Further thoughts on the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Space Saver, and Das Keyboard—two years later

The series of reviews I wrote in my search for the perfect keyboard continue to rack up dozens or hundreds of hits per week; the most extensive posts cover the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Customizer / Space Saver, and the Das Keyboard. The Unicomp review in particular has become a repository for thoughts on the keyboard, with 60 comments so far and new ones popping up regularly.

By now I’ve spent two years using the Advantage as my primary keyboard, and since then people have e-mailed me an array of questions about it. The latest comes from a guy who is curious about how it compares to the Das Keyboard, especially regarding the key switches, and whether his size (at more than 6’7 “) might make the keyboard impractical.

The keys on the Kinesis Advantage are “Cherry Brown” switches, and those on the Das Keyboard are “Cherry Blue” switches (if you didn’t see the Das Keyboard Review, look now, especially at the video). There’s some difference between the Browns and Blues, but I think if you gave me the Coke-Pepsi challenge by blind-folding me, putting a keyboard with Browns under my fingers and then swapping it for an identical one with Blues, I doubt I’d care. They’re a distinction without a difference.

If you said, “Here’s a Kinesis Advantage with Model M-style buckling springs,” I’d take it. But the difference between the buckling springs and Cherry switches is slight at this level of quality. It’s like the Nikon, Canon, and Sony camera aficionados duking it out over recent DSLRs. The differences between Canon’s Rebels and the Nikon’s  consumer “D” series cameras are marginal. Most people wouldn’t notice. And since most pictures are being shrunk for Flickr or Facebook anyway, the importance of marginal quality improvements declines further.

I’ve used the Advantage close to every day for years, and I can’t see or feel any difference in the keys over time. Most normal keyboards, like the ones that ship with generic desktop computers, get “sticky” or otherwise problematic after a lot of use. This one doesn’t. Searching Google for “Kinesis Advantage Longevity” and similar strings (like durability) doesn’t bring up any horror stories. The Advantage doesn’t have the extreme reputation that IBM Model Ms have, but Kinesis also hasn’t been making them since the 1980s and the Advantage is, by its cost and the commitment necessary to retrain yourself, a much more niche product.

I’m not as tall as you, but I am about 6’1″, and I don’t think you’re likely to have problems with the Kinesis because of the size. Maybe if you have Shaq-size hands you might need or want larger keys, but that’s a niche case. My elbows aren’t turned in at all when I use the Advantage; yours might have to slightly, if you’ve got especially broad shoulders, but again, I don’t think the effect will be too pronounced. I’ve also seen women as short as 5’4″ use the keyboard (note: this is not a euphemism) without any obvious ergonomic problems.

One other point: if you’re having trouble with your wrists, make sure that you’ve got a desk / chair combination that lets you leave your elbows at a 90 degree angle. The top of the screen should be at your eye level. I have three books stuck under my iMac, lifting the screen to the desire height, and a Humanscale Keyboard tray to accomplish this. If you’re using a laptop and it spends most of its life in one place, try to get an external monitor, and get the external monitor at the desired height, or buy a laptop stand (the Griffin Elevator is popular). This might not be practical or might be too expensive, depending on where you work, but if you can do it you’ll have a better overall experience. Just adjusting the height of your monitor and chair might do more for you than a very expensive keyboard.

EDIT: There’s a worthwhile Hacker News discussion about this post; 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 people 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.

Product Review: Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional

The main question about the Das Keyboard Professional Model “S” is not whether it’s a very nice keyboard: let me get that out of the way by saying it is. The keys are precise and smooth, and the amount of force necessary to generate a letter is far more appropriate than the standard keyboards shipped with most computers.

Instead, the main question is whether the Das Keyboard is substantively better than the Unicomp Customizer and Space Saver, both of which use the time-tested IBM Model M design and manufacturing equipment. The answer is probably “no,” especially when one considers their relative cost: as of this writing, the Unicomp keyboards are $69 and made in the United States, while Das Keyboards are $129 and made in Taiwan.*

First impressions

The slim keyboard and its housing:

das_keyboard_model_s_1

As shown, the Das Keyboard is black and unadorned by anything save a “daskeyboard” logo in the upper right. The keys are matte black with white letters etched in by laser—a nice touch—while the borders are glossy and probably prone to fingerprints and smudging over time. The attractive minimalist design makes the keyboard look like part of a set when placed next an iMac and Aeron, as though it were designed to complement them.

The chief drawback aesthetically and practically is the split USB cord:

das_keyboard_split

das_keyboard_3

Not surprisingly, a picture like this one doesn’t appear on the Das Keyboard website. It’s reminiscent of the Matias Tactile Pro 2, and not in a positive way.

But the Das Keyboard does have two USB ports on the side, which is a useful feature the Customizer lacks. To me extra USB ports don’t make much difference: I taped a four-port, powered USB hub to the bottom of my desk, and that’s where I plug in peripherals, my printer, and an iPhone cord. The hub cost $10.

The keys

Each stroke brings a satisfying but muted clack. I like typing on the Das Keyboard. Its keys don’t travel quite as far as the Customizer or Space Saver’s, and it’s also easier to bottom out because one doesn’t have the curious resistance that a buckling spring provides, as described here:

The most widely produced buckling-spring keyswitch keyboard is the IBM model M keyboard. When pressing an individual key, the operator is physically applying increasing force (approximately 60-70 grams of force) against a coiled spring. The spring provides slight resistance, so that you can rest your fingers on the keyboard and not cause an accidental or inadvertent key press. Once the key travels a particular distance (approx. 2.5 – 3.5mm), the spring reaches the “catastrophic buckling” point and produces an audible click at the same exact instance that the computer records the keystroke.

With the Das Keyboard, you can still rest your fingers on the keys, but when typing you won’t have the catastrophic buckling that prevents bottoming out. Consequently, the Das Keyboard has a slightly harsher feel than the Customizer or Space Saver. It seems to take approximately the same amount of force to generate a keystroke, but that’s based solely on feel rather than on testing. There might be an objective difference between the two, but if so, it’s not great.

The key switches themselves appear to Cherry MX Blues, which are explained in greater detail at the link and in this Hot Hardware essay.

das_keyboard_cherry_mx_blue

These switches are louder, though not enormously so, than the Cherry MX “Brown” switches in the Kinesis Advantage Ergonomic Keyboard or the Majestouch Tenkeyless Keyboard. You could use the Kinesis Advantage or Majestouch Tenkeyless keyboard in a dorm or office without offending those in the same room, but the Das Keyboard is probably too loud for those environments. I assume the “silent” version uses Cherry MX “Brown” switches that are quieter and also appropriate for group settings. To get a sense of how loud each keyboard is, check out this video, which compares the Advantage, Customizer, and Das Keyboard:

What do all these models mean?

If you’ve visited the Das Keyboard website, you’re probably aware that you can buy four models: the “Original Das Keyboard Professional, “Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional,” which I am reviewing, the “Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional Silent,” and the “Das Keyboard Model “S” Ultimate.”

Here’s how the somewhat confusing nomenclature and model numbers work: A Das Keyboard “Professional” means there are letters on the keyboard, like mine; not having any letters doesn’t seem to confer any benefit aside from sheer geek street cred, about which I care less than practicality. A Das Keyboard “Ultimate” is identical to the “Professional” except that it’s blank. The Das Keyboard “Silent” is quieter, presumably due to using Cherry MX “Brown” switches like those mentioned above.

The Original Das Keyboard Professional lacks media function keys, has only a single USB connector, isn’t compatible with KVM switches, and doesn’t have “Full n-key rollover,” which means that if you mash, say, six keys at once, the keyboard might not register all of them. The last feature is apparently useful for gaming.

The differences between the “Original” and “Model S” are marginal and not very important. I’d probably take the original.

Mac support

The Das Keyboard supports OS X and Linux as well as Windows. A set of Mac- and Linux-friendly keycaps goes for $14.95, which is comparable to Unicomp’s cost for OS-specific keys. You’ll have to swap the Option and Command key in OS X’s system preferences, as described here.

A strange problem

Edit Nov. 12 2009: Thomas Aitchison of Das Keyboard sent me an e-mail saying that the problem I described below is a known bug and that the company is recalling the keyboards in the affected serial number range, so this probably no longer applies.

Every couple hours, a key would stop working. The first time it was the “e:” I typed “swt” instead of “sweet” in TextMate. The same thing happened in Word and Mellel. But when I plugged the keyboard into my MacBook, the “e” was back, and switching back to my iMac also solved the problem. The same thing happened a few hours later with the “control” key. Unplugging the keyboard and plugging it back in did the trick. It happened again with the “p” key.

In addition, the remapped “option” key doesn’t function properly. In OS X, option-shift-hyphen generates an em dash, like this: —. But I had to remap the caps lock key to option to generate that dash. I have no idea why. This hasn’t happened with any of the other keyboards I’ve used with this computer: the Matias Tactile Pro, the Customizer, the Advantage, or the Apple Aluminum Keyboards. I assume this is a problem unique to this particular Das Keyboard or to this Das Keyboard with my iMac. Fortunately, the company promises: “For repair and exchange: no waiting, no hassle. We will ship you a replacement as soon as we receive your shipment.”

A second opinion

My girlfriend used the Das Keyboard for a day and didn’t like it as much as I did: she said she heard a high-pitched squeak. Of the keyboards I’ve tried recently, she likes the Kinesis Advantage best. In comparison to the Unicomp Customizer, she wrote, “WAY better than the daskeyboard. […] It takes a little more effort, and maybe I’ll find at the end of the day my muscles aren’t a fan of it, but for now, it’s definitely better. Feels more solid.”

Conclusion

Even Das Keyboard’s website says that “Das Keyboard compares to the legendary IBM model M. Its best-in-class mechanical gold-plated key switches provide a tactile and audio click that makes typing a pure joy.” They’re right: it does compare to the Model M. Either keyboard is an good choice.

But I’d take the Model M. Its durability is proven, the key travel is slightly better, and it sounds more like a typewriter and slightly less “plasticky” to my ears. It’s about $50 cheaper after shipping. The only drawback is the lack of USB ports, which is minor.

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


* I don’t highlight where the keyboards are made out of a misplaced and ignorant jingoistic nativism, but rather because, all else being equal, I’d generally choose the item made in a western country (Canada, the United States, most of Europe) over one not made there under the assumption that the workers are probably treated better and make living wages. Taiwan is an industrialized country, so this probably doesn’t apply, but I notice the difference anyway. In addition, products made elsewhere usually cost less; I find it suggestive that, in this case, the opposite is true.

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

Product Review: Das Keyboard Model "S" Professional

The main question regarding the Das Keyboard Professional Model “S” should not be whether it’s a very nice keyboard: it is. The keys are precise and smooth, and the amount of force necessary to generate a letter is far more appropriate than the standard keyboards shipped with most computers. Rather, the main question should be: is the Das Keyboard substantively better than the Unicomp Customizer and Space Saver, both of which use the time-tested IBM Model M design and manufacturing equipment? The answer is probably “no,” especially when one considers their relative cost: as of this writing, the Unicomp keyboards are $69 and made in the United States, while Das Keyboards are $129 and made in Taiwan.*

First impressions

The slim keyboard and its housing:

das_keyboard_model_s_1

As shown, the Das Keyboard is black and unadorned by anything save a “daskeyboard” logo in the upper right. The keys themselves are matte black with white letters etched in by laser, while the borders are glossy and probably prone to fingerprints and smudging over time. The attractive minimalist design makes the keyboard look like part of a set when placed next an iMac and Aeron, as though it were designed to complement them.

The chief drawback aesthetically and practically is the split USB cord:

das_keyboard_split

das_keyboard_3

Not surprisingly, a picture like this doesn’t appear on the Das Keyboard website. It’s reminiscent of the Matias Tactile Pro 2, and not in a good way.

But the Das Keyboard does have two USB ports on the side, which is a useful feature the Customizer lacks. To me it doesn’t make much of a difference: I taped a four-port, powered USB hub to the bottom of my desk, and that’s where I plug in peripherals, my printer, and an iPhone cord. The hub cost $10, like the one at the link, although I bought mine elsewhere.

The keys

Each stroke brings a satisfying but muted clack, and I like typing on the Das Keyboard. Its keys don’t travel quite as far as the Customizer or Space Saver’s; it’s also easier to bottom out because one doesn’t have the curious resistance that a buckling spring provides, as described here:

The most widely produced buckling-spring keyswitch keyboard is the IBM model M keyboard. When pressing an individual key, the operator is physically applying increasing force (approximately 60-70 grams of force) against a coiled spring. The spring provides slight resistance, so that you can rest your fingers on the keyboard and not cause an accidental or inadvertent key press. Once the key travels a particular distance (approx. 2.5 – 3.5mm), the spring reaches the “catastrophic buckling” point and produces an audible click at the same exact instance that the computer records the keystroke.

With the Das Keyboard, you can still rest your fingers on the keys, but when typing you won’t have the catastrophic buckling that prevents bottoming out. Consequently, the Das Keyboard has a slightly harsher feel than the Customizer or Space Saver. It seems to take approximately the same amount of force to generate a keystroke, but that’s based solely on feel rather than on testing. There might be an objective difference between the two, but if so, it’s not great.

The key switches themselves appear to Cherry MX Blues, which are explained in greater detail at the link and in this Hot Hardware essay. You can see them in the Das Keyboard here:

das_keyboard_cherry_mx_blue

These switches are louder, though not enormously so, than the Cherry MX “Brown” switches found in the Kinesis Advantage Ergonomic Keyboard, which I reviewed at the link, or the Majestouch Tenkeyless Keyboard. You could use the Kinesis Advantage or Majestouch Tenkeyless keyboard in a dorm or office without offending those in the same room, but the Das Keyboard is probably too loud for those environments. I assume the “silent” version uses Cherry MX “Brown” switches that are quieter and also appropriate for group settings. To get a sense of how loud each keyboard is, check out this video, which compares the Advantage, Customizer, and Das Keyboard:

What do all these models mean?

If you’ve visited the Das Keyboard website, you’re probably aware that you can buy four models: the “Original Das Keyboard Professional, “Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional,” which I am reviewing, the “Das Keyboard Model “S” Professional Silent,” and the “Das Keyboard Model “S” Ultimate.”

Here’s how the somewhat confusing nomenclature and model numbers work: A Das Keyboard “Professional” means there are letters on the keyboard, like mine; not having any letters doesn’t seem to confer any benefit aside from sheer geek street cred, about which I care less than practicality. A Das Keyboard “Ultimate” is identical to the “Professional” except that it’s blank. The Das Keyboard “Silent” is quieter, presumably due to using Cherry MX “Brown” switches like those mentioned above.

The Original Das Keyboard Professional lacks media function keys, has only a single USB connector, isn’t compatible with KVM switches, and doesn’t have “Full n-key rollover,” which means that if you mash, say, six keys at once, the keyboard might not register all of them. The last feature is apparently useful for gaming. The short version is that the differences between the “Original” and “Model S” are marginal and not very important. Given the choice, I’d probably take the original.

Mac support

The Das Keyboard supports OS X and Linux as well as Windows. You can buy a set of Mac- and Linux-friendly keycaps for $14.95, which is comparable to Unicomp’s cost for OS-specific keys. You’ll have to swap the Option and Command key in OS X’s system preferences, as described here.

A strange problem

Edit Nov. 12 2009: Thomas Aitchison of Das Keyboard sent me an e-mail saying that the problem I described below is a known bug and that the company is recalling the keyboards in the affected serial number range, so this probably no longer applies.

Every couple hours, a key would stop working. The first time it was the “e:” I typed “swt” instead of “sweet” in TextMate. The same thing happened in Word and Mellel. But when I plugged the keyboard into my MacBook, the “e” was back, and switching back to my iMac also solved the problem. The same thing happened a few hours later with the “control” key. Unplugging the keyboard and plugging it back in did the trick. It happened again with the “p” key, and presumably with others that I hadn’t noticed because I didn’t use them.

In addition, the remapped “option” key doesn’t function properly. In OS X, option-shift-hyphen generates an em dash, like this: —. But I had to remap the caps lock key to option to generate that dash. I have no idea why. This hasn’t happened with any of the other keyboards I’ve used with this computer: the Matias Tactile Pro, the Customizer, the Advantage, or the Apple Aluminum Keyboards. I assume this is a problem unique to this particular Das Keyboard or to this Das Keyboard with my iMac; if this happened with a purchased computer, the company promises “For repair and exchange: no waiting, no hassle. We will ship you a replacement as soon as we receive your shipment.”

A second opinion

My girlfriend used the Das Keyboard for a day and didn’t like it as much as I did: she said she heard a high-pitched squeak from it. Of the keyboards I’ve tried recently, she likes the Kinesis Advantage best. In comparison to the Unicomp Customizer, she wrote, “WAY better than the daskeyboard. […] It takes a little more effort, and maybe I’ll find at the end of the day my muscles aren’t a fan of it, but for now, it’s definitely better. Feels more solid.”

Conclusion

Even Das Keyboard’s website says that “Das Keyboard compares to the legendary IBM model M. Its best-in-class mechanical gold-plated key switches provide a tactile and audio click that makes typing a pure joy.” They’re right: it does compare to the Model M. Either keyboard is an good choice. If I had to make it, I’d take the Model M. Its durability is proven, the key travel is slightly better, and it sounds slightly more like a typewriter and slightly less “plasticky” to my ears. In addition, it’s about $50 cheaper after shipping. The only drawback is the lack of USB ports, which seems minor in comparison to how the keyboard feels.

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

 


* I don’t highlight where the keyboards are made out of a misplaced and ignorant jingoistic nativism, but rather because, all else being equal, I’d generally choose the item made in a western country (Canada, the United States, most of Europe) over one not made there under the assumption that the workers are probably treated better and make living wages. Taiwan is an industrialized country, so this probably doesn’t apply, but I notice the difference anyway. In addition, products made elsewhere usually cost less; I find it suggestive that, in this case, the opposite is true.

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

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