In my reckless youth, I dismissed ergonomics as a passing fad—a marketing gimmick targeted at discontented office workers eager to milk their employers for every last company-subsidized freebie. But when I hurt my shoulder and any prolonged typing became an excruciating experience, my skepticism turned to curiosity.
To familiarize myself with the basic principles of ergonomics, I flipped open Merriam-Webster, which provides this definition: "an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely." In other words, we function better sitting upright at an expensively customized desk than slouched over a laptop in bed.
Somewhat versed in this dubious-sounding theory, I moved on to practical advice: I asked a friend at Google—that bastion of workplace perks—to send me a complete inventory of his most essential ergonomic tools. "It's all about the keyboard," he told me. I admit I remained unconvinced: Could such a minor office accessory really improve my workday and possibly even halt the aging of my body? As part of my never-ending quest to conquer back pain without relinquishing all contact with computers, I decided to find the best ergonomic keyboard on the market.
I tested six ergonomic keyboards ranging in price from $57 to $299. To ensure my impressions were accurate, I used every keyboard exclusively for at least two weeks, subjecting each one to the thrilling gamut of my daily activities: spooling out interview transcripts, entering numbers onto TurboTax, and just futzing around on the Internet. Each keyboard could score a possible 30 points, with five, 10, or 15 points assigned for the following categories:
Painkiller (15 points):A well-designed ergonomic keyboard should make the business of typing as efficient and pain-free as possible, which is why, in evaluating each model, I paid careful attention to how my body felt after long sessions at the desk. Did the keyboard force my body into more correct habits? Did my fingers move less; were my shoulders more relaxed? Were my wrists better aligned with my arms?
Ease of use (10 points): Most ergonomic keyboards require some degree of adaptation—but are these little adjustments worth the hassle? How long does it take to get used to the new style of typing and to master each keyboard's idiosyncrasies? Are the function keys (Ctrl/Alt/Shift and so forth) logically placed?
Frills factor (5 points):A keyboard should first and foremost facilitate typing, but I'm not complaining if I can also operate iTunes or Firefox with minimal finger motion. And if you're ponying up for a luxury keyboard, you might as well score some nice extras, like media-control pads and devices to cut back on mousing.
The results, from back-breaking to blissful:
Adesso Tru-Form Pro Contoured Ergonomic Keyboard, $132.54 (on sale for $57.92) This split keyboard—in one piece, but divided down the middle between the 6-T-G-B and the 7-Y-H-N keys—makes definite concessions to those shadowy principles of ergonomics: The extremely responsive keys are arranged into a wave, presumably to encourage a rounder shoulder position. The Adesso also sports a number pad and various smart keys: volume controls, buttons for e-mail, digital-photo programs, and shortcuts to favorite Web sites. And alone among the keyboards I tested, the Adesso features a touchpad just beneath the space bar (roughly where it would be on a laptop keyboard), which is designed to reduce reliance on the mouse.
For all these special features, the Adesso falls short. Bizarrely, the fixed-height keyboard slants upward from the space bar toward the function keys. The slope should go in the opposite direction, forcing arms, hands, and fingers to into an unbroken, downward-pointing line. When typing with the Adesso, I was forced to bend my hands upward from my wrist—an even more awkward contortion than that necessitated by a cheapo flattop keyboard. And however much I tried, I simply could not cultivate the habit of using the touchpad.
Ease of use: 6
Frills factor: 4
Total: 15 (out of 30)
Goldtouch Ergonomic Keyboard, $109.99
The Goldtouch is a simple split keyboard that tents in the middle to allow height adjustments. Because the two halves were joined at the middle, I had to keep my arms painfully close to my torso at all times. My shoulders always felt pinched.
The Goldtouch has none of the extras usually associated with ergonomic keyboards—not just no variation in key size and height, but no numeric keypad or one-touch iTunes activator—and only a few volume-control keys. Admittedly, as I said earlier, a keyboard has but one do-or-die duty, and that's to type out words. But even on this count, the Goldtouch just never felt all that smooth. While most keys required only the lightest tapping, the "I" key started sticking after only a few uses.
Ease of use: 5
Frills factor: 1
Total: 16 (out of 30)