If you do a lot of typing — or if you have employees who do a lot of typing - ergonomic keyboards make a great deal of sense. Jack Wallen reviews 10 outstanding keyboards that will prevent the strain that standard keyboards place on the body.
I type a LOT. As a freelance writer, I am currently writing around 14 articles a week, as well as working on novels. Add to that the barrage of email I send out day in and day out. And if that weren't bad enough, I have issues that stem from elbow and wrist overuse. So you can see why an ergonomic keyboard is a necessity in my life. In the corporate environment, the problem is compounded by a loss of work when an employee goes down with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Now, I know there are those out there that dismiss "ergonomics" as nothing more than a buzzword or waste of time and costly resources. I generally tell those people to wait around and see how it feels when continued overuse and misuse of their hands and arms brings them to their knees in pain. But no one needs to suffer like that. There are too many outstanding solutions that can aid in the prevention of such disorders and discomfort.
These issues can be avoided with exercise, rest, and the right keyboard. But which one? Many keyboards claim to be ergonomic — and some of them actually do work and work well. In this article, I will highlight only the ones that do actually make good on their claims. These will be in no specific order, and you'll notice a number of keyboards from one company - Kinesis - because it has nearly perfected the ergonomic keyboard.
Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.
This is my own personal choice in keyboard. It's the Mac Daddy of ergo-keyboards. Not only has the keyboard been split in half, you can adjust the splay (the horizontal plane angle) to any degree of separation that the tether will allow. And with the addition of the VIP kit, you can adjust the tent of the keypads. The tent refers to the tilt of the keyboards. You can go from flat to roughly 10 to 15 degrees. You can even have each keypad at different tent angles and different splay angles.
The only downside to the Freestyle (with or without the VIP) is the learning curve your fingers will have to go through. Some of the keys (in particular the Delete, End, and Home keys) are not in their standard locations or reach. Outside of that, the Freestyle is the ideal candidate for anyone suffering from pain associated with poor keyboards and improper use. For more details on the VIP, see this Product Spotlight.
If you can pay the price for one of these keyboards ($359.00 for the Advantage Pro), your arms and wrists will thank you for it. So will your back, and your shoulders, and your neck... This keyboard forces you to use good habits. The keypads are on the outer edges of the physical keyboard and rest in a scooped-out hollow, forcing your hands to work in a near-perfect position.
This keyboard also has programmable keys that allow unlimited remapping of keys, with 24, 36, or 48 macros of up to 56 characters. You can switch these keyboards between QWERTY and Dvorak layouts. You will not find, anywhere, a more versatile keyboard focused solely on proper typing position, ease of use, and comfort.
The Maxim takes the standard "natural wave" keyboard and gives it the ability to pivot on an axis. What's nice about this product is that it can be used as a standard keyboard or it can be easily configured into a naturally fitting position. The beauty of the Maxim is that it can resemble the layout of the Freestyle VIP without requiring a kit of any sort (although the tent and splay do not expand as far as they do on the Freestyle VIP). It's also nice to have the option of using the Maxim as a standard keyboard, which will come in handy when you have little space to work with.
The Tru-Form is for those who don't want to pony up for a Kinesis keyboard but need as much of the benefits as possible at a lower price. This keyboard has what seems like the standard split and contour of the Microsoft Natural Wave keyboard. However, when you use it, you realize it has taken the idea of the Natural Wave and improved upon it greatly. The split and the contour are much more in line with the natural typing position. One feature you will greatly enjoy is the added trackpad beneath the space bars. This will keep you from having to use your mouse, which is another culprit that adds to the wrist/arm issues. It also offers both USB and PS/2 connections.
Although this keyboard will not save you from carpal tunnel, as the Kinesis keyboards will, it will not break your budget. At nearly one-half to one-sixth the cost of the Kinesis keyboards, the Tru-Form is the best of the standard Wave keyboards. There is one problem with the Tru-Form: The keyboard sits at an incline from the space bar, which can put you in an unnatural position. I have alleviated this problem by propping up the side of the keyboard closest to me by about an inch. This changes the position enough to bring my arms and shoulders into a much more normal, ergonomic position.
The Goldtouch Go! was, at one point, the gold standard for ergonomic keyboards. Then, the Kinesis keyboards were released and usurped the throne. But that doesn't mean the Goldtouch Go! is a piece of hardware to ignore. It's the ideal external keyboard for on-the-go users. It has a tiny footprint with keys nearly the same size as those on a 14" notebook. With the added ability to splay and tent, it's like you have an ergonomic laptop. And unlike the Kinesis Freestyle, the Go! can actually adjust from 0 degrees all the way to a 30-degree tent. That is some serious angle that will accommodate nearly any hand position need.
I used this keyboard for a long time, before dropping the cash for the Kinesis. It probably has the lowest learning curve of all the ergonomic keyboards. What this keyboard suffers in range of position, it makes up for with a multitude of multimedia and special buttons that keep the user from having to reach from mouse to keyboard and back again. So if your biggest problem is pain from using a mouse, this keyboard might be a great replacement — and it won't have you pulling out your hair trying to figure out where the keys are. The price won't break your IT budget, either.
The Fentek will have you staring at your desk like a child at Christmas when you first lay your eyes on it. This system has three pieces: left hand, right hand, and numeric keypad. Each piece is separate and is held aloft on a stand that adjusts from 0 to 90 degrees. This system holds a seemingly infinite number of possible positions, and it locks into place. It also has programmable macro keys that allow you to configure a series of keystrokes to a single keypress. The price is steep, $349 to $369, but for those who need the most flexible keyboard available, the price is worth it.
This pedal system is factory programmed to emulate a mouse, but it can be reprogrammed to emulate any keystroke, saving serious wear and tear on your digits, arms, and shoulders. It works with nearly all operating systems. However, only Windows 2000 and XP enjoy the full range of features. (The programming driver currently doesn't work on Vista.) You can create macros for up to 1,200 characters per unit. If you have serious issues with carpal tunnel or shoulder issues and you need to save as many keystrokes as you can, these pedals can be a lifesaver.
When you first look at this piece of hardware, you'll think, "There is no way I could use that." Yes, the orbiTouch does take some getting used to, but it truly is a revolutionary way to interface with your computer. Instead of using your fingers to type, you use your hands and arms to manipulate two domes that slide into various positions to type numbers. This keyboard has made it possible for users with physical barriers to be able to "type." Each dome moves approximately 7mm into eight positions. Obviously, the learning curve is much steeper than for other keyboards, but this keyboard has enabled quadriplegics to use a PC. The price is steep, at $399.
The SafeType looks like it came out of a Star Trek Next Generation episode. It's a full-on 3D keyboard that completely eliminates extension, ulnar-deviation, and pronation. Extensive research has gone into creating a typing position that has near zero negative effects on the structures of the arms and wrist. SafeType claims that most ergonomic keyboards simply move the stresses placed by normal keyboard use to other locations in the body (the shoulders, neck, and elbows, primarily). You can watch the instructional video to see how well the SafeType keeps these stresses from the body. The SafeType costs $295.
Worth the price
Those are 10 possible solutions - each of which will help relieve the strain that standard keyboards place on the muscles, ligaments, bones, and nerves. If you do a lot of typing, or if you have employees who do a lot of typing, it's worth investing in one of these solutions. The money you will save from the loss of work caused by keyboard-induced repetitive stress injury will pay for the product in no time.
Sign up for 10 Things... the newsletter!
Get the key facts on a wide range of technologies, techniques, strategies, and skills with the help of the concise need-to-know lists featured in TechRepublic's 10 Things newsletter, delivered every Friday. Automatically sign up today.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.