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The Kinesis Contoured Keyboard and Dvorak Layout

When I first moved to Silicon Valley I worked crazy hours. I loved my job and I needed to prove myself, so I was coding like crazy. That translates to typing like crazy, and it wasn't long before that caught up with me. This article covers my ensuing experience with ergonomic keyboards and the Dvorak keyboard layout.

Rewind to 1995. I could type pretty fast on a normal keyboard. My touch typing was not textbook proper, but hey, it worked fine for me. I started getting worried when I would go home and I could still feel the tension in my forearms and wrists. I figured that if I was going to be a programmer geek for any decent amount of time, I'd have to fix those problems pronto.

I got to talking to Eric Townsend, a coworker of mine who owned the wackiest keyboard I had ever seen. It was a Kinesis Contoured keyboard. I found myself fascinated enough to drop the $300 (at the time) to get one myself.

Kinesis keyboard photo

The Kinesis Contoured Keyboard

Getting used to the Kinesis was rough for the first couple days. I wasn't a proper touch-typist at the time, so I had to re-program each finger's muscle memory. Kinesis ships an excellent "adaptation exercises" book with their keyboard, so I went through all of the book, and that certainly helped. After about two weeks I was back up to my previous speed. Now I'm much faster than I've ever been, and I touch type perfectly.

The Kinesis has several significant design features not found on other ergonomic keyboards. First, the keys are in vertical columns. This matches the natural motion of your fingers, as opposed to most keyboards which force you to make diagonal moves between key rows. Second, the key well is concave, matching the sweep of your fingers. Third, the essential space, backspace, and modifier keys are under your thumbs, always in reach. This is a huge bonus for programmer geeks who constantly use keyboard shortcuts.

Without fail, people notice a Kinesis on your desk. It always draws a puzzled look followed by, "what the heck kind of keyboard is that?" My hand-painted one (above) of course prompts even more puzzlement ("how do you know what keys to hit?").

I now own four Kinesis Contoured keyboards, three older PS/2 models and one USB. As you can guess from the picture, I've used them thoroughly and continue to do so daily. They're so much better than a traditional keyboard, I simply won't use anything else. I've had zero repetitive strain problems since my switch.

Kinesis vs. Everything Else

It seems that other manufacturers have the following theory about making an "ergonomic" keyboard: split the keys down the middle, charge twice as much. While I have no objection to splitting the keyboard, that simply isn't enough. The traditional staggered arrangement of key rows is a throwback to typewriters and it doesn't match human anatomy. Curiously, most ergo keyboards also have a convex shape, making non-home-row keys even further of a stretch from the home row than normal. As best I can reason, these keyboards are nothing more than marketing gimmicks.

The Dvorak Keyboard Layout

One year after buying my first Kinesis keyboard I decided I'd switch to the Dvorak key layout. This change was gratuitous at the time, as my RSI problems were gone by that point. I argued to myself that I was thinking ahead -- better safe than sorry -- and in fact it has played out well in the end.

Problem is, you can't just decide to switch to Dvorak and, poof!, start typing away. It's a painfully slow process. Expect it to take a month before you're reasonably good, and two months before you're back to normal speed. Perhaps start over a long holiday and drill the heck out of it. You've got years and years of muscle memory to reprogram.

Why Bother?

The Dvorak layout isn't about speed so much as comfort. There are tons of arguments out there, but here's my take: I'm faster on Dvorak than I was on QWERTY, but maybe 10% tops. That's not worth it. What is worth it is the very significant comfort difference on traditional keyboards. Just look carefully at the layout: it makes sense. Your hands and fingers don't need to move around nearly as much on Dvorak as they do on QWERTY.

So what's the deal with traditional keyboards, after I just got done praising the Kinesis super-keyboard? One word: laptops.

PowerBook keyboard photo

Who would have thought that I'd switch to a laptop as my primary computer? But the convenience vs. power equation finally swung that way, and now my PowerBook is home base. While I do use a USB Kinesis with the PowerBook for heavy coding sessions, most of the time I use the machine as-is. Well, not exactly as-is: I did rearrange the keycaps. (Note: do this at your own risk! Keycaps are easy to break.)

Recommendations

For desktop machines, no question: the Kinesis Contoured keyboard is the way to go. This keyboard gives you a huge boost in all-day typing comfort and speed. The transition is easy (1-2 weeks), especially if you touch-type already. If you don't, you'll learn soon enough.

As for QWERTY vs. Dvorak, if you use a Kinesis I wouldn't bother switching to the Dvorak layout. But if you use traditional keyboards or laptops frequently, Dvorak makes a lot of sense. Just be ready to tough it out for a couple months -- of my many friends who have dabbled with Dvorak, only one stuck with it.

Comments

A note on the Kinesis paint job: I painted the keyboard in 1997 or 1998. I had switched to Dvorak by that point so the QWERTY keycaps obviously weren't useful, and I decided it would be fun to just paint over them. I used three coats of model paint, and on most home-row keys I needed a primer coat first. Then I put on a coat of clear gloss acrylic. This held up for a couple years, but now it's obviously time to buy new key caps and start over.

I agree with you on the dvorak speed/comfort issue. Been a dvroak typist for about 5 years and I'm not much faster than before, but it sure is nice not having to do the finger dance that qwerty requires anymore. Nice post!

I switched to Dvorak about six months ago. Here are my reasons:

  1. I want to teach my kids Dvorak. Qwerty is silly, and I'm trying to end the slavery now.
  2. Learning Dvorak forced me to learn to touch type. Now I have fewer neck problems because I'm not constantly bobbing my head to glance between the monitor and the keyboard.
  3. There were guys at work who were always using my PC without asking. When I changed the keyboard layout, people were too crippled to bother and my PC was mine once again.

Joel, I forgot entirely about point #3. People always joke that I've got the most secure computer in the building (physically, anyway) because nobody could possibly type on my rubik's cube keyboard.

Keep up the great work on your blog. Best wishes WaltDe

Small world! I too started getting RSI around 1995, I too got a Kinesis (and love it), I too learned Dvorak, and now I too have been thinking recently about painting my keyboard whacked out colours (http://multipart-mixed.com/miscellany/how_to_paint_your_keyboard.html), not just for the fun of it, but also because it has started turning yellow the past couple years. (Now when people come by, they are amazed not just by how cool-looking it is, but by how old they think it must be. I think they imagine it was my grandfather's, back when he was slinging code in primary school or something.)

What I'd like to know, is how you have remapped your keys, if at all, on the Kinesis with Dvorak, so that it will be portable to laptops. I have years ago switched the J key to a different place, so that I can use the little upside-down T shape for the configuration of the 4 cursor keys-- I wanted to have all 4 cursor keys usable by the same hand, and didn't care for Kinisis's default layout in this regard. It has worked very well, but I fear that if I move my dvorak usage to a laptop, everytime I try to hit a J, I'll be making typos.

If you're going to reply to this, would you kindly CC me by email? dan@paction.spamless.org (without the "spamless").

Great articles, by the way. I can't agree more with everything you say about the Kinesis keyboard, and about the Dvorak layout.

BTW, the best and funniest/cleverest way to learn Dvorak is http://www.gigliwood.com/abcd/ Glad to see he still has it online a whole decade later.

Hi Josh,

it's an old post but i'm leaving a comment anyway. I'm seriously looking into the Kinesis and yours does look very funky indeed :)
I think i'll go ahead and get me one.
But what puzzles me is, how you can stand using a laptop for prolonged sessions even with the Dvorak layout.. I mean it's not just the keyboard, a laptop screen is also too low to sit straight (unless you happen to work at one of those stand-up desks..). I really always use a laptop stand to lift up the screen whenever I work at a desk. So I basically alreday use a separate keyboard most of the time, no problems there in switching Kinesis!

I think the Kinesis products are well kept secret shrouded by their unfamilar looks and modest company.

I personally think the design and quality is brilliant. I have owned a few more generic ergonomic keyboards and found them to be even more troublesome. I purchased a Kinesis after using a friends a work while he was on vacation, and will never go back. I own two keyboards, but if I ever get a whisper that Kinesis is retiring this model, I would call them up and buy 10 and place them in a vault, only to be release one every decade.

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