Finally bought one after using Kinesis Freestyle2 for one year.

Warning: This blog post may be unnecessarily verbose due to the overwhelming comfort of typing on my new Kinesis Advantage2.

Thoughts:

  1. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE???
  2. Get Used to It
  3. The Keywell
  4. The Thumb Clusters
  5. SmartSet (the Customization Software)
  6. The Horror of Customizing Layout
  7. Actually Customizing the Layout
  8. Ctrl Key Positioning
  9. Non-split design
  10. Summary
  11. Appendix
I bought the "QD" (Qwerty/Dvorak Dual Labelled) version because it's the only available version on Amazon China

WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE???

Especially given the fact that the first Kinesis contoured keyboard came out in 1992 (and its predecessor Maltron way before that), which was 5 years before I was even born! This design is still so much ahead of everything else even by today’s standard (come on keyboard industry!).

Get Used to It

It does take some time getting used to, but not as long as I expected: It only me less than 1 day to get to my usual typing speed. This could be partly because I already use a split keyboard (Kinesis Freestyle2), and partly because I chose a relatively conservative keymap. The only part that really needs getting used to is the ortholinear layout (which feels great after the initial few hours).

The Keywell

The keywell is way underrated. I expected the keywell to be comfortable, but not THIS comfortable. I was obsessed with different tenting and negative tilting solutions when using the Freestyle2, but now tenting and tilting feels like nothing but ugly hacks trying to fit human hand with a 2D board. You can’t have something rectangular that fits the human body, we have moved past rectangular mice, when are we gonna move past flat rectangular keyboards? But I do think the tenting angle could be a little higher though.

I have also considered other keyboards such as Ergodox EZ, but I don’t think I can go back to a keyboard without keywells. I’m looking forward to the day when there’s a dactyl EZ for sale.

The Thumb Clusters

Frankly the thumb clusters are a bit disappointing. I always thought that I have average-sized hands but I can only comfortably reach 1 key (default being backspace on the left and space on the right) when my hands are in typing position (fingers on home-row etc.). So for the moment I remapped the left one to Command and kept the right one as Space, then this is not much different from using a normal keyboard. Perhaps you are not supposed to be hitting the other thumb keys without floating your hands to the middle? It would be great if they could be closer to the keywells.

SmartSet (the Customization Software)

The software does its job but is quite far from being user-friendly, but that’s not a large issue. There was a bug where mapping keys to Ctrl does not work as SmartSet writes [ctrl] but it really should have been [lctrl] (same for shift and alt). Also it only supports two layers (the normal layer and the numpad layer).

The Horror of Customizing Layout

Another unpleasant thing about mapping is that: I use Dvorak, and I changed the keyboard layout to Dvorak on the OS level because I still need to use the built-in keyboard of my laptop once in a while, I must use Advantage2 in Qwerty mode to avoid switching layout in OS every time I connect/disconnect Advantage2. This is fine until I try to customize the layout, because a keystrokes goes through these indirections:

  1. Keystroke
    • Fires key code
  2. On-board qwerty.txt redirection
    • Mapped to another key code
  3. OS level Qwerty/Dvorak translation
    • Recognize as another key
  4. Effective keystroke received by applications

So in order to create a remap (e.g. put / back to the right side of top row), I’ll have to find out:

  1. What is the desired effective keystroke? (/)
  2. Which Qwerty key will be translated by OS-level Dvorak layout as that key? ([)
  3. Which key should I press in SmartSet to create that mapping? (the key printed - on Qwerty keyboard)

Actually Customizing the Layout

I do agree that the traditional layout is suboptimal (good luck typing that backslash without moving your hand or hurt your pinky), but with the keywell design I feel like the variance of the cost of reaching keys is greatly reduced, so I tried to place the keys as close to their original position as possible:

  • backtick/tilde key on the left of 1
  • slash/question mark on the right of l
  • plus/equal and backslash right below ; and q

I also created reverse mappings to get the square brackets in their labeled position.

Ctrl Key Positioning

I’m a heavy Ctrl key user, not only in terminal but I have also created OS-level readline shortcuts through BetterTouchTool. So when I’m using my Freestyle2, I dream of being able to set the left part of the space bar as Ctrl (nope it requires a firmware upgrade which can’t be done without shipping it back to Kinesis), so I thought that when I finally get a keyboard with thumb cluster Ctrl will definitely be put in the most easy-to-reach position. But I still ended up using Capslock as Ctrl, for a few reasons:

  1. As mentioned earlier, I can’t comfortably reach more than 2 thumb cluster keys, and one of them has to be Space
  2. There’s also the Command key which is almost equally-important
  3. I already use my left thumb to press Command and use Capslock as Ctrl, this can avoid some confused keystrokes when I’m using the laptop keyboard
  4. And using Capslock as Ctrl isn’t that bad, right? Certainly better than forcefully stretching my thumb or moving my wrist all the time

Non-split design

I am totally fine with the non-split design. Having used Freestyle2 for over a year and I just had less and less trust in my choice of split keyboard placement. Perhaps Advantage2’s separation is not optimal, but it feels nice to me and it’s one less thing to worry about.

Summary

Kinesis Advantage2 is great, and it’s probably my best hardware purchase in 2019. The things that could have been better:

  • Thumb clusters could be closer to the keywells
  • Tenting angle could be higher (or even better, let it be adjustable)
  • QMK?
    • Or at least support assigning macros to thumb keys
  • Bluetooth! With such size you can probably fit a laptop inside it, let alone some antenna and battery
    • Or least detachable USB cable

Appendix

Current Layout in SmartSet (For Use with OS-level Dvorak Layout)

My current qwerty.txt:

[F1]>[F14] // F14 and F15 controls brightness on macOS
[F2]>[F15]
[F10]>[prev]
[F11]>[play]
[F12]>[next]
[prtscr]>[mute]
[scroll]>[vol-]
[pause]>[vol+]
[=]>[`]
[\]>[obrack]
[caps]>[lctrl]
[bspace]>[lwin]
[delete]>[lalt]
{home}>{-lctrl}{tab}{+lctrl} // Ctrl-tab
[`]>[cbrack]
[intl-\]>[\]
{end}>{-lshift}{-lctrl}{tab}{+lshift}{+lctrl} // Ctrl-shift-tab
[pdown]>[bspace]
[obrack]>[hyphen]
[cbrack]>[=]
[numlk]>[kptoggle]