Wed, 18 Feb 2009

Ergonomic Office, Part 1: Keyboard

Since I am now spending the vast majority of my time working out of the home office, I decided to invest a little cash in taking care of two of a programmer's most valuable assets – my wrists and back. I've been using my new acquisitions for a few weeks now so it's about time I reported on the experience. First up: the Goldtouch Ergonomic Desktop Solution featuring this keyboard and this mouse.

Let me point out right up front that this was not my first choice. Following a nice lengthy thread on Reddit I started out shopping for a Kinesis Advantage, but couldn't find one in Australia for a price I was willing to pay. The Goldtouch also had some pretty good reviews online, and came at a much more attractive price with some wrist-pads thrown in, so I figured I'd give it a shot. So far, I'm certainly not disappointed. Here's a photo of my new setup:

I'm sure you can see a few oddities here already – the keyboard has a ball-and-socket joint and a big split down the middle, while the mouse is vertical and has all the buttons located on the side. Note also the complete lack of a numeric keypad hogging up the right-hand side of the keyboard; this is actually a design feature that lets you put the mouse within each reach.

For me, the biggest win by far is the vertical mouse. Within about half a day of using it I was already feeling the difference – I wasn't exactly having arm pains with my previous mouse, but the new setup is noticeably more comfortable. I'd say this is due in equal parts to the reduced distance between mouse and keyboard, and the vertical grip allowing my hand to rest in a more natural position. It took maybe an hour or two to get the hang of mousing with a vertical grip, but it now feels like the most natural thing in the world.

My only gripe with the mouse is the buttons, which took me a few hours to master. Don't get me wrong, the buttons are easy to reach and nicely sensitive and make a satisfying "click" when you click them. But since you are now clicking in the horizontal plane rather than down towards the desk, your natural instinct is to push back with the thumb to stop the mouse from moving, making a kind of pinching motion as you click. This would be no problem except for one thing: there's another button under your thumb.

The extra buttons on this mouse (it has five in total) seem to be hooked up to go forward/backward through my browser navigation history. Coming from a three-button mouse I wasn't expecting this, and I didn't really notice that I was accidentally clicking them until I tried to browse the web – at which point I started flitting back-and-forth around my recently visited websites like some kind of demented hummingbird. The trick, as I learned after a few frustrating hours, is to avoid the impulse to get your thumb involved at all. Just keep it nice and low and relaxed in its little contoured resting space; the other buttons will click just fine without actively resisting the movement of the mouse.

The keyboard and I didn't get off to quite such a good start. The first two days of using it were accompanied by a constant dull ache in my right shoulder – not exactly the outcome I had been looking for! Fortunately this went away on the third day and hasn't returned, and I suspect it was simply my shoulders be forced to do some actual work for a change rather letting the desk prop my wrists up all day. Yes, this is a keyboard that forces your hands to get active and type with something approaching proper form. It's not just the split down the middle either, as shown in this profile shot:

The keyboard halves are designed to be angled upwards, and I've got mine set so that the middle keys are around 5cm off the desk. The ball-and-socket joint allows you to adjust this, along with the angle of the split down the middle, according to your own comfort – but leaving the two halves flat and joined would kind of defeat the purpose of getting the keyboard in the first place, right?

This setup might look unwieldy but is actually surprisingly sturdy. Goldtouch have done a great job on the adjustable joint, there is no bounce and typing feels as solid as on a standard keyboard. The keys themselves are not as sensitive as I'm used to, and I've had to learn to strike them a little harder, but they're certainly responsive and have a nice "click" about them.

What took the most adjusting was actually my typing technique – although I'm a pretty fast typist, I don't touch-type in the proper manner, and I didn't realise how incredibly greedy my right hand was until half the keyboard was placed beyond its reach. For at least two weeks on the new keyboard, I would find myself trying to type a "g" or a "b" with my right index finger and only hitting air; and then hitting at that same patch of air two or three more times before I remembered why it wasn't working. Thankfully I have just about completed the re-training of these reflexes, and have even started learning to touch-type the proper way.

However, I do have one ongoing annoyance with the keyboard: the placement of the escape key. While this probably won't affect of a lot of people, it's just too far away for a vim-junkie such as myself. I think this is mostly to do with the split angling the keys away from the body, as the escape key is actually in pretty much the some location as my previous keyboard; since escape is in the top corner, the angle of the split places it further away from the body than normal. Whatever the cause, the escape-colon-q-bang-enter sequence that is drilled into my muscle memory expects to find the escape key right where this keyboard has the tilde, and the result is a lot files with embedded vim command sequences. I'm still working on breaking that habit.~:w!

In the end I'm quite pleased with the Goldtouch keyboard-and-mouse combo, especially considering that I was able to get it delivered for quite a reasonable price. And to my great relief, my newly-formed proper typing habits have not diminished my ability to type on my laptop's cramped little keyboard.

Part two will showcase my spiffy new chair, and no, it's not what you think; stay tuned...