Kinesis Advantage Pro
At a Glance
QWERTY may be the standard keyboard layout, but Kinesis's Advantage Pro contoured keyboard proves that a QWERTY keyboard can be anything but standard. With its unorthodox design (most of the keys sit in sunken wells) and stiff price tag ($359), it isn't for folks who are just looking for a modest input device upgrade. After using it for two weeks, I still found my typing slowly and error-prone enough that I was happy to return to my old keyboard. But those who find ordinary keyboards hard on the hands and wrists may want to give it a try: One of my PC World colleagues has used a Kinesis model for years and swears by it.
The Advantage Pro divvies up its keys into four groupings. A well on the left side of the keyboard contains roughly half the keys; another on the right contains most of the rest. In other words, the QWERT keys live on one side, and the YUIOP ones on the other. Eleven keys--including Space, Enter, and Delete--sit in two smaller groups nearer the middle of the keyboard. (The spacebar, incidentally, isn't a bar: It's a smaller, vertically oriented key about the size of a standard Shift key.) There isn't a numeric keypad, but one is embedded, notebook-style, in other keys; an included foot pedal lets you enter numbers from the embedded pad.
When you type, your palms rest on the surface of the keyboard (or hover slightly above it), and your fingers dip into the wells. There's little lateral hand movement involved--your palms mostly stay put, and you use your thumbs to press keys in the two smaller groups.
If this sounds distinctly different from typing on a traditional keyboard, well, it is, and there's a learning curve. (The keyboard comes with a booklet of typing exercises--lots and lots of them--to help new users adjust.) The aim is to provide a more comfortable typing experience, but at first, I typed gingerly in a sort of slow-motion hunt-and-peck, with lots of typos. Shifting to produce capitalized characters was particularly tricky, since Kinesis says it's essential to use the left-hand Shift key for alphanumeric keys on the right-hand side of the keyboard, and vice versa--just as you would with a typewriter.
After two weeks, I found the keyboard more comfy, and I entered data more confidently--but still not at full speed or accuracy. And even then, some typical Windows keyboard combinations that were subconsciously programmed into my fingertips were cumbersome: To press Alt-Tab to hop between applications, for instance, involved hitting the Tab key with my pinky and then stretching my hand to press the Alt with my thumb.
Eventually, it dawned on me that one reason for my slow typing was because it was hard to see the keys closest to me--the slope of the keyboard's wells obscured some keys slightly from view. (The keyboard acknowledges this by placing symbols on the sides of some keys as well as their tops.) I raised my chair slightly and got a better view of what I was doing, which improved my speed a little.
Its unusual design aside, the Advantage Pro--which works with both Windows PCs and Macs, and plugs into a USB port--is a high-end keyboard with a generous selection of features. Its keys are reprogrammable--allowing for custom layouts--and macro capability lets you automate text entry by entering multiple keystrokes with one key press.
A built-in USB hub provides two ports for additional USB peripherals such as a mouse or media card reader. However, the ports sit in a recessed area on the underside of the keyboard, so hot-swapping, while possible, isn't particularly convenient.
The Advantage Pro is Kinesis's top-of-the-line contoured keyboard; several more basic models are available, with prices beginning at $239. The best way to tell if it's for you is probably to test-drive one for yourself: If you order directly from Kinesis, the company offers a 60-day money-back guarantee.
This unusual keyboard isn't for everyone, but if you're frustrated with ordinary keyboards and have a sense of adventure, its cost and learning curve may be worth a try.