Fighting RSI (Part 3)

It’s been a while since I last experienced RSI related pain as described in my Fighting RSI series of blog posts, and that’s probably why I focused on other things and never got round to writing part 3. But I’ve been asked to do so several times in the last few months, and I might as well wrap the whole issue up right now, so here it is. It’s not bad that I waited so long though, because by now I’ve been using my new input devices intensively for several months.

Kensington Orbit with Scroll Ring

In part 1, I investigated ergonomic mice, trackballs in particular, and ended up buying the Kensington Orbit with Scroll Ring.

It’s a good trackball, but I’m not so sure if it’s really better for my hand than a regular mouse. When using it for several hours in a row (mostly while playing games), my hand does get a little tired. But other than that, I’m very happy and I don’t have much to add to part 1. I got pretty good at using middle mouse button emulation (i.e. pressing both the left and the right button at the same time), works all the time now.

Kinesis Freestyle

Since I wasn’t convinced that the mouse was the sole cause of my pain, I looked into ergonomic keyboards in part 2, and decided that the Kinesis Freestyle was the best in my price range. I ordered one directly with Kinesis and soon got my hands on it.

A very nice keyboard. The material feels durable and expensive – the difference to cheap keyboards is vast. The keys have just the right resistance and make just the right noise (neither silent nor annoying) and it looks pretty slick. So far, so, good – I didn’t expect a cheap piece of hardware for this kind of money.

One of the reasons I decided to buy the Kinesis was that it is a modular keyboard (I love modular stuff), which means that you’ll buy a base keyboard to which you can add accessories that will let you position the keyboard in an ergonomic way.

I tried to be cheap and ordered just the base keyboard at first, which turned out to be a bad idea. The Freestyle without any accessories is not an ergonomic keyboard, although it’s still a pretty cool keyboard if that’s not what you’re looking for. I tried to figure out which accessory to buy by arranging the keyboard with books, but it didn’t really work. I eventually went with the most flexible and popular option, the VIP:

It features wrist rests which are absolutely essential (trust me on this) and makes it possible to adjust the keyboard’s angle. There are only two settings, but that’s enough for me:

With the VIP accessory, the Freestyle is a wonderful ergonomic keyboard. You can easily adjust it to a comfortable typing position at any time. If a non-touch typist insists on using your computer, you can just move the parts together:

You can also move the parts far apart, I can’t think of any other keyboard that lets you do that. I’ve even seen one guy who ordered a Freestyle with an extra long chord and mounted each part on each side of his ergonomic chair – quite impressive. You can really go nuts with this, e.g. place your mouse between the parts:

I usually have them close to each other, but when I’m typing with my baby son in my arms, I move them a bit further apart.

I decided to buy the US version of the keyboard because the German version was only available from German resellers which sold it at ridiculously high prices. That worked pretty well for me: Programming with the US layout makes much more sense (and fun), and thanks to the US international layout, I can still type special German letters effectively. It was a bit difficult at first to use a German layout at my laptop and at work and an US layout at my desktop computer, but I can mentally switch layouts seamlessly by now.

The Freestyle doesn’t have a num pad, which was actually one of the reasons why I decided to buy it. The num pad consumes valuable space on the desk, forcing me to either not center the keyboard in front of me or to reach unreasonably far for the mouse. As a touch typist, I hardly used the num pad anyways, so I was glad to get rid of it. The Freestyle does have an Fn key that will make a couple of other keys function as the num pad keys, but I’ve never used that, except accidentally.

Speaking of which, there are a couple of special keys on the left:

I never use those, but I guess they just had some free space there, I don’t mind. All of these are hardwired to key combinations, so they work on pretty much every OS. I thought that, as an Emacs user, I could make good use of the copy and cut key (C-C and C-X, see?) but they are too difficult to reach from the normal typing position.

As you can probably tell by now, I’m pretty happy with the Freestyle, and it was definitely worth its money in my case, because the pain disappeared after a short while.

One last piece of advice: If you are going to buy such an expensive keyboard, make sure to invest the additional $10 to buy a cover for keeping it clean:


Please don’t mistake me for an RSI expert (in the unusual event that I make that impression), I’m just a geek with pain, which is a dangerous combination. I’ll admit that I suspected that my pain was mostly caused by the mouse, a cheap piece of hardware, yet I looked into the considerably more expensive ergonomic keyboards, mostly because I think they’re cool :). It turned out well for me, because the pain was indeed caused by the keyboard. I was lucky with my choice and the pain did go away. However, I guess the best thing to do with RSI pain is to go see a physician and figure out what’s causing the pain, then solve that problem.

2 Responses

  1. Did you consider investing the time in learning a more ergonomic keyboard layout like Neo2? Luckily, I have no experience with RSI, but I suspect that the wacky qwert* layout has some of the blame.

  2. Yes, I considered to learn Dvorak, but didn’t. There are many kinds of pain in RSI, some people have problems with the shoulder (probably mouse related), some with their fingers (like the “Emacs pinky”) etc. I had problems with my wrist, and those can probably not be solved by changing the keyboard layout or switching Capslock and Ctrl (I actually tried that). QWERTY is certainly not ideal, but I like to solve problems when they occur. Plus it would make pair programming more difficult.

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