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Typing in Style with the Kinesis

My operating principle has always been: use the best tool for the job. Where computer work is involved, I insist on a good keyboard. In my case, it's the Kinesis Advantage keyboard, which is ergonomic, comfortable, and built to last. Read on about why I love it.

It wasn't too long ago that I eschewed all forms of computer, preferring the great outdoors. I still do, but increasingly I find myself glued to the business end of a computer, whether for work or for pleasure. My operating principle has always been: use the best tool for the job. So I've spent a lot of free time trying to make sure I'm on good hardware. Above all, I insist on a good keyboard.

The first was a keyboard that had piqued my interest as I grew interested in the Dvorak keyboard layout. As I researched keyboards that seemed to be built and designed on the basis of good engineering, followed through on keyboards that got good reviews on public forums, and so on, time and time again I came across the Kinesis Advantage keyboard. Finally I caved in and purchased one from a favorite company I'd long used for my Dvorak key label fixes: Fentek Industries.

Where the Advantage is concerned, a picture is worth a thousand words, so have a look yourself.

Kinesis Advantage Keyboard

Let me say this: it is comfortable. Where hardware is concerned, more often than not, you get what you pay for. That was certainly the case with this keyboard. The Kinesis is light but feels well built, and the keys are pleasant to the touch: they have great tactile feedback, but are light enough and travel smoothly enough that your fingers don't feel like they are getting a workout as you type. This aspect of the keyboard can not be underestimated, as a full work day on a crappy keyboard can be tiring for your fingers and wrists, not to mention extraordinarily bad for your health. Secondly, the ergonomics of the keyboard are fantastic: each key has a slightly different height and angle which corresponds to the length of your fingers. A great example is the difference between the D and F keys on the left hand: the D is quite a bit deeper, but you'll notice you strike that key with your left middle finger, which is quite a bit longer. It's fascinating and gratifying the first time you sink your hands into the two wells to notice that each key appears to be exactly at the tip of the finger with which you strike it. How come no one thought of this before? The best part about it is that you no longer feel like you are typing, since each finger is moving in the arc most natural for it.

The Kinesis has a number of other features that correspond with its design goals of being an ergonomically unobtrusive and comfortable keyboard, like an optional foot pad with programmable pedals (you could make one of them your shift key, for example), and programmable macros. These interest me less than the overall feel and use of a comfortable keyboard, which, as a writer, are essential: if my fingers can't keep up with my thoughts it's a major hassle to type; same goes for if my fingers or wrists start to get sore: repetitive stress injuries are not to be trifled with, and they are usually life-changing. Naturally I splurged on the QWERTY-DVORAK switchable model, which is better still, but that is my personal preference.

Configuration of the Kinesis Advantage Keyboard under Linux/Unix

The keyboard is USB, so overall hardware configuration is essentially automatic: just plug it in and the Linux kernel will recognize it as a general USB 104 key keyboard. The instructions are straight forward for set up under Windows or Mac computers, and on both those systems, the instructions were adequate and straight forward, so I have nothing to add. From there, the instructions discuss configuration under other PCs, and are a bit less clear. Let it be said that KDE and Gnome's keyboard configuration capability is already more than adequate, but the additional configuration options present additional choices to make; here are some thoughts and my guidance on the subject.

Configuration under Gnome

Ubuntu uses Gnome by default, and these days SUSE seems to be spending more effort on its Gnome environment than its KDE environment, However, I find Gnome's configuration ability to be a little lacking, particulary with regard to the cool things Linux lets you do with a keyboard. For starters, go to the control panel and use the 'shortcuts' applet to assign keystroke shortcuts.

Gnome: Key configurations
Configuration Left Control Left Alt Right Win/Mac Right Control
PC (=p) control alt mod5 control
Windows (=w) control alt multi-key control
Mac (=m) mod4 alt control multi-key

Under Gnome, the Windows layout is not very useful because the Windows key doesn't work the way a modifier key should. You can assign something to the key itself (for example, the 'show the panel run application dialog' or 'show the desktop' but that's a very centrally-located key and in my opinion should be able to be used for a variety of functions, as you would expect from a so-called modifier key. The mac environment is out for the same reason, though the assignment of mod4 to the left control key is useful and provides a lot of possibilities. Nonetheless, under Gnome, the best thing to do is set the keyboard to the PC configuration, which gives you two control keys, one alt key, and mod5.

My configuration: PC config, so that the control and alt keys work as expected; then map important functions to Mod5, such as 'show the panel run application dialog.'

Configuration under KDE

I tend to prefer KDE because I can tweak it more to my liking. In fact, these days, it's the only reason I use Linux at all, as its other shortcomings increasingly annoy me. KDE provides lots more keyboard options in this regard, and best of all, allows me to tweak even the minutiae of my environment, and that's why I prefer it. Under KDE, complete your configuration using the control center; selet the 'keyboard shortcuts' section under 'regional/accessibility.' Also, make sure under the 'modifier keys' tab the 'Macintosh keyboard setting hasn't been invoked), as for this keyboard it is not useful for the configuration (in fact, I'm not sure I find it useful overall).

KDE Key configurations
Configuration Left control Left Alt Right Win/Mac Right Control
Configuration Left Control Left Alt Right Win/Mac Right Control
PC (=p) control alt alt control
Windows (=w) control alt win control
Mac (=m) win alt control win

Happily, the KDE environment does a better job of recognizing the keys as you would expect them and you thus have two rather good configuration options, the Win config and the PC config.

My configuration: Win configuration because it gives me an extra modifier key: Win. Then, I chose keyboard shortcuts that made sense for my fingers. But under the Keyboard layout module of the control center, in the 'XKB Options' tab, I set 'right control is compose' option. This lets me use the right alt key (with the Windows/Mac key cap label) to compose accented characters like ñ and è.

A different configuration, but one I like just about as much, is to use PC configuration, and use 'right alt is compose' so the key with the windows/mac label becomes the compose key for special characters.

For bonus points, and because KDE provides you the option, once you've assigned all the keyboard shortcuts you need, save them as a keyboard layout, giving it a name like Kinesis. It will save you time later.

Note for Dvorak Users:

Obviously, since the Dvorak switchable keyboard switches the keys at the hardware level, you don't have to choose a dvorak keyboard layout with your software. That is, if you set your Kinesis keyboard to Dvorak, you don't also have to choose it in KDE; continue with the normal US (or whatever) layout, and happy typing.

For long prose, I tend to migrate towards emacs, and on the Kinesis keyboard emacs requires some creative key remapping to be functional. See my article about how to do it.

Note for Mandriva Users:

For some reason, I have never been able to get the Kinesis' Win key to register under Mandriva, perhaps because the keyboard was mis-identified by the installation routine, and no reconfiguration I do seems to make a difference. That's not the end of the world, since Control and Alt both work fine, and so I simply chose key combinations that made sense using those keys (Mandriva was, on the other hand, the distro that best identified my monitor, so you win some and you lose some).


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