Review: Datahand Professional II
Developer: Datahand Systems, Inc.
Price: $1299; $999 (personal version)
Requirements: ADB or USB adapter, $129 from Datahand
Trial: 30 day trial available to corporate customers only
“A man and his machine may be regarded as the functional unit of industry, and the aim of ergonomics is the perfection of this unit so as to promote accuracy and speed of operation, and at the same time to ensure minimum fatigue and thereby maximum efficiency.” —W. E. Le Gros Clark in Floyd & Welford, Sympos. Human Factors in Equipment Design, 1954.
The word “ergonomic” is applied to all kinds of computer-related equipment these days, in an attempt to win over buyers who worry about developing Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs). However, most keyboards that claim to be ergonomic merely use the term as a marketing ploy, sticking essentially to the familiar keyboard form and its numerous disadvantages. The Datahand is not another run-of-the-mill ergonomic keyboard with a slight curve between the keys of the right and left hands. Rather, it was designed from the ground up around the human body, the hands and the muscles involved in the typing process. The result is decidedly strange-looking, but it is also far better than any other ergonomic keyboard I’ve tried.
One of the ways the Datahand helps to reduce RSI-related pain comes through requiring far less finger movement to type than do other keyboards. Each finger rests in a “well,” sort of akin to the “home row” on a traditional keyboard, except that the finger never has to leave its well. Each finger has five keys assigned to it, pressed by moving the finger north, south, east, west, or pushing down. Since a regular keyboard just uses one kind of finger motion (down) as opposed to Datahand’s five, the Datahand allows a greater variety of finger motions, reducing the repetition that can aggravate certain kinds of RSIs.
The finger keys give you all the most commonly used keys: the alphabet and the most common punctuation marks. But still, five directions times eight keys (plus thumbs) seems like a poor substitute for the 101 key keyboard most people are used to. Thus, the Datahand operates in several different possible modes. Each mode (normal, Numbers And Symbols (NAS), and function) maps the finger keys in different ways. Most of the time, you’ll be working in normal mode. If you need to access NAS mode, for a number or a less common punctuation mark, you do so much like you use the “shift” key on a regular keyboard: you can either hold down a modifier key, or “Lock” into that mode.
How It Works (Mouse)
The Datahand’s built-in mouse (yes, these guys think of everything) will not replace your regular mouse, but it’s convenient for short, simple mousing actions, and saves you from having to take your hands from the keyboard.
You enter mouse (and “function”) mode with a flick of your thumb. That done, you have a mouse, literally, at your fingertips. The left and right index fingers control mouse movement. The left moves the mouse at medium speed, north, south, east, or west; the right moves it slowly, and the two together are additive for high speed. Diagonals are possible, if not easy, by pressing two keys with one finger, or by moving in two directions (albeit at different speeds), one with each finger. Pressing down with either finger clicks the mouse button.
The shortcomings of this setup are pretty obvious: you have far fewer speed and directional possibilities than you have with a traditional mouse, and over time your index fingers will likely get tired. That said, the built-in mouse is very convenient when, say, you just want to activate a different window. As much as I’d like to be harsh on the mouse’s shortcomings, I frankly can’t think of a better way Datahand could have done it without substantially increasing the cost of the keyboard.
The Datahand is made to connect directly to PCs through a 5-pin serial port; an adapter is necessary to connect it to a Mac, via either USB or ADB. I tried one of each, as provided by Datahand. The ADB adapter worked flawlessly, giving me access to the Mac command and control keys, though not the Option key. Not a big loss since I seldom need it anyway. Like the current Mac keyboards, there is no Macintosh power key on the Datahand, so if you’re using an older Mac, you might need to keep an older keyboard attached for its power key.
The USB adapter works just like the ADB one, but Datahand initially sent me the wrong one. Because of the LEDs the Datahand uses to indicate which mode you’re in, the keyboard requires more power than most keyboards, and thus a standard USB adapter can’t handle it: it stopped functioning altogether after a few days. To their credit, Datahand’s tech support staff troubleshot quite well, although it took nearly two weeks for the replacement adapter to arrive: disappointing, they really should keep a few units in stock. The USB adapter does work with my USB PC card.
Adjusting to Fit Your Hand
Clever key layout isn’t the only thing that makes the Datahand so comfortable. Since everyone’s hand is slightly different, the keyboard is adjustable in a tremendous number of ways. Unlike the overwhelming majority of keyboards, the Datahand offers two separate units for the left and right hands, allowing you to place them at a comfortable distance apart from each other, and at any angle you like. This is very effective against ulnar deviation, or the outward bending of the wrist that is pretty much unavoidable with a traditional keyboard.
Underneath the inner sides of the Datahand are tabs that can be flipped down to give the hand units a slight angle to the side, meaning your hand won’t have to be in a completely palm-down position while you’re typing. While this adds to comfort, I would have liked to see Datahand go all the way, and allow the hand units to rest at a full 90-degree angle. Perhaps some sort of separate mounting stand could be devised to allow this.
Adjustability doesn’t stop there. Since we all have hands of slightly different shapes and fingers of slightly different lengths, the positions of the finger wells themselves are adjustable. On the sides of the hand units are knobs which you can loosen, and then raise or lower the level of the wells. Dials on top of the unit allow you to adjust how far forward or back the finger wells are from the palm rest. I found adjusting the height of the wells a bit difficult, since there are knobs on both sides of the hand unit. If I loosened them both, the wells sank. Then I’d place my hand on the hand unit, and have to, very awkwardly, reach over the unit and try to lift, tighten, and then lift and tighten the other knob. Ideally, the height of the finger wells should be adjustable with dials, as the distance is.
Finally, the Datahand comes with a Laplander, an extremely comfortable foam-backed pad to which the hand units can be securely bolted, allowing the Datahand to be used on your lap. Of course, the side-to-side angles of the individual hand units remain adjustable on the Laplander, as does the distance between the hand units. A slight tilt is available thanks to optional foam pads on which the hand units can rest. Personally, I’ve always preferred to use a keyboard on my lap, but have gotten away from it using traditional keyboards: since they have a bunch of extra keys off to the right, it’s impossible to comfortably hold a traditional keyboard, centered on your lap. The Datahand, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from this problem.
As, however, Emil Pascarelli and Deborah Quilter point out in their book Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User’s Guide—an excellent book, which should be required reading for anyone who uses a computer on a daily basis—adjustability only takes you so far: it can even be detrimental, if you don’t know how to properly adjust the keyboard. With the extreme adjustability of the Datahand, the potential for maladjustment is quite high.
Enter the manual, which describes a comfortable distance of separation for the hand units and gives instruction for properly positioning the finger wells to match the shape of your hand. If you currently suffer from RSI and are working with a physical therapist, I would suggest asking your therapist to help you adjust the Datahand (and your workstation in general); but if that’s not an option for you, the manual should allow you to optimally adjust the Datahand on your own.
The Learning Process
You would expect, just from looking at it, that the Datahand would take some getting used to. While Datahand’s own literature suggests that a month is typically needed for a new user to get up to their traditional keyboard typing speed, I found I was comfortable using the Datahand after far less time than that. A training guide and some typing templates are provided to help you learn how to use the Datahand.
With exactly four exceptions, you use the same finger to access a given letter key on the Datahand as you would on a traditional keyboard. Typically, the “home row” key is the “down” button on the Datahand, the key on the upper row is “north,” and the lower row is “south.” While this is surely done to make transition from a traditional keyboard easier, I’m not sure how much it helped: the first few days of using the Datahand, I was constantly looking at the keyboard (or the provided postcard-sized templates, taped to the monitor in a well-intentioned but futile attempt to prevent me from looking at the keyboard as I type) and searching for a key I needed. After a few days of solid use, my search-and-peck days were pretty much over, though it took a few weeks for me to get up to my flat keyboard typing speed.
If you are thinking of getting a Datahand, though, I’d suggest you switch to the Dvorak keyboard layout at the same time: your fingers are learning something new anyway. For those who don’t know, Dvorak is a substantially more efficient keyboard layout, which places the most used keys in the easiest-to-reach positions, and which is designed with the intent of minimizing instances of using the same finger for two letters in a row, etc. I can type much faster on Dvorak than I can on QWERTY. A Dvorak option is available for the Datahand for an extra $119, providing Dvorak templates and the ability, within firmware, to switch back and forth between Dvorak and QWERTY layouts; but, that said, you can just as easily draw up your own template, and use your “Keyboard” control panel to select a Dvorak layout.
The difference between the Professional and Personal Datahand models is simply one of firmware: the keyboard itself is the same. The Professional model allows you to set up short macros and to remap keys. Like the Dvorak option, however, these abilities can be done far more cheaply with software, and so I suspect the Professional’s functions may be geared more towards Windows users. Mac users can remap keys using ResEdit (though that will effect any keyboard connected to the computer, not just the Datahand), and there are shareware programs available (KeyQuencer and QuicKeys come to mind) that allow the creation of macros. In addition, the ability to create macros activated by function keys is built into Mac OS 9.1. For most users, therefore, the Professional model is likely not worth the difference in price over the Personal model.
RSI and Pain
Let’s face it, this is an expensive keyboard, no matter how adjustable and comfortable it is. Adjustability and comfort are not goals of the Datahand: they’re merely the means to an end, the end being pain-free keyboarding. When you consider the cost of ongoing physical therapy and/or surgery (not to mention permanent damage to your hands), the Datahand comes out looking like a real bargain.
To that end, Datahand doesn’t just rely on a few quotes worth of user feedback (although there are plenty of positive user experiences posted on their Web site). They’ve commissioned several thorough scientific studies of exactly how much the Datahand helps reduce the occurrence of factors that cause repetitive strain injuries. Again, see their Web site. I’m not an expert on RSIs; the groups that conducted the studies are.
A lot of the ergonomic advantages of the Datahand, I’d suggest, you can see for yourself using nothing more than common sense. On a flat keyboard, 100% of your key presses are “down”; on the Datahand, only 20% are, with 20% each in each of the four cardinal directions. That’s pretty obviously a great decrease in repetitive motion. Your hands rest above the finger wells on a palm rest, meaning your wrists aren’t bent upwards as they can be using a regular keyboard.
The keys on the Datahand require significantly less pressure from your fingers to activate them than do keys on regular keyboards: again, the advantages are obvious as your fingers are doing less work. (I didn’t feel this until I switched back to a regular keyboard, when I felt how much more pressure was needed from my fingers to activate its keys.) Use of the Laplander lets you relax, sitting back on your chair instead of leaning forward.
My personal experience with the Datahand, after a month of use, is that RSI pain is reduced considerably, especially in the wrists, but not gone altogether. That is likely due to a number of factors. Firstly, it takes time. The Datahand isn’t a pill, it’s a tool: its effects are gradual. Secondly, I use a number of different computers during the day, and moving the Datahand from one to the other is obviously not always possible: I trust the Datahand would have better effects if I were able to use it exclusively. Finally, the NSWE movements are pretty new to my fingers: they aren’t really used to pushing keys in those directions, so perhaps those muscles need to develop a little bit, just like your pinky finger had to when you first started typing.
Overall, I find that I can type considerably longer on a Datahand than on a regular keyboard before I start to feel any pain whatsoever. Before I started using the Datahand, I would occasionally find pain in my hands even while not typing; after a month of Datahand use, my hands have at least healed to the point where I don’t have persistent pain any more. All that comes at nearly no expense in terms of typing speed.
While my experience with the Datahand by no means constitutes a controlled scientific study, it certainly was a positive experience; enough so for me to believe that “ergonomic” is far more than a marketing slogan for Datahand. It is quite literally what this keyboard is all about: the perfection of the single unit whose parts are man and machine.
Also in This Series
- Review: Kinesis Advantage Pro · January 2003
- Review: Datahand Professional II · May 2001