Further thoughts on the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Space Saver, and Das Keyboard—two years later

The series of reviews I wrote in my search for the perfect keyboard continue to rack up dozens or hundreds of hits per week; the most extensive posts cover the Kinesis Advantage, Unicomp Customizer / Space Saver, and the Das Keyboard. The Unicomp review in particular has become a repository for thoughts on the keyboard, with 60 comments so far and new ones a regular occurrence.

By now I’ve spent two years using the Advantage as my primary keyboard, and since then people have e-mailed me an array of questions about it. The latest comes from a guy who is curious about how it compares to the Das Keyboard, especially regarding the key switches, and whether his size (at more than 6’7 “) might make the keyboard impractical. My response to those queries forms the basis of this post.

The keys on the Kinesis Advantage are “Cherry Brown” switches, and those on the Das Keyboard are “Cherry Blue” switches (if you didn’t see the Das Keyboard Review, look now, especially at the video). There might be some difference between the Browns and Blues, I suppose, but I think if you gave me the Coke-Pepsi challenge by blind-folding me, putting a keyboard with Browns under my fingers and then swapping it for an identical one with Blues, I doubt I’d be able to tell the difference or pick a winner. To me, they’re equivalent, or close enough that I wouldn’t care.

If you said, “Jake, you can get a Kinesis Advantage with Model M-style buckling springs,” I’d take it. But the difference between the buckling springs and Cherry switches is so slight at this level of quality that my real question is, “Who cares?” To me, it’s like reading the Nikon and Canon aficionados duking it out over the most recent dSLR. The differences between the most recent Digital Rebels and the most Nikon consumer “D” series cameras are so slight that I’m skeptical most people would notice them in day-to-day usage. And if most pictures are being cropped for Flickr or Facebook anyway, the importance of marginal quality improvements declines between shrinking the picture will reduce its quality. As noted above, I would prefer buckling springs on the Advantage, but after I used the Advantage for a couple weeks, sent it back, and began using a Customizer again, I realized that the split design makes up for slight key quality variation.

I’ve used the Advantage close to every day, and I can’t see or feel any difference in the keys. Most normal keyboards, like the ones that ship with generic desktop computers, get “sticky” or otherwise problematic after a lot of use. This one doesn’t. Searching Google for “Kinesis Advantage Longevity” and similar strings (like durability) doesn’t bring up any horror stories. The Advantage doesn’t have the extreme reputation that IBM Model Ms have, but Kinesis also hasn’t been making them since the 1980s and the Advantage is, by its cost and the commitment necessary to retrain yourself, a much more niche product.

I’m not as tall as you, but I am about 6’1″, and I don’t think you’re likely to have problems with the Kinesis because of the size. I mean, maybe if you have hands the size of Shaq, you might need or want larger keys, but at that point you’re looking at some kind of very expensive custom keyboard job. My elbows aren’t turned in at all when I use the Advantage; yours might have to slightly, if you’ve got especially broad shoulders, but again, I don’t think the effect will be too pronounced. I’ve also seen women as short as 5’4″ use the keyboard (note: this is not a euphemism) without any obvious ergonomic problems.

One other point: if you’re having trouble with your wrists, make sure that you’ve got a desk / chair combination that lets you leave your elbows at about a 90 degree angle. The top of the screen you’re using should be at your eye level. I have three books stuck under my iMac, lifting the screen to the desire height, and a Humanscale Keyboard tray to accomplish this. If you’re using a laptop and it spends most of its life in one place, try to get an external monitor, and get the external monitor at the desired height, or buy a laptop stand (the Griffin Elevator is popular). This might not be practical or might be too expensive, depending on where you work, but if you can do it you’ll have a better overall experience. Just adjusting the height of your monitor and chair might do more for you than a very expensive keyboard.

EDIT: There’s a worthwhile Hacker News discussion about this post; sometimes HN will generate thousands of visitors who leave virtually no comments, because they comment on HN itself. Anyway, the top two comments say the Kinesis Advantage is quite durable, and both people report that they’ve keyboards for more than ten years. One says Kinesis will repair keyboards that have been caught “drinking” soda. Taken together, they allay the longevity worry, especially if Kinesis offers service. It would be a major bummer to have to re-buy a $300 keyboard every five years because it broke, but it sounds like $300 also buys you high-quality keys that can take a lot of clacking.

6 responses

    • I haven’t found unusual key combinations to be a tremendous problem, at least on OS X; I know that you can also remap keys, as described here. I assume Windows and most Linux distributions will do the same. It’s fairly common for people to reassign the caps lock key to a meta key like Alt, Ctrl, or (on OS X) command.

      If you’re dissatisfied with the layout—and the only way to know will probably be to try it for a couple months—you can also try programming the keyboard: http://www.kinesis-ergo.com/tech_support/progrm_tips.htm#q2 or getting a foot pedal.

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