Kinesis Freestyle Solo Keyboard for Mac

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Of all the keyboards we've looked at recently, Kinesis' Freestyle Solo is the only one with good ergonomics as its primary goal. It largely succeeds in attaining that objective, and adds some unique functionality, although at the expense of a traditional keyboard layout.

Pitch a tent

Mac users have never had many options when it comes to true ergonomic keyboards. While some models made for Windows PCs will work with a Mac, you lose out on all the special keys a Mac-specific keyboard brings (and often have to put up with useless Windows-centric keys in the process). The Freestyle Solo is one of the few Mac-focused ergonomic keyboards, and Kinesis has opted for a modular approach to ergonomics.

The Freestyle is fairly compact at 15.4 by 7.3 by 1.2 inches, but it's composed of two distinct halves that can be spread outward from a small hinge at the rear of the keyboard in order to keep your wrists in a more natural position--parallel with your forearms rather than bent outwards. (You can remove the hinge completely to position the halves up to eight inches apart.) However, unlike KeyOvation's Goldtouch Apple Compatible Keyboard, which we reviewed in 2006, the Freestyle's sections don't lock into your preferred position; only the rubber feet on the bottom of the keyboard keep the halves from moving.

Unlike many desktop keyboards, which have keys that are higher (relative to your desk) in the back than in the front, the Freestyle is flat; in a properly configured workspace, this approach keeps your wrists from having to bend upwards.

For more healthy-hand goodness, you can separately purchase one of two ergonomic mounts for the Freestyle Solo that raise the middle of the keyboard to a "tented" position so the inside edge of each hand (the thumb side) is tilted upwards. With either accessory, you can still control the outward splay of the keyboard's halves. The result is that your hands are much closer to their natural position: straight out from your arms and vertical. The Incline accessory is a large, solid base onto which you fasten the two halves of the keyboard. The Incline adds 10 degrees of tenting to each piece and allows splaying of up to 30 degrees; once you find your preferred splay angle, you can lock the keyboard in place. The VIP accessory provides individual tenting stands, one for each half of the keyboard, and lets you choose any degree of splay, up to several inches of separation, and 10 to 15 degrees of tenting. Both accessory kits provide large, padded wrist rests. Kinesis says the Incline mount is best for people who need only moderate inclination but prefer the capability to adjust the splay. The VIP isn't as sturdy but offers more flexibility.

If you've never used a splayed/tented keyboard, switching to one does require an adjustment period. But once you acclimate your hands to the different design, that design puts less stress on your wrists and hands. Compared to a standard keyboard, I found the basic Freestyle, with its adjustable splay, to offer a more relaxed typing position. Adding one of the ergonomic mounts (I tested the Incline) increased the length of the adjustment period by a fair amount, but ultimately resulted in a more comfortable typing stance--one that likely offers long-term ergonomic benefits.

The Freestyle uses traditional dome-style key switches (as opposed to the laptop-style scissor-switch keys that are becoming increasingly common in desktop keyboards). While dome-style keys generally require more travel--the distance you have to press a key for it to register--than scissor keys, and often feel a bit mushy in comparison, the Freestyle's keys are good for dome models: only slightly mushy with good tactile feedback.

The Freestyle connects to your Mac using a standard USB cable; unlike many desktop keyboards, it does not provide any downstream USB ports, which means you'll have to connect your mouse or other input device directly to your computer (or to a hub).

Ergonomics vs. usability

Of course, a split-keyboard design also has its drawbacks. The most obvious is that, in order to split evenly in the middle of the main QWERTY area, the Freestyle omits a numeric keypad. (Such an omission actually has its own ergonomic benefits by reducing how far you need to reach for your mouse.) And because the Freestyle is compact, it also rearranges a number of other standard keys. For example, the home, end, page up, and page down keys, usually located in a separate group to the right of the QWERTY area, are instead arranged in a single vertical row that's flush against the right-hand side of that QWERTY area; I found that I frequently hit home or page up when I mean to press delete or return, respectively. Similarly, the inverted-T group of arrow keys is located under the return key, which requires a smaller right-hand shift key and eliminates the right-hand control key altogether.

The function keys (F-keys) are also squashed together in an unbroken row, making it more difficult to locate a particular F-key by touch, and the escape key is positioned off to the side, away from the main keyboard area, rather than above the tilde key (although it's also larger than normal, which helps make up for its odd position). Finally, when you split the QWERTY area of a keyboard, you're bound to make that split in a way that adversely affects some users. If, like me, you were taught to use your right index finger to press the 6 key, the Freestyle Solo splits the number row in the wrong place: between the 6 and 7 keys.

Truly Mac-specific

The Freestyle Solo is a keyboard specifically made for the Mac--you won't find any useless Windows keys, or mystery keys that don't make sense until you see the Windows version and realize the vendor is using the same design for both models. In addition to true Mac modifier keys (option and command, the latter displaying both text and symbol labels), the Freestyle provides a slew of useful special-function keys. Like Apple's keyboards, each function key (F-key) has an alternate feature enabled by pressing a function (fn) key located in the bottom-left corner of the keyboard. These functions are, from F1 to F12, screen brightness down and up; Expose's All Windows mode; Dashboard; back, play/pause, and forward (for iTunes); mute; volume down and up; Expose's Desktop mode; and a Dock key that toggles the OS X Dock's show/hide mode. (The Expose keys may behave differently if you've changed the Expose settings in System Preferences.) Even the escape key gets into the act here: when function mode is activated, pressing escape brings up OS X's Force Quit dialog.

One difference from the behavior of Apple's keyboards--and a difference I really liked--is that the Freestyle's function (fn) key is actually a function-lock--press it once and it toggles the behavior of all F-keys until you press it again. On the other hand, if you enable function lock, pressing escape always brings up the Force Quit dialog.

Just to the right of F12 are eject and forward-delete buttons, as well as a real Mac power button; these keys don't require the function key. Finally, to the left of the main QWERTY area is a group of ten additional keys that include Web-browser back and forward, the aforementioned function key, and seven unique editing keys: two for moving to the beginning or end of the current line (essentially command+left arrow and command+right arrow in most Mac programs); and five for cut, copy, paste, undo, and select all. I found having these commonly used actions available via dedicated, clearly labeled keys to be very convenient.

Best of all, the Freestyle Solo provides all these features without the need for third-party drivers (although you do need Apple's Keyboard Software Update 1.2 or later). However, there's a caveat to this driver-less approach: I found that while the Freestyle's special buttons worked well with desktop Macs and older Mac laptops, when I used the keyboard with recent Mac laptops that have special features already assigned to F1 through F12, only the mute, volume, and Dock-toggle keys worked as expected.

Macworld's buying advice

If you're looking for a true ergonomic keyboard, Kinesis' Freestyle Solo offers a good design, multiple mounting options, and lots of useful, made-for-Mac features without the need for third-party software drivers. Although it has a few shortcomings when it comes to key layout, and some of its special-function keys don't work with Apple's latest laptops, it's a solid offering.

[Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor]

This story, "Kinesis Freestyle Solo Keyboard for Mac" was originally published by Macworld.

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