Now, there are basically three choices when it comes to keyboard ergonomics: either stick with a conventional flat keyboard, buy a split ergonomic model, or find one that sits somewhere between the two. The most famous ergonomic keyboard is the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, which splits the main alphanumeric keypad into two angled sections, one designed for the left hand and one designed for the right. The idea is that the way the keypads are angled and curved, one to the left and one to the right, will help keep your hands in the most natural and comfortably typing position. Microsoft's Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 is the latest evolution of this design, with slight alterations to the classic Ergonomic Keyboard angles plus a tilt option and wrist rests that hold your wrists in the right position above the keys. It's available for approximately £30.
Now, there is evidence in favour of the design. One 2002 report on the benefits of such keyboards for computer users suffering from musculoskeletal disorders concluded that, used over a period of several months, "there was a trend toward improvement in overall pain, symptom severity and functional status of users." Another 2000 report from researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University suggested that "wrist posture associated with the use of the conventional QWERTY keyboard is a risk factor for work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the upper limbs" and that the "split/angled keyboard may be a better instrument for prolonged keyboard operation, resulting in reduced strain in the wrist and forearm region."
All the same, there are downsides. For many people it can take weeks or even months before they get used to a split keyboard design, and some users - including this writer - just can't get on with the things. What's more, the evidence isn't totally clear cut as to how effective the keyboards actually are. Even the reports mentioned above express some caveats, while other experts play down the advantages. For example, in 2001 Professor Peter Buckle of The Robens Centre for Health Ergonomics at the University of Surrey told the BBC that while ergonomic keyboards can overcome some of the problems associated with RSI, they couldn't solve them altogether. "If the keyboard effects a change in posture, this can lessen the risk that someone will go on to develop an upper-limb disorder. But it won't remove the risk entirely" was his conclusion. I know enough people who swear by one model or another of the Microsoft Natural Keyboard that I certainly wouldn't dismiss its benefits, and if you're a heavy typist then it might be worth trying. However, it's no cast-iron guarantee that you'll never suffer from RSI - probably because such a thing does not exist.
If you can't cope with the split design, then there are other ergonomic alternatives. Logitech's Wave keyboard (approx. £35) for example, is designed so that the main alphanumeric keypad has what Logitech calls a 'gradual wave shaped contour' that 'cradles the fingers' and supports their varied length. This basically means that the keys vary in height, though not in travel, so that the keys used most by the smaller fingers sit higher than the others and require less pressure to click. Meanwhile, the curve of the keyboard is designed to angle the hands towards each other in a more natural position. It's also available in a Cordless Desktop Wave bundle for under £50.
Microsoft has a similar design, called Comfort Curve, as used in its Comfort Curve 2000 keyboard and its Wireless Entertainment, Wireless Laser and Wireless Optical 2000 Desktop bundles. Prices for these start at under £30. The advantage of these devices is that you get some of the ergonomic benefits of the split keyboard designs, but you won't have to relearn how you type. However, as always when changing keyboards, it might be a while before you adjust to the spacing and the feel of the keys. Remember too, that any extra function keys, zoom sliders or hotkeys on these keyboards will cut down on mouse strokes, and so improve your chances of avoiding RSI.
When trying any keyboard, check that your hand feels supported with your wrists on the desk and your fingers resting on the keys, make sure the base can be tilted upwards and feels stable, and have a good hard think about the travel of the keys. Some users love the long travel and solid click of older IBM, Keytronic and Fujitsu keyboards, but the longer travel and firmer action means more work for the fingers, and frequently more noise. It's not good for your health when the other-half gives you an ear-bashing because you're rattling away at 2am, either!