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Keys to comfort

Ergonomic keyboards look odd, but soothe the nerves.

By JULES ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 1998


Work in an office and you will hear complaints about how uncomfortable it is to use a PC. I watch people who slouch in their chairs, place their mouse miles from their natural reach and crane their necks to hug a phone handset while trying to type. No wonder it hurts!

I suppose I am like a reformed smoker: a pious critic of a bad habit I have shaken. I want to run up to people, yell "bad office worker!" and correct their posture.

If you listen to the chatterings of the tomorrow-ware crowd, voice interfaces are going to be the Thing of the Future. Goodbye, keyboard; hello, microphone.

Well, there is a huge problem with this idea: Rather than being soundproofed and spacious, offices have become half-walled, tiny cubicles. More people packed into less space.

If you have ever called your doctor from a cubicle, you will know the person on the other side of the room now has intimate knowledge of your various conditions. Call it Dilbert's Revenge. You can downsize space but you can't downsize physics. So, I think keyboards in an office environment are with us for quite some time.

About two years ago I would end the day with terrible pains in my wrists. I couldn't understand it. I had been touch-typing for almost 15 years. Somebody suggested that if you pull a rope around a corner for a long enough time, it's going to start to fray. Talk about enlightenment: All the stretching and breaks in the world wouldn't make up for the fact that my hands and wrists were in the wrong position for typing.

Fearing a drive through carpal tunnel syndrome, I set out to find the perfect keyboard that would allow me to do things like continue to work and pay the mortgage. Being able to type is an important thing if a big chunk of your day involves computers.

Microsoft Natural Keyboard www.microsoft.com/hardware/

Companies had been making "split" keyboards for some time, and then Microsoft got in on the act. While available, other companies' keyboards were sometimes three times as expensive before the Microsoft version. Kudos to Microsoft for bringing the price down across the board.

It took about three days to get used to the split layout before my speed and accuracy returned. The original keyboard was simply too wide, and Microsoft addressed this issue in the second release. With the original, I would find myself bashing my mouse thumb against the right-hand side of the keyboard, and feeling neck and back aches. And I rarely use the mouse. For once, lefties have superiority over we right-handed folks.

I would give the original Microsoft keyboard a rating of 4 out of 10. An improvement on a standard keyboard, it still requires some uncomfortable stretching to get your job done.

I went through two of them (one lost to coffee, the other to a fall) before searching for another brand. I didn't get a chance to test the second version because Microsoft wouldn't send a review unit after repeated requests.

Darwin SmartBoard

Darwin seems to have beaten Microsoft at its own game: Take an idea, improve on it and make it cheaper than the competition. The SmartBoard has a split layout similar to Microsoft's but is a vast improvement on the design.

Place your hand flat in front of you and your fingers fan out from the palm of your hand. The SmartBoard follows this natural position quite nicely. It is nowhere near as wide as Microsoft's, so it's mouse friendly without the backache.

It lost points with me for hiding keys like Page Up and Page Down in the keypad. Sometimes I felt like my hands were just too close together, but this went away with time. The keyboard's action was a little light for my ham-fisted ways but reminiscent of the original IBM keyboards with their reassuring "clack" as you type.

I give this one 7 out of 10. If you are going to get a split keyboard, try this one first. It will not only cost you less but you also can send it back if you don't like it.

Kinesis Maxim www.kinesis-ergo.com/

The Maxim has a traditional keyboard layout but hinges and lifts in the middle to separate and angle the keyboard. The beauty of this design is you can slowly wean yourself away from a standard keyboard over a period of time with minor relearning. If you get paid to type and can't afford any downtime, this is a very attractive proposition.

It is very compact, since it's missing the keypad, so no shoulder blues from reaching for the mouse. The keypad is available as a separate item.

I haven't used a "straight" keyboard in some time, so I found the Maxim harder to use, even with the angles. I also key a lot of numbers during a day and the lack of a keypad as standard equipment bothered me. A 7 out of 10.

Kinesis Classic www.kinesis-ergo.com/

People wander into my office, take a look at my contoured Kinesis Classic and say things like "wild keyboard" and "you can type on that?" Yes, I can. Just as fast as I used to and with no pain, thank you very much. I must admit I flipped over this one and actually bought two: one for the office and one for home.

Think about how strong your thumbs are compared with your pinkies. Kinesis has cajoled the infrequently used stubby digits into doing most of the hard work. In addition to the space bar, the thumbs take care of Backspace, Enter and keys like Home and End. Because of my penchant for weird Unix text editors and programing tools, my fingers are pretty much hardwired to where the cursor keys should be. The Classic allows me to switch all the keys around.

The downside was the learning curve. It took me a good 10 days to get back up to speed. Unlike its sister, the Maxim, the Classic completely lacks a keypad and unless you invest in a foot switch to toggle back and forth, keying a lot of numbers requires mastery of the 1 to 9 row across the top. I also dislike the squidgy rubber function keys and would have preferred real, full travel keys like the rest of they keyboard.

Without this keyboard, I think I would have undergone carpal tunnel surgery by this point. I give it 9 out of 10. If only they would do something about those function keys.

Datahand Pro II www.datahand.com/

It takes a lot to upstage a Kinesis Classic on looks alone, but the Datahand Pro II takes the prize. This is like no other keyboard you've seen or used.

Looks aside, the design is ingenious. Rather than full travel keys as found on a traditional keyboard, your fingers drop into a recess surrounded by switches. Your fingers do a lot less traveling and, therefore, your muscles feel less fatigue. This is a split design to the extreme: The keyboard comes in two parts so positioning is always perfect.

There is an extreme learning curve. I spoke with Datahand at length about this. It says a large part of its market is post-operative carpal tunnel patients. You have to relearn to do a lot of things after The Operation, so it is an excellent time to relearn typing. The keyboard doesn't seem to be designed for small hands and I found myself stretching my pinkies to hit some of the keys. Not good.

I spent four weekends using the Datahand. I had to put it away on Mondays because my typing speed and accuracy were still marginal. Unfortunately I couldn't afford the downtime to really get to grips with it. I am afraid to grade it against the others since that would be like comparing apples to oranges. But if you are at your wit's end and no other keyboard is going to work for you, investigate the Datahand line.

Take it easy

Groovy keyboards or not, there is no excuse for not taking a break, stretching your upper body and giving your eyes a rest.

If your vision deteriorates or your mind explodes from overwork, all the ergonomics in the world can't help.

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