Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6819/truly-ergonomic-computer-keyboard-review-one-month-with-the-teck

Introducing the TECK

Back in late January, I received the TECK for review, a keyboard that goes by the not-so-humble name of “Truly Ergonomic Computer Keyboard”, manufactured by a company that likewise uses the name Truly Ergonomic (hello name space collision). I’m sure other companies that make ergonomic keyboards might take exception to the name, but as far as I’m concerned that’s mostly marketing. The real question is how the TECK fares in day-to-day use, and whether it’s really a better keyboard for serious typists—and particularly typists like me that suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS)—compared to the other options.

I won’t sugarcoat the difficulty of the initial learning curve: it’s brutal, and I already wrote some first impressions on the subject. If you buy a keyboard like this, you’re going to need to plan on a solid three or four days minimum before you can start to approach your previous efficiency. Give it another week or two, though, and as with most things it becomes mostly second nature. With over a month of regular use now in my back pocket, I’m ready to provide some thoughts on the TECK experience. Can any keyboard possibly be worth a price of entry well north of $200? I suppose that depends on what you’re doing with it.

My Background—Why the TECK Matters

Let me start with a bit of background information so that you know where I’m coming from and why I would even be interested in using the TECK. Currently, I’m the Senior Editor of the laptops/notebooks section at AnandTech, but I also provide proofing/editing on various other articles, and I dabble in the occasional other section. I’ve now been with AnandTech for 8.5 years, and during that time I’ve gone from 30 years old to a ripening 39 year old. I have a habit of being perhaps more verbose than necessary in my reviews (my current record goes to the ~25K word socket 939 SFF roundup back in late 2005—and it’s the reason I try to avoid roundups these days). Succinctly put, I type quite a bit on a keyboard and as I got older I started having issues with carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS).

I’ve tried a few other approaches during the years to help mitigate the irritation of CTS, including doing a lot of dictation using Dragon NaturallySpeaking for a few years. I actually like Dragon, but when I got married and then had one young child and later a second enter into the equation (I now have a 10 year old, nearly 3 year old, and our baby just turned 1 this past weekend), I found that getting the necessary privacy to do proper dictation can be rather difficult. So as much as I like the idea of speech recognition, it’s probably not going to be viable for me until either my children get old enough that they can learn to leave dad alone while he’s working, or I get an office with a soundproof door I can lock myself behind.

My secondary approach to alleviating my CTS has been threefold. First, try to type less; I basically quit commenting on most hardware enthusiast forums because it was creating extra wear and tear on the aging carpals. Second, try to exercise more, eat healthier, and take breaks from the computer every hour or so—I’m not doing so well on that last part, though I’m definitely in better shape and eating healthier than when I was in my early 30s and 20s! Finally, I switched to a split keyboard back in 2004, a Microsoft Natural that I still have today—it’s so old that it doesn’t even have a USB connection if that helps. All of the above help to varying degrees, but until I fully quit typing I suspect I’m going to have to continue the search for ways to avoid causing my carpals undue stress.

When Dustin started reviewing mechanical keyboards last year, I started taking a minor interest. I have plenty of other keyboards around the house, not to mention a bunch of laptops as well, but they’re all “cheap” membrane-based keyboards. I was curious to see if anyone offered a good mechanical switch keyboard with an ergonomic design—basically something like my MS Natural but with Cherry MX switches. There was only one option at the time, from Kinesis, and it wasn’t quite what I was looking for plus it was priced way higher than I wanted to spend. Then early this year a press release crossed my email inbox (forwarded from Dustin) about a new ergonomic keyboard with mechanical switches, the TECK. I was intrigued and sent an email asking for a review sample, and that brings us to today’s review.

Now you know something more about my background and interest in the TECK. For the record, I now have a Kinesis Advantage for review as well, which will replace the TECK once I finish with this review. Then I’ll use it for a few weeks and will provide some thoughts on how they compare. But for now, let’s move on to the TECK itself and look at the design along with a subjective evaluation.

TECK: Rethinking Ergonomics

For most people, when someone mentions ergonomics in regards to computers, they’ll think of a variety of things: what’s your desk like, what sort of chair do you use, and do you have one of those “funky” keyboards? The TECK obviously targets that last aspect, but in an entirely different fashion from what most are used to seeing. Let’s start with a quick rundown of the QWERTY keyboard design that has been with us for around 135 years.

The first typewriters were mechanical devices with the characters placed at the end of metal arms that would be activated by pressing the corresponding key/button. The problem with the initial design is that pressing adjacent arms in rapid succession would frequently cause the two arms to stick together, creating a jam. The solution was a modified layout, the most popular eventually becoming what we know now as QWERTY, where commonly used letter pairings (e.g. TH and ST) are spaced out and all of the vowels are moved off home row with the exception of the letter A. [Amusing anecdote: I actually wrote some papers back in elementary school on an old mechanical typewriter. It was awesome watching the levers go up and smack the paper, but using whiteout to remove mistakes was a pain.]

With a modern keyboard, of course, jams are no longer a concern and so there have been various efforts to create a more optimal layout (e.g. Dvorak), but overcoming the momentum of QWERTY is a lot like overcoming the momentum of x86—so many people grow up learning the QWERTY layout that converting over to something else can be very challenging, especially when most other devices continue to use QWERTY. There's also the question of whether or not you can actually surpass QWERTY (thanks to the reader comment pointing out the "Dvorak Myth" article; I've edited this section slightly after reading about the Dvorak myth, though that doesn't actually debunk the question of ergonomics). Whatever the case, on a standard keyboard there's clear evidence that our fingers end up moving more than would otherwise be required when typing on a modified layout, and this is further exacerbated by the type of movement.

According to TECK, not only do we have a potentially less than optimal layout, but the staggered arrangement of the keys with certain fingers (particularly the index fingers and pinkies) being required to stretch in sometimes odd ways to reach various keys creates additional stress on your hands and fingers. As I mentioned earlier, I have CTS, which can be pretty much wholly attributed to my (excessive) typing on keyboards over the years—and before you think, “yeah, but that could never happen to me”, I thought the same thing back in my teens and twenties; it was only in my early thirties that it suddenly became an issue.

Getting back to the TECK, the designers have worked to improve ergonomics (i.e. reduce the stresses associated with typing) by altering the layout and arrangement of the keyboard. Some of what has been done has been available elsewhere—for example, the split key arrangement so that your wrists don’t have to bend outwards for normal placement is the primary element found in most “ergonomic” keyboards (like the MS Natural line). The result is that your hands are farther apart and placed more naturally—which you can see in the above image comparing the TECK with a Rosewill RK-9100. The split on the TECK does alter things slightly compared to other split keyboards, though; for example the “6” is on the right half of the split (for your right index finger) rather than on the left—and this is one of several changes that can cause some consternation when you first begin using the TECK. But the changes don’t end there.

The second improvement is that the TECK no longer has a staggered arrangement of keys, at least vertically; all of the keys that most fingers are expected to reach are vertically aligned. Along with this, horizontally there’s a slight staggering (more of a curve, really) to accommodate the way our fingers naturally line up. Our middle and ring fingers are slightly higher than the pinky and index fingers, and the TECK is designed with this in mind. At least visually, when you place your fingers on home row with the TECK, the arrangement looks far more sensible than on a standard rectangular keyboard, or even an MS Natural or similar layout.

Another aspect of the TECK design to help improve ergonomics is that they removed the number keypad, reducing the width of the keyboard and thereby bringing the mouse quite a bit closer to where your hands are. This is probably the one “ergonomics” element that I didn’t find particularly useful, and while there is a Num Lock option (it uses the 789UIOJKLM keys in a pseudo-10-key arrangement), it’s far less than ideal for the entry of numbers in my experience. This is due to several factors, including the 0 being half-size and overlapping the Comma; the Plus, Minus, Multiply and Divide keys also being in the “wrong” locations; and there’s no Enter key on the right. If you regularly use a 10-key for numeric input, you’ll almost certainly want to get a separate 10-key for use with the TECK, though I do know some typists that can fly on numeric input even when using the regular number keys so YMMV.

While the above are all somewhat noteworthy changes, by far the most radical difference with the TECK is when we get to some of the “extra” keys that you may not use quite as frequently when writing—Tab, Delete, Backspace, etc. Nearly all of these keys have been shifted around on the TECK, so for example the middle of the keyboard (from top to bottom) is home to the Windows Start key, one of the two Delete keys, Tab, Backspace, and Enter. On the left and right sides of the keyboard, the Shift keys are now on home row, Control is below those, and Alternate/AltGr comes on the bottom row. The cursor keys are moved under the right palm, in a diamond arrangement rather than an inverted T, and PgUp/PgDn/Home/End are similarly located under the left palm. Finally, the Slash (Question Mark) and Backslash (Vertical Bar) get shunted to the top-left section of the keyboard, just to the left of the Q and where you would normally find the Tab key.

All of the relocations are made in the name of ergonomics, reducing the amount of movement and stretching your fingers need to hit all the right keys. Besides the relocations, the TECK also comes with an Fn key (similar to most laptops) that provides alternate functions on the function key row, Caps Lock, and Num Lock keys. If you don’t like the specific layout that the TECK uses, it’s possible to remap most keys using a utility, but the Fn key can’t be remapped. Most of the key caps can also be moved to accommodate your layout, but many of the special function keys have specific shapes and sizes and can only fit properly in their intended locations. If you’re really adventurous, Truly Ergonomic sells a version with no labels that you could remap to your heart’s content, and I suspect it would keep everyone you know from trying to use your keyboard.

The TECK is available in an International version with two extra keys—the Alt/AltGr keys in the corners get split into two keys each. The bottom of the TECK is also home to a set of five DIP switches that can select between standard Windows and Mac functionality (e.g. Command instead of Control), plus there’s an “Alternate” mode on three other keys that could be useful if  you want to remap the left spacebar or center Delete key. I tested the US layout and left the default key mapping in place, as I figure that’s how most people will use the TECK.

Rounding out the features is the one final element that makes the TECK potentially more ergonomic than most keyboards (and at least partly explains the rather high cost). Instead of an inexpensive membrane keyboard like what you’ll find on nearly every sub-$75 keyboard, the TECK uses Cherry MX switches, specifically the Brown switches. The reason for the use of MX Brown is that they have a slight “bump” when they’re depressed about half-way, and that’s when the key activates. That means you don’t have to type as hard and you don’t “bottom out” on every keystroke, again as a way to reduce the amount of stress on your fingers. While I would be interested in the ability to try out other Cherry MX switches, given the intended ergonomics of the TECK the use of MX Brown makes sense.

Outside of the features and layout, the overall build quality of the TECK feels solid. This is by no means a lightweight keyboard, which means you typically won’t accidentally slide it around on your desk while using it. It’s primarily constructed out of plastic, and the palm rest can be removed if you prefer, but I like the default setup with the palm rest installed. The travel and feel of the MX Brown keys is everything you would expect from Cherry MX switches, and while $250 is still a heavy price to pay for a keyboard, at least I don’t feel like the TECK might fail in the near future. Truly Ergonomic does offer a 1-year parts and labor warranty on the TECK as well, but hopefully that won’t be needed.

That covers my history as well as a brief overview of the TECK and its refined ergonomics, but how does it actually fare in practice? Admittedly, this is one of the most subjective reviews/articles I’ve ever written for AnandTECK…er…AnandTech, and personal preferences are going to play a huge role in what you like or dislike with a keyboard. I know some people that even dislike mechanical switches and prefer membrane keyboards, while most others feel the opposite. Keeping that in mind, then, let’s move on to the subjective evaluation of the TECK, with some amusing and perhaps painful anecdotes of my past month using it as my primary keyboard.

Subjective Evaluation: TECK It to the Limit (One More Time!)

Bad puns aside, let me be very clear at this point: the layout and arrangement of the keys on the TECK is very different, more so than you might imagine just by looking at the pictures. Logically and to my eyes, the TECK layout makes a lot of sense, but when you first sit down to use it you’re going to be in for a rude awakening. Truly Ergonomic recommends giving yourself at least a few days, maybe a week or two, or perhaps as long as a month to adapt to the changes in the layout. While there’s a huge difference between a few days and a month, some people adjust more quickly than others and there’s still going to be improvement past the one week mark.

Personally, the first day (and in particular the first hour) using the TECK was a nightmare, with my typing speed going from around 65-70WPM on “normal” keyboards to less than 10 WPM with the TECK. Yeah, it’s that different! I had a friend come by who can type around 80 WPM and told her to just sit down and try a one minute typing speed test (with no warm up) on the TECK. She managed 5 WPM on her first go, but with an average number of errors of 6 WPM, for an adjusted speed of… zero. That’s likely where everyone will start, and you’ll have to dedicate at least an hour or two to the TECK before you become anywhere near proficient. As I mentioned in my First Impressions piece, the initial learning curve can be extremely frustrating, so you should plan for that. If I could have accurately captured my typing speed every few minutes over the course of learning the TECK, I imagine the plot would look something like this:

I can’t say whether the ramp in typing speed will happen in minutes, hours, or days, but it will happen if you stick with it (and preferably don’t swap back and forth between keyboards). After a couple days of typing, I was able to reach about 90-95% of my normal typing speed, and by the time two weeks had passed I was at 100% and perhaps a bit faster. Now, I just took the same typing tests as I used in the initial article, and I’m clearly faster with the TECK than with my previous keyboard. My scores, if you’re interested, are 76WPM on test 1 (0 errors), 78 WPM (1 error = 77 WPM) on test 2, and 70 (1 error = 69 WPM) on test 3. All three scores are up 3-5 WPM compared to my initial results, presumably thanks to the improvement in the ergonomics and the reduced range of motion required for typing. I also recorded the following video, after I was acclimated to the TECK, to see if I could notice a difference in the way I type.

Obviously there are some major differences in the number of mistakes I make on the Rosewill, but more noticeable to me is how my hands just look a lot more natural and don't appear to work as hard on the TECK. I’m by no means an expert typist, but objectively my typing speed is up slightly while subjectively I also feel as though my hands manage better with extended typing than on a regular keyboard. That's enough reason for me to give serious consideration to using the TECK on an extended basis.

While my typing experience is improved in many ways, there are some aspects of the TECK that I still haven’t quite adjusted to, and still other areas where I definitely feel I’m missing something I’d rather like to have. The lack of a dedicated 10-key is one such complaint that I've already touched on; I understand the idea behind making the TECK narrower than a traditional keyboard and bringing your mouse in closer, but I just don’t find it particularly necessary (for me; others might feel differently). The times when I’m using a mouse, I’m often not using the keyboard much—or else I’m playing a game. The placement of the cursor keys and document navigation keys already would reduce the width by a couple inches, and while the 10-key would still add three inches that’s a compromise I’d prefer to make. The reason is simple: I can’t reach normal 10-key speed with the TECK, not even close, and I make far more errors than I’d like. To illustrate, here’s another set of typing results, without any real warm up on either keyboard:

Regular 10-key: 7036 keystrokes per hour with 0 mistakes
TECK 10-key: 2914 keystrokes per hour with 0 mistakes

Now, part of the speed reduction is because I intentionally worked hard to not make any mistakes; there were plenty of errors and I had to go back and correct them. If I were doing dedicated 10-key input looking at a sheet of paper rather than the display, I would have had numerous errors and it would take a significant amount of time to improve. Errors in numeric input tend to be a lot more alarming than errors in text (hello accounting!), so I simply wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending the TECK to someone who does that sort of work without also recommending a separate 10-key—which not only eliminates the space saving benefit of the TECK but actually ends up being worse as you now have a second device cluttering up your desk.

I have a couple of other stories that I also want to relate, one illustrating the potential for problems with a revamped keyboard layout and the second that may be more about how I type (or perhaps my review keyboard). The first comes from my typing up of a review, the Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook if you’re curious. I normally type a significant portion of each laptop review on the laptop, in order to evaluate the keyboard, but since I was in the middle of working on the TECK review I didn’t want to “corrupt” my adjustment and so I was using the TECK (though previously I had done a decent amount of typing on the XPS 12 so I knew I liked it compared to many other Ultrabook keyboards).

During the course of the review, I had written about two thirds of the text (around 3000-4000 words, including the specs table), and for whatever reason I simply hadn’t saved most of that content. One evening I sat down to write some of my thoughts on Windows 8; unfortunately, while typing I pressed the left Control key instead of the Shift key out of habit (remember that the Shift on the TECK is on home row instead of adjacent to the Z). Instead of “Windows”, that became: CTRL+W, “Do you want to save the changes to ‘XPS 12 Review.docx’?” No. I was typing fast, so the “n” in Windows came along right around the same time that the dialog asking if I wanted to save popped up. Poof! The document was gone without being saved, and the scream of agony that escaped my mouth caused my wife and children to jump in alarm. Sadly, despite using several undelete utilities to see if I could find the auto-recovery file I failed and ended up having to rewrite most of that content. Blame me, blame Word 2007 (I’m old school, unlike Vivek), blame the TECK, whatever. The fact is, stuff like this can potentially happen, so you’ve been warned (again). It’s like a game: remember to save your progress regularly.

The second item that’s on my annoyance list might be more from the way I use the TECK than anything, but try as I might I still encounter the problem on occasion. When I first started using the TECK, I didn’t notice this, so either I adapted in some incorrect fashion to the MX Brown keys, or I got a flaky unit—but I’m more inclined to think it’s the former than the latter. With certain keys, I now get a periodic doubling of the character. Initially, this was happening with the “E” key, and at one point it was happening about 25% of the time. That’s a problem when you’re dealing with the “most common letter in the English language”, and I even went so far as to remove the key cap to see if something looked wrong with the switch (it looked perfectly fine, though it did seem to work better afterwards so maybe there was some grit in the switch). One key out of 86 having a bad switch would be possible, but then I started getting the problem with the “I” key as well. In both cases, it’s my middle finger reaching up to hit the respective key, and at this point it probably only occurs about 1-3% of the time (depending on what I’m doing), but it can be irritating and it often comes in spurts. If the problem is actually with the switch, Truly Ergonomic would be happy to replace it, but I'm actually not sure that's the case.

Finally, just to comment on the TECK in general, the keys come with a slightly textured finish. This in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy, but after just one month of typing I’ve found that many of the keys are starting to get a glossy sheen—the right spacebar in particular has a noticeable glossy mark, which you can see in the picture above, and I expect other keys will develop the same wear markings over time. I wouldn’t necessarily want them to change the keys, and I’ve had the same thing happen on pretty much every keyboard I can think of in recent years, but if that sort of thing bothers you it will be a concern with the TECK.

Closing Thoughts: A New Spin on Ergonomics

At this point, I can say that I like much of what has been accomplished with the TECK. Truly Ergonomic claims that they’ve created a “revolution in typing”, but that’s probably a bit too far in my book. On the other hand, I’m not sure most people would be willing to invest in a "true" revolution—for example, I’ve toyed with the idea of trying out the Dvorak layout to see if it would improve my accuracy and speed, but it’s such a massive change from QWERTY that the learning curve is even worse than moving from a standard keyboard layout to the TECK; reportedly, it can take around a month of typing four hours a day to reach your previous QWERTY proficiency. Likewise, as someone who has used a “natural” keyboard for years, the modified layout of the TECK feels like a better take on a split key arrangement—the staggered keys on most keyboards really start to feel taxing once you get used to something else. The thing is, Truly Ergonomic isn’t the only company to “reinvent” the keyboard, and in fact they’re not even close to being the first.

One alternative is to go with keyboards from Kinesis, a company founded clear back in 1991 (when I was still in high school and carpal tunnel was so far in my future that it never even crossed my mind). I don’t know how much Kinesis has changed their design over the years, but the core design of their latest Contoured Advantage looks to be largely the same as the original Contoured introduced in 1992. What’s more, the Cherry MX Brown switches used in the TECK were actually created at the request of Kinesis as an alternative to the clicky MX Blue switches; that’s a pretty strong pedigree. Kinesis also offers their Advantage with Cherry MX Red linear switches for those that prefer a slightly different feel, though I’ve heard (and tend to agree) that reds are designed more for gamers than for typists. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing TECK or others offer a selection of MX switches as an upgrade option.

For their part, Truly Ergonomic points to their clearly original design and says they’ve worked to make their keyboard more ergonomic than other options. I haven’t put the Advantage through the paces yet, so I can’t say which is (subjectively) better, but they are certainly different. Pricing is in favor of the TECK, as you can pick one up for $248 compared to $299 for the base Contoured Advantage, but the Kinesis keyboards also include macro functionality which might be worth the additional cost for some. The Advantage also includes USB hub functionality, and the Advantage Pro comes with a foot pedal that can be used to further improve typing performance. (As someone that is in awe of a good pianist or organist, however, I suspect learning to use your foot/feet while typing is not something that everyone will take to.)

Ultimately, I can’t recommend the TECK as a keyboard that is ideal for every user out there, but if you’re suffering from RSI/CTS (or think you might be), I can say that personally I feel like the past month of use has resulted in less discomfort after lengthy typing sessions than the MS Natural I’ve been using for years. That’s a pretty strong recommendation for a subset of users, but it comes with the caveats I’ve mentioned already. The learning curve on the TECK requires a serious commitment to change, and now that I’ve been typing on the TECK for a solid month I’m finding that my typing on regular keyboards has deteriorated somewhat (e.g. 57 WPM on the Rosewill RK-9100 compared to 70 WPM last month). It’s not as bad as what happened when I first switched to the TECK, but it’s definitely something that will take a bit of time to readjust, so if you happen to have multiple PCs that you use regularly (e.g. at work and at home), you might have to purchase two keyboards to avoid disorientation.

Then there’s the price. $248 makes this the type of product that you likely won’t be buying on an impulse, and when you look at other mechanical keyboards that sell for closer to $100 it can feel quite extreme. On the other hand, if you’re suffering from RSI/CTS, all it takes is a quick look at the cost of surgery and rehabilitation to make the TECK look far more enticing. For my part, it’s simple economics: not as many users are willing to commit to an ergonomic keyboard, particularly one like the TECK where there are enough changes that it requires effort to make the switch. When your market is smaller and you have to put more money into R&D to come up with your initial design, prices will be higher. That’s also why you don’t see other extras like a USB hub or keyboard backlighting on the TECK, as both items would take an already expensive keyboard up into the $300 range.

And that’s basically my recommendation right now: if you’re in the market for an ergonomic keyboard and want something more advanced than a simple split key “natural”, the options are quite limited. For ergonomic keyboards with mechanical switches, you have Truly Ergonomic’s TECK, the Kinesis Contoured Advantage, Maltron (the most expensive of the bunch), or if you don’t mind going the DIY route you could try the open source ErgoDox (which you can get for $200 via MassDrop). Depending on personal preference, I would imagine any of those three could end up being the “best”, but it’s a lot like shopping for clothing: there’s no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to keyboards. To that end, Truly Ergonomic does offer a 60-day money back guarantee on the TECK. I’m still well within that 60 day period and at this stage I’m more than happy to keep the TECK and continue using it. We’ll have to see if that’s still the case after I spend some time with Kinesis’ Advantage offering.

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