Finding a better ergonomic keyboard
April 03, 2019
For the last couple of years, I prioritized minimalism when it came to my workstation . I decided I had to stick with just my laptop keyboard because that was the the most minimal way to move forward.
Last year, the pain in my hands, wrist, and forearms got so bad that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I also couldn’t imagine living the next 40 years of my professional life with that level of pain.
It was time to do something about it.
Being somewhat cheap and not wanting to go through the process of securing an orthopedic consultation (I know, irresponsible, ya-da ya-da), I decided that I would try to solve my own ergonomic issues. To start, I needed a list of symptoms that I could pattern match against google results. Here they are:
This wrist pain started around my wrist bone and went up my forearm on the outer side. I could alleviate the pain by “cracking” or “popping” my wrist.
Lack of grip strength
I noticed my grip strength on my pinky and ring finger also just … didn’t seem to be there at all. Also, for whatever reason, I couldn’t muster up a strong flick of my index finger, which put in in last place for that one drinking game where I was supposed to flick something as hard as I could.
Numbness in ring and pinky fingers
When I did some repetitions of isolated bends of my pinky and ring knuckles, those fingers would start to feel numb. I literally could not really feel them anymore if I were to touch them.
My self diagnosis
Nowadays, everyone is a doctor with the help of The Web™.
I googled my symptoms and came up with the result of Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome. The non-surgical treatment options suggested adjusting wrist position while typing. That’s enough validation for me to invest in finding an ergonomic setup.
It’s time for a keyboard change up.
I always had my eye on the Kinesis Advantage because a bunch of my co-workers swore by it. After doing some cursory research, I decided I wanted something with the Kinesis Advantage layout (thumb clusters, etc), but didn’t want to jump to something new because I wasn’t yet certain whether or not this keyboard change would solve by wrist pain issues.
Because I also am still fairly mobile, I wanted to get an ergonomic solution that was also portable. This meant that I couldn’t just buy a Kinesis Advantage, which is not only over two pounds – it’s a huge brick that would be a huge limiting factor in me packing my bags.
Attempt 1: Kinesis Freestyle Edge w/ Tent Kit
The first thing I tried was so search the trusty Amazon.com for split keyboards. Maybe a good split keyboard with a standard key arrangement would be good enough. I searched for the Kinesis Freestyle Edge which seemed to have been heavily recommended by people on Hacker News and decided I wanted to give it a try.
The Kinesis Freestyle Edge didn’t come in the Cherry MX switch option that I preferred (Cherry MX Clear), so I decided to order both the Cherry MX Red and Cherry MX Brown options to test them.
The Red was absolutely horrible for me – I had a hard time transitioning from what I was previously typing on: a CODE Keyboard with Cherry MX Clears and the infamous Macbook Pro keyboards.
I kept making typos on the reds – I tend to rest my fingers on the keys of my keyboard and the slightest pressure led to inputs being made.
The browns were a little bit better – I could feel the tactility of these switches but they weren’t at all as nice as the tactility on the Cherry MX Clear. I also would have definitely appreciated if the keys had more force to push back. I generally find that I can type more effortlessly on these keys because I can just let the springs in the keys guide my finger movement.
Kinesis Freestyle Edge Tent Kit
I had also decided to purchase a lift kit with the Freestyle Edge in order to get an understanding of whether or not a tented keyboard would help with wrist pain.
Long story short, it definitely did, pretty drastically – but I was still feeling pain for other reasons that get addressed below.
Split Keyboards Force Touch Typing
I had always thought of myself as a touch typist, but with the split keyboard it became blatantly obvious that over the course of the last couple of years, I had stopped touch typing and developed my own method of typing. My index fingers kept trying to cross the new chasm in the middle of my keys, which shouldn’t have been happening.
In retrospect, I believe I slowly responded to developing wrist pain by hitting keys with different fingers. Eventually my typing method was completely messed up. I was hitting keys like [ and ] with my index finger. I was also doing strange things like returning my hands to non-natural positions, like having my index fingers having resting positions over the g and h keys rather than the f and j keys.
I was contorting my hands in a ton of weird ways to hit keys. Mind you, I was still typing at 120+ wpm with this method! But of course, that didn’t take away from the fact that I was still hurting myself. I needed to fix this.
If you think you’re touch typing and you feel wrist pain, I suggest double checking! I accidentally drifted away from it over the years without actively noticing it.
- Keyboard tenting is a good thing. Adding a 10 or 15 degree tent took way more strain off my wrists than I could have ever imagined. I was mostly pain free.
- I didn’t like light, linear switches at all.
- Split and tenting, while a massive improvement, was not enough for me.
- I thought I was touch typing, but I wasn’t.
Attempt 2: Ergodox EZ
Feeling somewhat defeated with the Kinesis Freestyle Edge While browsing the San Francisco Bay Area Craigslist, I happened upon a listing for the Ergodox EZ for $200. With the understanding that the best ergonomic keyboards were expensive AND this came with a built in tenting mechanism, this seemed like a great price.
I immediately pulled the trigger and went to pick it up.
When I arrived and picked it up from the seller, he handed me the Ergodox EZ Wings wrist rests as well! I realize later how important these wrists rests will be to me. When I started playing with the Ergodox EZ, three things became apparent immediately:
First: You have to touch type on ortholinear key arrangements. They are otherwise unforgiving. Fingers have to travel way further to hit keys in a non-staggered key arrangement. As a reminder, this is what touch typing looks like:
Second: The thumb cluster was going to take a lot of time to get used to it. The most important keys that I needed to get accustomed to were the space, enter, and backspace keys. Upon reflection, it took me about a day or two to fully get used to these keys.
Third: Most of the ergonomic guidelines are just that, guidelines. The flexibility with ergonomic keyboards allowed me to find many different comfortable hand, wrist, elbow positions at different desk heights.
Practice makes perfect
I slowly started the process of fixing my bad habits and getting used to the thumb cluster. By doing a typing speed check on 10fastfingers every day, I was able to get a sense of how fast I was adjusting, and also quick feedback to motivate myself to keep going.
Through 8+ hours of typing per day (I program for a living):
- Day 1: 20wpm
- Day 2: 40wpm
- Day 3: 60wpm
- Day 4: 80wpm
- Day 5: 90wpm
At the end of the first week, I was up to 90wpm. Today (2 months later) I’m at 120 WPM, where I seem to have topped out at. I’m totally fine with this.
Changing the Default Keymap Configuration
I used the Ergodox Configurator to create a keymap that mirrored the thumb cluster on the Kinesis Advantage 2 (in case I needed to use a friend’s Advantage, I’d be ready!).
Switching the Key Caps to a Sculpted Keycaps
As I was trying to get used to the Ergodox, I noticed my fingers seemed to roughly hit the keys, but sometimes seemed to miss slightly. This was partially because of the keys being in a grid rather than being in a staggered layout.
I decided to change the key caps to a set that would assist in guiding my fingers to the right place. I picked up a set of DCS profile key caps from pimpmykeyboard.com. This set was offered specifically for the Ergodox, which made it really easy to make sure I was getting all the key caps that I needed.
These key caps were a little tricky to install partly because they’re blank and partly because each row is slightly different – but there is a technique to it :). Send me a message if you want my tips.
Once these key caps were installed, my fingers stopped sliding and my typing accuracy immediately went up. (I swear this wasn’t placebo). Adapting to the Ergodox suddenly became way more pleasant of an experience.
Too Many Useless Keys
The Ergodox has more keys than other split ortholinear keyboards.It’s layout is often referred to as 5x7 (5 rows, 7 columns on a side).
In fact, I found myself rarely ever being able to reach the outer keys on the thumb cluster. Additionally, in order to hit the 1.5u (1 and a half key sized) keys near the center, I’d have to stretch my index finger over. Really uncomfortable.
Of the keys I wanted to use, they were still too far
On the Ergodox EZ, I was still really stretching my hand and/or shifting my hand position to hit keys within what I considered a reasonable range of motion. This was a little disappointing considering there were even more keys beyond those that I couldn’t hit at all without completely re-positioning my hand.
Something that I really appreciated about the Kinesis Advantage 2 was that the concave key wells brought keys to the fingers, so that the typist wouldn’t have to move their fingers (or hand) as far as on standard keyboards.
It was nice to find that this Ergodox EZ keyboard packed really well into my bag, mostly because I could fold the splits over each other. With it’s robust build, It felt fine to just quickly throw it into my bag whenever I needed to without worrying.
The Ergodox EZ is a great option, and forced me to re-learn how to touch type It has a built in tenting mechanism There are a ton of keys, some of them are unreachable (and I wouldn’t say I have small hands)
Attempt 3: Dactyl Manuform
Due to the issues I was experiencing with the Ergodox, I started to dive deeper into the realm of ergonomic keyboards.
During my search, the name of a specific keyboard kept popping up: dactyl. And it was being referenced as one of those crazy hard to find items … “if only dactyls were easier to come by I’d totally get one!”
I started to look into it and landed on this video (which is now in my opinion, one of the most surprising programming talks I’ve listened to since it’s awesomeness comes as a total surprise)
Long story short, the speaker, Matt Adereth, came up with a 3d printable design for a keyboard that seemed to check all my boxes:
- portable (yes, due to it’s split nature, I could probably stack this and find a way to stick this in my bag)
- ergonomic (split, somewhat like Ergodox, and has wells like the Kinesis Advantage 2, which means the keys are going to come to my fingers rather than my fingers going to the keys, yes!)
I started searching /r/mechmarket for “dactyl” hoping that something was going to pop up. Lo and behold, two weeks of doing this, and I see a listing. Better yet, the seller is local, so I could pick it up!
I decided to fit on key caps that I had previously taken off the Ergodox EZ and installed those, resulting in this clean build.
I do quite dig the black and white look with the ominous gigantic red trackball in the middle. Fortunately, the wrist rests from the Ergodox EZ seemed to match well enough.
Changing the Keymap
Both sides of the Dactyl are equipped with the ProMicro MicroController. It uses the QMK Firmware so flashing is done by following the documentation. To make it easier to configure keymaps – there is a web application called the QMK Configurator that provides a GUI so you don’t have to touch code at all. Resulting Keymap
Thoughts on the Keymap
I didn’t want to do anything crazy so I just adapted my Ergodox layout (which was already a Kinesis Advantage clone) to the Dactyl Manuform. As for the layers … I can’t remember how I ended up with these, but it’s great.
If I need access to the arrow keys, I can hold down the colon key and use h, j, k, and l to go left, down, up, and right respectively. Some of you VIM users out there might recognize these :)
I can even control the mouse cursor by activating Layer 2 using the w, a, s, and d keys. This is useful for making small mouse movements without needing to move my hand to a mouse. I do find myself using this pretty often, as it’s surprisingly convenient.
Overall – just amazing.
This setup seriously shines. After a small period of adjustment, Not only is it effortless to to hit the keys due to the curved key wells, there is a built in tent of roughly 10 degrees on this keyboard.
If you look closely enough the Dactyl goes 1 step further from Kinesis’s concave wells. Each column’s position and depth is positioned based on the length of the finger.
As I’m typing, it’s surprising how un-stressed my hand and my fingers are (and I’m usually typing at least 8 hours a day). When my day ends, I don’t feel any serious soreness or pain. I’m also pretty certain this isn’t placebo effect.
One thing I noticed was that I my wrists need to be more elevated because the base of the Dactyl Manuform is so high. Thankfully, those Ergodox EZ wing wrist rests that I got before are a pretty decent fit and elevate my wrists just enough.
For those of you keycap nerds out there, I want to warn you that I did try a 1976 SA set from Signature Plastics and shortly after the switch, started to notice pain returning within my wrists. I chalk this up to the fact that the increased height in the key caps themselves required that I elevate my wrists more (which was uncomfortable). I pulled these caps off immediately and went back to my DSA Ergodox EZ Keycaps.
If you’re looking to get an ergonomic keyboard because your wrists are hurting, I highly recommend a split, ortho-linear keyboard. Not only will these keyboards root out bad typing habits, it’ll also give you maximum flexibility in finding optimal typing positions.
The Ergodox EZ is a great starting point for most people. It’s easy out of the box configuration is pretty decent, and the configurator is pretty easy to use.
If you want to go straight to a hardcore ergonomic keyboard, the Dactyl Manuform in its current form is definitely one of the best ergonomic keyboard options out there. There is really little to dislike about its design. If only anyone was able to manufacture these in a factory with more durable materials … I’m sure a huge part of the white collar work force would gladly spend their workplace keyboard budgets on these.
I’m really enjoying the adjustments I’ve made so far and I’m sure this will be good enough for a long time to come. Some other things that I considered tabling for later on in my life include
- Switching to the Colemak key layout to further reduce finger movement
- Building an even more heavy duty version of this keyboard so I wouldn’t have to baby it. Maybe cast one out of metal? :)
- Getting a wrist rest that is more form fitting and/or matches the tent angle on the Dactyl Manuform
To end this post, here is a video of me touch typing the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody on the Dactyl Manuform.
Written by Lewis Chung. Founder @ ShopWith. Previously: Coursera, Amazon. Writes about technology, products, and life.