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Kinesis Advantage2 LF: Initial Review and Plans

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This article is part of a current project of mine to re-think keyboard haptics, ergonomics and efficiency:

  1. Keyboards
    • Basics of (Mechanical) Keyboards
    • My Personal History of (Desktop) Keyboards
    • My Personal Desktop Keyboard Requirements
    • My Current Plans for Getting a New Keyboard
  2. Keyboard Switch Tester
  3. Kinesis Advantage2: Initial Review and Plans (this article)

As teasered in my article about keyboards, I found myself a (used) Kinesis Advantage2 LF keyboard. It was not as expensive as a new one. There is no option to get it with other switches as Cherry MX brown or red. Furthermore, they are not hot-swappable. And changing the switches is a major project in terms of disassembling this quite non-standard keyboard hardware.

My Advantage2 LF came MX Cherry red switches. They are somewhat okayish. What does worry more is the hollow sound it has because of the large resonating body. There are modification projects that deal with this issue and I'm thinking of following this one some day.

The keyboards has a nice community of enthusiasts Some of them even hoarded multiple keyboards just to be prepared when Kinesis decides to discontinue this product line.

Initial Thoughts

Because of the unusual design of this ergonomic keyboard, people are looking for tips on how to learn to type on this thing. Luckily, people are providing helpful resources for tools like Tipp10 and similar.

My Kinesis Advantage2 LF keyboard. (click for a larger version)

I typed for three consecutive days on it. It was rather obvious to me that my usual US international dead keys layout doesn't work here any more.

Need for Change

Due to the fact that I have to re-learn tough-typing and I want to force myself not to move my fingers in an non-ergonomic way, I found out that it would require all modifier keys available for each hand or thumb key area in particular:

Unfortunately, the thumb key area is a limited thing. I can't have all those modifiers without disadvantages.

There are alternative logical keyboard layouts such Dvorak, Neo2 or KOY. The last two are optimized for typing German text as well as English text to some extent.

Hard-to Type Keyboard Shortcuts

Before I can decide on trying a non-standard keyboard layout, I need to collect some hard facts on how to decide what to change.

So I collected a sub-set of my most important modifier-key combinations for keyboard shortcuts and classified how difficult they are to type with a normal QWERTY keyboard (US international with dead keys) with "creative" touch typing and a standard Kinesis QUERTY layout with enforced touch typing.

Legend:

Common shortcuts

Shortcut Function ch? QWERTY Kinesis QWERTY
C-c copy ++ ++
C-x cut ++ ++
C-v paste ++ ++
A-TAB switching windows -
C-a mark all/goto begin of line + ++
C-e end of line ++ ++
C-<left/right> mark characters - +
C-S-<left/right> mark words +
Win-L lock system +
$$ global snippet prefix x + +
AltGr for ߀¼½¾²³ -

GNU/Linux with xfce

Shortcut Function ch? QWERTY Kinesis QWERTY
A-S-<left/right> switch virtual desktops left/right x -
C-<F9-F12> jump to virtual deskop 1-4 x -
Win-<left/right> windows max/min x -
Win-<up/down> resize windows to left/right side x -
A-F2 Whisker Menu x + -

GNU/Emacs

Shortcut Function ch? QWERTY Kinesis QWERTY
C-<a-z> most basic bindings + +
C-S-<a-z> basic bindings to uppercase - +
M-<a-z> misc -
M-S-<a-z> misc
C-M-<a-z> misc -
<F1-F12> <a-z0-9> my (hydra) quickkeys x -
C-c C-, my global prefix x ++ ++
M-S-RET new item + -

Browser

Shortcut Function ch? QWERTY Kinesis QWERTY
C-l location bar ++ ++
C-t new tab ++ ++
C-w close tab ++ ++
C-r reload ++ ++

Windows

Shortcut Function ch? QWERTY Kinesis QWERTY
Win-<left/right> windows max/min -
Win-<up/down> resize windows to left/right side -
Win start menu +
Win-p projector settings +

As you can see, there are many frequent shortcuts that got worse with the Kinesis Advantage2 setup. This is a major issue to me.

Limitations of the Advantage2

Kinesis did a rather good job on how to customize keys within the keyboard firmware only. Without any computer, you can re-map certain keys to different positions. Unfortunately, those modifications get lost easily when plugging the keyboard to a different computer if I understood it correctly.

Then there is the Power User Mode where you can modify a text file to create your own keyboard layout. However, there is always the limitation of having only two layers: the normal lower/uppercase layer and a special numpad layer you can extend and switch to with a small key on the upper right corner which is not that easy to reach.

QMK

If you prefer more flexibility in the firmware, you do have a nice option here. Michael Stapelberg owns Kinesis Advantage2 keyboards for quite some time. He developed a hardware modification set which provides the open QMK keyboard firmware. With this, you do have all degrees of freedom to use multiple layers as well as advanced features such as Auto Shift, Combos, One Shot Keys, Tap Dance and many more.

So I found this (German) video online of an enthusiast from Berlin. He also came to the conclusion that he needs QMK on his Advantage2 keyboard. Luckily, he also sells the required hardware for cheap money. I ordered a set from him and soldered it together. It was working right away with QWERTY and his Neo2-like layout for QMK in parallel (switchable via keys).

Next Steps

So far, I need to schedule some time where I may test Neo2 and KOY on this thing. I also need to learn how to define QMK modifications myself since this does not seem to be a trivial thing to do. I need to learn this C programming environment (I probably dislike) and to define my keys and to generate the firmware for it.

In April, there will be a KOY-talk at the Grazer Linuxtage 2021 which I'm very curious about.

To me, it looks like I'm going to need to choose a time with less stress in my business life to start this adventure of a non-standard layout on this non-standard keyboard. So far, this all is really promising but I'm not convinced that I'm going to jump into it in the long run. Working on different computers (personal, business, ...) is a hindrance when you're using a different hardware as well as a different layout setup. I don't do this frequently these days (home office since 2020-01) but I can't tell if this is going to last.

Maybe I'll be one of those guys that report not having much issue of switching between Kinesis Advantage2 with a non-standard layout and the usual standard keyboards. At least I'm fine with using vim and GNU/Emacs with their default keybindings on a daily basis if this is an appropriate indicator here.

Maybe I'm going to start a test with a Atreus with preferably Kailh Speed Bronze switches in parallel.

Either way, I'm going to publish updates here.

If you do have recommendations, thoughts, comments, please do use one of the comment features below.


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