A few months back, after grinding my eight-year-old generic ergo keyboard into the ground I found myself in need of a new ergonomic keyboard. The keyboard failed on a deadline, so I had little choice but to do that thing you’re not supposed to do: shop for computer equipment at Best Buy.
I’ve been writing and hacking since the age of four, though I don’t hack much anymore, so I need an ergo keyboard to keep my wrists functioning properly. The only ergo on offer was the Microsoft Natural Pro 4000, so I paid through the nose for it ($60) and took it home.
It looked gorgeous. The spacebar was sticky as if the tolerances were a little too close, but I figured it would work out. Unfortunately, I never got to see if it would–the keyboard failed in about sixty days.
A return trip to Best Buy, and some carefully measured profanity coupled with very complimentary sweet talk, got me a new one of the same model for free.
Fast forward six months to tonight. I’ve written 70k words in the last five weeks. The first 20k were on my laptop keyboard, which is a very comfortable, light-touch HP. Unfortunately, it’s not versatile enough for the amount of moving around I have to do during marathon writing sessions–and the ergonomics really don’t work for writing on the treadmill. I had two books backed up in me that wouldn’t wait, so I grabbed the Microsoft Ergo off the audio workstation, and started smashing away.
Over the next 50k words, I acquired the single worst case of RSI I’ve ever had. Crippling tendonitis from the fingertips to the elbow on my right hand, to the point where I couldn’t even raise my tea glass without shooting pain. I still managed my weight workouts, regular chores, helped one friend move and some others build a retaining wall, but I paid an unexpected price: Any time I wasn’t actively writing or working on a task, I was so fatigued I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’ve got a nice high pain threshhold, so it took me about two weeks to figure out that the ongoing pain was sapping my energy.
Massages, vicodin, and anti-inflammatories didn’t help much beyond making it bearable for everything but driving (driving is currently searingly painful–even holding my companion’s hand is enough to make part of me want to curl up and die).
A couple days ago, I finally got fed up and set off on a quest to find out what was going on. After a couple hours paying attention to every movement I was making, I realized that the spacebar on the Microsoft keyboard was doing it. Turns out that it is so poorly designed it took a *very* hard hit to depress the spacebar if my thumb hit even a half inch off center. Fifty thousand words of this over a very short space of time had simply worn out all the muscles and tendons in my right forearm (imagine hammering a nail with your thumb approximately 60,000 times, day and night, for two weeks, and you get the idea of what it might do to your hands). Bad juju for something that cost $60.
Nothing a little re-engineering couldn’t fix, right? I tweaked the sway bar, shaved the edges, added some silicone lubricant to the guide posts, and loosened the thing up a little bit. I gave the keyboard a thorough cleaning while I was in there.
The result? It was worse. Other keys were now binding up (after a routine cleaning). The spacebar was slightly smoother, but the effects faded after a couple thousand words. And then, the keyboard died.
Or, more specifically, the spacebar gave up the ghost. The membrane switch simply went dead.
I’ve cleaned, fixed, and even rebuilt a lot of keyboards in my life. Never have I seen one fail irreparably as a result of removing the keys and blowing out the dust.
Never. Once. In 28 years of using, cleaning, and repairing computers.
I was a Microsoft repair monkey for a chain of computer stores, and then on my own, for fifteen years during my misspent youth. I am pleased to report that the Microsoft Natural Pro 4000 keyboard lives up to all the expectations instilled in my by fifteen years of making my living off Microsoft’s engineering and quality control.
If any of you up in Redmond are listening, please communicate to the moron who designs your keyboard my sincere, earnest desire that he meet an untimely end during a sexual encounter involving a wolverine and copious amounts of PCP. Fuck you very much.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go order a proper ergo keyboard, and ice my aching arms. I got a book to finish and an article due.