keyboard layout

Kinesis layout diagram. image source

Note that in newer models, the Ctrl is now the Windows Logo key, while one of the Alt or Alt Gr is Ctrl. Though, the function of these keys can be re-assigned or swapped.

Problems

The function keys F1 to F12 are made of rubber. Instead of normal key with good tactile sensation, now becomes rubbish. Hard to press and hard to know if it registered. For detail about this problem, see: Keyboard Shortcut Design: Dedicated keys, Special Buttons, Extra Keys.

The arrangement of F keys is now a contiguous row, instead of 3 blocks of 4 keys each. The left row has F1 to F8. The contiguous design makes it difficult to find the key without looking at the keyboard, especially for keys in the middle of the row, like f3, f4, f5.

The Esc key is now part of the rubber key in the F key row. The Esc key is important in many applications. Now it being a special rubber key, makes it very bad.

Possibly hard to reach Ctrl and Alt keys. If you use key combo extensively, such as in Emacs, Second Life, Blender, that requires a lot combination keypresses such as “Ctrl+‹letter›” and “Alt+‹letter›”, “Ctrl+Alt+‹letter›”, “Ctrl+Shift+‹letter›”, and even “Ctrl+Alt+Shift+‹letter›”, they are much difficult with Kinesis than a popular Microsoft ergonomic keyboard.

Also, many of 3D modeling app require using the mouse while a combination of Alt, Ctrl, Shift is held down. It may be any 2 of them or all of them. This will be difficult with Kinesis.

Not enough keys. For a programable keyboard, it should have a lot special keys that people can assign them for dedicated purposes. F1 to F12 is not enough. They are often already used up by key-intensive applications such as emacs, 3D modeling apps.

The bowl shaped surface makes it difficult for casual use of the keyboard. Even for a touch typist, you are not always in a typing intesive situation. Sometimes you are watching a movie on your computer, or just need to press a few keys while reading in a browser. The Kinesis requires you to put both of your hands in position if you just want to press a few keys.

I've been a admirer of the Kinesis ever since i saw it around 1991 in a store and have been kept reading about it over the years on the web. I particularly find many of the improvements to the standard keyboard fantastic. I've always been wanting to have one, but due to the high price ($250), i never did. However, today, with my analysis above, i'm guessing that i wouldn't find this keyboard to be my best keyboard even if is just $50, due to the several problems above.

I'm certain i'd prefer my current and all-time favorite The Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000.

I'm also a heavy emacs user for the past 10 years. If you have RSI problem, i recommend using a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard, learn the Dvorak Layout, and use ErgoEmacs Keybinding in emacs.

Misc

This guy Tim Tyler, modified his Kinesis extensively. http://mykeyboard.co.uk/kinesis/

Bill Clementson, a long time lisp programer and emacs user, developed RSI, and got Kinesis, wrote several blog articles about the keyboard in 2006. See his blog at: bc.tech.coop.

Alex Schroeder, best known as the one who started emacswiki.org, also developed RSI. He now uses Kinesis. You can find some discussion about RSI here: emacswiki.org RepeatedStrainInjury. On tips of Kinesis + emacs, see: emacswiki.org KinesisKeyboard.

Jamie Zawinski, main developer of Netscape browser, and famously known for as the one to blame for the Emacs/Xemacs schism, also developed RSI. He wrote a lot about his experiences in several places. He did not like Kinesis. See: http://www.jwz.org/gruntle/wrists.html.

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