Writing Tools: Kinesis Advantage Keyboard Review
I've been using my Kinesis Advantage keyboard for three years now and that's a record for me. Before the Advantage, I changed my keyboard regularly either because I was hunting for a keyboard which would prevent RSI but more often because my keyboards would simply wear out. Every six months or so, despite regular cleaning, the 'N' and 'T' keys and the spacebar would all become gradually less responsive until no amount of RSI-inducing slamming would register a stroke. Three years on, every key on my Advantage is still working as well as it did on the first day and the only RSI I have had has been either away from my desktop when using a Bluetooth keyboard with my tablet or caused by typing for a ridiculously long session without a break – say 12 or 13 hours (I know, I know, I shouldn't do it). So the short version of this review is: I highly recommend it both for longevity and ergonomics. For the long version I'll go into a little more detail about each of the two benefits because the longevity really is due to one particular element. Please note: If you are considering buying a Kinesis and you are still on Windows 7 and have any USB 3.0 ports, please check the warning from Kinesis at the bottom of this review.
This comes down to two words: mechanical switches (or what is under the keys we strike). For all keys except the top row function keys, the Kinesis Advantage uses mechanical keys ('switches') made with metal and springs under the plastic key cap, rather than the usual full-travel membrane, or dome-switch technology which use a silicon or plastic membrane (or dome) that is poked by a chunk of plastic protruding beneath the key cap pushing it to make contact with an electronic grid below. It's not hard to see that a silicon or soft plastic membrane is not going to last long under constant poking!
Any well made mechanical keyboard should give you a similar longevity - just make sure you research which type of mechanical switches are best for your purpose, for example typing is different to gaming and many people prefer different switches for them.
Most people who have mechanical keyboards adore them but there is one thing to be wary of: noise. The keys clack a little like a typewrite - nowhere near as loud but definitely louder than those that work on plastic. I happen to love the noise, I find it satisfying to tap away and try to keep the sound going, in fact I used to use a cute little program called Qwertick which plays typewriter sounds at the strike of the key on any keyboard but some users - or users' cubicle-mates - might find it disturbing. I think it's a small price to pay for the ergonomics but before I move on to details about that, here is Shunichi Yamamoto doing one minute of typing to demonstrate the sound (and the motion).
The Keys: While we're on the subject of mechanical switches, I'll address the hidden ergonomic benefit of the Kinesis Advantage which is also down to those mechanical switches. As I noted above, full-travel membrane keys work by making the small chunk of plastic under the key cap press down on a membrane that in turn creates a contact on an electronic grid beneath, thus registering the position of the keystroke. The problem with these membrane keys is that in order to register the keystroke, the key must be pushed all the way down so that the contact is made - this is called "bottoming out" in ergonomic circles and it's hell on fingers and hand joints. (Note: Some gamers prefer the feel of bottoming out and choose mechanical switches which allow you to do this anyway (often Cherry MX Reds, if I remember rightly) but gaming is pretty hard on hands anyway and the choice of mechanical keyboards in this case is all about longevity.)
Mechanical keys (or switches) come in various types but under the key cap they have a metal spring and a stem which are specially shaped to control how far the key needs to travel to register the keystroke and how hard the finger needs to press to make the key travel. The Kinesis Advantage comes standard with Cherry MX Brown switches but you can also request Reds which have a different spring and travel distance. I love the Browns in mine, they don't require too heavy a touch and the spring lets you know as soon as the keystroke has registered, they are perfect for typing, which is unsurprising since Cherry created in co-operation with Kinesis for the upgrade of this keyboard in 1992 (it's been around a long time and originally used Cherry Blacks - rumour has it that Terry Jones of Monty Python uses an original Advantage with Cherry Blacks.)
It takes a little while to get used to your fingers dancing over the keys rather than slamming them as far down as they will go but once you do, you realize just how violent typing on a standard keyboard is!
The Key Layout: This is the most striking feature of the Advantage keyboard - whenever someone spots it on my desk they invariably ask "What is that!?" Of course, when I say "It's a keyboard" they usually look embarrassed because - well - of course it is but it does look very different - because it is.
As you can see in the photos, like many ergonomic keyboards it is split so that there is a gap between the 'T', 'G' and 'B' keys on the left and the 'Y', 'H' and 'N' keys on the right. Unlike many ergonomic keyboards:
- there is no isolated numeric keypad which also helps with ergonomics because you don't have to stretch past it to use your mouse - it's a high keyboard but it's not as unusually wide as it seems. (There is an embedded keypad on the right keys but if I needed a key pad regularly I'd buy their separate mechanical keypad.)
- the 'split' is 6 inches wide and the space, enter, delete, backspace, alt, ctrl (there is a Mac version, too) and home keys are in the middle so that your thumb can strike them, instead of your poor, weak little finger;
- each group of keys on the left and right are built down into the, rather substantial, keyboard chassis in a concave well which is shaped so that the keys come up to your fingers, rather than your fingers having to stretch for flat keys.
Finally, it is important to note that you can remap any or all of the mechanical keys on the Advantage if you'd like to. If you prefer a Dvorak layout you can purchase the standard Advantage and a set of Dvorak printed key caps or you can pay a little extra for a version which has a switch which allows you to change from QWERTY to Dvorak at the slide of a switch - I believe it also comes with the Dvorak key caps so you'd probably not want to change them over completely whenever you switch. There is also a set of blank key caps for those who want to switch back and forth between Qwerty and Dvorak or if you want to do your own unique set up. Note: because of the curve of the well, the key caps are also curved so you cannot use standard key caps for mechanical switches.
So there it is, a longevity review of the Kinesis Advantage keyboard (available for Mac, PC and in QWERTY/Dvorak, Swedish and German variations.) You might be shocked by the price but quality like this costs money in the short term but will perform like new for decades (I know people who have had them since the early 90s - and they only told me a few years ago, bastards! ;) ) I certainly highly recommend this darling keyboard.
*While checking the Kinesis Advantage page for some specs I noticed this:
IMPORTANT USB 3.0 NOTE: Advantage keyboard’s currently do not work on most Windows 7 computers which have USB 3.0 ports, even if they also have USB 2.0. This problem does not exist in other operating systems, including Windows 8, Mac & Linux. In some cases bios settings can be tweaked to fix the Windows 7 problem see Troubleshooting-Advantage Keyboard. If you are unable to fix the problem, contact Kinesis Technical Support about a cable conversion kit (no charge within 60 days of purchase, though international shipping charges may apply). Emailtechsupport@kinesis.com, or call 800-454-6374 (option 2) 8am – 4:30pm, M-F.
I was on Win 7 with USB 3.0 ports when I bought the Kinesis and it worked perfectly straight out of the box and then right up until I upgraded to Win 8 about a year ago, so I'm not sure what has caused this but I felt I should point it out. I'll try to remember to check back and remove this if they remove it on their site but as of April 28, 2015, it is on the site.