How to Choose the Right Keyboard
Switching from a conventional to an ergonomic keyboard is, quite frankly, a bit of a leap. It can take several weeks to reacquire the muscle memory needed to type quickly on one, whether you buy a curved unibody model or a two-piece split keyboard. Aside from a couple of notable exceptions, ergo keyboards also tend to be considerably more expensive than the average office-focused model. That extra learning time and money required, while worth the effort with the right device, is more of an investment than most people are willing to make in a keyboard.
But investing in an ergonomic keyboard is more than a technical upgrade; it’s an investment in your health. Ergonomic boards are designed to mitigate the damage that using a keyboard does to your hands, wrists, and shoulders after years of daily use. Repetitive stress injuries (RSIs), which are caused by making the same motions over and over again over a long period of time, are endemic to using a keyboard and mouse. If you sit at a keyboard and type all day, five days a week, some damage is likely, if not inevitable. Ergonomic keyboards theoretically reduce that damage by eliminating some of the unnatural and, whether you notice it or not, strenuous motions involved with typing, gaming, and otherwise using a keyboard.
Back to Nature: Proper Hand Positioning
To understand how ergonomic keyboards improve things for you, it helps to talk about all the ways that using a keyboard can cause RSIs.
Typing on a keyboard forces you to make a series of unnatural movements. First, you twist your arms so they lay flat, parallel to the keyboard. Depending on the width of the keyboard, you may reach laterally, twisting your wrist in an unnatural way and overextending your fingers, to hit certain keys. If you lay your wrists flat on a table in front of your keyboard, you’ll have to bend your wrists up for them to reach the keys. Bringing your arms together in front of you to reach your default typing position also involves flexing muscles in your shoulders and back.
To fix these problems, ergonomic keyboards reimagine the keyboard in ways that minimize or take these strenuous twists and bends out of the equation. Most ergonomic keyboards split the letter keys into two halves, rotating the keys so they point down toward the lower corners of the keyboard. Rotating the keys allows your arms to approach the keyboard from a more natural angle. Split keyboards, which spread the keyboard across two halves or chassis, give you the ability to customize your rotation by placing the two sides of the keyboard as far apart as you’d like.
Most also use some means of “tenting,” reshaping the keyboard so it’s higher in the center, with the keys falling away on either side. Typing on an angled surface reduces how far your wrist needs to twist to lay flat on the keys. Some keyboards do this by curving the chassis of the keyboard up into an arc. Others use folding feet, similar to the ones you’ll find under a standard keyboard, to prop up the middle or inside edges. A few keyboards require an optional attachment to set up tenting; we recommend spending the extra money if the keyboard otherwise meets your needs.
Speaking of feet, a good ergonomic keyboard will feature feet beneath the near side of the keyboard, not the far. This angle, known as reverse tilt, is also better for your wrists: From a natural position, the front end of the keyboard should meet your wrist. Every good keyboard will also come with a well-padded wrist rest. Having a pad that supports your wrists and forearms helps you maintain a comfortable position for an extended period of time.
In addition to rotating and tenting, some ergo keyboards will set their keys at different depths to adjust for the different lengths of your fingers. Last, some ergonomic models take the drastic step of rearranging the keys. Normally, the letters remain in the QWERTY layout, but frequently used keys like Control, Alt, and the Windows/Apple key may get moved around. The Matias Ergo Pro, for example, places the Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys below Right Shift.
Changes to the keyboard layout increase the learning curve, but they can make for a better experience over time. There’s really no way to know whether or not that will happen, though, so the best you can do is make yourself aware of the custom layout and decide whether the extra work sounds worth it in the long run.
Split or Stay? Unibody vs. Two-Part Designs
Ergonomic keyboards come in a few different shapes and configurations, which operate on a sliding scale between the investment you need to put in (both in terms of adjustment time and cost), and what structural changes they’ll make to offer you a more supportive experience.
Though different models tweak different things, such as relocating the Alt and Control keys, ergonomic keyboards generally break down into two categories: (1) single-piece/unibody ergonomic keyboards, such as Logitech’s Ergo K860 and the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard, which rotate the keys on the layout of a one-part chassis, and (2) as mentioned earlier, split-chassis models that physically separate into two adjustable halves.
Unibody models are curved to reduce wrist twisting and include other features to reduce impact on your arms. These keyboards tend to be less expensive and offer a shorter learning curve because, while they’re not identical to conventional flat models, their typing experience is close to them. At the same time, there are certain ergonomic issues they cannot address, like the possibility that you may be reaching in with your arms to reach a proper typing position.
An ergonomically ideal keyboard puts all of the keys you need at fingers’ length without forcing you to reach, bend your wrists, twist your arms, or curl your shoulder blades. That requires some amount of customization—we all have different body widths and wingspans—so for a guaranteed fit you’ll need a split keyboard, like the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB or the Matias Ergo Pro. With the keyboard split into two halves, you control the width and the shape of the keyboard, so you can reposition it to fit your body.
Numeric keypads, while helpful for spreadsheet work, force lateral finger and wrist movement, so an ergonomics-first keyboard will use the tenkeyless (TKL) form factor. That said, many split keyboard makers sell a free-standing keypad as an optional attachment, letting you place the keypad so it doesn’t require any extraneous reaching or lateral wrist movement.
While one version is definitely more healthsome than the other, I find it’s best to judge ergonomic keyboards on a sliding scale based on need. If you’re already experiencing pain or numbness when you type, a split keyboard is bound to give you the most relief. (You should also see a doctor if you haven’t already.) Likewise, you should go for a split keyboard if damage down the road is a serious concern, you type a lot, and superior ergonomics is your goal for your next keyboard.
If you’re a fan of mechanical keyboards, you’ll also want to go for a split model. Most split keyboards feature mechanical switches, while most unibody models use cheaper scissor switches or membrane-based keys to help keep the chassis slim and the price low. There are other features you’re more likely to find on one type of ergonomic keyboard than the other. Many unibody keyboards, even budget models, are wireless. Many split keyboards have dedicated macro or shortcut keys on the left edge of the board.
That said, split keyboards don’t always have all the features that power users want. Even programmable models often lack configuration software, for example. If you’re in a quantitative field, you may not want to give up your keypad. If you don’t currently feel any pain or weakness when you type, it may make sense to compromise and go with a more familiar unibody design. The fact of the matter is, any good ergo keyboard should help keep your wrists and arms healthier longer than the typical flat keyboard.
Time to Type: The Ergo Keyboard Learning Curve
Since I’ve brought it up a couple of times, I’m guessing some of you are wondering how long it will take you to adapt to using an ergo keyboard. The answer depends entirely on the keyboard and the person. Some keyboards are easier to adapt to than others; generally speaking, adapting to a split keyboard takes more work than a unibody model, but the process varies based on your degree of typing skill and how much the physical change messes with your muscle memory.
In my experience, the over-under on regaining basic typing proficiency should be one or two weeks for a unibody ergonomic keyboard or two to four weeks for a split. It will likely take longer for you to reclaim your gold-standard words-per-minute rate if you’re a typing ace. If you’re hesitant about trying, or suddenly need to type as fast as possible, I’ve found that going back to a standard keyboard usually requires no adjustment time at all. Also, as someone who’s gone back and forth between regular and ergo keyboards, it does get easier every time I need to readjust to ergonomic keys, but there’s always some adjustment period.
You can take steps to train yourself, which can make the process feel slower and more time-consuming at first but will ultimately require fewer days. With a split keyboard, start by pushing the two sides together, then slowly pull them further apart as you get comfortable. Likewise, if the keyboard has adjustable reverse tilt or tenting, start on the lowest incline and work your way up as you become more proficient. At least one model, the Ergodox EZ, goes so far as to offer bespoke training software to help users with the transition, but that’s a very rare offering.
An Ergo Board Is Only Part of the Puzzle
It’s worth taking a moment to note the limitations of using ergonomic keyboards. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health notes there isn’t conclusive evidence showing that ergonomic keyboards can prevent repetitive stress injuries or musculoskeletal disorders. The institute, which informs guidance from OSHA and the CDC, still recommends them, though, based on their impact on posture. There is also widespread evidence that, at the bare minimum, ergonomic keyboards can help people who suffer from pain or numbness while typing manage those symptoms.
If you’re looking to optimize the ergonomics in your home office, a new keyboard is only one of many steps you should take. Ergonomic mice, such as vertical mice and trackballs, can minimize stress on your mouse hand. It also helps to have a good office chair with lumbar support to promote good posture, and a desk that’s the appropriate height for your body while you’re sitting.
So, Which Ergonomic Keyboard Should I Buy?
Now that you have a pretty good idea of how ergonomic keyboards vary and what to look for while shopping for one, we’d like to recommend some specific models based on our testing. If you’re looking to go all in on optimizing your office space, check out our guide to setting up an ergonomic home office. You should also look at reviews of recent ergonomic mice we liked, including Logitech’s MX Vertical and the Kensington Pro Fit Ergo Trackball.
Where To Buy
Kinesis Freestyle Edge
Pros: Highly ergonomic split keyboard.
Cherry MX mechanical switches.
Eight programmable keys.
Three key tiers.
Stores nine profiles.
Cons: No dedicated media keys.
Raised feet sold separately.
Keys recessed within plastic frame.
Poor macro options.
Can’t remap key to key.
Bottom Line: The price is high, and Kinesis’ configuration utility needs more work if the company wants to compete for gamers’ dollars, but the Freestyle Edge’s ergonomics and Cherry MX switches are truly solid.
Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB Split Mechanical Gaming Keyboard
Pros: True Cherry MX switches in a choice of three varieties. Comfortable ergonomic design, once you’re accustomed to it. Superb, plush wrist rest. Per-key customizable RGB lighting.
Cons: Driverless SmartSet app is more work than we’d like. Optional “lift kit” costs extra. Steep learning curve.
Bottom Line: In the Freestyle Edge RGB, Kinesis brings best-in-class ergonomics to the gaming-keyboard scene for players serious about minding their wrists and hands in the course of their gaming endurathons.
Logitech Ergo K860 Keyboard
Pros: Curved and split ergonomic shape.
Extra-comfortable wrist rest.
Front feet provide negative tilt.
Extended asymmetrical keys make it easier to find your way around.
Logitech Options and Flow software support.
Cons: Keys feel a little spread out.
Takes up more space than you think.
Bottom Line: Logitech’s Ergo K860 is a well-crafted keyboard for sparing your arms and wrists when you work your fingers to the bone.
Matias Ergo Pro Ergonomic Keyboard
Pros: Split design provides good ergonomics
Three USB pass-through ports
Dedicated shortcut/macro keys
Built-in reverse tilt and tenting feet
Retractable bridge cable
Cons: Split keyboards come with a learning curve
No key backlighting
No config software
Only 19 programmable keys
Bottom Line: The Matias Ergo Pro is a great ergonomic keyboard for dedicated professionals looking to mitigate the effects of typing all day, every day.
Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard
Pros: Excellent typing feel
Comfortable wrist rest
Many shortcut keys, including for Office apps, screenshots, and emojis
Cons: Steep learning curve could hamper productivity
Software does not work with Windows 10 S Mode
Bottom Line: In addition to saving your wrists from stress, the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard offers plenty of typing comfort in a stylish package plus a comprehensive array of shortcut keys.
Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop
Pros: Comfortable ergonomic design.
Stylish “manta ray” design.
Three-piece set offers flexible functionality.
Wireless design cuts clutter without monopolizing USB ports.
Cons: Keyboard has a pronounced learning curve.
Lettering may wear off early.
Bottom Line: The Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop is a trio of PC peripherals designed to reduce strain and improve your PC experience.
Kensington Pro Fit Ergo Wireless Keyboard
Pros: Bluetooth and 2.4GHz support
Large built-in wrist rest
Impressive battery life
Cons: No USB wired connectivity option
Some missed key presses on 2.4GHz connection
Chiclet keys feel a bit squishy
Lightweight build quality
Bottom Line: The Kensington Pro Fit Ergo Wireless feels like a budget keyboard, but deserves kudos for making good ergonomics very affordable.
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