Kinesis Contoured Keyboard: first impressions

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I just received my Kinesis Contoured keyboard and thought that those of you who actually care about the ergonomics of your work environment might appreciate my first impressions of it. I also needed an excuse to type something so as to get used to it. ;)

Now, before I get started I should mention, as many of you already know, that I take my ergonomics seriously. I endured two weeks of painfully slow typing while I retrained myself to use the Dvorak keyboard layout because doing so involves provably less contorting and reaching, and is thus less wear on your hands. Being a programmer, and wanting to continue to be a programmer for the foreseeable future, and having the tendency to come home and either write or code after a long day of writing or coding I believe it to be in my best interest to take preventative measures to not end up in wrist braces unable to type for more than a few hours at a time. I use a trackball that involves minimal thumb movement, and nothing else, and now I, finally, have a keyboard that’s actually ergonomically designed. Let me explain…

<sarcasm>Unlike most “ergo” keyboard the Kinesis Contoured is, and I realize this may sound a bit crazy at first, contoured to fit your fingers. I know, I know, you’re thinking “But masukomi! Fingers should be contoured to match the shape of the keyboard not the other way around!” But, bear with me. I think these Kinesis people may actually be on to something. Instead of just splitting a keyboard so that your arms weren’t bent anymore they actually discovered the amazing fact that finger-tips don’t form a straight line! I know, who would have guessed?! So they went and designed a keyboard where the keys that fell under your “longer” fingers were farther away so that when you rest your fingers on the keyboard they, get this, “rest” lightly against the keys without having the longer fingers being arched back more than the shorter ones.</sarcasm>

Traditional keyboards which were designed with diagonal rows because otherwise connecting the levers that moved the strikers would have been much more difficult. Oddly most keyboard manufacturers don’t seem to have noticed that we don’t have levers and strikers and paper rolled around a drum any more. Kinesis, bright folks that they are, did notice this. So they decided to lay the keys out in straight rows that aligned with the way you curve your fingers back and out so no more shifting to the side a little to get the key “below” the one your finger is currently on. This is a decidedly weird feeling at first. You don’t realize how many weird contortions you’ve been doing until you suddenly have to train yourself to not do them any more.

The arrow keys are no longer over in an inverted T that you have to move your fingers away from the letters to use anymore. Instead they’re 2 rows below the home keys, which would absolutely suck on a traditional keyboard but on this keyboard makes you go “Oh my god! I didn’t realize reaching for arrow keys was just as bad as reaching for the mouse!” Of course now they’re in a completely different place so that’s going to take some getting used to but they feel so, so much better in the new place that I can’t wait to get used to them here.

They’ve moved a few other non-letter keys around and for the most part I agree with the choices, although I’m not sure what the thinking was behind moving the = - and ~ keys around was. Getting used to the new location of the control keys is also going to take some getting used to but the space, backspace, and delete keys rock in their new homes: very comfortable, very natural, although the space bar is only accessible from the right hand so the default location might be an issue for lefties, fortunately you can remap keys. As a lefty I’d probably swap the sides of the four large thumb keys. You can take a gander at the keyboard layout of the Contoured here. So far the only keys that look as if they’re going to take any real time to get used to are the arrow keys and the control other than that it’s very nice. The number keys are now so easy to reach that I don’t think I’m going to want to take advantage of the keypad option (like the one on your laptop except it’s useful because the keys are in straight rows not screwed up diagonals).

The keyboard makes a small click when each key is activated which, if i had of heard about beforehand would have turned me off, but it’s so subtle that I wasn’t even sure it was happening, and while you can turn it off I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an excellent feature that’s sorely lacking in other keyboards. The reason I like it is because I actually tend to use real passwords with like thirteen characters, numbers, and various capitalisation’s. The problem I have is that sometimes in the middle of typing in a password I won’t know if I actually pressed that key enough of if I just think I pressed the key enough and if I press it again will I end up that character typed twice or just once. I also type quickly (80-120wpm) and without looking at the keyboard so I either have the option of stopping and counting how many black dots are in the field or just wiping them all out and starting over. Now I *know* when I’ve fully depressed a key enough to activate it or not by if I’ve heard that subtle click or not. It’s not even remotely annoying because the click of the actual keys being struck is louder (no louder than most keyboards). So, it’s a nice subtle touch (no pun intended).

The one thing I really wish they had done differently was given it some weight. When I spend $250+ dollars on a keyboard I want it to feel 6 times more expensive than a $40 keyboard. I want metal and impressive thuds, but the overall construction feels no better or worse than any standard $40 keyboard I’ve tried.

Final verdict? This thing rocks and I’m pretty sure that I need to get one for home now too because going back to that half-assed Microsoft “Ergonomic” is going to suck after using something as nice as this all day. I don’t even want to think about what typing on the horrid laptop keyboards is going to feel like after this.

And all of you people who keep saying “I can only type on a straight keyboard” or “I like straight keyboards” should really stop for a minute and ask yourself if whatever it is that keeps you from switching to something that actually resembles the way your hands and arms are shaped is really worth the increased risk of carpal tunnel? I don’t think it really matters much for casual typists but if you spend your day clicking away at a keyboard like I do then I think you should seriously re-evaluate what you’re putting your hands, wrists, and arms through. Sure those ergo keyboards may feel “weird” and make you type like a dork at first but you get used to them really quickly (usually within an hour or two) and you tend to find that the movements that are hardest to get used to on the new keyboards are the ones that you really shouldn’t have been doing in the first place. Maybe you’re not convinced enough to plunk down´┐Ż $250 dollars on a keyboard like this one. But maybe you should consider something that’s at least a little better than that crap straight keyboard. And, at the very least, stop putting up those little feet at the back of your keyboard. They force your wrists to bend upwards more when they should really be straight like a concert pianists. The only reason those feet exist is because typewriters used to have to have rising rows of keys so that the levers didn’t collide. Do you really think you should be compensating for non-existent levers?