Overview of the Kinesis Advantage

It’s a bit scary for me to think that there are a large number of our readers who weren’t even around at the time Kinesis first released their Advantage keyboard back in 1991. I’m not one of those, however—I was in high school at the time if that helps. [“Honey! Where’s my cane? You know I can’t walk without it….] At the time, a state-of-the-art PC consisted of high performance 486 CPU sporting as much as 64MB of RAM, though most users only had 4MB-8MB or in “extreme” cases they might have 16MB or possibly even 32MB (though I’m not sure I ever saw anything outside of a workstation with that much RAM). My PC in 1991: a 386DX/33 with 8MB RAM, 120MB hard drive, and some form of video—I think it had a Cirrus Logic chipset with 512K VRAM. Good times!

I also remember playing games like Wing Commander and the sequels while sitting on the floor in front of my 14” CRT monitor, which was on an old wooden chair, with my little kitten “Fang” pouncing on my hands while I was playing games. As you can imagine, 39-year-old-me cringes at the thought of working at a computer in such decidedly un-ergonomic conditions! And that’s as good of a place to start as any when discussing ergonomics: you absolutely need a good desk and chair first, in my opinion, or else you’re not going to get the full benefit out of an ergonomic keyboard like the TECK or Kinesis.

Getting to the keyboard itself, as noted it has two key wells with the keys laid out orthogonally—as opposed to the staggered layout found on typical keyboards. This means there’s less lateral movement of your fingers when you’re typing, and less reaching to hit keys on the bottom or top rows as well. There are also a large number of commonly used keys placed at the thumb position for easy access—Ctrl shows up for both thumbs, while PgUp/PgDn are on the right thumb and Home/End are on the left. The Windows key, Enter, and Space are also on the right thumb, with space falling directly under the thumb and the Enter key just to the side of that in easy reach. On the left thumb, Backspace gets the primary position with Delete just to the right of it, and Alt is in the top-right corner of the key group.

The key arrangement is basically intended to keep everything right at hand, if you will. It’s quite possible to do all of your typing on the Advantage with your palms firmly planted on the palm rests while reaching all of the usual keys. Not that I’m saying that’s a good way to type—most people would suggest having your hands hover slightly above the keyboard—but it’s possible nonetheless. The only keys where you may need to lift your hands off the palm rest to reach them are the function keys, or if you happen to use certain key combinations, particularly complex combos that require more than two keys at the same time.

This is where macros can be useful, and while I’ll save the discussion of actually using macros for the next page, the keys for macro access are in the top-right section of the keyboard. Press and hold the “Progrm” key and then press the “Macro” key (F11) and then the next key/key-combo you use will be set to a macro (i.e. it will quickly play back a sequence of keystrokes). Note that modifier keys like Shift, Alt, and Ctrl can’t be assigned directly to a macro. When you enter macro programming mode, the four indicator lights in the center of the keyboard begin blinking slowly, and you can now type up to 56 characters (142 on the Advantage Pro, as it has an extra memory chip for storing macros). However, some keys will use more than one keystroke—e.g. a capital letter uses three as far as I can tell: one for pressing Shift, one of the letter, and one more when you release shift—so you often end up with fewer than 56 characters at your disposal. By default the Advantage supports 24 macros, but you can set this to 36 or 48 if you prefer having more shorter macros. The maximum macro length with 48 macros is 28, or with 36 macros it’s 38, so basically macro length scales directly with the number of macros.

Along with the macro functionality, the Advantage has built-in key remapping. As with macros, you begin by pressing and holding the Progrm key, only then you press F12 (“Remap”). The lights begin flashing quickly, and all of the key remapping is at the original level (so that you never “lose” a key). When in this mode, you first press the key you want to duplicate (at which point the lights blight more slowly), then the destination key; you can remap as many keys as you want. When you’re finished, press Progrm+F12 again and all of the key mappings become active. The only catch is that if you ever want to switch between the built-in Dvorak layout (accessed via Progrm+Shift+F5) and QWERTY, or vice versa, any custom key remapping is lost (since the Dvorak layout essentially uses the key remapping feature with a hardwired set of key remaps.)

There are a few other features that the Advantage includes that I haven’t covered yet. First, there is a small internal speaker (really just a “buzzer”), which by default makes a very quiet “click” sound when you’re typing. It also makes a louder double-beep when you activate any of the lock keys (Caps Lock, Num Lock, Scroll Lock, or the integrated Keypad) and a single beep when you turn off any of those keys. Some people might like the feature, but after a little bit of use I decided I didn’t want the added noise so I disabled all beeping (Progrm+hypen for the Lock keys and Progrm+backslash for the key clicks). You can also switch between a Macintosh (m), Windows PC (w), and Non-Windows PC (p) setup by pressing and holding the equal sign and one of the letters listed (i.e. w for Windows); this primarily alters the thumb keys, but there are some additional changes for Macintosh like the Scroll Lock become Mac Power and holding F12 is Mac Eject.

I won’t get into the remaining details, but the online PDF manual covers everything if you’re interested. Suffice it to say, there are lots of little extra features integrated into the Advantage that can potentially make it more useful, depending on your particular use case. Personally, other than turning off the audio cues for the keys, I left nearly everything at the default settings. I also made exactly one “permanent” key remapping: I set the right Ctrl key to be the Windows context key, as I happen to use that on a regular basis. With the general overview out of the way, let’s move on to the subjective side of the story.

More than a Month with the Kinesis Advantage Subjective Evaluation: Give and Take
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  • teiglin - Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - link

    I almost laughed out loud when I read the second line of your signature after all the noise you made about your age. Cheap shot, I know, but it just struck me as hilarious, especially with the cut-off email address. Even though you're only 10 years older than I am...

    Fun read though, I switched from a MS ergonomic keyboard to non-ergonomic mechanical a few years ago and have been on-and-off considering something like this. Always useful to read an *experienced* perspective. ;)
    Reply
  • praftman - Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - link

    Safetype Keyboard and Datahand are the two most radical, yet seemingly valid, keyboard rethinks I've come across. Reply
  • JonnyDough - Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - link

    At those prices? No thanks. I'll stick to a regular keyboard. You can get "decent" ones for under $50. Reply
  • Chapbass - Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - link

    It all depends on your needs. If you type very often and for long periods of time, then "decent" ones turn out to be "terrible" over the long run, when many start developing RSI problems. Those can end up being a LOT more than $300 for treatment (worst case: surgery) and don't always work. Its much better to get the proper tools to ensure that you can work without issue for many years.

    The previous generation didn't use computers daily nearly as much as this generation does, so who knows how many people will end up with RSI related injuries in 20-40 years. Better to nip it in the bud before you become a statistic.
    Reply
  • greghopenz - Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - link

    I have owned a pair of Kinesis keyboards for over 14 years for work station duties, one at home and one at work. Gaming has been with normal keyboards, mostly as I find the layout not conducive to gaming.

    One finally failed last year, and I replaced it with another modern one with a usb connector (my olds ones have an original fat pc connector to give you some idea of age). I think my ones are not mechanical switches. For a $300 keyboard, I cannot complain about it lasting 12 years. In the interim, I have destroyed many generic pc keyboards, so $30 per year is excellent value.

    Other than the chicklet keys, the keyboard is fantastic. I got them when I had oos or rsi issues, and they helped greatly. Replacing the mouse with a trackball was more important, but the ability to rest the weight of your arms on the keyboard really helped.
    Reply
  • Murloc - Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - link

    I think I would be covered in vomit and tears after reviewing such a keyboard, you're a hero jarred. Reply
  • Ninhalem - Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - link

    I understand totally about switching from a regular keyboard to something like the ErgoDox. I'm still trying to sort out hitting the v and b keys. Reply
  • EBSP - Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - link

    Thanks for your keyboard reviews. I am finishing my PhD thesis was shopping for an alternative to my MS 4000. After reading your TECK review I decided that it was time to get serious and make a decision. I really wanted to hold off my purchase until after you completed the the Advantage review but ruled it out as an option due to its cost. I settled on the Kinesis Freestyle. I absolutely love being able to reposition each half of the keyboard (right now "G" and "H" are 11" apart) and the key force is just right. I think it is a good compromise between enhanced ergonomics and traditional key layout as it took almost zero adjustment to get used to. I'm excited to read your ErgoDox review. Reply
  • jseliger2 - Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - link

    Years ago I got a review model, wrote this: http://jseliger.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/kinesis-a... and then returned the review model. A week or so later I bought one of my own, which I'm typing on right now.

    I suspect that the improvement between a regular keyboard and the TECK or Advantage is very large, but the marginal improvement between either keyboard for any particular user is pretty small. That is, you get diminishing returns when comparing the TECK or Advantage to each other but very large returns comparing either to a conventional keyboard.
    Reply
  • chadrandom - Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - link

    Jarred, as it sounds like these keyboard reviews are grinding on you, I'd just like you to know that I really appreciate these mechanical switch ergonomic keyboard reviews. Most all of my friends and colleagues think I'm crazy for going through so many mice and keyboards in effort to find the perfect solution. I've looked into these mechanical switch ergo keyboards but haven't mustered up the courage to trust in the money back guarantees. As such, I've been looking for reviews just like yours to help me determine the best course of action, and your sharing of your experience has been extremely valuable. The ErgoDox looks very interesting for a few different reasons to me, size being one of the important factors to me. I'm looking forward to your review. Again, many thanks for your thorough reviews of important products which are peripheral in a sense, and yet are the principal tool in the human-computer interaction. Cheers. Reply

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