Engineering

Attempting and Modifying the Kinesis Advantage

Getting Started with the Kinesis

Recently I started work at Grand Rounds. Here I’ve had the opportunity to test a few mechanical keyboards and play with several others. Eventually I settled on attempting the Kinesis Advantage. It looked intimidating but almost every single review was incredible. I talked to a few friends who use them, and all of them had high recommendations. I had some wrist and shoulder pain from typing, so I decided to give it a try.

Kinesis Keyboard
Promotional picture of the Kinesis Advantage

Improving My Typing Speed

Getting started was difficult, but I was expecting that. Day one was very mediocre. Day two was somehow worse. Typing felt like speaking a foreign language, specifically a really dull foreign language that would get you no cool points.

Day three was not very noticeable, but definitely slow. I took typing tests and watched my speed go from 15wpm, to 25wpm, to 40wpm, and now (three weeks later) to around 60wpm. I kept track using keybr.com, a really useful and free tool which I recommend.

statistics
According to this one chart my ‘score’ has improved a lot. Not exactly sure what it refers to as ‘typing speed’ in comparison though.

Typing on the Kinesis forces you to type correctly. The shape makes it difficult to use fingers for far-away keys. I found this to be really good practice, and I believe that practicing proper technique on this keyboard will make me a better typer. It also forced me to research and pay attention to proper typing techniques. For instance, I never was aware of the heuristic of always using a modifier key on one side of the keyboard with a keyboard key on the other side. For instance, when typing capital ‘F’, one should use the right shift key, so that both hands are doing something simple rather than one doing something complex. It takes some getting used to but definitely seems preferable.

Configuring Modifier Keys

I loved the thumb keys. These are honestly are my favorite aspect of this keyboard. I’ve always had trouble sorting out the Control / Alt/ Option keys, and putting them all in once place with easy access was a huge improvement.

It became apparent that with some modification, my hands wouldn’t have to leave the home row for most commands. My fingers could stay on the home row and my two thumbs would work together to handle modifiers. With this keyboard, the bottom three thumb keys on each side were easily reachable (the rest required me to move my wrist), and I figured that a few of these were too important to move elsewhere: back space, enter, and space.

home row positions
Diagram showing natural finger position and accessible thumb keys

On the left side, I switched the huge delete key for Control, and the end key for Alt. On the right, I replaced Control with Tab. On my computer I’m trying to map Alt key combinations to commands that work between programs, and Control for commands that work in programs. For example, alt-f toggles my terminal, and of course alt-tab switches tabs. Control gets called more than Alt so uses the larger button, and Tab is on the left side because it had to be used in combination with Alt. This way I wouldn’t need to have one thumb press multiple buttons. I used a labeler to put labels on the modified keys.

During this time I also worked to configure many of my applications to use vim key bindings. I re-started using vimium on chrome, vi-mode in terminal, and vi-mode in Tmux. This is really enjoyable because the main movement keys, ‘h’, ‘j’, ‘k’, and ‘l’, are all on the middle right hand, so my hands don’t have to leave resting state for most navigation.

Of course, once you recognize an area of opportunity, it’s really hard to stop short of what’s obviously left. I realized that the QWERT layout itself is poorly optimized for keeping your hands on the home row. Dvorak, and especially Colemak are a lot more reasonable. I’ve always been intimidated by these, but now that I’ve overcome the hurdle of getting used to the Kinesis, I kind of am looking forward to another challenge. Perhaps after I master this set up.

Colemak vs. QWERT Comparison
Heatmaps of key usage for different keyboard layouts. Found by Louie Help at Rockstar Research.

Improving the Keys

Apparently the Kinesis Advantage uses cherry brown switches, but these definitely felt inferior to similar mechanical keyboards that I tested. Not only did my fingers feel a bit cramped, but the keys seemed to have a very long distance before bottoming out, and felt more squishy than other keys. I think that the angle made it more difficult to fully press the top and side keys.

This drove me absolutely crazy. The comfort of the positioning made it worth it, but I definitely didn’t enjoy pressing the keys, especially compared to a similar Das Keyboard with cherry blue switches. I considered getting a second non-Kinesis mechanical keyboard to use for ‘fun’ on occasion because I really missed the feeling of great mechanical keys.

I spent an evening with another cherry brown keyboard, switching keys caps to see if those were a problem. Compared to other keyboards, the Advantage uses very wide key caps. I tried switching a few key caps on a Rosewill Keyboard to the Advantage. They did feel better. However, the home row Kinesis blue keys were uniquely designed and the Rosewill’s didn’t work well in their place. This was because they were a bit too short, making it difficult to go from the home row to the row above without hitting the top keys.

qwer keys replaced on Kinesis
Kinesis right half with the QWERT and ZXCV keys from a Rosewill keyboard. The Rosewill key caps were more smooth and enjoyable to type on, but their shorter hight made them difficult to use with the keyboard shape.

Adding O-Rings

Next I decided to try out o-rings. These are little rubber rings that go inside the key caps and reduce the distance before bottoming out. I found a package of 100 for $2.08 and installed a few.

Different kinds of o-rings
Picture of two kinds of o-rings. I’ve only tried the 70A rings listed above.

I put one ring each in several keys, and the keyboard felt slightly better. I still wasn’t satisfied, but then a coworker suggested trying two. This made a big difference. The keys bottomed out far faster and the rubber helped them ‘spring’ up, making it easy to tap buttons multiple times. Of course, this led me to wonder if 3 would be possible. It was definitely a tight fit, but 3 o-rings worked on several keys.

I really liked how o-rings could be added to customize the feel of each key. I put one o-ring on the keys close to my index and middle finger, 2 on most of the edges, and three on the arrow keys and a few others where rapid pressing was particularly advantageous. Some of the number keys had trouble receiving inputs; I would have to type hard or press multiple times. For these specific keys I would either remove an o-ring or try to push the o-rings more into the key. One issue I noticed later was that the keys with three o-rings would sometimes pop off. This wasn’t a huge issue, but in a few instances I decided to remove an o-ring from those.

The keys on the sides of my pinkies were no longer such a chore to press, and actually felt quite comfortable (kind of like Apple chiclet keys). I tried it with and without o-rings, and with the Rosewill key caps with and without o-rings. At this point I felt very little difference between the kinds of key caps, but a huge difference because of the o-rings. Those are definitely the best $2.00 investment I’ve done in a while and now I actually prefer using these keys to the other mechanical keyboards mentioned earlier.

Challenges of Switching Keyboards

The worst part about using the Kinesis is that it made other keyboards substantially less preferable. I would say that it spoils you if the important changes weren’t so simple and obvious. Going back to my laptop I couldn’t help but focus on the obvious strain of keeping my hands inwards and completely parallel, or the space bar which seems significantly large for any programmer.

I became used to hitting modifier keys with my thumbs. I couldn’t do that with other keyboards. Instead I would need to resort to strange ring-finger contortions that used to feel impressive. And after I spent a few hours on a laptop keyboard, going back to the Kinesis became a bit more difficult.

I decided to order myself a Kinesis for home. Typing this post now I’m at home on an old chiclet mac keyboard and just dreaming of the thing. I really can’t stand most other keyboards at this point.

So I expect to have one Kinesis Advantage at work, and one at home. But that leaves coffee shops, or basically any other place. The Kinesis is not a very portable device.

It dawned on my that ideally I could pair up my Kinesis with an iPad for more portable use. Research into this has so far cost me substantial time and effort for little reward. If I make much progress with that I’ll publish it in a future post.

Should You Get a Kinesis Advantage?

I’m definitely satisfied with the keyboard. But is it worth the time and money? I think this is a personal decision, but here are the main strengths and weaknesses, as I see them.

Strengths

  • Natural hand placement
    Unlike standard keyboard layouts, this one allows your hands some distance and an angle between each other. The Kinesis Freestyle 2 is even more flexible at this, but doesn’t have mechanical switches or the thumb keys.
  • Thumb keys
    These are the most amazing idea to me and a huge advantage. I’ve read that some programmers report typing 5-10% faster on this keyboard, I could easily imagine that these keys could do more than that to my workflow.
  • Less pain
    Even if you don’t suffer from wrist or shoulder pain, consider that you may one day. A keyboard or two are a whole lot less expensive than time off of work.
  • Mechanical Switches
    These are fantastic once you get used to them. The Kinesis Advantage ships with cherry browns or cherry reds.

Weaknesses

  • Price
    It’s $270 on Amazon, and you’ll probably want at least two if you work at different places.
  • Time commitment It definitely slowed me down for a few days. However, I think this is a minor cost. The greater cost may be the difficulty of switching from this to other keyboards if you use the modifier keys a lot.
  • Portability
    This is not only a large keyboard to bring around, but it’s not bluetooth and has a very difficult time connecting to iPads or other portable electronics.
  • Lack of Adjustment
    As good as the shape is, I would still prefer being able to move both hands farther apart from each other, like with the Freestyle 2. One forum poster actually sawed his Kinesis in two to get this effect.

Unsure

  • Shape
    Kinesis claims the curved shape is ergonomic, but I’m not sure how much it helps.

Competitors Emerge

A few other keyboards have started to appear with mechanical keys, separated hands, and thumb switches. None of these are available now (to my knowledge), but some should go for sale soon.

The first is the Ergo Dox Keyboard. These have gone on sale on massdrop previously, and are expected to again, perhaps sometime in the next few months. It comes as a kit that needs to be put together, which I personally expect to find enjoyable. The Ergo Dox has had generally high reviews, although several people complained that the thumb keys are too close to the others.

Ergo Dox Keyboard Design

The second is keyboardio. This was made by a small team in a very long and well thought out process. I like how they have palm switches and their thumb switches seem to be laid out better. Plus, I beleive they will use Bluetooth, which makes them much more portable friendly. They say they will have a Kickstarter ‘eventually’. No word on price, but I’m guessing $150+.

Keyboardio

I’m most excited about the keyboardio, but am worried that it could take several months before the first batch gets sent (and possibly much longer if the first version has problems.) In the mean time I suggest trying out a Kinesis.