A Brief Introduction
I will be using a bit of keyboard jargon in this hub, so I'm going to include a glossary at the end. If any term is confusing or unclear, use your browser's find feature (Ctrl + F) to find it quickly!
For the sake of ergonomics, we will be focusing on two switch types, the Cherry MX Brown and Cherry MX Red. At 45 g of pressure, these two switches require the lowest actuation forces of the commonly sold mechanical keyboards (some Topre switches require only 30 g, but these are very expensive and very niche) and will not cause as much strain as Cherry Blues, Blacks, or Clears. Still, if you really enjoy the audible click of the Cherry MX Blue switches, they should still be fine provided that you do not bottom out the keys and only depress them to the point of actuation (where the click sound occurs).
Also we will discuss various keyboard designs including certain ergonomic layouts and variations on the standard keyboard design.
Ergonomic Mechanical Keyboards
Firstly, if you are searching for an ergonomic key layout (split or other), it will take a bit of searching to find what you're looking for. Also, it can get to be pretty expensive, as split mechanical keyboards are a bit of a niche product and are often times custom made. In terms of pure ergonomics and relief from Hand and wrist problems such as carpal tunnel or RSI, I recommend the Kinesis Advantage. It's pretty expensive, pretty big, and pretty intimidating, but it comes in a variety of Cherry switch types (brown and red especially) and has a lot of positive support.
Though these keyboards are not quite suited for gaming as they tend to restrict mouse use, they are excellent for professionals who spend a lot of time in front of a keyboard and they are especially popular with programmers.
You may also wish to consider the Truly Ergonomic Keyboard. It is a pretty new entrant to the market and I believe it is a one-man operation meaning that support might not be as good as some of the more established manufacturers. Still, it is another option worth considering.
Yet another, even more obscure option is are the μTRON (pronounced micro-tron) keyboards from Japan. The μTRON uses high quality (and expensive) Topre switches which combine the best qualities of rubber dome and mechanical switches. They are quiet, responsive, and are offered in a wide range of actuation force options. At the time of writing this, these things go for around 52,500 yen which translates to just a little more than $670. Keep in mind, this does not even include any duties or import taxes that ordering one might incur. If you live in Japan though, you could potentially try one out and end up really liking it! If you want something similar, Kinesis does offer the Freestyle. It is nonmechanical, but it should get the job done (and as far as rubber dome keyboards go, I hear it is quite good).
Is a Tenkeyless Mechanical More Ergonomic?
The tenkeyless (TKL) design, while not being strictly ergonomic per se, is another option worth considering. Tenkeyless keyboards do not have the ten key number pad on the right and are, as a result, smaller than standard keyboards. This means that they take up less desk space and can be positioned closer to the mouse, allowing the user to be more centered and have a better posture.
For some people this can be quite a bit more ergonomic, though for others lacking the ten key entry can make work difficult. However, if you're like most users who never use the numerical keypad, a tenkeyless keyboard could be another option to consider.
Full Sized Light Mechanical Keyboards
Cherry MX Brown vs Cherry MX Red Switches
Even if ergonomic layouts are not your thing, a quality keyboard with a decent set of Cherry Brown or Cherry Red switches could do you wonders. Both of these switches are very light with their 45 g actuation forces, but they have distinct feels to them.
If, as a typist, you tend to press keys hard and forcefully, the MX Red switches might be better suited towards you. Red switches are linear, and do not have the tactile "bump" that Browns have, which can be annoying for typists who tend to bottom out their keys. Bottoming out with Brown keys requires around 55 g of force compared to the 45 g of force for Reds, so in this case, Reds might be better suited for you.
If however, you are an excellent touch typist who can limit themselves or if you are a lighter typist, the Browns might be better. The tactile bump (and additional tension beyond it) can cause a springy effect that can propel your fingers slightly to the next keys and be faster/more efficient than the Red switches. Still, both are decent options for people with RSI or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
Glossary of Keyboard Terms
Actuation Force - The amount of force required for the keypress to register. Typically, RSI and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome sufferers prefer key switches that require lower actuation forces.
Cherry Switch - Cherry is a manufacturer of mechanical keyboard switches. Cherry switches come in five colors: blue, brown, red, black, and clear.
Cherry MX Blue - Blue switches require 50 g of force to reach the point of actuation, and ~60 g of force to bottom out. They are renowned for their "click" sound and similarity to the buckling spring switches used in old IBM Model M keyboards. Additionally, they have a tactile "bump" which signifies where the key registers before it bottoms out. Due to the higher amount of force required, Blue switches can be more tiring for RSI or Carpal Tunnel sufferers.
Cherry MX Brown - Brown switches are similar to Blues due to the fact that they too have a tactile bump. However there is no clicking sound at this bump and the keys require less force (45 g at actuation and 55 g when bottoming out).
Cherry MX Red - Red switches are linear and non-tactile, meaning that there is no bump and that they require the same amount of force throughout the key press (45 g). Since bottoming out requires the same amount of force as actuating, for heavy handed typers, Red switches can be better than Browns for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and RSI.
Cherry MX Black - Black switches are linear, like Reds, but require 60 g of actuation force (sometimes even more). They are not recommended for people with wrist or hand problems.
Cherry MX Clear - Clear switches are tactile and quiet like Browns, however they require more force than Blues. These are not recommended either.
Tenkeyless (TKL) - A keyboard that does not have the numerical keypad. Some consider these keyboards to be more ergonomic due to the more natural posture that they allow.
Topre Switch - Topre switches are a bit hard to describe. They come in a wide variety of actuation forces (as low as 30 g of force!) and are a sort of combination of mechanical switches and rubber domes. Topre switches are very expensive, but they are loved for their slight tactile feel, quiet response, and high quality.
Split Keyboard - Split keyboards are split down the middle of the home row to allow for a more natural hand position.
Rubber Dome Keyboard - These are your standard desktop keyboards. Many dislike them due to their lower quality, feel, and sometimes just out of prejudice and nostalgia for their old IBM Model M.
Guest on July 24, 2012:
"Red switches (... ) require the same amount of force throughout the key press (45 g)"
This is incorrect, see the official force diagram from Cherry (google "cherry red force diagram"). The physical reason is that springs require more force the more compressed they get.
Russ White on May 31, 2012:
The main problem with the Truly Ergonomic is the key placement --it has great letter placement, but if you learn to type with their odd placement of enter, shuift, and control, forget about switching between their keyboard and a standard keyboard (for instance, when your on the road with a laptop), unless you want to carry the keyboard around with you.