product review: Kinesis Freestyle, ergonomic split keyboard

Kinesis Freestyle - mergedBelow are my first impressions of the new Kenesis Freestyle keyboard. This is a little off-road for this blog, but I’ve literally been waiting for this keyboard for over 2 years, and I also think I can finally have the pleasure of announcing, “First Post!”.

The main feature of this keyboard is that it splits completely in half, as these pictures illustrate. This allows for considerable freedom in how the place the keyboard for maximum comfort relative to your hands. For me, the advantage of a full split is that it allows my hands to be much more in line with my shoulders. This significantly reduces the strain in my back that comes from hunching over the keyboard (look down at your hands, trace back up to your shoulders, and see how turning your hands inwards to reach your keyboard cause your entire upper body to shrink down).

The build quality of the keyboard seems excellent, and the keys offer a pleasing, springy response. I’m a big fan of the IBM “clicky-keys,” and while these keys are not as sharply responsive, they also don’t wake up the neighbors.

Kinesis Freestyle - extendedI write “more in line” because, unfortunately, the tether that holds these two halves of the keyboard is a tad short — a little over 6″, fully extended. (Unless you have it bolted down to the table, you can’t really pull it out to full length because the cord needs a little slack). Looking at where my fingers land when I have them extended out, just sitting on the table, I’d probably want another 4-6″ — and given how narrow my shoulders are, someone bigger may even want longer.

The keyboard definitely takes some getting used-to, especially if you’re not a “proper” touch typist (you can’t reach for the “Y” with your left hand, for example). Probably the biggest adjustment comes with the removal of the number pad and the weird placement of the home/end/page up/page down keys. I would have preferred that they leave these buttons off altogether and let me buy a separate number/function pad rather than fill up more space. It seems trivial, but the extra keys on the right (and especially the left) means your hand has to travel that much further to get to your mouse. In fact, one of the major advantages I’d hoped to realize with this keyboard was shedding those extra keys so I could go back to a right-handed mouse. With my arms already spread out pretty far, the mouse will now probably be a lot less ergonomic than before — although, I suppose if I know I’m in for an extended mousing session (e.g. graphics work or games), I can always move the keyboard back to a closed, “normal” position. So the bigger problem with the extra keys is that they’re just not where you’d expect them – Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down are all on top of each other, and Insert and Delete have migrated up to the function key row. Good riddance to the Insert key, but with the Delete and Backspace keys so close together now, I find myself hitting the wrong one.

The Kinesis actually arrives with a plastic hinge that holds the two halves of the keyboard together, for those who prefer a keyboard more like the Microsoft Natural or the Goldtouch keyboard. Contrary to the instructions, my tether came off with a screwdriver, not the sliding buttons on the top of the keyboard. While the Kinesis retails around $90, the Natural sells for under $50 and the Goldtouch for $140. By comparison, the Kinesis is a lot more flexible than the Natural and both more flexible and cheaper than the Goldtouch.

In addition to the basic Freestyle, you can also add the “Incline” or “VIP” options that allow you to “tent” the keyboard. The Incline makes the Kinesis a direct competitor to the Goldtouch, while the VIP highlights the Freestyle’s, well, freer adjustment options. While these options make the keyboard even more natural (when you lay your hands on the table, you’ll see that they want to tilt outwards), they also add more height to the keyboard that will reduce the ergonomics, given that most keyboards are already placed way too high in relation to your lap. If you really want the tilting, a pair of rubber doorstops may well do the trick:

Kinesis Freestyle - doorstopsKinesis Freestyle - tilted

At about $100 (with shipping), the Kinesis Freestyle is definitely a bit of a luxury item unless you absolutely need it for ergonomic reasons. I would definitely buy it over the Microsoft Natural and the Goldtouch for reasons listed above, but if you have the extra dough for an ErgoFlex Comfort Keyboard (there’s on on eBay for about $150), I would consider that product because of the longer “tether” between keyboard segments, and the third number pad segment that you can put on the left, right, or middle. You can mount the ErgoFlex on a chair, just like the Freestyle’s predecessor, the Kinesis Evolution (which, appropriately, is now extinct). The Freestyle’s limited range would prevent you from going that far, although the cord is definitely a lot more aesthetically pleasing than the ErgoFlex. Obviously I went for the Freestyle, and while I’m somewhat disappointed with the features described above, I think I’m keeping it.

You can buy the Freestyle directly from Kinesis, or from ErgoKey.

update (2007 June 26):

I received a replacement keyboard directly from Kinesis technical support two weeks ago. My travel schedule prevented me from testing it sooner, but I’m happy to report that this updated version resolves the detection issues that I described in my last update. (It turns out that my BIOS does support USB keyboards after all). Big bonus points to Kinesis technical support and Mr. Rick Lynde in particular, who helped fix this problem. I now have my keyboard plugged directly into the USB ports on my main box with no issues at all with startup, hibernation, standby, etc. Thumbs up, Kinesis! (Now get cracking on that Bluetooth model, kk?)

update (May 9, 2007)

(Correspondence with Kinesis about “intermittent power from the computer during startup,” and workaround involving plugging into my monitor’s powered USB hub, now outdated by most recent update.)

update (2007 May 3):

I got an email from the Kinesis sales team indicating that they have another version of the Freestyle coming out addressing my main criticism:

Just wanted to clarify that we do have a version of the keyboard not yet listed on our web site which offers a 20″ separation. This would probably address your biggest complaint of not having enough separation. This model sells for $139 plus shipping and handling. This is a new option for the Freestyle so we are hoping to have it listed sometime in the next 2 weeks.

Given that the Freestyle was sitting as vaporware on the Kinesis site for well over half a year, it seems this additional model could have been listed with little effort. And $50 for another 14 inches? I think your average spam message can offer a better deal than that.

I should also add that the Holy Grail of split keyboards will be Bluetooth wireless — no “tether” issues at all, and fully maneuverable. I’d be willing to drop another $100 for that.

update (2008 Feb 26):

As I noted above, the spread of the keyboard puts your mouse very far to your left or right. I found that, over time, this put serious strain on my right arm and wrist. After much thought, I decided to throw some more money at the problem (luckily, the money was in the form of a Christmas Amazon gift certificate) and got the Evoluent Verticalmouse 3. While my arm remains splayed out pretty far when mousing, my wrist and hand is in a much, much more comfortable position. I’ll do a review of that product soon. In the meantime, I highly recommend it as a companion for the Kinesis Freestyle.

22 thoughts on “product review: Kinesis Freestyle, ergonomic split keyboard

  1. Thank you for the review. You do seem to be the first on this.

    I think you are right about the bluetooth being a useful addition.

    What I would also like for the complete picture is to have a mouse built into the keyboard, just like the laptop does. I prefer the IBM nipple style myself, but the pad style would do. That would allow not to have to move the hand at all and navigate that much faster.

  2. Greetings from someone who has been waiting for 3 years for such a keyboard :-)
    Since you don’t make any special mention, I guess you are using Windows. If you had a Mac, you would probably complaining about the position of the alt keys ;-)
    I’ll probably buy this one but I think they would make a much better business if they cared more about full-compatibility with Macs and if they didn’t charge 40 USD for a piece of cable!

  3. Alexandre, I think what you want is the original Kinesis Evolution keyboard. You still might be able to get one off eBay, but they are very expensive!

    JR: I’ll need to update the post again, but one complaint I’ve recently developed about this keyboard is that the placement of extra keys to the left really screw up my ability to find the left Ctrl, Shift, Tab keys. I find that I’m reaching for the end of the keyboard and hit the “special” keys by accident. That’s a design problem!

  4. Hi!
    Couple of questions for you. Is the Kenesis Freestyle VIP steady when tilted at the max? (I mean really steady) Also, I have been looking for an ergo keyboard that I could take the palm rests off and use a gel wrist rest instead – would this be possible? My wrist rest is about 1 inch thick. I cannot imagine why none of the companies don’t use a thin solid gel cushion on their palm rests or at least offer it as an option.

  5. Hello,

    I didn’t even know that a keyboard like this was coming out. It does look a little bit more ergonomical done. I am over a normal keyboard now and it does appear that my shoulders are coming in more which is putting more tension on my back. I notice some problems that may come with this new keyboard. The keyboard is connected by a cord and it may lose connectivity if a wire between the two becomes loose. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how this keyboard works out for you and that review. Great job on posting a new technology that I haven’t seen.

  6. The cord between the two halves of the keyboard seems pretty sturdy, and I’m not terribly concerned about it breaking, any more than the cord between the keyboard and the computer! But, it’s a good opportunity to plug the idea of BLUETOOTH KINESIS FREESTYLE! Let’s see one!

  7. I am planning on getting that same keyboard, but the wire connecting the two halves may distract me. I do love the idea and the design though. Well probably my only problem now is the price… it’s too steep for me.

  8. Joe, I have no idea what makes a keyboard so expensive. I guess it must be the combined power of mass production, mass marketing, and mass logistics. I’ve found that these things keep their value on Ebay — so I don’t know what to advise except to hope that it really catches on so the price can go down. I have to say that at under $100, this is the cheapest REAL ergonomic keyboard I’ve seen.

  9. I find it strange that they needed that cable in the middle to begin with. They could have duplicated KB electronics on both halves, and have each half connect to the PC with its own USB cable. I guess they thought it would have looked kinda hacky, and didn’t want to give people other ideas. Namely, that you can just buy 2 cheap small USB keyboards, and position them anyway you like. This is an extreme example:

    http://thecraftstudio.com/bcboy/keyboard.html

    You don’t have to go to such lengths – 2 or more USB keyboards will do the same job just fine.

  10. I’d like Kinesis to develop a portable ADVANTAGE keyboard – the one with the ‘wells’ for your hands – that can be used with a laptop more easily thatn carrying around the big keyboard.

    Any possibility of developing this?

  11. Hey, nice review. It assisted in purchasing my own. Actually, what really sealed the deal is that Kinesis is just a 30 minute or so drive away, so I got to try it and their other keyboards there before. I’m actually typing on my own now :)

    Apparently the reason for the 20 inch costing $40 more is that they have to do that custom, by hand, I think.

    I agree with KC, though, it’d be cool to buy half keyboards without the interconnect. Would be good for the chair-mount hacks.

    I’m quite glad that it’s not wireless, though – batteries in input devices just suck.

  12. What’s the Kinesis office like — they don’t actually manufacture there, do they? As for the 20″ connection I guess I meant that they should make that the standard so it won’t cost $40 more.

    From my communication with them, they indicate that wireless would jack up the price another $100… so probably not worth it until they can mass manufacture.

    Two separate USB cords, that however is a very good idea!

  13. Their office is pretty nice, though not very large – one section of a building shared with many others. They definitely don’t manufacture there :) All of their computers had the contoured keyboards, so they definitely eat their own dogfood. Their ‘showroom’ is pretty good – has most of the products and such. I was able to try the contoured keyboard, which was pretty interesting. I got the idea that the freestyle is considered to be somewhat of a compromise between normal design and ergonomic design, whereas the contoured is the ‘real deal’. To a regular keyboard the freestyle is far superior though, and at a decent price. I like the feel of the board – it’s pretty responsive.

    Yeah, a longer connection standard would be nice. 20″ would be pretty long, though, and for normal use would probably get in the way. Two connectors is probably the way to go. I wonder how well all the operating systems would do with multiple keyboards. One thing that’s very nice about the Freestyle and probably the other kinesis keyboards is that they are driverless, with the specific intent of cross-platform compatibility. I was amazed when all the hotkeys worked in linux (though I’ll probably rebind them to other tasks :P )

  14. I am a bit concerned about the key quality since this keyboard seems to use a membrane switch. If you have time, can you please help me by performing an experiment? I would like to know when a key is registered during the key press. Is it at the bottom? Or is it somewhere in the middle?

    Thanks in advance!

  15. Maverick, it’s hard to tell where the keypress is registered, as the keys are difficult to partially depress. However, it does seem that the key registers before it “hits bottom,” although very close to it.

    I don’t think this is responsive to your question, but the keys feel very high-quality to my hands, and I’m used to the famous IBM “clicky-keys” board.

  16. To Maverick: the key feel is wonderful. I had a GoldTouch for about 2 days, and it kept missing certain keys, such as the ‘y’. The Freestyle has no such problems.

    To Alexandre: try the Contour RollerMouse Pro. It sits where a wrist rest would, and I use it with my thumbs without moving my hands at all, no problems.

    To Gene: Great review, and I love the doorstops. I ordered mine with the 20″ cable & VIP kit. However, I can’t use the VIP kit, since the VIP kit requires the handrests to be in place, and the RollerMouse is right under my keyboard.

    For future product, maybe a usb cord per half, and a usb hub built-in? Connect PC-Left-Right-Mouse, maybe daisy-chain in a 3rd-party keypad?

    Cheers,
    -Jim

  17. I’m having the same issue that you are with my keyboard and computer. At startup, the keyboard is not recongnized when plugged directly in the computer. What was your solution??? Thanks!

  18. Catherine5: What operating system are you using? This should automatically work for Windows XP, Vista and Mac. If that’s what you’ve got, then contact tech support — they were able to ship out a replacement that worked for me. (My problem was that the keyboard kind of died after the computer slept or hibernated — not sure if that’s your issue from your description).

  19. I have this keyboard. Once you switch to it, there’s no going back. The joined cable is not a problem at all and doesn’t get in the way. Mine works 100% and is detected easily. The mouse being further away is also not a problem for me.

    That being said, I just can’t get used to the non IBM standard layout. 20 years of using keyboards, it’s hard to adjust to having Internet keys on the left side, so the TAB, CAPS, etc, aren’t the last keys on that side. I’m also hitting the Home key sometimes, instead of Backspace; since they are side by side. So for this reason I have ordered the ErgoFlex, which I haven’t tried as of posting this.

    The Kinesis is a nicely built keyboard and I think Kinesis is a better company, so I’ll still be recommending the Freestyle.

    M

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  21. I too have been looking at this keyboard. I was looking at the Freestyle VIP and was thinking for using to some velcro or double adhesive and two bookends to create a vertical split keyboard. The cost for these things is about $10 compared to $199 for the Freestyle Ascent.

    However, I discovered this 8″ cord limitation also. The long one costs $40 more for about 12″ more wire. I agree that this is too much money. I’m not going to attempt to cut and add more wire myself.

    Anyways, I’ve decided to hold off on this purchase because of this.

  22. I got hold of a Freestyle last week. The thing that I was most concerned about was the key feel, but I’m very pleased with it. The key action has a slight ‘click’ – more than most membrane keyboards, but not loud like the old IBM Model M buckling springs.

    I got the V3 and VIP kits to give me some options. I think I may have to rig something up to lift the back of the keyboard up slightly- I’m used to a slight front-to-back angle.

    Overall I’m very pleased- best and most flexible keyboard I’ve owned.