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Ergonomics: Kinesis Freestyle Keyboard and Evoluent Vertical Mouse

emoticon:globesearch I've been using computers for a long time, and for most of that time I've been using them for the whole of the working day and often the rest of the day too. A few years ago I started getting pains in my wrists (classic programmer's RSI) and began using wrist rests and an ergonomic keyboard.

Without these accessories my wrists begin to hurt within about ten minutes of typing. With good ergonomic gear I can spend all day every day slaving over a warm keyboard and not worry about it. Because they fix the bug in my DNA I've never taken the problem to a doctor nor had any professional diagnosis. What follows here is purely based on my experiences. If you have RSI, or are starting to get pains when you type, seeking professional advice is a much better idea than paying attention to anything I might write...

Ergonomic keyboards aren't just about comfort or combatting RSI. One of the ways they reduce stress on the hands and wrists is by minimising movements needed to reach the keys. This means you can type faster. They often achieve this with unusual keyboard shapes, which makes touch typing essential. So as an added side effect your touch typing will have to improve.

My first ergonomic keyboard was a Microsoft Natural 4000. I've always been happy with it as a keyboard, and compared to many ergonomic keyboards it's very cheap. It's main drawback is that with the palm rest in place it's pretty big.

One PyCon Chris Perkins introduced me to the Kinesis Advantage keyboard. You can see from this photo that it's a very odd looking keyboard.

The Kinesis Advantage Keyboard

The Kinesis advantage is basically a plastic block with two wells for the keys, along with palm rests just below the wells. With your palms on the rests your hands are in the wells, and you can reach every key, including arrow keys, without moving your hands. The downside is that you can't see the keys and you have to touch type. Once you get used to the layout you can type like the wind. I love this keyboard, I consider it the Rolls Royce of keyboards. I can type pretty much all day all week without a hint of wrist ache. The build quality of the Kinesis is "solid", but not pretty.

The UK distributor for the Kinsesis Advantage is Osmond Ergonomics. After purchasing the, very expensive, Advantage keyboard I followed Osmond on twitter and had several exchanges with Guy Osmond who runs the twitter account. He emailed me with a suggestion that I review some of their other ergonomic products. They sent me these products free of charge, but with my stipulation that I have complete editorial freedom to speak my mind in the reviews.


There's more to ergonomics than just RSI. Osmond have a website offering Posture guidance and exercises.

Osmond Ergonomics are offering a 10% for readers of this blog. Use this code on checkout: TFM022812.

Ergonomic computer equipment is of a great deal of interest to programmers. Particularly Python programmers in my circle of twitter friends / mailing lists where many of the programmers spend their free time hacking as well as their paid hours.

The two products I've been trying are the Evoluent vertical mouse and the Kinesis Freestyle split keyboard.

I've always wanted to try a split keyboard. When I travel for conferences and sprints I take a mobile workstation with me, including the Microsoft Natural Keyboard. So my question for the Freestyle was, is it good enough to replace the Advantage as my main keyboard? If not is it good enough to replace the Natural on my travels?

The unboxing:

Unboxing the Kinesis Freestyle Keyboard. From its box.

The version of the Freestyle I tried had the "VIP" stand attached. You can also use it flat or in a vertical configuration.

So my initial impressions are good. The build quality is a great improvement on my Advantage. Maybe after two years new Advantage keyboards are also better. The version I'm trying out is the PC layout rather than the Mac one, but after switching the Alt and Super keys around (in the Mac keyboard preferences) it works fine. [1]

The Kinesis Freestyle Keyboard on the VIP stand

I like the angle of the keyboard with the stand, but the raised height means I still need to use a wrist rest. Maybe I should try it flat. I've been using the Freestyle as my main keyboard now for two weeks. Because the layout is different from the Advantage (both qwerty - and both support dvorak of course - but the numbers etc are in different place) it took me a while to get used to it. Unlike the Advantage some of the keys, particularly the cursor keys, need hand movement to use. The Freestyle has a space bar on both sides of the split, which is a nice touch as you use alternate thumbs for space when touch typing. Beyond this the Freestyle is a nice and straightforward keyboard with decent key action.

After a weeks typing I do notice mild wrist ache, and I find having to move my hands to use the cursor keys more disruptive than the Advantage. The Freestyle will definitely displace the Microsoft Natural for my travels (the Natural is a huge keyboard and with the split the Freestyle is much more convenient to pack), but for day-to-day use I'll stick with the Advantage. For anyone with mild RSI, or a penchant for decent keyboards, I can heartily recommend the Kinesis Freestyle.

Some other notes about keyboards. Both the Advantage and Freestyle are wired keyboards. I would love to have either of them as wireless keyboards. Neither have number pads (well, with both you can switch part of the keyboard to be a number pad but this is fiddly). Many geeks don't like number pads and see them as unnecessary. Having worked in a builders merchant for a few years I'm pretty speedy with the number pad, much faster than with standard number keys, and so I have a separate USB number pad.

The second device I tried is the Evoluent Vertical Wireless Mouse. In my try-to-stop-my-wrist-hurting-when-I-use-the-computer adventures I first switched to a mouse mat with a wrist wrest and finally a Kensington Trackball (Slimblade). The Evoluent is an optical mouse, available wired and wireless and with left hand and right hand models.

The Evoluent Vertical Mouse alongside a Kensington Trackball

The trackball is great, and again solves all my wrist pain associated with mouse use. I do need to use a wrist rest with it so that my wrist can be fully rested whilst using the trackball, but pointer movement requires no wrist movements and finger movements are very small. I was sceptical that any mouse could be as good, but I don't take the trackball with me when I travel and have been using an apple magic mouse. The combination of multi-touch and mouse is innovative, and very well done, but I do get some pain from the magic mouse after a week long sprint. What I was looking for in the Evoluent was a mouse that could displace the magic mouse when I travel, and I was curious about whether a "vertical mouse" offered the ergonomic benefits it claimed.

First of all, because you hold the mouse vertically, it is physically bigger than I anticipated. The one I tried isn't the Mac model and has its own wireless dongle. Apparently a Mac version, using bluetooth, will be available soon. There is no Mac driver available for the Evoluent Wireless, and they warn that the multiple buttons it provides may not be useable out of the box. I use the Steermouse driver anyway, as I've tried several different mice over the years. This recognised the Evoluent and it worked with zero configuration. (I use Steermouse to reprogram the middle mouse button [2].)

To my surprise I love the Evoluent mouse, to the extent that I'm using it instead of the trackball. Holding the mouse vertically means my arm and wrist are fully rested whilst holding the mouse and there is no need for any kind of external rest. Pressing the middle button with my middle finger, instead of moving my index finger took a little bit to get used to, but there is button by the thumb grip which I reprogrammed to act as a middle button too. The Evoluent is a very well built product, not too heavy yet feeling robust and not "cheap" (which it isn't).

Because of its size, and that it would take up a precious usb port on my laptop, I'm not yet sure if I'll take the Evoluent on my travels.

In the first week of using it I was finding the pointer would get stuck every half hour or so and take a bit of "wiggling" to un-stick. This was very annoying and spoiled my enjoyment of using the mouse. At first I thought it was because of using an optical mouse on a shiny desk, so I switched to a large mouse mat. This didn't help. Eventually I twigged that it was because the wireless dongle was plugged into the back of my computer, about three foot from the mouse and under the desk. Putting the wireless dongle into my USB hub (about a foot from the mouse) completely solved the problem. The mouse works fine on the desk, but I've kept the mouse mat in place anyway.

In conclusion both the Freestyle keyboard and the Evoluent mice are great devices and whether or not you have RSI you're likely to enjoy using them. They both work fine with Windows and the Mac, with the caveats described above. I didn't investigate Linux compatibility as although I do all my day to day development in Ubuntu, it's inside a VM. For my day to day use I'm sticking with the Kinesis Advantage, but I am switching to the Evoluent as my everyday mouse.

These devices were supplied free of charge by Osmond ergonomics for me to review, however this review is my own opinion. If you have any questions, or suffer from RSI, Osmond would be very happy to talk to you. If you do order from them, don't forget the voucher for a 10% discount: TFM022812.

[1]Which leads me to a grouse with the Advantage, pretty much my only grouse with the Advantage. The Advantage is highly programmable, which I generally don't use, but because you program it on-board it doesn't work well with the Mac keyboard preferences. Specifically switching off the caps-lock doesn't work and I have to remap the caps-lock key to something innocuous.
[2]In conjunction with Deja menu so I can access the main menu bar on any monitor with a middle mouse click.

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Posted by Fuzzyman on 2012-03-05 10:16:23 | |

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