Review: Kinesis Advantage Pro
Price: $359 (regular version); $299 (without foot pedal and with less macro memory)
One of my favorite computer accessories is the keyboard. Not a boring ordinary flat keyboard but something really eccentric and unconventional-looking, not just for the sake of using something out of the ordinary (though I admit to that, too) but because those strange-looking keyboards that make people who walk into your office and gawk, “What is that?” look that way as a side effect of being designed well, with comfort of use as the first priority.
The Kinesis Advantage Pro is one such keyboard. I’ve seen Kinesis keyboards on the desks of Windows-using colleagues for years, and with the Advantage line, Kinesis has finally made its strange-shaped keyboard an option for Mac users.
The Kinesis Advantage Pro is a single piece, solidly built (plastic, but it doesn’t feel cheap) keyboard, with two concave bowls of vertically-aligned keys, one for each hand. But it’s easier to show you than tell you, so have a look:
I’m not really sure where the metallic silver color choice came from; maybe trying to match the TiBook? Anyway this is the only color the Pro version of the keyboard comes in. The regular version, priced at $299, comes in white and black. I’m not nuts about silver, but anything’s better than beige.
One thing I noticed right away is that the keyboard is marked with Command keys (one on each side), and even has Eject and Power keys. In fact, the keyboard, which is switchable for Mac or PC use, ships configured for Macintosh. Windows users are the second class citizens here, having to change the keyboard’s configuration if they want the thumb keys to work optimally.
Mac key labeling isn’t quite perfect, though: the Return key is labeled Enter, which is fine until you find yourself hunting for the Enter key. Confusingly, it’s also labeled Enter, and there are actually two of them, one below the home row of the right little finger, and the second below that. The key must be pressed in combination with holding down the keyboard’s foot petal (or while “keypad” mode is active) to produce an Enter rather than a character.
The only other thing I disliked, as far as key positions go, is that the spacebar is only available to the thumb of the right hand. The equivalent key on the left hand is backspace. I don’t know about you, but I use the spacebar a lot more frequently than I backspace, so that placement seems a little unbalanced. Also, coming from a regular keyboard, I’m accustomed to hitting space with either thumb. I had a terrible time adjusting to only hitting space with my right thumb; I was constantly deleting rather than spacing, even as far as two weeks into using the keyboard.
The foot pedal is optional; it comes with the Pro but not with the regular version of the keyboard. Its purpose is to let you use number pad keys, when it’s held down. (You can also hit the Keypad button to activate those keys for long term use, or if you don’t have a foot pedal.) It’s solidly enough built to survive life on the floor, and has just the right sensitivity, so you can rest your foot on it without inadvertently activating it. I initially thought I’d be forever getting my foot tangled in the cable, but in practice I’ve only rarely tripped on it.
As I wrote above, the keyboard ships configured for a Macintosh. As far as the Mac is concerned, the Kinesis Advantage Pro is just another USB keyboard: no special drivers are required. Programmable macros are handled within the keyboard, which has its own memory, rather than by software put on the computer. So you can plug it in and start typing.
The keyboard has a USB port into which you can plug your mouse, and a strange little telephone wire type cable that is used to connect the foot pedal. Kinesis, like every company except for Apple, is aware that some people don’t put their keyboards right on top of their computer, and so they have wisely provided a USB cable long enough to reach your computer without an extension cable.
Getting Used to It
The Kinesis keyboard ships with a small booklet of “Adaptation Exercises” designed to get you going using the keyboard. I don’t want to sound harsh, but the exercises are deadly dull:
afrf aded afrf aded afvf adcd afvf adcd juj; afad juj; afad kik; fsff kik; fsff graf olok graf olok bavf kuj; bavf luj; swsf ljuj swsf ljuj deda lolj deda lokj
is really not the most interesting introduction to using a new keyboard. The adaptation exercises are certainly well-intentioned, and good for what they are, with the text between exercises having a friendly and helpful tone, but a few exercises in, I decided I’d had enough.
Typing was slow, at first, but the only real difficulty I had was the backspace/space issue I mentioned above. The Advantage Pro allows you to remap keys, so I knew I could remap backspace to the Delete key beside it, and then remap the Backspace key to act as a second space key. I resisted only because, hey, I’m reviewing this keyboard, I should subject myself to the “out of the box” experience, at least at first. (Eventually, I gave up and remapped the keys.)
It probably took me longer to get up to full typing speed on the keyboard than it would take most users: I use a number of different computers every day, so I wasn’t able to use the Kinesis keyboard exclusively. That meant I was un-reinforcing what I was learning about the new keyboard every time I sat down and typed at a traditional one. (That may also be responsible for my inability to adjust to only having a space key under one thumb.)
That said, it took about 3-4 weeks to get up to a comfortable percentage of my flat keyboard typing speed. Only for the first week or so was I thinking of the Kinesis keyboard as a hindrance to my typing, where I really had to force myself to use it rather than switch to another keyboard to hammer out a quick document. Let me add that Kinesis recommends that you not try starting with their keyboard at a time when you’re going to have to do lots of work at high speed. That’s reasonable; all they’re saying is, it’ll take a little time to get accustomed to the different keyboard configuration.
Not that it’s really that different, at least on paper. All the keys are where you’d expect to find them in a typical QWERTY layout. The difference is that the keys are placed in vertical rows, rather than staggered, and that they are in a kind of a concave bowl, so they aren’t quite where your fingers are used to finding them. They’re close, but it takes time to adjust to the difference.
Two things I never got used to, and which can’t really be helped, are these: First, there’s no Enter key on the far right side of the keyboard. With a regular keyboard, I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping my trackball just to the right of the keyboard, and frequently hit the enter key with my mousing hand, without removing my hand from the trackball. That’s something I can no longer do. Also, it’s more difficult to type with just one hand on this keyboard, due to the great separation between the left and right hand keys. If you like to keep one hand on the mouse and type the occasional word with the other hand on the keyboard (as I do when editing documents), you’ll find this keyboard requires a lot more arm movement than a conventional keyboard does.
My perspective on what constitutes an ergonomic keyboard has been forever altered by the DataHand, which I reviewed some time ago. Comparisons between that keyboard and this one are as unavoidable as they are unfair: this keyboard costs 1/3 what the Datahand does; it is simply not reasonable to expect that level of ergonomic design from the Advantage Pro.
The key press on this keyboard is wonderful. The pressure required to activate a key feels just right, and a sound (quiet, but there, and you can turn it off if it bothers you) lets you know that you’ve pressed the key hard enough to activate it (type the letter). From that point, the key can still be pressed what feels like a good distance. That means that you’re not pushing your finger into something that won’t move: you don’t push the key all the way down. There’s a lot less stress on my fingers when I use this keyboard, and I can feel it.
The left and right hand keys are separated, which keeps you from having to angle your arms in towards your belly button and turn your wrists out. While that’s an improvement over a traditional keyboard, the distance and angle between the two sides of the keyboard are fixed, which is a big negative: not all people are the same size. That means it’s likely you’ll experience some ulnar deviation, albeit significantly less than on a traditional keyboard.
The keyboard is higher in the middle than it is on the ends: not by much, but enough to put your thumb about 20 degrees higher than your little finger, according to Kinesis. That’s great, because you actually have to twist your hands to get them into the palm-down position keyboards require. I maintain that ideally, a keyboard would be angled at least 60 degrees (i.e., your palms facing more towards each other than towards the floor), but the angle offered by Kinesis Advantage Pro is still an improvement over the flatness of traditional keyboards.
In spite of the placement of the keys in concave bowls, and their vertical alignment, you still have to either stretch your fingers to reach certain keys, or lift your wrists from the wrist rests and move your arm. This is just what you get with a traditional keyboard, only very slightly lessened by the Advantage Pro’s design.
The benefit to putting the keys in two concave bowls, in my view, is that it places the keys below the wrists if you rest them on the keyboard. That fights dorsiflexion, or the upwards bending of the wrist. (If you have the “feet” out on your traditional keyboard, please, for your wrists sake, get rid of them. If anything, feet should be at the front of the keyboard, not the back, so the keyboard slopes down away from you.)
The only problem I had with this keyboard is awfully minor, and only happened twice. I’d come back to my computer after not using it a while, and the screensaver had kicked in. I hit a key on the keyboard to wake the computer up, and nothing happened. Mouse movements work, though, and the mouse is plugged in through the keyboard, so there isn’t a physical connection problem. But it seems as though the keyboard isn’t connected to the computer anymore. Unplugging the keyboard and plugging it back in solved the problem both times it occurred.
The Kinesis Advantage Pro keyboard isn’t the god of ergonomic keyboards, but it is decidedly more comfortable to use than its traditional brethren, and offers some ergonomic benefits. It is Macintosh-friendly, and programmable, with the ability to remap keys and create macros. If you’re looking to avoid developing RSI, or you just want a more pleasant keyboarding experience, the Kinesis Advantage Pro is well worth considering.
Also in This Series
- Review: Kinesis Advantage Pro · January 2003
- Review: Datahand Professional II · May 2001