Product Review: Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard

(Note: The original review is below, but I’m adding this addendum because I’ve started using the Kinesis Advantage as my primary keyboard. Regular keyboards now feel cramped and uncomfortable for extended use, and although my review is mostly positive, over time the Advantage has received the greatest accolade of all: it’s the keyboard I prefer to use.)

Two kinds of people are likely to want the Kinesis Advantage Keyboard: efficiency freaks and repetitive stress injury (RSI) sufferers. The Advantage is an unusual beast that promises a better keyboarding experience than conventional, flat keyboards. Does it? I firmly answer maybe, although enough people swear by them to make me think that, if nothing else, those with wrist pain or repetitive stress injuries benefit from the placebo effect if nothing else. There are two major barriers to using the keyboard: the first is retraining, which can be overcome relatively quickly. The second is the $300 retail price.

Still, once one adapts, typing becomes fun, like learning a secret. The Advantage’s curves remind one of advanced spaceship controls from a science fiction movie, as this manufacturer-provided picture demonstrates:

The Advantage; this image was provided by Kinesis.

The Advantage.

Initial impressions and adjustments

I learned to touch type in sixth grade using Mavis Beacon teaches typing and remember the many frustrating hours spent struggling to learn while knowing that process would pay off. The Advantage makes you a beginner again, although learning was considerably easier than last time and the user’s manual wisely states that “Many new users of Kinesis contoured keyboards believe it will be difficult to adapt.”

It’s not hard, but it will take at least an hour of practice before you become proficient enough to use the keyboard regularly. For the first few days, my words per minute dropped precipitously. Yet I also discovered new things about the way I type, like that I tend to use my left index finger to hit “c.” This is a major problem on the Kinesis advantage because it’s virtually impossible to touch type and still use the index finger for that key. Even now, about half the time I come to a word with “c” in it, I get a “v,” instead; in this sentence, for example, I first wrote “vome.” A friend who tried the Kinesis didn’t have that problem, however, so it’s probably an issue unique to me.

The instincts of so many years of typing on standard keyboards are not broken in a week. This isn’t surprising given how long they’ve been ingrained. But an evening of steady practice was enough to become more or less proficient in everything except the aforementioned “c” key, which is located in a deep well where I couldn’t reach until I developed the necessary muscle memory through practice. By the start of week two, however, I was quite fast. Now I write this on my usual Unicomp Customizer and my hands feel strangely cramped, as if my fingers are constantly running into one another and I’m forced to use too small a space. This might simply show the power of adaptation and familiarity—themes I’ll return to later.

One nice feature of the Advantage is obvious from the start: Macs are first-class citizens out of the box, and no keyboard remapping is needed. As described below, a properly labeled command key is even included.


The Advantage forces you to have better ergonomic posture; it’s hard at first, then it gets easier as time goes on. One’s forearms are almost forced to rest on the arm’s of a well-adjusted chair. One’s hands are spread wide, and the thumbs don’t arch as they naturally do on a standard regular keyboard. The thumbs are also used for a wider array of tasks, since the backspace, enter, and regular space characters are also driven by the thumbs. This distributes the keyboard load across one’s fingers.

The major downside of this “spread” keyboard design is that I found it difficult to reach some keys, including page up, page down, hyphen, and equals. Perhaps not coincidentally, they’re also keys I use more rarely than major keys, so I might simply have needed more time. Some key combinations, like the one for an em-dash, were a major pain at first. This is especially surprising because I’m a tall person with relatively big hands; women with small hands might find reaching some keys more difficult than me.

I also found it easier to sit with a straight back while using the Advantage. This might have been easier for me because I use a Humanscale keyboard tray that’s infinitely adjustable within about a six inch range, making finding the right level for the keyboard easy.

Tactile feel

As discussed in my post on More words of advice for the writer of a negative review, it’s hard to disentangle familiarity from genuine superiority; for example, some of Malcolm Gladwell’s work regarding the initial reaction to the Herman Miller Aeron Chair and the well-known negative response to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring are reactions to things that are novel rather than bad. That being said, I still prefer the buckling springs that give the Unicomp Customizer and IBM Model Ms their bounce and unique feel.

Still, the Kinesis uses very nice Cherry MX Brown keyboard switches, which offer tactile feel superior to cheap keyboards that use rubber dome switches (the linked article explains more about what this means):

The tool used to remove keycaps is at the upper right; putting Mac-labeled keys on was easy.

The tool used to remove keycaps is at the upper right; putting Mac-labeled keys on was easy.

(Notice too the plastic device on the keyboard: that’s a key swapper included in the package, which allows one to immediately put a “command” key appropriate for Macs on the board. That’s a considerable improvement over Unicomp, which requires that one call to receive the appropriate caps.)

The Cherry switches are also considerably quieter than buckling springs, making the Advantage usable in group working environments. Attempting to use a Customizer for extended periods of time with others in the room probably won’t result in those others using the keyboard to forcefully silence its owner.

Overall, the Advantage has excellent keys.

Warning for programmers

In the default configuration, the brackets—[ and ]— and curly brackets—{ and }—are located in difficult-to-reach spots on the lower right side of the keyboard, necessitating a long stretch of the fingers. As such, almost anyone who does a fair amount of coding will want to remap the keyboard to make those keys easier to reach.


In the weeks I used mine, I saw no change in the keyboard. Although it’s made of plastic and not nearly as heavy as the Customizer, the Advantage feels sturdier than most original equipment manufacturer (OEM) keyboards. If any readers have used an Advantage for an extended period of time and would like to leave comments about their long-term durability, please do so.

Do repetitive stress injuries from keyboard usage actually exist? …

In a discussion about an article called “The World’s Greatest Keyboard,” some posters at Hacker News cited impressive evidence against RSI as being real; for example, one linked to John Sarno’s The Mind-Body Prescription, including this document summarizing his work. Another poster said that “There was a majority physical component [to his RSI problems] — actually using the mouse was much, much more painful — but there was also a psychological component. I suspect that this was anticipatory tension or somesuch, similar to a flinch response.” Another poster cited this series of posts about curing himself of RSI problems through psychology modification. There were also recommendations for this Trigger Point Therapy Workbook.

Given that testimony, as well as those who say the Advantage alleviated their pain problems, I’m not sure what to believe. I recall reading about studies that have found improved productivity among office workers when researchers increased or decreased lighting, or when researchers raise or lower temperatures. The theory is that workers aren’t necessarily more productive in higher or lower temperatures, but rather that they subconsciously respond to changes that show management is paying attention to them. By the same token, people with RSI problems might respond to keyboards like the Kinesis Advantage chiefly because they think that it will help them and because they have read accounts like the ones on Hacker News that claim improvement. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: just because something happens in your head thanks to belief doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

… And assuming RSI injuries exist, will the Advantage fix them?

The existing research on the Kinesis Advantage is positive, but I’m not sure that any of the study designs I’ve found eliminate the placebo effect. For example, An evaluation of the ergonomics of three computer keyboards (2000) finds that “fixed” designs” like the Microsoft contoured keyboard “promoted a more natural hand position.” But the conclusion states that “the FIXED design has the potential to improve hand posture and thereby reduce the risk of developing cumulative trauma disorders of the wrist due to keyboard use.” Right. But does it actually improve such disorders? Tough call.

Another study, An ergonomic evaluation of the Kinesis ergonomic computer keyboard, found that:

Electromyographic data analysis showed that the resting posture on the Kinesis Ergonomic Computer Keyboard required significantly less activity to maintain than the resting posture on the standard keyboard for the flexor carpi ulnaris and the flexor digitorum sublimis. Furthermore, the Kinesis Ergonomic Computer Keyboard reduced the muscular activity required for typing in the flexor carpi ulnaris, the extensor digitorum communis. and the flexor digitorum sublimis.

Just because the Kinesis keyboards reduce stress on some body parts doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll automatically see a reduction in RSI issues. Both studies also come from the journal Ergonomics, which is still publishing, they appear to be reputable.

Another study, An assessment of alternate keyboards using finger motion, wrist motion and tendon travel (2000) is much more limited in scope and finds that Kinesis-style designs reduce tendon travel. But the “so what?” factor applies here too. “An assessment of alternate keyboards,” however, does not gender differences in the tendon travel, which is of interest because I still wonder if people with small hands would find it harder to type on the Advantage—perhaps the greater male tendon travel makes reaching unusual keys easier.

These studies do show, however, genuine differences in the physiology of keyboard usage. Consequently, people suffering from RSI issues should try the Advantage if they can afford it.

A word on price and productivity

No review can fail to mention the $300 price for an advantage. That’s obviously a lot of cash relative even to other high-quality keyboards. But compare the price of the keyboard to other good equipment: an Aeron chair is usually over $800, and a computer/monitor combo can still cost thousands. Relative to those kinds of price, the keyboard isn’t that expensive; as Dan Ariely demonstrates in Predictably Irrational, what we think of as a “reasonable” price very much depends on the anchors to which we compare. With anchor prices of $10 – $20 lousy rubber dome keyboards from major office supply chains as our point of comparison, we’re anchored to the wrong point.

A keyboard like an advantage or Customizer can easily make up for loss productivity if people are suffering from RSI injuries. A top programmer, consultant or lawyer might be worth hundreds of dollars an hour; not being able to work optimally because of keyboard design could cost vastly more than the keyboard itself and the retraining time necessary. Lisp hacker Bill Clementson raves about his Advantage, for example.

The treatment alternatives for RSI, like physical therapy, are also expensive, and far more expensive in both time and money terms than $300. For such people, the Advantage isn’t just cheaper in dollar terms—it could practically be a bargain.

In the introduction, I mentioned that efficiency freaks might find the Advantage faster because might be possible to type faster on an Advantage than on a traditional keyboard. Unfortunately, I can’t gauge whether this is true based on my experiences so far: by the end of the review period, I still typed slower than I had previously. Mistakes are a large part of my present slowness, especially when I’m hitting arrow keys along with backspace and/or return. Typing speed usually isn’t that important to me, however: I already type in the 50 word per minute range but think considerably slower. The track might let a train go 200 miles per hour, but if the train only goes 40, who needs the quality tracks?

That being said, if I were able to type for longer periods of time without hand fatigue, or if I were able to type with consistently fewer errors than I would on a normal keyboard, the price of an Advantage would quickly become irrelevant. But just learning whether that’s possible would take far longer than a few weeks.

Final thoughts

Despite its name, the Advantage is clearly going to be a minority taste. It’s hard to imagine many people choosing it unless they’re already experiencing fairly serious carpal tunnel or other problems. Although one can begin to touch type relatively quickly, even after a few weeks sometimes hit the arrow keys when I mean to hit letters on the bottom left of the keyboard, or vice-versa. The length of time necessary to become a fast typist again means that most will never try to make the investment because it probably won’t be worthwhile for them.

Still, enough people find the Advantage of value to keep Kinesis in business: the user manual says that Kinesis keyboards have been used commercially since 1992. In addition, the back of the Advantage says it was assembled in the United States, which is an impressive feat even among expensive products. If I did suffer from RSI problems, I would certainly try a Kinesis Advantage, although I might buy it from eBay rather than directly from a store: as of this writing, a few are available, all for less than $200. If you use a keyboard for eight hours a day almost every day, the price of retraining becomes incidental relative to the importance of being able to work comfortably.

The ultimate test of a keyboard is whether one chooses to use it on a day-to-day basis. In my case, I’m going back to the Customizer for the time being. But if I had the $300 handy, I’d probably be ordering one to see what happens after a couple months, rather than weeks, of usage. The promise of greater efficiency is a strong lure for me, but not strong enough to part me from the Customizer.


EDIT: I wrote a long post on what I think of the the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Space Saver, and Das Keyboard two years later.

EDIT 2: There’s a worthwhile Hacker News discussion into the Advantage, among other things; sometimes HN will generate thousands of visitors who leave virtually no comments, because they comment on HN itself. Anyway, the top two comments say the Kinesis Advantage is quite durable, and both report that they’ve keyboards for more than ten years. One says Kinesis will repair keyboards that have been caught “drinking” soda. Taken together, they allay the longevity worry, especially if Kinesis offers service. It would be a major bummer to have to re-buy a $300 keyboard every five years because it broke, but it sounds like $300 also buys you high-quality keys that can take a lot of clacking.

EDIT 3: As of May 2014, I’m still using the Kinesis Advantage I bought in 2009. I did clean the entire board a couple months ago. I can still use normal keyboards but prefer not to. By far the most interesting recent keyboard release is the CODE Keyboard, which uses much quieter switches than the IBM Model-M-style keyboards. I have one that I use for business-related phone calls. In order of preference I like:

1. The Kinesis Advantage;

2. The Unicomp Ultra Classic (this one is too loud to use when others are around, and I’ll also note that Unicomp re-named the board I originally reviewed);

3. The CODE Keyboard (which is quiet while still being very good).

Note: The review unit was provided by Kinesis and returned to the manufacturer after this review was written.

28 responses

  1. I’ve been using Kinesis keyboards for some 12+ years, and I love them. It took me a few weeks before I was typing as fast or faster on my Kinesis keyboard as on the previous one. But, since then, I’ve used some variant of the keyboard across 4 jobs (and purchased my own when an employer wouldn’t buy one for me). Really did help my tendonitis / RSI symptoms.

    Downsides are the bracket keys are in an odd place and that there isn’t a separate numeric keypad. A pro and con is that IT has problems if they need to do something on my computer.


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  3. Kinesis does a great job with ergonomics. They make several different keyboards, all of the ergonomic variety. While this is a popular keyboard and well worth the money, it may be a little on the pricey side for some. They make a split keyboard called the Freestyle Solo, available here from a Kinesis reseller, It is a split keyboard with many different accessory kits available so you can adjust it any way that you want. Also available through eBay and Amazon, this may appeal to the users needing an ergonomic alternative on a tighter budget. The best part of the Kinesis Freestyle Solo is that it is available in either format, Mac or PC.


    • I’ve been using the Kinesis Advantage since I was in college back in 94/95 when after so many long sessions coding my wrists were in agony and made sleep even difficult. It took a while to become proficient with it, but it made all of the difference in the world. Today I have two at home, two at the office, have destroyed a few due to too much food/coffee/etc getting in it, but I’ve not once regretted the cost of these keyboards.

      I’ve also recently tried the Freestyle Solo, and while it’s nice, to me it just doesn’t quite compare as far comfort goes. It is however much less expensive.

      And during a recent office change, I thought I’d just give a shot at a standard keyboard again, though I can type just as fine on a normal keyboard, there is a huge difference I feel after a long day at the keyboard and wouldn’t give up the Advantage for anything.

      My only wish is that they would make one for the Mac that has all of the special keys like the Freestyle. I loved that keyboard for all of the convenience buttons on it and there is plenty of space in the middle that they could add such.

      Anyhow, if you can afford it and want to relieve your wrist pain, I’d give it a shot. You will be frustrated at the beginning, it is quite different, but in the end your wrists will thank you.


  4. I’ve worked with them all, especially this year as my hands and fingers really started to hurt. I have little hands so stretching to reach keys is probably a part of the problem. I resisted this keyboard at first because I hate change; it slows me down. But now I’m thrilled to death with my Kinesis Advantage keyboard because my hands and fingers don’t hurt. I’m at work typing 45 hours a week, then I’m a student, then I screw around on the net. Can you say “too much time on the computer?” That’s me.

    Getting a keyboard and mouse that don’t create pain was a must and the $269 with free shipping,I paid from The Human SolutionKinesis Advantage Keyboard/a> was a bargain given how important working without pain is to my livelyhood.


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  6. I was having the beginnings of some RSI issues a few years ago and decided to switch to a Kinesis out of the blue. After the initial adaptation period, I’ve barely had any RSI-related issues since.

    It’s been about 4 years now and I really enjoy using the Kinesis. Whenever I switch jobs, I’ll definitely either get my new employer to purchase one or I’ll bring one with me. I’ve also noticed that I actually type faster on a Kinesis than on a normal keyboard (by about 10 WPM). Being a software developer, the [] and {} are kind of annoying, but I didn’t re-map them and they don’t cause me too many problems. It’s like you stated…where else are you really going to re-map them to anyway?

    By far the worst part about learning this new keyboard was the backspace/delete and space/enter keys on the thumbs and then the left/right arrows being on one side of the keyboard while the up/down arrows are on the other. Like all the other keys though, once you get used to them, it’s fine. Surprisingly, I can still use regular keyboards without a problem too (this isn’t like switching to DVORAK and then trying to use QWERTY).

    Durability-wise, I’ve been using the same keyboard for the past 4 years and I’ve never had a problem with it. Granted, it never leaves my desk, but I type on it for 7-8 hours a day, 5 days a week and it’s held up to everything. Even all the food & coffee I’ve spilled on it over the years haven’t stopped it.

    I half expected to hate this keyboard and I think I did at first, but after the first few months of re-training, I don’t think I’ll ever go back.


  7. The Kinesis Advantage keyboard saved my career from RSI. The cost of this keyboard is nothing compared to not working. I’ve use the keyboard for 4 years now and don’t use any other. I have one for home and one for work and use a Cirque touch-pad placed in-between the key wells as a mouse. This keyboard is in a league of its own. I’ve not had any major problems with it, except when one of the keys started misprinting. I called up Kinesis and they promptly shipped me a replacement keywell for free. I could have also sent in the keyboard to be fixed. They have a generous 2 year warranty and the tech support is excellent.


  8. I cannot agree with the comments on the “[]” and “{}” keys being hard to reach. Having an entire extra row of keys -IN- easy reach for the first time is long-overdue joy, and these contoured keyboards are about the only way to get this besides the english-industrial design of the Maltron. All the keys except for the function keys are a huge improvement in reachability over the joke that the PC-102 type keyboard has become. That being said, the arrow keys being split between hands is odd, and I’d prefer full-size function keys. Even with this though, it beats anything else I’ve seen so far, and my now-kinesis-wielding friends agree. :-) Nice gaming board too – if your game supports modifier keys (say, World of Warcraft), having control and alt on the thumbs really helps mashing the other keys more efficiently.

    Should Kinesis fix anything? Sure: full size function keys (although I basically never use function keys, so I don’t really care), and adding a few extra keys for expansion possibilities, especially in those spots under the shift keys.


  9. Like others, I’ve been using my Kinesis Advantage (MPC USB) for about 4-5 years, which makes me wonder if Kinesis did some very effective promoting back then. Where are the new uptakers?
    Durability: I agree. It’s well-made. Aside from an odd and unpredictable, occasional stuck key effect (‘xxxxxxxxx’ and so on, and who knows why) I’ve noticed no wear whatsoever. Even the wrist rests are holding up just fine. Kudos to a well-designed peripheral – and one worth the cost long-term. Like other keyboards, it includes a couple of USB ports.
    Programmability is excellent. Ordinary keys can be remapped to new functions (or swapped with each other or even made null). Function keys can be programmed to run macros. Incredible flexibility! With a nice utility like fastscripts (for mac), function buttons can run all manner of scripts too.

    Thumb keys is why I’ll never give up this keyboard. Thumb keys are productivity-empowering. For example, on my left I’ve remapped thumb keys to delete, to select text a word at a time; to alternate between apps (cmd-tab), and to toggle among windows in an app (cmd-tilde). Right side is the page up/down, enter and delete. It’s been so long I have no idea how the keyboard came originally programmed. It really works for me.

    Ergonomically, the keyboard was at first a bit too elevated for me. Those who sit appreciably above the optimal height (i.e., low keyboard height) will find the angle a bit uncomfortable. But that setup is bad practice anyway.
    Key action is reliable if a bit too long-throw for me. The intent is to keep from bottoming out, but I’d prefer actuation at an earlier moment all the same. I’ve even looked into swapping switches (a hassle). It’s worth noting that the ‘click’ can be activated or silenced.

    My quibbles remain the odd repetitive key issue already mentioned; the somewhat spongy function keys that require a double press on occasion to register; and the lack of a means to backup the keyboard map. It’s been suggested that I reset the keyboard to try to address the repetitive keystroke thing, but I’m scared to have to manually remap it. Like routers and macros, some things are better left alone.


  10. I have been using the Kinesis ergonomic keyboard (now called the Advantage, then called the Classic or Essential) since 1997, when I was typing constantly nearly 12 hours a day and developed some early RSI and tendinitis. The Kinesis eliminated that problem almost immediately.

    I think (for me, at least) the RSI problem is physical and not psychosomatic, because I switched at one point to a regular keyboard for a day or two and started getting wrist pain again… and it took me a few minutes to even remember the pain I’d had before the Kinesis.

    As for durability… I still have the original keyboard I bought in 1997, and even though I once dropped a fresh fruit and yogurt smoothie in the keyboard, Kinesis had me all fixed up for, I think, $35. I bought a second one in 2000, and both are still going strong.

    I couldn’t be happier. Their support has been excellent, their product rock solid even after 14 years. I’m glad they are still making a great product, apparently in the US, and providing great support to their customers. I also agree that typing on anything but my Kinesis is dismal given how comfortable I’ve become on the kinesis.


  11. To put the Kinesis price tag further into perspective, Maltron’s version of the contoured keyboard costs $600-$800 – more than twice the $300 or so that you’ll pay for a new Kinesis. Then again, Maltron’s keyboard also has proper full-sized function keys, something programmers who have negotiated the tiny, squishy F-keys of a Kinesis Advantage might really appreciate.

    I wrote further about these function keys in my own Kinesis Advantage review on my blog.


  12. Kinesis really do produce some great Ergonomic Keyboards. I use the freestyle a love it. They also now sell and ergonomic mouse called the DXT Ergonomic Mouse which looks cool. Has anyone used it?


    • I haven’t. I’m using an Evoluent vertical mouse, which I like less and less as time goes on. The top of it makes me “pinch” in such a way that I don’t think is a great improvement over a regular mouse. Haven’t tried the Kinesis version, and for $100 I don’t think I’m likely to. I’ve seen people with track ball mice and that sort of thing, which might also be appealing.

      I use the keyboard far more than the mouse, so I think the keyboard is the low-hanging fruit, so to speak.


      • I know where you’re coming from on the Evoluent vertical mouse. Some ergonomic folks absolutely rant against it, going so far as to say it causes RSI. As I said in my Evoluent mouse review, I think there’s one point on which everyone – even the most confirmed Evoluent critics – would agree: The Evoluent vertical mouse is a vast improvement on the piece of junk that comes with most computers. A standard mouse seems almost designed to cause problems!

        Have you tried the Handshoe Mouse? I was quite impressed with it during the review period, though it wasn’t precise enough to lure me away from my Contour Design Perfit mouse.


      • I use the 3M Ergonomic Mouse, and have for years–as long as I’ve used the Kinetic Advantage keyboard. Calling it a mouse is almost silly–it looks more like a joystick, though it moves around the desk like a mouse. My employer bought it and the keyboard on the recommendation of my primary care doctor when I was having some severe elbow pain which was thought to be RSI. It’s funny, we all think of RSI from keyboard use as wrist related, but it’s just as common for the pain to be in the elbow.


  13. If you are a serious emacs user, this keyboard is superb. I mapped the ctrl key to be under my left thumb, and made the alt (meta) key sticky. No more difficult stretches.

    I have two Kinesis keyboards, one at home and one at work. One I have had for over a decade and I have never had a problem with it. I agree that better function keys would be nice, but the Kinesis as currently built is an indispensible piece of equipment, IMO


    • My only problem is that very occasionally I get a ghost “a” when typing fast. It’s rare enough that I ignore the problem but frequent enough that I’ve noticed it and ascertained that it’s not me hitting “a” by accident.


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