I’ve been using Kinesis keyboards since 1996, and from the outside, it looks like nothing much has changed since my first one. On the plus side, Kinesis didn’t screw up a good thing. On the better side, they have made continual improvements over the years to make their current model, the Advantage2, a nearly-perfect mechanical keyboard.
What you see above is not stock from the factory! I took a black Advantage2 keyboard and painted it, plus switched the keycaps to Mito Canvas XDA. You can review my earlier posts on how to paint your keyboard and my earliest Kinesis review. This paint job used Rust-Oleum color-shift paint in “Galaxy Blue.”
What Makes a Kinesis Unique
Like earlier models, the Advantage2 has a number of features setting it apart from most keyboards:
The key columns are straight up and down, called an ortholinear layout. This matches how our fingers move. Staggered keyboard layouts are throw-backs to the days when typewriters had bars which couldn’t overlap. In my mind, all keyboards should be ortholinear–the staggered layout is just silly.
The key wells have a concave design (dips in) vs. the convex design of most ergonomic keyboards. This also matches how our fingers move. Bend your fingers from straight out, into a fist, and back again; their path makes a shallow semi-circle. That’s exactly how the Kinesis is shaped.
Space, enter, backspace, and modifier keys are under the thumbs instead of at the edges of the keyboard. This is wonderful for programmers who make frequent use of modifier keys. (Note, I also remap page-up/page-down and home/end thumb keys for other uses.)
The key wells also have a moderate tent, where the center is higher than the sides. This allows your forearms to rest at a natural angle.
The most similar keyboard on the market is the ErgoDox, which is similar in several regards but lacks concave key wells. The other obvious difference is the ErgoDox two-piece design vs. the Kinesis one-piece. I prefer the Kinesis design because I frequently type with it in my lap.
You can order the Kinesis with Cherry MX Brown switches (the default) or Cherry MX Red switches (which they call “low force”). I like the browns myself–they have just enough resistance without being too much. While the brown switches don’t “click” like the Cherry MX Blue, you can enable a firmware “click” in the Kinesis. The keyboard is loud enough without firmware clicks, so I have no idea why people would use that.
On the inside–and I only know this because I painted mine–the Advantage2 is nicely laid out and easy to disassemble. All of the key plates come off with screws, and connect to the controller board with flex cables. It’s far nicer than early Kinesis models.
Advantages of the Advantage2
The Advantage2 model has a couple notable upgrades over prior models. First, the function keys–including the escape key–are now mechanical, Cherry MX Brown switches. The old “gummy” function keys are thankfully gone.
The second notable upgrade is the “power user mode” in the Kinesis firmware, which allows you to edit keyboard settings and layouts as plain text files. I love that I can edit the layout and then save a backup copy of all my custom changes.
A final nicety: all Advantage2 models are QWERTY/Dvorak switchable. The only difference on the Dvorak model is the key caps. I type Dvorak myself and purchased the base model, as I switched to XDA keycaps anyway.
Opportunities for Improvement
As I said upfront, it’s a good thing that Kinesis doesn’t mistake change for improvement, and the best parts of their keyboards have stayed the same for over 20 years. However, I think there’s opportunities to for further refinement.
First, it seems there’s a little bit of input latency on the Advantage2. I say “it seems” because I haven’t measured it, but it sure seems like it’s there. Michael Stapelberg has been working on a replacement controller for the Kinesis and has a good article about reducing latency. Hopefully Kinesis will take note!
Second, the keyboard is loud, even though the Cherry MX Brown switches don’t make much noise themselves. I’m just guessing here, but the way the key wells are suspended probably amplifies the key noise. Some dampening would be a plus.
At a more strategic level, there’s a ton of momentum in the mechanical keyboard community around QMK firmware, and I hope that Kinesis would adopt QMK and port some of their compelling firmware features there. I’d love for my Kinesis to run the same firmware as my other keyboards.
Finally, I hope Kinesis takes a page from ErgoDox when it comes to ordering direct from the company. Kinesis has a build-to-order option called the “Advantage2 Signature,” but it’s $90 more expensive than the base model, and there’s really not that much you can customize. ErgoDox, by comparison, allows a number of options for key switches, color, and other features. I’d love to see Kinesis convert their direct ordering to allow that level of customization at a more modest price uplift.
While I own a number of keyboards, and even build my own for fun, the Kinesis remains my daily driver and the Avantage2 is a solid upgrade. It’s lovely to type on and it’s damn cool to look at, too. Take one of these puppies to the office and people will notice.
The two questions I get asked the most are: how long does it take to get used to, and is it worth the money? The first answer is about two weeks, probably less if you already touch-type properly. My touch-typing was sloppy and you can’t be sloppy on the Kinesis, so for me it was two weeks.
Now is it worth the money? I ask in return: how much do you type? I’m in the tech industry and I type all day long, so it’s absolutely worth it to type comfortably. The Kinesis is a dramatic improvement over normal keyboards.