bits by luke

Experience Report: Kinesis Advantage

I want to share my experience working with the Kinesis Advantage2 in the context of a professional software engineer. But first, a story:

During my high school years I typed a lot. I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the keyboard writing class papers, playing online video games, on AIM with friends, or programming. Eventually my wrists and knuckles started to hurt. Over time the pain progressed enough to start negatively affecting my day to day. Laying off the keyboard was clearly not an option for that particularly immature phase of life, so I went looking for pain relief.

QWERTY is Hurty

It turns out, QWERTY is more or less designed around trial and error. Early layouts place the keys in alphabetical order, which proves to be extremely limiting for the English alphabet. The interplay between mechanical arms and the frequency of particular English letters causes the keyboard to jam regularly. Layout designers spent many years reverse-engineering movement patterns to ultimately land on QWERTY as the least likely to have a mechanical fault when typing English sentences. In other words, the layout is optimized for “least likely to jam”.

Anyone who spends a lot of time with QWERTY can probably intuit this fact– it seems almost designed to send your fingers across every corner of the keyboard for each word. It’s really uncomfortable, and is likely the contributor to a lot of pain. At least that’s what anecdotal evidence from anonymous people on the internet said, which was convincing enough for my highschool-caliber judgement. With this sliver of hope I started hunting for less-painful alternatives to QWERTY.


If you enumerate the pain points of QWERTY, it’s a wonder anyone adopted the layout at all:

In the 1930s a man named August Dvorak patented a layout with the expressed goal of reducing errors when typing in English. His “DVORAK” layout, while not explicitly focused on reducing pain, seemed like an excellent solution to my problem:


I started the arduous task of re-learning how to type. It was miserable at first. It took about 2 weeks of practice to be able to type without glancing down at my fingers. My competitive gaming performance was underwhelming, to say the least, and homework drained even more of my free time simply because I stumbled my way through the typing.

It took about a month to return to my previous QWERTY words-per-minute. Eventually, as promised, the pain started to subside. As an added bonus I was able to drastically surpass (by over 30%) my QWERTY performance when typing in DVORAK. All was well in the world.

What’s Best vs What’s Known

If you have reached this far in the story, you should be pretty upset that I haven’t even begun to talk about the Kinesis Advantage. It’s a fantastic keyboard. The ergonomic qualities are unparalleled: a split keyboard to help alleviate tight chest muscles and uncomfortable wrist angles, a thumb-optimized layout to reduce awkward QWERTY overreach, improved key-well geometry to reduce finger fatigue, vertical layout to better reflect normal finger movement, and everything is compact enough to place your mouse at a more comfortable reach. The onboarding macro system is impressively powerful, and the keyboard itself is 100% reconfigurable with a little effort. The build quality is exactly what you would hope for in a $350 keyboard, and you are able to customize which CherryMX switches come pre-installed. I can’t recommend this keyboard, though.

You see, I don’t type in DVORAK anymore. I abandoned the experiment a few months after reaching proficiency. Part of the difficulty in learning a new layout comes from the regular back-pedaling to the old layout. Almost every keyboard in the world becomes unfamiliar and frustrating. Instead of achieving excellence in one layout, you end up with a high error rate in both layouts. Most of your smartphone apps? QWERTY. Any public or community keyboard? QWERTY. Any of your friends’ or coworkers’ devices? QWERTY. That booth at a conference which needs to collect your information? QWERTY. Airline or hotel check-in counters? QWERTY. Restaurant terminals? QWERTY. And so on, and so on.

The Kinesis suffers from the aforementioned problem and also has some additional disadvantages. It’s feasible to reconfigure all the QWERTY keyboards you regularly encounter to DVORAK, but you can’t physically reconfigure the location and shape of the keys on those keyboards. The vertical columns and thumb-oriented layout are inarguably more ergonomic, but you are going to spend a very long time (if not forever) straddling two keyboard layouts. As a remote worker, I disconnect my laptop from a primary workstation at least a few times a week. During these periods I am working inefficiently on a now-unfamiliar layout. This problem is only magnified by my Vim usage, which relies heavily on muscle memory, and would likely afflict Emacs users in kind.


After an intense 2 week effort to familiarize myself with the new layout, I ultimately failed (and lost quite a bit of productive work in the meantime). Perhaps an engineer that spends all of their time at a primary workstation may fare better after the initial adjustment period. For now, though, optimizing for “least likely to jam” is my unfortunate reality– even if a better alternative exists.