The Great Big Guide To Ergonomic Keyboards

Welcome to my Great Big Guide To Ergonomic Keyboards. This multi-page document will show the various kinds of ergonomic keyboards and point you to more information about each. For completeness, I have included products I have not tried as well as those I have already reviewed. If you are considering the purchase of an ergonomic keyboard and don’t already some idea which one you want, this guide is meant to serve as your starting point. It is continually updated as I encounter new products and information.

ALTE keyboard guide overall pic

If you don’t want to read through all the boring stuff, feel free to jump to whatever section interests you using the index below.

What makes a keyboard ergonomic?

To grossly oversimplify (something I’ll be doing a lot in order to keep this guide shorter than the U.S. Tax Code) the basic aim of ergonomic keyboards is to keep your hands in a “natural” posture while typing. What do we mean by natural? As you might have guessed, the answer varies depending on which manufacturer’s engineers you ask. While there is some dispute over what position is most “natural,” there is general agreement on certain wrist positions that can be harmful.

  • Deviation – This means lateral bending of the wrists, like washing a window or waving goodbye without moving your arm. If you watch yourself while typing on a standard keyboard, you may notice that your elbows are angled in while your wrists are angled out to line up with the keys. This is the number one dangerous posture that ergonomic keyboards try to correct, usually by curving, splitting, or separating the key rows. These angled strategies are referred to collectively as splay.
  • Pronation – Put your hand palm down on a flat surface. Congratulations – you have just experienced pronation, or inward twisting of the wrist. This problem is corrected by raising up the middle of the keyboard, a configuration called tenting because it more or less describes that shape. Some designs take this to an extreme, splitting the keyboard and arranging the two halves vertically like an accordion. At the other end of the spectrum, other designs discount pronation entirely and make no effort to address it.
  • Extension – To understand extension, signal “stop” with your palm. The resulting back-bend of your wrist is an extreme example of extension. Over long periods of time, even a low degree of wrist extension can deform nerve tunnels in your wrist and contribute to pain. This problem is one that often nails me personally, making my palms tingle when I fail to watch my computer posture. To discourage wrist extension, many ergonomic designs are either level front-to-back, or have an option for negative tilt. (This is the exact opposite of the way keyboards have historically been made, with fold-out feet to lift up the back.)

In addition to keeping your hands in their “natural” posture, most ergonomic keyboards take some other measures to reduce stress and fatigue. These may include:

  • Palm Rests – No, not wrist rests – palm rests. A wrist rest is that terrible thing people stick in front of their mice to provide extra compression for the carpal tunnel and hasten the onset of RSI. A palm rest is a usually-padded area at the front of a keyboard where your hands can pause for a break between paragraphs. Some keyboards have them built in, or as optional accessories. For those that don’t, you can always purchase a free-standing set.
  • Small Footprint – While having a smaller keyboard doesn’t do much for the typing side of the equation, it does leave more room for the mouse so that you can reach it more easily. The trade-off is, you usually have to sacrifice the the right-hand numeric keypad for an overlay version built into the main part of the board.
  • Key Action – You might or might not have noticed this, but the keys on standard keyboards often require a lot of effort to press. They must also be pressed all the way to end-of-travel to register a keystroke, causing hundreds of little sudden-stop shocks to your fingers as you type. Better ergonomic keyboards (as opposed to the consumer-grade ones available at Staples and Wal-Mart) often use special low-force key switches that make typing easier. The really high-end ones use mechanical key switches, which provide the ultimate typing experience and also last much longer than their membrane counterparts.
  • Key Layout – The standard typewriter layout, which was old when our great-grandparents were young, has much room for innovation and improvement. Some ergonomic keyboards straighten out the staggered rows, or put the keys into concave “wells,” or curve the rows laterally to match your fingers, or move essential keys to new, more efficient locations. Often, these changes are so major that a bit of retraining is required in order to use the keyboard, and you may lose your ability to type proficiently on anything else.

Next up: A quiz on everything we’ve covered so far.

Kidding! Let’s move past the theoretical diatribe and get into some actual keyboards….

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13 Comments

  1. JC
    Posted March 18, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I purchased a Maltron Ergonomic Keyboard. Here are my pros and cons
    PRO: My wrist pains and shoulder pains went away almost immediately. I noticed that I was pull my shoulders into my chest and bending my wrists at an awkward position while I was using the Microsoft ergo keyboard. I’m also able to sit up straight and my wrists are straight shoulders back.

    PRO: The 3D design really forces you to type properly and it allows you to stretch your fingers. Also, I’m not having to support my hands with my wrists. I can just rest them on wrist pads that I added myself. Since the 3D design allows a dip for you fingers, you don’t have to flew your wrist upwards to pull your fingers up.

    CON: The keyboard is put together manually and not all of them are constructed equally. My first keyboard kept outputting repeating keys. They sent me extra switches and solder in case I wanted to work on it myself which I declined. So they sent me another keyboard. The second keyboard worked just fine. I pulled the backings of both keyboards to see if there were any differences. There were some electrical components that were missing. I’m not an electrician so I don’t know what they’re called. But the second was definitely put together with a lot more attention to detail.

    PRO: The customer service was really attentive and quick to work with me in handling the defective keyboard.

    CON: Because each keyboard is put together manually, it looks a little shoddy. The case is really light but durable. But you can tell that the keys are not aligned straight. It’s not noticeable when you’re typing but it’s definitely noticeable when you look at it.

    CON: Key mapping with virtual machines can be a headache. Some of the keys are not mapped according to the US standard. You’ll have to either map the keys yourself in the operating system or you’ll have to select US International ALT/GR with dead keys which is not always available. I would think with the amount of money you spend on this keyboard, it would have the capability to remap the keys in the keyboard. There’s supposed to be a switch on the keyboard, I guess that doesn’t come with all the models.

    Well, now at least I have 2 keyboards. Although the first one is defective, I can work around it. Obviously, I am constantly using backspace or arrows to correct the repeating keys. But they’re super comfortable. All in all, this is a great design but they should really do away with the manual construction. This is a great product if they improved their construction processes.

    I’m actually waiting for the keymouse to come out.

  2. Tero
    Posted January 8, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi,

    I bought an Oyster ergonomic keyboard and try to use it in Mac. There is a problem: the shift key works only for the keys on the same side where the shift key is located. Likewise, Caps Lock only capitalizes letters written on the left side of the keyboard. This is kind of problematic, and definitely un-ergonomic.

    Any solutions?

    • Jason
      Posted January 8, 2016 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      I’ve forwarded your feedback to my US contact for the Oyster keyboard line. He should be following up with you.

      • Tero
        Posted February 2, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        Hi,

        I wonder if you got any response from the US contact? The importer from which I ordered claimed that keyboard works well, but they cannot try it in Mac. In our two Macs the same problem persisted. I’ve tried looking through the net but cannot find anyone else commenting on it.

  3. Ross
    Posted December 24, 2015 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    My old keyboard (trashed!) has a “curvy rectangle” in plan-shape, and catered for the fact that one’s forearms dictate the angle at which your hands address the keyboard. 99% of keyboards make the (stupid???) assumption that you squeeze your elbows into your waist until your forearms, wrists and hands are square-on when typing …. to suit the (stupid???) keybd. designers???
    Isn’t this where ergonomic-design is supposed to step-in? Get the tool to match the anthropometry?
    I am broad-shouldered w/large hands. Where can I get another curvy-rectangular keyboard. Wd much appreciate advice and thanks in anticipation thereof.

    • Jason
      Posted December 28, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Most ergonomic keyboards are “curved” in some sense. Even apparently-square models like the Kinesis Freestyle and Key Ovation Goldtouch can effectively be “curved” by virtue of being split. Those are the two I normally recommend, as they’ll let you choose the arm/wrist angle that works best for you. But if you just want a fixed-angle curvy keyboard like the one you probably had before, you could go with something like the Microsoft Comfort keyboard.

  4. Dan Rascher
    Posted November 30, 2015 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Do you know if there is a laptop with a built-in ergonomic keyboard (or something similar enough)? Thanks, Dan

    • Jason
      Posted December 1, 2015 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      That would be tough to do, since most ergo keyboards get that way by being 3-dimensional – i.e. humped up, slanted, or whatever. Closest choice I know of is the Goldtouch Go. You can use that on top of your laptop keys if you’re careful.

  5. Marja Erwin
    Posted November 9, 2015 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    What is there for people who have rsi and have coordination problems that prevent two-handed typing and chordal typing?

    Most of these seem to assume either two-handed typing, or two-handed *and* chordal typing.

    So far I’ve been using small flat keyboards, because I can move back and forth across them, if I can see where I’m typing. I have had too much trouble with large flat keyboards, and don’t want to twist my right hand for the left side of some of these “ergonomic” keyboards.

    If I had the desk space, I might try propping an external mini keybord at an angle, with the left side higher than the right.

  6. marni
    Posted March 14, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    There may be better solutions out there, but for bang per buck, a trackball is hard to beat.
    I use an ancient Logitech marble mouse on a little [cardboard] platform i built over the far right keypad edge of the keyboard. My right hand is about 5″ from mouse. Soooo convenient.

  7. julie covello
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    have you ever tried this foot mouse?
    http://www.lenscomputers.com/ft0701-ft0702.html?utm_source=googlepepla&utm_medium=adwords&id=20607592087&utm_content=pla&gclid=CI2vvfTKq7YCFVGf4Aodxy0A5g

    i bought one for a project, it works pretty good, i especially like clicking with my foot. however the mouse crashed one day and i couldnt get it working againg (actually it was the second time i used it!). i should have contacted the company but i was very busy.

    • Jason
      Posted April 3, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      I haven’t tried the Footmouse, though I’ve considered approaching the company in the past. Like you, I’ve been very busy 🙂

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  • About The Blogger

    Jason, the All Things Ergo bloggerI'm Jason, a user of many ergonomic devices by necessity and choice. I'm also a partner in a business that operates a number of commercial enterprises, including All Things Ergo.

    I have no particular training or expertise in the area of ergonomics. My views are based on my own personal experience, and what works for me won't necessarily work for you.