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.
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.
- Introduction: What makes a keyboard ergonomic?
- The Adjustables – Keyboards you can change to suit yourself.
- Familiar Curves – You’ll probably recognize these iconic designs from wherever keyboards are sold.
- The Convex, Concave, and Expensive – The casual and cash-strapped may prefer to skip this part.
- The Just-Plain-Weird – If you’re looking for something wild and unusual.
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….