Review: The CODE Keyboard (With Cherry MX “Clear” switches)

In the last three months, a bunch of people have written to ask if I’ve tried any keyboards since 2011’s “Further thoughts on the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Space Saver, and Das Keyboards” (evidently Google has brought my keyboard articles to the top of its search rankings again). The short answer is yes, but only one, and I bought it: the 87-key CODE Keyboard with Cherry MX “Clear” switches. The switches are slightly quieter than the Kinesis Advantage’s Cherry MX “Brown” switches, while still retaining excellent tactile feel. If I were using a conventional keyboard, I’d very slightly prefer the Unicomp Ultra Classic to the CODE keyboard, but in real-world usage the difference is tiny. Anyone who is noise sensitive or works in the same room as other people should use the CODE Keyboard, however, which is substantially quieter at little cost to feeling.

87-key CODE keyboard

There isn’t much more to say about the CODE Keyboard: it has backlighting, which is nice if you care about that sort of thing (I don’t). It comes in a 87-key version, which is also nice because it’s smaller and because many of us don’t need extensive number pad use. It feels durable and in the two or so years I’ve had it I haven’t detected wear. The Unicomp Ultra Classic has a slight edge in the durability rankings because its predecessors—the IBM Model M—have been in service for decades. Unicomp and IBM keyboards are so good that Unicomp suffers because it sells a product that doesn’t need to be replaced. The CODE Keyboard is likely to be similarly durable, though it’s only been on the market for a couple years. If it has any weaknesses they’re not apparent to me. The profile is close to as slim as it can be without compromising function. I’ve never been a fan of Apple’s chiclet-style keyboards, though they’re obviously necessary for laptops.

I haven’t been posting about keyboards, though, because companies haven’t been sending them lately—I guess that since Anandtech and Ars Technica have begun reviewing keyboards, a site targeting writers and readers rather than hackers and gamers gets bumped to the bottom of the priority queue. Outlet proliferation is even greater: there’s an active Reddit subsection devoted to them, and Googling “mechanical keyboards” brings up more background than I have time or inclination to digest. Writers also tend to be less vocal about their love for gadgets than tech people.

I’m also much less interested in experimenting with different keyboards because I don’t perceive much room for improvement over the good keyboards we have now. Until neural implants get developed and keyboards become as weird a curiosity as Victorian-era telegraph machines are today, we’ve probably gotten to be around as good as we’re likely to get.

87-key CODE keyboardWhen I first bought a Unicomp Ultra Classic I was in college and a couple tiny companies made mechanical keyboards, including Unicomp and Matias (whose early products were so screwed up I never tried the later ones). Today web startups are common and people are used to buying things online; dozen companies or more are making mechanical keyboards, and it’s hard to pick a bad keyboard. Any of them will be much better than the keyboards that ship with most computers.

Plus, as said earlier, the good options have mostly driven out the bad, or forced the weak early keyboards to be improved. Matias’s more recent keyboards apparently don’t have the ghosting that made earlier versions useless. Companies like Vortex are producing physically small keyboards that have programmable keys, as is the obnoxiously named POK3R. Other companies have produced wireless Bluetooth versions and versions with extra USB ports, neither of which matter to me. A profusion of ultra minor variations is a hallmark of maturity. Most of the keyboards still have Darth Vader or computer nerd aesthetics, but that probably speaks to their target audience. Except, possibly, for the CODE Keyboard, none of the current mechanical keyboards seem like Apple made them.

87-key CODE keyboardBut the real news is no news: a bunch of keyboards exist and they’re all pretty good. The word “slight” appears three times in the first two paragraphs because there aren’t clear winners. If you type a lot and aren’t interested in the minutia, get a CODE Keyboard and put the rest out of your mind. If you want a more ergonomic experience and have the cash, get a Kinesis Advantage and learn how to use it (and be ready for weird looks from your friends when they see it). Options are beautiful but don’t let them drive you mad.

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.

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.

Ergonomics

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.

Durability

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.

Yet.

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.

IBM Model M / Unicomp Customizer Keyboard update: Mac edition

EDIT: Unicomp now offers a SpaceSaver M keyboard, in which the “M” stands for “Mac.” That’s probably what you want, rather than the Customizer, since the mechanical keys on the SpaceSaver M are the same as they are on the Customizer, while the keyboard itself is considerably smaller and includes Mac-specific keys out-of-the-box.

My Product Review of the Unicomp Customizer keyboard is the most enduringly popular post on this blog, and the last few days have seen an especially large amount of traffic thanks to an NPR story on how an Old-School Keyboard Makes [a] Comeback Of Sorts, which talks about Unicomp. The saddest part: the company is laying off workers because the Customizers and similar keyboards last too long and cost too much. The latter, of course, has a great deal to do with the former, but economic conditions mean that the initial investment apparently isn’t available to many people.

Aside from the durability of its products, Unicomp also has unusually good customer service. I use a Mac and the Customizer ships with Windows keys by default, which one can see in my original post. For $10, however, Unicomp sent me custom keys with “option” and “command” instead of Windows buttons (pardon the fuzzy pictures: I only have a lousy cell phone camera at the moment):

01-31-09_1223

Option and command close up

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Perfect: the Windows buttons aren’t staring at me and other people who use my computer aren’t confused (“Hit command-w to close the window.” “Where’s command?” “The one with the Windows logo to the left of the spacebar.” “Huh?”).

Mac users who care about typing, take note: buy a Unicomp SpaceSaver or SpaceSaver M rather than the lousy Matias Tactile Pro 2. You can find Unicomp’s website here.

Computer post: desktop or laptop/notebook?

Ars Technica reports that Global notebook shipments [have] finally overtake[n] desktops, making the issue all the more salient (Slashdot’s coverage is here). Of course, many of those notebooks are probably netbooks that supplement rather than supplant desktops, and the inflated notebook total is probably in part due to the disposable nature and limited longevity of notebooks. Still, the legitimate question remains, and my short answer for most people in most circumstances in “desktop.”

My work demands sustained concentration (see, for example, “Disconnecting Distraction”) and being in spot for a time helps that; I sold my PowerBook and used the proceeds for a 24″ aluminum iMac. It’s a vastly faster machine that’ll probably last longer than an equivalent laptop will and cost less. Those who want mobility pay for it, and I suspect most people overestimate their mobility and underestimate the benefits of a desktop.

But the question is one that an individual is better suited to answer, as it depends on that person’s needs, and I can only enumerate the trade-offs inherent in the laptop/desktop decision. The question becomes almost philosophical concerning the nature of the person you are: more peripatetic or less? Working for longer at a computer or not as long? Used to a large screen or not (becoming accustomed to space and then having it removed it difficult)? Annoyed by cable creep or not? To be sure, some groups of people are well-suited to notebooks: people who move often, have to travel frequently, and students scurrying between dorm and home all probably fit that category. I suspect there are fewer of them than the laptop numbers indicate and that many people don’t consider the detriments, especially ergonomically. I’ve heard the complaint too many times: my wrists hurt, or my back hurts, or my eyes are tired, and they almost always come from laptop users. I recently gave a friend an a Griffin iCurve for her laptop, which seemed to improve the problem. ICurves are no longer made, but the new version is called an Elevator.

An Elevator, external keyboard, monitor, and mouse improves the laptop, but they’re expensive. Comparing Mac equipment makes this delta particularly obvious—even if one buys third-party monitors—as various pricing specials and what not don’t obscure the underlying prices. One person in an Ars thread said, “I’ve found that if you don’t need mobility, paying for it is a bad idea.” Indeed: and the question becomes “need,” which I can’t answer. A Slashdot commenter said that “the lack of replaceable parts is one other reason why laptop sales are ‘higher’ than desktop sales.” Combined with a) the inherent jostling laptops experience and b) the compactness of the parts, raising the temperature inside the machine and increasing the likelihood that subtle manufacturing flaws will do things like pinch video cords or dislodge logic boards, this means laptops are likely to need to be replaced more often, in addition to their higher upfront costs.

I have an iMac, which has some of a laptop’s drawbacks, including no user-serviceable parts aside from RAM. But it’s also relatively easy to move and more likely to last than a ceaselessly mobile laptop. It remains in one place, making it easier to get in the zone, as described by Rands in Repose at the link. Books, mostly fiction but still a few technical ones too, surround my desk, and, like Malcolm Gladwell, I’m more likely to turn to them for quotes, inspiration, and sounding in many circumstances than to the much-scattered Internet:

[Gladwell ….] still prefers to do most of his research at the NYU library. Google is something of a personal hobbyhorse: “Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have. It doesn’t tell you what’s interesting or what’s important. There’s still more in the library than there is on Google.”

He’s overstating his case but I take his point. Then again, the article also says that Gladwell likes to work in coffeeshops, which is anathema to me: I look every time someone walks by or the espresso machine goes off like a whistle, and at the end of three hours I’ve written as many sentences. There’s even a picture of him sitting at a laptop, perhaps contradicting some of my overall point.

Nonetheless, like most philosophy problems, this one has no perfect answer and is more an expression of underlying value than anything else. Granted, this decision has a greater economic aspect given the continued cost disparity between laptops and desktops, which seems unlikely to disappear in the immediate future. But I think that, if most people weigh what they value, the money and advantages of a desktop more often than not make them better machines. If you’re writing, or coding, or editing movies, or doing any number of other things for a sustained period of time on a somewhat regular basis, a desktop or laptop + external peripherals seems an improvement over a laptop. If you’re chiefly using a computer to read e-mail, check Facebook, and the like, the computer choice probably doesn’t matter. Either way, I’d rather the save money, although many others obviously prefer the mobility. To me, and presumably many others who like to write and to read, and the “deep thought” stage is, to my mind, more important than shallower activities that demand less cognitive attention. That’s not to say you can’t get in the zone or produce useful work on a laptop—millions of people obviously do—but I still think a desktop a more satisfying overall choice.

I can guarantee nothing, of course, and Lord of the Rings speaks to this issue, as it does to so many:

“… The choice is yours: to go or wait.” [Gildor said.]
“And it is also said,” answered Frodo, “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”
“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.”


EDIT: A recent NPD survey on netbooks found that “60 percent of buyers said they never even took their netbooks out of the house” (hat tip Salon.com). If your laptop never travels, why bother having one?

EDIT 2: I posted a follow-up regarding the relative reliability of desktops versus laptops. The former win according to the best data I’ve seen.

EDIT 3: Marco Arment has a post on why he’s now using a MacBook Pro instead of a Mac Pro. The reason: Solid State Drives (SSDs). The limiting factor on laptop performance for most people used to be the hard drive. With an SSD, it’s not. If you have enough money for a large-capacity SSD and are willing to put a conventional hard drive in the CD / DVD bay, you’re not giving up any substantial performance in day-to-day tasks. More than anything else, the growing power of SSDs make me think the days of desktop computers are limited.

New workspace

A year and a half ago, I uploaded a picture of my writing space. Things have changed, and Nigel Beale’s challenge inspires me to post another:

Notable features include an Aeron, the ultimate chair, ink bottles, a backup hard drive used with Time Machine, a gargantuan, wonderful iMac, and a Unicomp Customizer keyboard that inspired this rave—it’s now the most trafficked post on my site.

From Nigel’s blog I went to the Guardian and found out that Alain de Botton has an Aeron too, which obviously enhances the psychic connection established when I shook his hand and discussed Cooper Minis with him in Seattle. His fun novel Kiss & Tell was on my senior year AP English exam.

Notice also the ink bottles hiding between the lamp, book, and base of the computer. I have an anachronistic bend toward fountain pens, and these days I most often use an ink mix of Noodler’s luxury blue blended with Diamine Mediterranean Blue. Juxtaposing inks that Chaucer might have recognized with the computer he probably would not seems an appropriate homage to old and new.

I’d post bookshelves pictures too were my books not substantially packed in preparation for moving.

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