TL;DR I discuss my impressions of the newest version of the classic Kinesis Advantage contoured mechnical keyboard, the Advantage2.
Mechanical keyboards have become a big business the last 5 years or so, with clackity-clack Cherry MX key switches becoming all the rage amongst programmers and gamers alike. In the age of ever-thinner laptop keyboards (and Apple even getting rid of physical buttons and keys in recent Macbook Pros), the strong tactile feedback and satisfying feel of mechanical key switches are a welcome change for professionals who spend long days at the computer.
I was introduced to these keyboards through the Kinesis Advantage back in 2008. I was suffering from repetitive strain injury (RSI) pain at the time and the Kinesis layout (with modifier keys at your thumbs) and lower key actuation force was exactly what I needed. They are expensive keyboards (at US $\$$300 to $\$$400, depending on the model and where you buy it), but given that they can last a decade or more, properly taken care of, you can think of it as an investment in your professional productivity and health.
I'm not an expert on keyboard history, but the two companies which popularized keyboard layouts with thumb-based modifier keys were Maltron and Kinesis. Since then, there have been other new keyboard designs taking inspiration from these, like the open source Ergodox and Dactyl keyboards.
The Kinesis Corporation itself has always been sleeper hit amongst programmers with RSI issues. So I was interested when they released a new version of the Advantage keyboard with some hardware changes and internal software changes. They were kind enough to provide me with a demo unit to try out the new features.
Advantage2: what's new
The big changes in the Advantage2 are:
The function keys are now proper mechanical Cherry ML switches rather than the spongier capacitative ones in the older models. They're a big step up from the old function keys.
New internal hardware / firmware bringing improved programmability for modifying keyboard layouts and macros. Macros have been improved in some good ways, too.
An internal USB-based "V-Drive" enabling you to edit configuration files (layouts and macros) and install firmware updates on the keyboard programmability and firmware updates from your computer.
Otherwise, not much has changed about the physical design of the keyboard (which is already tried and true). It's missing a USB port for a mouse (which I'm told had caused issues for users on KVM switches), but you can still connect a set of foot pedals, which behave like generic programmable keys.
The new programmability system I've referred to is now collectively known as the "SmartSet Programming Engine". I updated the keyboard firmware using the V-Drive, so at this time I have (this status report printed out by a special keyboard macro):
Model> Advantage2 Firmware> 1.0.168.us (2MB), 09/26/2016 Active layout file> qwerty.txt Thumb keys mode> win Macro play status> active Macro play speed> slow=1, normal=3, fast=9> 9 Status report play speed> off=0, slow=1, normal=3, fast=4> 3 Keyclick status> off Toggle tone status> on Stored macros> 2 Keys remapped> 4 Power user mode> on
progm - F1 mounts a special USB drive which contains an
folder containing configuration files for keyboard layouts and macros, and a
firmware folder for firmware updates.
active, there is a read-only file
state.txt which has some of the
basic high level settings.
startup_file=qwerty.txt thumb_mode=WINDOWS key_click_tone=OFF toggle_tone=ON macro_disable=OFF macro_speed=9 power_user=true
The macro speed can be a big deal in practice. The original Advantage had a fixed macro playback speed that wasn't too speedy. The default speed setting of 3 corresponds to 150 words per minute (WPM) corresponds roughly to a fast typing speed. The top speed of 9 is 20 times faster, a blistering 250 characters per second (around 3000 words per minute). For longer macros, this makes the output appear almost instantaneously. You can set the macro speed globally or on a per-macro basis (since some macros need to be entered more slowly).
qwerty.txt file contains modifications to the default QWERTY layout. Any
remappings that you make using traditional onboard programming (by pressing
progrm - remap) are stored in this file. For example, I have long remapped
Caps Lock to left bracket
[ and backslash to
] (for Python
programming). These appear in my
qwerty.txt file as:
Things get more interesting with macros. For example, I used the keyboard's
macro recording mode (
progm - F11) to set Ctrl-Alt-Shift-F to type
This is a
Macro Example. This then appears in
Any macros created onboard are similarly reflected in the text file, so you can make tweaks to more complicated macros from a text editor (so-called "direct editing").
For Kinesis users who take advantage of customization and macros, the Advantage2 is a very nice upgrade for its improved programmability and the better feel of the function keys.
If you are a new or potential user, and you can afford the investment (of money and time to learn the contoured keyboard shape), it should be worth your consideration over the increasingly long list of mechanical keyboards now available.