If you’re the kind of user that can’t quite settle on a keyboard position, read on – because you will never find a keyboard more configurable than the Kinesis Freestyle.
Update: Kinesis has upgraded this model to the Freestyle2. After reading over the basics here, you might want to check out what’s new in my article on the new version.
Is it one keyboard… or two?
The outstanding feature of the Kinesis Freestyle is the separation of its two halves (“keying modules”). On the basic model, you can split them up to eight inches, which is the length of the cord connecting them. This variable split eliminates the need to scrunch your arms inward, and also accommodates different shapes and sizes of users. Really big guys may even want to consider the wider version of the Freestyle, which can split up to twenty inches. The split design also allows you to get exactly the wrist angle you want, and to vary your typing position if desired.
Kinesis offers several different kits to configure the Freestyle the way you want it. Each practically creates a new keyboard, so let’s go through them one at a time.
Solo – No accessories
For those needing greater separation or splay angle, but otherwise comfortable with a standard keyboard, the Freestyle Solo is the basic choice. The only separable accessory you get with the Solo is the pivot tether – the plastic hinge that holds the two halves together. (Even if you don’t end up using the pivot tether, it makes a great desk toy to fiddle with, until you lose it.) The Solo setup will not provide any kind of tilt (front-to-back slope) or tenting (higher in the middle) so your wrists will be pretty much rotated flat during use. The twisting action inherent to this position can be harmful – which brings us to the first optional kit.
V3 – Tented without palm rests
The V3 kit is the most basic mod available for the Freestyle. It consists of two leg assemblies that snap on and raise the middle of the keyboard into a tent shape. You can switch between low and high tenting angles by rotating the leg assemblies. This kit basically turns the Freestyle into the Goldtouch keyboard – adding the ability to split the halves but removing the infinite tilt adjustment of the Goldtouch.
VIP kit – Tented with palm rests
Some people get rather tired holding their hands out over a keyboard all day, and want a place to rest between fits of typing. Ordinarily these folks would just go out and buy a long, straight palm rest, but the varying angles of the Freestyle make this a dicey proposition. Kinesis sells a set of palm rests that actually snap onto the front of the keyboard, thus staying with it in every configuration. Combined with a different version of the V3 feet called V-lifters, this makes the VIP kit.
The VIP Kit is probably the most popular accessory for the Kinesis Freestyle, and it is the one I originally ordered with mine. I have to admit that I wasn’t overjoyed by the fabric on the included self-adhesive pads. Frankly, it feels like sandpaper to me – but my wrists are more sensitive than most. If you prefer hard plastic you can choose to remove the pads, or not attach them at all.
Incline kit – Tented with palm rests, fixed base
The Incline Kit is a fixed-base platform that holds the two halves of the Freestyle together at an adjustable angle, making it look and work exactly like the old Kinesis Maxim keyboard. Much of the Freestyle’s freedom factor is lost when you use the Incline Kit. Infinite adjustment of splay, for instance, is no longer possible – there are just a few fixed positions into which you can snap the keyboard. This will at least keep you from driving yourself crazy repositioning your Freestyle every five minutes!
Ascent kit – Up to 90 degrees
It may look like a badly-broken accordion and cost twice as much as the keyboard itself (!), but the Ascent kit could be a lifesaving last resort for certain RSI sufferers. At its maximum elevation, the Ascent puts the Freestyle at 90 degrees from your desk, essentially turning it into a Safetype keyboard. Speaking of which, if a 90 degree angle is what you want, you’re probably better off buying a Safetype, which costs only a little more than the Freestyle/Ascent combo and has extra features like a middle kepad and mirrors.
Alternatively, you could achieve almost the same thing with a Freestyle keyboard, two bookends, and plenty of tape.
The Freestyle is missing a dedicated set of keys found on most standard keyboards – the numeric keypad. This allows a narrower footprint, but might be an obstacle to those who do a lot of ten-key. If this describes you, you’ve got two choices with the Freestyle: Purchase a separate standalone numeric keypad, or learn to use the ten-key overlay on the main part of the board (activated with the FN key at the lower left). Not being much of a ten-keyer, I can’t comment on how easy or difficult this is. It works just like a typical laptop, though, so you ten-key folks have probably already experienced it.
While the Kinesis Freestyle may be missing some familiar keys on the right, it compensates by adding some new ones on the left. It has dedicated keys for copy, paste, and other commonly used functions – plus an extra Delete key. At first these keys didn’t seem all that useful, but I’ve actually found them quite handy and I’m starting to use them more.
One element of the layout that often brings complaints is the positioning of the Alt keys. For some reason, they’re placed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to press one without moving your whole hand. Users of the Freestyle for Mac will find this particularly annoying. A mild personal gripe of my own is the lack of a Windows logo key on the right. With the Freestyle, I can no longer one-hand Windows-M to minimize all windows, something I do a lot while working.
My most major problem with the layout is the presence of the special Browser Home key on the left, which is worse than useless to me. Useless because I rarely load my homepage at all while working; I do everything with tabs and Firefox’s built-in search box. Worse than useless because the key is located right next to tab. When filling out a form online, what key do you hit repeatedly? Tab. And what do you not want to do above all else when filling out such a form? Leave the page and lose your work – which is exactly what the Home key will do to you, and has already done to me more than once when my finger failed to find Tab correctly.
Despite these problems, I like the layout overall. I can always remap the Browser Home key to something else – maybe an extra Alt key!
Good, easy key action is an underrated but vitally important feature in any keyboard, particularly if you don’t have the hands of a weightlifter. Most standard keyboards, and even certain ergonomic keyboards such as the MS Natural 4000, have keys that are rather mushy and – worse – difficult to press.
When I ordered the Freestyle, I was fresh from the Kinesis Advantage, which uses high-end mechanical keyswitches. I’d grown rather fond of the easy-actuating clickety-clacking keys, and was apprehensive that the Freestyle might not live up to its more expensive cousin’s standards. I was pleasantly surprised. Though the Freestyle uses relatively inexpensive rubber-dome keyswitches, they are specially designed for low-force typing and work nicely.
I like the feel of the Freestyle’s keys better than any other board I have ever used, with the possible exception of the Advantage itself. They are easy to press without being jarring when you reach end-of-travel. They have a pleasantly light, airy quality – not mushy, but not too stark either. They’re also relatively quiet, which is good news for anybody who works within earshot of others and wants to remain popular.
In some ways, the Freestyle is the ultimate ergonomic keyboard, simply because of its vast configurability to match the individual user. It can be an ergonomic powerhouse with outrageous angles and built-in palm rests – or just a nice narrow keyboard that leaves plenty of space to move your mouse. Either way, it’s a high-quality board with a great layout and superior typing feel. If your current keyboard isn’t measuring up, you really should try the Kinesis Freestyle.
Disclosure: This review was made using my own personal Kinesis Freestyle keyboard, duly purchased at the retail price.