The Cult of Keyboards

As I approach the end of my 40th year, my body is falling apart.  Okay, that may be an over-exaggeration, but every morning, it feels like another piece has been overextended or abused or mutilated, from the various discs in my back to the muscles and joints in my shoulders or arms or knees or toes or whatever.  Ever since I’ve started working from home, poor ergonomics has caused a rash of various repetitive stress injuries.  Or maybe all of the steps I’ve tried to prevent said injuries have caused it.  I don’t know.

I do know that my keyboards have been the main focus of this hell.  I mean, I also bought extensions to raise my desk, a different mount to raise my monitor, and one of those freaky bicycle seat-looking office chairs to prevent me from slouching, and that all helps.  But I think in the last decade, I’ve probably put down about a million words between work and fiction, and all of those go through my ten digits via some kind of USB-connected appliance that’s based on a design originally thrown down a hundred and a half years ago by opium-deranged business machine sadomasochists trying to find a way to keep busy women in between bouts of making sandwiches.  Never mind the fact that we don’t yet have machines that read our minds or let us simply talk to our computers like we’re Scotty whipping up a batch of god damned transparent aluminum. The fact that we still use essentially the same QWERTY design as a century ago, the one that was specifically invented to slow down typists, is a travesty to all things mechanical.

When I got to Seattle in the mid-90s, ergo-mania was happening, and I knew more people who had RSI or carpal tunnel than I knew in Indiana who thought the earth was created 3000 years ago, and that’s a lot.  Ergo was huge, and there were all of these bizarre startups running out of garages churning out short runs of chording keyboards and strange split devices and custom DVORAK layouts, not to mention all of the alternate mouse designs, like track balls and track pads and track pens and track cocks and whatever else.  And this was before the advent of USB, when this stuff became really easy to make, and before Microsoft upped the ante on RSI by inventing prolific right-click menus and then the scroll wheel, two things that have caused more arthritis of the right hand than all of the collected works of Megan Fox.

Microsoft both created and destroyed the ergo market by coming out with their own mass-produced split keyboard.  I will give credit where credit is due and say this is one product that Microsoft got mostly right.  I’ve gone through a succession of these split keyboards, most recently using the Ergo 4000, which has a large number of “media” buttons, which are nice for doing things like pausing iTunes or skipping tracks or zooming the browser window.  However, aside from the fact that I go though about one of these a year (mostly because of a combination of eating at my computer and the fact that the letters wear off almost instantly) there’s always been something slightly wrong with these peripherals.

Before the Microsoft models, I went through a series of IBM Model M keyboard clones; in fact, my first keyboard I bought in 1991 was an honest-to-god 83-key IBM keyboard from a 5-slot 5150 PC.  In 2012, there are a lot of issues with these keyboards, aside from just the total lack of ergonomic comfort; you’re not going to find a Windows key or an Apple key, and they use a cable that predates USB by at least two or three iterations.  Most of the vintage ones have also gone from the 90s computer beige to the yellow-brown color of linen in a ten-pack-a-day smoker’s house.

But the switches in these keyboards were magic.  New keyboards don’t use individual switches; they use dome switches, where the keys push this rubbery sheet that contains little bits that complete the electrical connection. The result is a quiet and cheap keyboard that feels like typing while your fingers are suspended in a bowl of mush, and at some point, the little domes will sporadically fail, and every 10,000th character you type will randomly miss, eventually causing insanity and the cost of both replacing the keyboard and the window you throw it through in a maddened rage.  The old keyboards used actual mechanical switches, each one happily clicking with a sharp tactile feel as you snapped away at the keys.  Even if you couldn’t type fast, it felt like you were typing fast.

This introduces this never-solvable paradox that seems to creep up in every damn aspect of my life.  I want an ergonomic split keyboard, that is modern and uses USB and has all of the new keys people use like Win and Alt, and has mechanical key switches.  The Microsoft ergo uses rubber dome switches, and at some point, those fail and cause madness.  It also means that even with a brand new keyboard, it feels like I’m typing underwater.  There’s a whole cult of mechanical switch keyboards, mostly from gamers who need lightning-fast key response.  Those are all standard layout, mostly because gamers only use the WASD keys.  There’s also the issue that these keyboards are all marketed to 14-year-old Asian boys, and have names like the “Viper Frag Kill 9000” and you will pay $200 for backlighting and extra buttons specifically used for Skyrim or whatever.  And outside of Microsoft, the ergo keyboard market has largely been killed.  Add to this the frustration that every single computer sold comes with a keyboard, and because the cheapest way of making them is good enough for a person who types at most 140 characters in a row, the $19 OEM POS is fine for almost everyone.

My problem with this – or with building a kitchen island, or finding the right desk, or getting a set of sliding glass doors done, or whatever the hell else, is I fall down these deep internet k-holes of endless searching and frustration.  There are several internet discussion boards full of game playing fiends touting their favorite boards.  But of course, if you posted asking for a good ergo keyboard, you’d get a thousand responses saying RSI is a myth, kind of like if you went into a random bar in Arkansas and asked the locals about global warming or evolution.  And your first 900 results in a google search are links to the Microsoft Ergo 4000.

This fall, I finally gave up and bought a Kinesis Advantage.  They are not cheap; I spent just shy of $300 for mine.  But they use actual Cherry mechanical switches, and feature a unique split system, where the bulk of the keys are in two “bowls”, and all of the modifier keys (ctrl/alt/win/apple) plus keys like the backspace, delete, enter, and space, all sit under your thumbs.  This means you can do 99% of your typing without stretching your hands out of the home position, and the keys happily clack away to confirm your speedy typing.  The Kinesis also has a complex and powerful system of keyboard remapping and macro programming in its firmware, which I will probably never use.   The one real bummer, aside from price, is that the function keys are these little rubber chicklets that will inevitably get jammed or stop working.  There’s also the issue that I am not historically a touch typist, and I had to spend a month using a touch typing tutor program (the wonderful and open-source Tipp1o) to get to the point where those ring and pinky fingers were hitting the As and Ses and Ls and ;s with regularity.

The k-hole has been reopened lately, though.  I’ve been wondering if there’s a good way to replace those damn chicklet keys.  Maybe I should get a keypad or jog-shuttle control to remap these keys.  Maybe I should get out the dremel and buy a dozen and a half loose Cherry keys and replace the switches.  Maybe I should remap the largely useless Home key so Home-1=F1;Home-2=F2, and so on.  Maybe I should stop all of this and actually write books.  Sure, right after I try to find a Kinesis macro programming FAQ online, and then hem and haw about buying a Griffin PowerMate.

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  • Mark Krenz

    I feel like you and I could talk at length about this. Since 1996 I've gone through phases of not being able to find good ergo boards that cost under $100. I've noticed disturbing trends (like the plus shaped arrow key orientation) and other things that pissed me off. There have been times when I had to wait it out for a couple years until better options came back on the market. I now exclusively use a MS ergo 4000 as you mentioned. In fact, I have more than 10 of them! I keep a stockpile of them like a Y2K freak stores water, for that fateful year or two when there aren't good options. I've already started to notice the 4000 becoming more scarce. With the keyboard becoming less popular because the consumer trend is towards mobile devices, I can foresee all of us that rely on the keyboard having to rely through online channels and having to pay $100 or more eventually. I don't see how the keyboard could completely go away (unless as you mention a really good voice/brainwave interface is developed (and I don't mean Siri)), but it will probably become a specialists tools, like a wacom tablet or a standalone scanner has.

  • I haven't stockpiled the 4000, but I do have a couple of them, and an older 2000 as backup. They aren't hard to find on amazon, but I don't see them in stores that much. I'd still use it if it weren't for those dome switches, and the fact that the lettering wears off so fast. I saw someone online who gutted one and replaced the switches with actual mechanical Cherry switches, but the keycap height was all screwy, and the project would probably cost the same as buying a new Kinesis, unless you had a couple of sacrificial keyboards laying around.

    The Kinesis has a huge downside if you're a programmer or a unix power user, though. I couldn't imagine doing all of the emacs keystrokes when the control key is at your thumb, and if you're a vi user, the esc key is a rubberized chicklet key that's way out of the way, which would get old fast. Things like the tilde and backslash are also in odd places, if you're doing a lot of sed/awk work on the command line.