TypeMatrix EZ-Reach Keyboard Review

Wednesday Apr 2nd 2003 by Eric Grevstad

Microsoft and its imitators have given folks the idea an ergonomic keyboard has to be big and bulky. TypeMatrix's $99 compact not only saves desk space and keeps your mouse closer to hand, it keeps the mainstream QWERTY layout while assigning vital keys to your index fingers instead of stressing your pinkies.

Modern sports cars no longer have the gearshift pedals and hand throttle of a Model T, but your PC still has the keyboard layout of an antique mechanical typewriter. And by the way, your mouse is too far away.

No, this review isn't going to proselytize you about the more efficient Dvorak keyboard layout. The familiar QWERTY arrangement may have been created because early typists were too fast for early typewriters (it reduced jamming by putting many common two-letter combinations on opposite sides rather than adjacent to one another), yet most of us are no more likely to give it up than we are to start speaking Esperanto.

But what if you didn't have to learn the radical Dvorak layout to take advantage of one of its central benefits — the fact that smaller movements are easier on your fingers and wrists than larger ones? What if the ergonomic or split keyboards you're probably most familiar with, like the Microsoft Natural series, aren't really so ergo-friendly after all?

The company that dares to ask these questions is TypeMatrix, and its answer is the $99 TypeMatrix EZ-Reach — a keyboard dedicated to two propositions: Small is beautiful, and your index finger is stronger than your pinky.

The EZ-Reach compromises between conventional one-piece and most split keyboard designs by separating your hands, but not putting them as far apart or at an angle as other designs do (the latter, according to TypeMatrix, reduce stress in the wrists but can merely relocate it to the arms and shoulders).

It also puts jumbo Tab, Enter, and Backspace keys in the middle instead of at the edges of the board, assigning them to the stronger index fingers. The left and right Shift keys are supersized, too, and the Caps Lock key is stashed in an inner location to eliminate accidental cAPS lOCK.

Just as important, the TypeMatrix is relatively tiny — at 14 by 7 inches, it's five or six inches shorter and two or three inches shallower than Microsoft's and other ergonomic whoppers. That means you don't have to reach as far to use your mouse; indeed, both the keyboard and a mouse can fit in most keyboard trays. When you need a numeric keypad, the Num Lock key toggles (or a Fn key temporarily shifts to) a notebook-style embedded set.

The EZ-Reach is also the next slimmest thing to typing on your desk itself — just 0.6 inch thick, with no prop-up feet. This promotes proper (flat instead of cocked) forearm and wrist posture, and also helps make the 1.6-pound keyboard easy to tuck into a briefcase for transport between home and office.

Finally, to complete the company's mania for small movements, you'll notice on second glance that the keys are in a straight grid of rows and columns, not the staggered or diagonal columns of a conventional keyboard. This lets your fingers leave the home row in small, consistent motions instead of traveling different distances to hit the keys above or below.

According to a study cited on the TypeMatrix Web site, women adjusted to (matched their former speed and accuracy on) the new keyboard in 8 to 17 days — men, more stubborn, needed 8 to 24 days. Among users who'd admitted to repetitive-stress-injury (RSI) pain at the start of the study, 15 of 16 women and six of eight men reported a significant decrease in symptoms after five weeks on an EZ-Reach.

We're not a scientific study, but we're serious about typing, and we used the TypeMatrix at both work and home for two weeks. The verdict?

We No Longer Miss Keys, Except the Missing Ones
The EZ-Reach comes with a five-foot cord with PS/2 connector. If your PC is too new to have a PS/2 port, a USB-to-PS/2 adapter cable is included in the $99 (plus $8 shipping in the Lower 48) price. No driver software is required; you just plug in the keyboard, turn on your PC, and go.

Documentation is limited to a pamphlet, though you can visit the TypeMatrix Web site and download a typing tutor program whose rock-bottom graphics and beeps offer a dreary drill of letters and words. You'll soon tire of the tutor's plodding pace and predictable harping on or assigning extra repetitions of your mistakes, so skip it and learn by doing.

As with any rearranged keyboard, we found the first few hours to be a discouraging error-fest (our first sentence, Do you think you'll get any work done with this keyboard?, appeared as HDo youhink er;ll <tab> sny etk finr ehhid kry <Enter> istf\/ =).

Removing the Enter key (carriage return) from the right edge goes against every grain of your typing experience. Ditto with a vengeance for the backspace; we instinctively caught and corrected a typo for perfect, only to find the screen showing perfevt==ct.

And in perhaps the most amusing oddity, we were well into Day 3 before we quit resting our right hand on the home row incorrectly (one key left of where it should be, with the right index finger on H instead of J despite the latter's telltale little ridge). We suspect it was partly because of the split between halves, and partly because the keys that double as the numeric keypad are a different color, so our brain subconsciously classified them as "not regular keys" and told our hand to keep off.

By the fourth day, however, we were getting the hang of it, even enjoying the flourish of hitting the Enter key with our index finger to finish a paragraph or Web address. By the sixth, we were hooked on the "shuffle" key next to the cursor arrows — a built-in shortcut for Alt-Tab or flipping between two applications. (Yes, Windows junkies, the EZ-Reach does have Start-menu and right-click-menu keys, albeit just one apiece on the left side.) By the eighth, we were taking advantage of the left-index-finger tab.

And after two weeks, we'd honestly describe our experience as smooth and precise, aided by the keyboard's quiet clicks and enjoyably crisp if shallow typing feel. We're still making more typos than we used to, but making fewer with every hour (the hardest muscle memories to unlearn are the minutely longer "reaches" for staggered or offset keys that aren't offset anymore). The shorter reach for our mouse is definitely noticeable and helpful. And we can't imagine why all keyboards don't have index-finger Enter keys, though we wish Delete was more than one-third the size of Backspace.

That said, we'll probably, if reluctantly, go back to conventional keyboards instead of sticking with the EZ-Reach. We truly dislike the layout's lack of dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys — the board not only relegates them to Fn-shifted keys, like some laptops, but exiles them to the small F9 through F12 keys, all in a row instead of in a more intuitive block or arrow-key pattern. It seems as if TypeMatrix expects you to take advantage of its closer placement and rely on your mouse for navigating through documents or selecting text, but we're used to quick moves like Ctrl-Home to jump to the start of a file or Shift-End or Ctrl-Shift-End to highlight and then delete text, and they're awkward three- and four-finger moves on the EZ-Reach.

We're impressed by the maverick TypeMatrix. Even as is, it's worth checking out alongside other smaller-footprint alternatives to Microsoft's and Logitech's leviathans, such as Kinesis' Maxim and DataDesk's SmartBoard. And with the addition of dedicated cursor-control keys, it just might be the definitive ergonomic keyboard.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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