Apple Option Ouch

Searching for a keyboard that won’t hurt my hands, shoulders, or wallet.

In my reckless youth, I dismissed ergonomics as a passing fad—a marketing gimmick targeted at discontented office workers eager to milk their employers for every last company-subsidized freebie. But when I hurt my shoulder and any prolonged typing became an excruciating experience, my skepticism turned to curiosity.

To familiarize myself with the basic principles of ergonomics, I flipped open Merriam-Webster, which provides this definition: “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.” In other words, we function better sitting upright at an expensively customized desk than slouched over a laptop in bed.

Somewhat versed in this dubious-sounding theory, I moved on to practical advice: I asked a friend at Google—that bastion of workplace perks—to send me a complete inventory of his most essential ergonomic tools. “It’s all about the keyboard,” he told me. I admit I remained unconvinced: Could such a minor office accessory really improve my workday and possibly even halt the aging of my body? As part of my never-ending quest to conquer back pain without relinquishing all contact with computers, I decided to find the best ergonomic keyboard on the market.

I tested six ergonomic keyboards ranging in price from $57 to $299. To ensure my impressions were accurate, I used every keyboard exclusively for at least two weeks, subjecting each one to the thrilling gamut of my daily activities: spooling out interview transcripts, entering numbers onto TurboTax, and just futzing around on the Internet. Each keyboard could score a possible 30 points, with five, 10, or 15 points assigned for the following categories:

Painkiller (15 points):A well-designed ergonomic keyboard should make the business of typing as efficient and pain-free as possible, which is why, in evaluating each model, I paid careful attention to how my body felt after long sessions at the desk. Did the keyboard force my body into more correct habits? Did my fingers move less; were my shoulders more relaxed? Were my wrists better aligned with my arms?

Ease of use (10 points): Most ergonomic keyboards require some degree of adaptation—but are these little adjustments worth the hassle? How long does it take to get used to the new style of typing and to master each keyboard’s idiosyncrasies? Are the function keys (Ctrl/Alt/Shift and so forth) logically placed?

Frills factor (5 points):A keyboard should first and foremost facilitate typing, but I’m not complaining if I can also operate iTunes or Firefox with minimal finger motion. And if you’re ponying up for a luxury keyboard, you might as well score some nice extras, like media-control pads and devices to cut back on mousing.

The results, from back-breaking to blissful:

Adesso Tru-Form Pro Contoured Ergonomic Keyboard, $132.54 (on sale for $57.92) This split keyboard—in one piece, but divided down the middle between the 6-T-G-B and the 7-Y-H-N keys—makes definite concessions to those shadowy principles of ergonomics: The extremely responsive keys are arranged into a wave, presumably to encourage a rounder shoulder position. The Adesso also sports a number pad and various smart keys: volume controls, buttons for e-mail, digital-photo programs, and shortcuts to favorite Web sites. And alone among the keyboards I tested, the Adesso features a touchpad just beneath the space bar (roughly where it would be on a laptop keyboard), which is designed to reduce reliance on the mouse.

For all these special features, the Adesso falls short. Bizarrely, the fixed-height keyboard slants upward from the space bar toward the function keys. The slope should go in the opposite direction, forcing arms, hands, and fingers to into an unbroken, downward-pointing line. When typing with the Adesso, I was forced to bend my hands upward from my wrist—an even more awkward contortion than that necessitated by a cheapo flattop keyboard. And however much I tried, I simply could not cultivate the habit of using the touchpad.

Painkiller: 5
Ease of use: 6
Frills factor: 4
Total: 15 (out of 30)

Goldtouch Ergonomic Keyboard, $109.99
The Goldtouch is a simple split keyboard that tents in the middle to allow height adjustments. Because the two halves were joined at the middle, I had to keep my arms painfully close to my torso at all times. My shoulders always felt pinched.

The Goldtouch has none of the extras usually associated with ergonomic keyboards—not just no variation in key size and height, but no numeric keypad or one-touch iTunes activator—and only a few volume-control keys. Admittedly, as I said earlier, a keyboard has but one do-or-die duty, and that’s to type out words. But even on this count, the Goldtouch just never felt all that smooth. While most keys required only the lightest tapping, the “I” key started sticking after only a few uses.

Painkiller: 10
Ease of use: 5
Frills factor: 1
Total: 16 (out of 30)

Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000, $149.99 (on sale for $69.99) This semi-split keyboard, with a 12-degree angle down the midline, is rounded to encourage a straighter hand-wrist alignment while typing. Other features include a nice padded wrist rest, lots of multifunction buttons to minimize mousing, and a wonderful vertical mouse. Both keyboard and mouse are wireless, too, which makes for an enviably tidy desktop.

So what’s the problem? While the Microsoft doesn’t require the same lengthy acclimation period as a real split keyboard, it also doesn’t deliver the same results. It’s only marginally more comfortable than a standard keyboard. And, after my two-week trial period, my subpar typing habits, like occasionally using just my right index finger to peck at the keys, were fundamentally unchanged.

Painkiller: 7
Ease of use: 9
Frills factor: 4
Total: 20 (out of 30)

Logitech Cordless Desktop Wave, $89.99 (on sale for $59.99)
The Desktop Wave has a great deal in common with the Microsoft keyboard. Both are conveniently cordless, both have nice squishy palm rests and useful multifunction quick keys, and both come with fantastic mice that encourage you to cup your hand over the mouse rather than position your pinkie down at an angle Mother Nature never intended.

The two keyboards are also ergonomic only in the loosest sense of the term: In the case of the Desktop Wave, the only real concession to ergonomics seems to be the adjustable height of the keyboard and the “waved” positioning and varying key heights. But ergonomic or not, the Desktop Wave is an exceptionally comfortable keyboard that may suit typists who aren’t quite ready to make the leap into the split-keyboard universe—more a stepping-stone than a salvation. For its more svelte design, I’d choose it over the Microsoft.

Painkiller: 7
Ease of use: 9
Frills factor: 4
Total: 20 (out of 30)

Kinesis Freestyle VIP, $149.00 The Kinesis Freestyle is pretty much a standard keyboard that happens to split in two, which makes for swift adaptation. The two halves of this keyboard are connected by a cord, so you can separate them up to 8 inches. I went for maximum separation to increase my wing span, though I occasionally adjusted this distance for the sake of experimentation.

The “VIP” kit includes a variety of incline accessories that allow you to position the keyboard at three different angles. You can place the keyboard on a stand, or with two separate risers underneath, or just use it “solo,” without any of the add-ons. Though I have no major complaints about this user-friendly keyboard, I’m not sure the price is quite right. There’s nothing special about the keys themselves—no variation in size or height, no number pad or extra-special smart keys—and the VIP kit should come as part of the standard package. Without it, nothing much stands out about this keyboard.

Painkiller: 12
Ease of use: 9
Frills factor: 1
Total: 22 (out of 30)

Kinesis Advantage Ergonomic Keyboard, $299.00
Yes, yes, I know: This keyboard is insanely, obscenely expensive—wouldn’t my money be better spent on a share of Google stock? Classic second-cheapest-wine-on-the-list consumer that I am, I might never have tried this keyboard if not for research purposes. But I’m glad I took the plunge, because the Kinesis Advantage is hands-down the most habit-changing keyboard on the market today—a keyboard that can convince even the most stubborn skeptics that ergonomics really is a science and not just another consumer ploy.

It’s a good thing it comes with a booklet of typing exercises (afad jujswsf ljuj swsf ljuj …)to help acclimate you to the funky placement of most keys. The keyboard is both split and dramatically concave, with deeper hollows for the longer fingers and shallower ones for pinkies, encouraging vertical finger movement. Adaptation is supposed to take three to five days; it definitely took me the better part of a week. But long before I could touch-type Enter, Backspace, and Space Bar (all of which are in radically different positions than on a standard QWERTY keyboard), I was a convert.

The designers of the Kinesis Advantage really thought long and hard about which typing habits cause repetitive stress injuries (for example, italicizing a word by pressing the Ctrl/Apple key and the “I” key with different fingers of the same hand) and went out of their way to eliminate them. This keyboard doesn’t allow you to take the usual typing shortcuts—if you try to use the wrong finger to touch a key, the Kinesis will trip you up, and you will eventually have to learn a safer technique. If you’re using the keyboard correctly, your fingers need barely move at all. Another plus is the foot pedal, which you can customize to replace any frequently used key. Now, instead of hitting Shift to capitalize a word, I simply press the pedal and, voila, the work is done for me.

I can’t say that the Kinesis Advantage is for everyone—the price is still a tough barrier to ignore—but for the constitutionally gauche like myself, products that force good habits, like this one, merit the occasional splurge.                  

Painkiller: 15
Ease of use: 5
Frills factor: 5
Total: 25 (out of 30)