Ergonomic keyboards are designed to help reduce repetitive stress injuries that can result from poor wrist posture during extended sessions in front of a computer. Since no authority sets standards for ergonomic claims, the term "ergonomic" can mean anything from a slight curve of the keys to a total reinvention of a standard QWERTY keyboard. Some manufacturers attach a wrist rest to a fairly conventional keyboard, while others split the keyboard in half or rearrange the keys. Aside from being oddly shaped, ergonomic keyboards tend to be large and expensive. Most have learning curves that vary person to person -- what's comfortable for one may be awkward for another. Instead of testing an ergonomic keyboard in a store, look for a retailer with a liberal return policy so you can thoroughly try out the keyboard at home.
Most reviews of ergonomic keyboards come from sources with computer expertise rather than medical knowledge, but ergonomic pioneer Microsoft tends to be among the most favored brands. Its flagship Natural keyboard has undergone several iterations since debuting in the mid-1990s and its wired Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 (*Est. $35) , introduced in 2005, still continues to receive highly favorable reviews. Because of its age, most of the thorough reviews of the keyboard are years old, but it remains a bargain on the ergonomic market (where keyboards can cost hundreds of dollars).
William Van Winkle of TomsGuide.com finds that the 4000 strikes a popular balance between usability and comfort and describes the soft wrist padding as "the most comfortable integrated wrist rest" he's ever used. At PCMag.com, Tony Dreier gives the 4000 5 stars out of 5 and says the angled keyboard places your hands in a more comfortable position. Michael Lasky of PCWorld.com observes that although it took him a day to get used to the layout, "the comfort and relief provided by this ergonomic keyboard justify the fairly high price."
The 4000 ergonomic keyboard also has customizable buttons that launch applications and access the web or email. A zoom lever in the middle of the keyboard minimizes the need to reach for your mouse. But at both Amazon.com and Newegg.com, where the 4000 enjoys hundreds of positive reviews among ergonomic keyboards, users note an ironic caveat: The fairly resistant space bar requires a great deal of muscle to press. Others complain that the USB-only 4000 doesn't support PS/2 adapters and that its large, clunky build chews up desk space.
The well-rated Kinesis Advantage Contoured Keyboard (*Est. $270) has an unorthodox design that requires a fair amount of patience to master. Reviewers at CNET praise its ergonomic benefits but say it takes days if not weeks to adjust to the unusual layout, which divides vertical keys into sunken bowls that sit just below the keyboard's wrist rest. Backspace and delete keys are located beneath the left thumb, while the space and enter keys are under the right.
According to Kinesis, separate thumb pads and concave key wells help keep your wrists straight and reduce the amount of reach otherwise needed for standard keyboard rows. Laura Moser of Slate.com raves about the Advantage Contoured, calling it "hands-down the most habit-changing keyboard on the market." Laura Blackwell of PCWorld.com attributes her increased comfort and typing speed to the Advantage Contoured, though it does have a sharp learning curve. To help users adjust to the unconventional key layout, Kinesis includes a booklet of beginner-level typing exercises, something CNET finds "indispensable."
The Advantage Contoured ergonomic keyboard gets 4.5 stars out of 5 from more than 40 enthusiastic Amazon.com owners, who noticed marked improvements in their typing speed and efficiency after two weeks of steady use. A few, however, are disappointed in the keyboard's lack of durability. Available in black or white, the Advantage Contoured is PC and Mac compatible and comes with a dual USB hub.