Links: The best deep works on politics and culture, plus nerdy discussions of NSFW issues, plus keyboards

* “When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism: And how moral psychology can help explain and reduce tensions between the two.” By far the best article I’ve read recently, only rivaled by the next link.

* Related to the above, “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad,” an uncommonly interesting and thoughtful piece that can’t be excerpted well but is worth reading in full.

* Possibly NSFW, though it is on Aeon.co and leans nerd: “ Datagasm: Ever-faster feedback loops and micro-targeted digital porn are pushing human sexuality into some seriously weird places.”

* Related to the above, “How sex workers vet identities and keep people honest online,” a link that is likely also safe for work.

* “The L.E.D. Quandary: Why There’s No Such Thing as ‘Built to Last.’” reminds me of Unicomp, which faces similar challenges. As you’ll learn from the preceding link, in the 1980s, IBM made the Model M, a keyboard famous among hackers and writers for its quality, tactile feel, and longevity. Eventually IBM got out of the hardware business and Unicomp took over IBM’s Kentucky manufacturing machines. Today, however, Unicomp has a problem similar to L.E.D. makers: its primary product can last for decades, depriving the company of recurrent revenue from users who would otherwise need to replace their keyboards. From an NPR story: “That old school-industry is still alive in this converted furniture factory and it has the appreciation of certain aging nerds. But those guys just don’t make Unicomp enough money. The trouble with Model M is they rarely break down…”

* Seems obvious, but: “One Reason School Segregation Persists: White parents want it that way.”

* The main source of economic growth is new ideas, which is a point that should be obvious yet needs to be better known.

* “Half Of TSA’s 30,000 Employees Accused Of Misconduct; Nearly A Third Multiple Times.” Unsurprisingly.

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 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: 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: 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.

Preview: Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard and The Angel's Game

I’m typing this on a Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard, which I’ve become somewhat proficient with after about six hours of use. Expect a full review of it in a few weeks. Ditto for Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game, though I’m typing it with this keyboard and so am not at my previous speeds—yet.


EDIT: You can now read the full review of the Advantage.

Product Review: Unicomp Ultra Classic keyboard, or, the IBM Model M reborn

A rash of e-mails regarding my negative review of the Matias Tactile Pro 2 leads me to write this positive review the Unicomp Ultra Classic, which is a modern version of the Model M that IBM used to produce. Dan’s Data explains why these “buckling spring” keyboards are so nice:

The big deal about these old keyboards is their lovely, positive key-click. When you use a keyboard that doesn’t have a good positive click, it’s hard to tell when you’ve depressed a key properly. You have to watch the screen to make sure you don’t leave letters out, or you have to really hammer the keyboard, which is not good for your hands.

Most of the mid-priced keyboards […] use some variant of the “rubber dome” switch technology, which gives a definite little popping sensation when the dome buckles, but doesn’t necessarily give you an actual letter at the exact same moment, thanks to uncertain contacts. The old buckling spring tech absolutely positively does give you the letter when you feel the click. These keyboards feel very much like an old IBM Selectric typewriter – there are plenty of these ironclad behemoths still in service, and they may herniate anyone that has to move them but they’re darn nice to type on.

Today, buckling spring keyboards are never or almost never shipped with computers. Fortunately, Unicomp has accomplished what Matias couldn’t and produced an excellent keyboard in the Ultra Classic, which is based on the actual IBM Model M design. Keystrokes are crisp and precise. The “shadow key” problem that bedeviled the Tactile Pro is absent, and the Ultra Classic itself is solid, recalling a slab of stone (see the picture below), unlike the fragile, mushy keyboards most PCs ship with. It’s also been durable, and in the months I’ve pounded on it the only problem has been a backspace key that became slightly squeaky. I sent an e-mail to Unicomp and someone called me to recommend that I pop off the offending key with a butter knife to reseat it.

If you know anything about modern tech support, reread that sentence and let the shock set in. An actual phone call? From a guy involved with the actual manufacturing of the product? Indeed, and I’ve now experienced my miracle. The squeak seemed to go away and I’m back to my normal pattern. Furthermore, the company is based in Kentucky and makes the Ultra Classics there.

The main drawback for me is that I use an iMac and the keyboard is set up for Windows (EDIT: This is no longer a problem for anyone who chooses the Mac version, which Unicomp now sells, presumably thanks to people like me asking for it). The ability to change key bindings was important to me, and OS X allows it to be accomplished easily by going to System Preferences -> keyboard and mouse -> keyboard -> modifier keys:

As the screenshot shows, I’ve disabled the caps lock key—which is not specific to this keyboard, but just a preference—and changed the “option” key to command and the command key to option, which aligns the Ultra Classic to any other Mac keyboard. Windows and Linux users will probably want to leave the alt and control keys where they are. The Ultra Classic is thus a viable Mac keyboard, which delights me after the Matias Tactile Pro 2 problems. Although I haven’t conducted any tests to demonstrate whether I actually type faster with the Ultra Classic, I feel like I do, and even if I don’t, I like typing on it far more than I do other keyboards.

The Ultra Classic’s minor downsides are fivefold: 1) as described above, the command, alt, and option physical keys don’t match what the computer will actually do; 2) the keyboard has no built-in USB ports, which is a problem with Macs because even the 24″ iMac comes with only three on the back, which is too few; 3) the price, at $69, is somewhat high, but I think the productivity improvement worth the extra cost, and 4) the Ultra Classic probably can’t be used in a work or living situation in which you have to share space with someone else, as the clacking will anger the other person. That last drawback is to me part of the advantage—I like the clack, and to me the noise is part of its fun. Finally, 5) Unicomp doesn’t make a version without the number pad, which is incredibly annoying. Like most people I don’t use the number pad much or need it. The number pad is just wasted, inconvenient space.

My only wish is that Unicomp would make keys with “command” on them, so Mac users could pop the Windows keys off and replace them with a Mac-centric layout. These are minor issues, and the necessary trade-offs weigh heavily in the Ultra Classic’s favor for those who care about their typing experience. EDIT: Unicomp now makes a SpaceSaver M specifically for Macs. The SpaceSaver is identical to the Ultra Classic, except that it’s slightly smaller. If you’re on OS X, it’s the keyboard you want. As I wrote above, it’s too bad Unicomp doesn’t make a version without the number pad. WASD does, so for most people it’s probably a better option.


EDIT: Clarified relationship of the Ultra Classic to the Model M. In addition, you can see the Ultra Classic in my post about new workspace. This post discusses computers, tools, and meaning.

EDIT 2: I did buy Mac-friendly keycaps from Unicomp and wrote about them in this post, which also has pictures of the new keys.

EDIT 3: I wrote a long post on what I think of the the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Space Saver, and Das Keyboard two years later.

Product review: Matias Tactile Pro 2

I recently tried a product as disappointing as Children of Húrin: the Matias Tactile Pro 2 keyboard, which combined a fat price ($150) with poor build quality (loose keys, a malformed edge, and a continuing shadow key problem). Combined, they make a keyboard worse than the one they supersede—in the words of one reviewer, “[…] It’s 4 steps backwards, one step sideways, and 0 steps forward.”

I type a lot, as implied here, and so spend a greater-than-average amount of time thinking about my keyboard. When I heard about the Tactile Pro 2, I sent an e-mail to Derek Trideja, who gave me the title “Alert keyboard fetishist.” An exaggeration, but not far from the truth, and I’ve yet to find that perfect keyboard. Frequent readers will remember when I posted a picture of my writing space—since changed—and the Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard version 1 that peaks out. It’s as close as I’ve come to the perfect keyboard, and if not for the shadow keys problem it would be. Seventy nine dollars was a lot for a keyboard until I began using it regularly, and I found this one much better than the mushy keyboards that most computers come with, or the new and hideous keyboard that came with my iMac.

Programmers sometimes raved about old school IBM Model M keyboards, but the regular ones were discontinued in 1996 and don’t have an easy place for command, option, and control keys, making them poorly suited for OS X. The Tactile Pro 1 filled that gap because it had a Mac layout and the comfort I want. Shadow keys, however, develop when the writer hits a number of keys in succession—apparently the keyboard has multiple keys on the same path in some instances, which can cause characters to appear even when the user doesn’t press them. Problems occur when you type anything ending in “ion”, like “division,” which appears as “divisioqn” if you strike the keys in rapid succesion. Not fun, but still better than the mushy keyboards.

Version 2 still has those problems, although they’re not as pronounced. In an e-mail to me, someone from Matias said that the shadow key problem had been reduced in version 2. The person was right, but it hasn’t been reduced enough. In addition, the USB port situation irritated me—the old version has one cable and two USB ports, one on each side of the keyboard. The new one has a single USB port on the side of the keyboard and two ends, as depicted here:

Matias Tactile Pro USB Plugs

(Notice the background: an Oxford edition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Other Tales.)

This causes me to run out of USB ports on the back of my computer and to have to continually unplug things if I want to download pictures or transfer files to a USB drive. Their marketing materials don’t mention that they’ve lost one USB port on the keyboard. In addition, the one I received has keys much looser than my previous Tactile Pro—it feels flimsier and doesn’t have the same satisfying action with each keystroke. The front edge was also malformed, as this picture shows, though not perfectly:

The deformed edge of the keyboard

I was tempted to return mine and ask for a replacement unit, but after reading this thread on Ars Technica and the previously mentioned Bronzefinger review I decided not to bother. I’d rather just have the money back, and one thing Matias does offer is a 30-day money-back guarantee. I’m sure that the writer of Bronzefinger and I are not the only ones to have made use of this policy. The keyboard feels more like something hacked together by electrical engineering students one weekend or a science fair project.

What went wrong? I have no idea. I’ve heard engineering friends say that late projects seldom bode well for the finished project, which is more likely to turn out poorly because the delay manifests underlying problems; I’ve read similar things on Slashdot, for what their opinion is worth. The Matias Tactile Pro 2 was supposed to ship in March, but the initial batch didn’t arrive until, as far as I could tell, June, and the one I bought came from the second run that shipped in September. If Matias hasn’t worked the kinks out yet, I’m not sure they will in this iteration. In the meantime, those interested in a better keyboard might want to try and snag a used Tactile Pro 1 or a reborn Model M. The Tactile Pro 2 does have a few stronger points, like an optimizer feature that allows one to change the keyboard layout, but its benefit is minor compared to the keyboard’s drawbacks.


In other technology news, Apple just announced the latest versioqn—excuse me, version—of OS X, Leopard. I’ve also started using iWork, and especially Pages, for some of my writing. Pages simply looks nicer than Word, even if Pages is still missing many features.


EDIT: I posted a review of the Customizer, which is the new version of the Model M mentioned above.

Writing space

Inspired by BlogLily, I took a picture of where I write. Unlike some, I haven’t cleaned up, so you’re seeing my desk au natural. Just to the left of my PowerBook is a stack of six books waiting to be written about and a few recent copies of The New Yorker, which further add to the chaos.

workspace2

While at Kate’s, I also noticed her typewriter post and sent her this e-mail (edited slightly):

I’m a bit younger than you and so do not remember a time without computers, and while I love the convenience of computers I also like the thrack-thrack-thrack typewriter noises and the key sensation. Some computer keyboards offered a similar tactile experience: the old-school IBM Model M and Apple Extended Keyboard II.

Both these have been replaced by soft-key keyboards, although independent companies have resurrected the older style. On the Windows side a Kentucky company sells the Customizer, and on the Mac side a Canadian company sells the Matias Tactile Pro. Like you, I also use a PowerBook, and I bought one of the (original) Tactile Pros and love it. The keyboard is ludicrously expensive, to be sure, and the noise annoys others if they have to share the same space, but it comes as close as you can get to the typewriter.

You can see the white Tactile Pro at the bottom of my desk.


EDIT: Things have changed since this was posted—see the new setup here.

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