h

ZSA Moonlander vs Kinesis Advantage: which keyboard is right for you?

last updated: 16 January 2021 (approximate reading time: 14 minutes; 2820 words)

A few months back, I got a new keyboard, the Moonlander from ZSA. I’ve used the Moonlander as my everyday keyboard since. For the previous 15 years, I used the Kinesis Advantage keyboard every day.

Now it’s time to compare the two.

In making this comparison, I am comparing one against the other. This is not intended to be a comprehensive review of either board—but rather an attempt to highlight areas where one may be preferable to the other.

TL;DR

Both keyboards are professional-level pieces of kit. Both are great and you can’t go wrong with either if you’re in the market for a split keyboard. However, to make the investment worthwhile, you do need to be able to touch type and you have to be willing to work through a period of adjustment.

Depending on your preferences, one may be better suited for your needs than the other. As a clumsy guide:

  • If you want something that works straight out of the box and you’re not interested in customization, then get the Advantage.
  • If you want to bend the ‘board to your way of working (those changes may be hardware or software), then get the Moonlander.

For a more detailed explanation of the differences, keep reading.

My Use Case

I am a novelist (my books) and primarily use the Moonlander to type words (as opposed to numbers or symbols or other data input tasks). My most used program is Microsoft Word (read more about how I use Word). Accordingly, I have little sense of how suited this keyboard is for programmers or gamers, and the lack of a number pad is of no consequence to me.

I have used split keyboards for the last 25 years or so, starting with Microsoft ergonomic keyboards. For the last 15 years, I have used a Kinesis Advantage. My move to split keyboards was driven by repetitive strain injury symptoms (specifically, hand and wrist pain when I type).

Kinesis Advantage

Before I go further, I should point out that I am making my comments about the first version of the Advantage keyboard. In the last 15 years, there have been developments and Kinesis now sell the Advantage2 model which has features that my model doesn’t offer. However, the basics are unchanged.

My Advantage has:

  • Cherry MX Brown key switches (these are tactile and fairly light).
  • QWERTY and Dvorak key cap markings.

It is a testament to the Advantage that it has lasted 15 years without any problems.

So, on to my thoughts about the Advantage…

Advantage Pros: One Piece Keyboard

The Advantage is a one piece keyboard. There are (ahem) advantages to this approach, and there are disadvantages. I’m putting the one piece ‘board in the advantage column because a one piece is much easier to control and orient your hands on than two pieces and the disadvantages (the inability to change the exact distance between the two halves and set the relative angles) are irrelevant to me (since the two key wells on the Advantage were correctly positioned for my physique).

Advantage Pros: Typing Ergonomics

The next two advantages come together:

  • scooped key wells (for the keys reached by fingers—the thumb keys are separately arranged)
  • raised wrist rests

The scooped key wells make accessing each key easier—stretching and extending a finger will draw an arc which is reflected in the wells. Added to this, the wrist rests are higher than the tops of the highest keys in the scooped wells, and well above the lowest keys. These raised wrist rests are more ergonomically efficient than the Moonlander wrist rests (which are lower, thereby forcing the wrists to twist up) and when combined with the scooped wells make for a better typing experience.

Advantage Pros: More Keys, Better Labelled

The Advantage has more keys than the Moonlander and those keys are better labelled. Specifically, all of the keys are labelled (so the tab, ESC, ctrl, alt, and so on keys that are unlabeled on the Moonlander are labeled here).

My keys also have the alternate Dvorak legends (in addition to QWERTY) which is good, but not an advantage (since the Moonlander’s key caps can be easily rearranged).

The obvious advantage here is that the keys are more visible. However, more keys are necessary because of the inflexibility of the Advantage’s programming and these additional keys are hard to reach from a conventional touch typing hand position. So yeah…there’s an advantage, but hmmm…

Advantage Pros: Fixed Cable

I’ve called the fixed cable a plus, but you may see it as a negative.

The fixed cable on the Advantage offers simplicity and won’t pull out. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that if the cable dies, then the whole ‘board dies (unless you can open it up and get soldering).

Advantage Pros: Longevity

It’s not fair to compare the Advantage’s longevity against the Moonlander’s since I’ve only had the ‘Lander for a few months and therefore can’t make a comment on how it fares in the longer term.

However, I must note that (hence far) the Advantage has lasted 15 years and is the tool on which I have written countless books (and emails, and blog posts, and…). I’m not sure that I’ve got any other piece of tech that has lasted this long and I’ve certainly had good value from my investment.

Advantage Cons: Programmability

The Advantage offers some programmability, but the programmability is limited and implementing it is a kludge.

Remember, I’m using a 15 year old product where there is not so much as “programmability” but rather “swap-ability” in that two keys can have their positions swapped. The process to effect the swap is by pressing buttons on the keyboard and there no little feedback to show that the correct keys have been pushed—one can but test after making a swap. The process works, but it’s tedious and somewhat error prone.

There is a macro feature where a series of key strokes can be programmed, but I couldn’t see the need for this given that I use a text expander.

Newer models offer more programmability, but, best I can tell, it is way less flexible than what is offered for the Moonlander. For instance, there are no layers.

In my model, there is no way to “see” any remappings—you’ve just got to click on the keys and hope to find where everything is. As I understand, the newer models can output a full list of the remappings, which is good, but nowhere near as good as the graphic editor for the Moonlander.

The other disadvantage with remapping keys on the Advantage is that the key caps cannot be repositioned. Or rather, yes the key caps can be repositioned, but you wouldn’t want to do this since each cap is a different height and therefore the typing experience would be adversely affected by this exercise.

Advantage Cons: Rubber Keys

While the Advantage offers a function key row (which has some additional keys, such as the ESC key) these buttons are rubber. They’re really horrid things to press (and as I mentioned earlier, they’re harder to reach).

Personally, I almost never use the function keys, but I do use the ESC key and I find this positioning really awkward.

Advantage Cons: Creaky Plastic

The Advantage has lasted 15 years, but it’s rather creaky. I seem to remember it always was…but I didn’t take notes when I got it. Nevertheless, the plastic feels less substantial than the plastic used for the Moonlander.

Advantage Cons: Soldered Switches

The key switches in the Advantage are soldered in place. On one hand, this is good—it gives a firm and permanent connection (which has not caused any problems for me in 15 years). However, this permanence has a downside—the switches cannot be readily changed in the way they can with the Moonlander.

Advantage Cons: Little Feedback

The Advantage gives little feedback—there are a few LEDs (CAPS LOCK and such) and a beep and a buzz, and that’s it. By contrast, the Moonlander has some layer-based LEDs and each key has its own customizable LED.

Advantage Cons: Cleaning

The key wells collect large amounts of dust, dirt, and cat fur, and are difficult to clean out. Also, over time, the keys get gunky (especially on their sides). It is possible to clean the Advantage, but it requires pulling off the keys.

By contrast, the Moonlander is much easier to clean with its flat and open profile.

Moonlander

So that’s the Advantage, now on to the Moonlander.

By the way, if you want to know more about how I use the Moonlander, follow this link.

Moonlander Pros: Ergonomics

The Moonlander offers similar ergonomic benefits to those available with the Advantage, specifically:

  • split key groupings
  • keys arranged in columns
  • thumb clusters

However, the Moonlander goes further and offers more flexibility so that the hardware can be positioned to suit the typist’s exact needs. There are three specific ways that the Moonlander can be positioned:

  • There are two pieces, so each can be position individually. This gives control over the separation and the angle of each half.
  • The angle of each half (the “tenting”) can be adjusted to suit.
  • Each thumb cluster can be individually positioned to suit the typist.

However, there is a challenge with the Moonlander thumb cluster (some might call it a design flaw…).

The thumb clusters perform double duties—as well as holding the buttons, the cluster acts as a leg when the keyboard is tented. Hence, if there’s any tenting, then thumb cluster has to be placed to balance the keyboard even if that’s not a convenient position for the typist.

I set the keyboard to “full tent” and this means the thumb clusters are at their maximum extension (away from the main ‘board). In this position:

  • there is a gap at the hinge (between the main ‘board and the cluster keys—this gap is big enough to fit another key), and
  • the middle key in the cluster is an awkward stretch and the far key is impossible to reach without moving my hand.

This design militates against the customizability ethos of the board and greatly reduces the ergonomic benefits.

Moonlander Pros: Programmability

After the ergonomic benefits, the best feature of the Moonlander—and the area where it offers material benefits over the Advantage—is the programmability. More than anything else, it is the flexibility that the programming offers that made me decide I could live with the annoyance of the thumb cluster positioning.

ZSA offer a graphic editor (Oryx) to program the Moonlander. The custom layout is then uploaded to the Moonlander with a small utility. Oryx is very intuitive to use; the only complexity comes with it being so powerful.

There are three main customizations that Oryx can allow you to make:

First, Oryx allows you to set what each individual key will output when it is pressed. This could be a letter, a number, a symbol, a command key (shift, ctrl, option), a string of characters, or a combination of keys (such as ctrl+alt+S).

Second, Oryx brings layers. With each separate layer a new set of keys (and key press combinations) can be called up. These can be for everyday purposes or can be specialist layers. For instance, you can set up a layer to have a different layout (say, Dvorak rather than QWERTY) or maybe to control audio or video editing software.

The third method of control that Oryx brings is different outputs depending on whether key is tapped or held (in this context, held being a time over a user-controlled number of milliseconds, for instance, 150 milliseconds). I use this is several ways, but most importantly, I use it to autoshift (so that a long press produces the shifted variant of a key press).

Moonlander Pros: Hot-Swappable Switches

Key switches have a significant effect on the feel of a keyboard and the choice of switch is a very personal thing.

The Advantage offers two key switch choices: Cherry Browns and Cherry Reds. These are good choices, but they are limited. Worse, once you’ve made your choice, then there’s no changing—the keys are soldered in place.

By contrast, the Moonlander offers hot-swappable keys (and comes with a tool to remove the key caps and to pick out the switches).

This feature makes it much easier for ZSA to offer a much wider range of key options and the user can change their switches at any time to suit their taste.

One particular advantage of hot-swappable sockets is that it is easy to mix and match different keys, as I have done. Most of my key switches are Kailh Speed Silvers. However, for the home row (where my fingers rest) the Silvers are just to sensitive and are prone to accidentally being triggered, so I’ve switched these keys for Kailh Box Reds, which have a similar-ish feel/behavior, but are far less prone to accidental triggering.

Moonlander Pros: More Keys

Simply having more keys does not necessarily add any benefit (especially when the keys are not labelled). However, there is an advantage to having more keys in a useful position—and the Moonlander offers another column (of three keys) on the inside edge of each half.

With such a highly programmable keyboard, it is not necessary to map every key. However, it is nice to have the two additional columns as optional keys I can use. That said, I’d happily give up these extra keys if I could position the thumb clusters in an ergonomically ideal place.

Moonlander Pros: Replaceable Cable

The Moonlander has a replaceable cable (actually two replaceable cables—the cable between the keyboard and the PC can be replaced, and the 3.5mm TRRS cable joining the two halves is replaceable).

I’ve called the replaceable cable a plus, but you may see it as a negative. And yes, I am aware that I called the Advantage’s fixed cable a positive, too.

The replaceable cable on the Moonlander can pull out (although what you would be doing to pull out the cable when you’re typing, I’m not sure…). However, the advantage of this arrangement is that if the cable dies, then the cable can be replaced (so the whole keyboard won’t be useless as would be the case with a fixed cable).

Moonlander Cons: Thumb Clusters

And so we’re back to my biggest annoyance with the Moonlander…

Earlier, I mentioned that since the thumb clusters section of each half performs double duties (holding the buttons while also acting as a leg when the keyboard is tented) the cluster has to be placed at an ergonomically poor position (for me, YMMV and all that…).

There’s another challenge with the thumb cluster—the big red buttons. Undeniably, these buttons look really cool, but from a touch typing perspective, they are functionally useless:

  • First, they’re impossible to reach without repositioning the hand.
  • Second, they’re nearly impossible to press with the thumb without triggering one of the three other keys on the cluster.

Moonlander Cons: Wrist Rests

The wrist rests (and the general positioning of the hand while typing) is another disappointment given that the Moonlander is billed as a next-generation ergonomic keyboard.

There are several challenges with the wrist rests:

  • First, there is an element of play in the hinge which is annoying when you want a firm surface to rest your wrists.
  • Second, and more significantly, the position of the rests cannot be adjusted to optimize the hand position relative to the keys.

The wrist rest could be adjusted with a manual kludge (such as putting a block under a rest), but this would be ugly. More significantly, by raising the wrist rest, the thumb cluster (used as a tent leg) becomes even more unreachable.

By contrast, for me and my hands, the Advantage got the wrist/key/thumb cluster positions correct.

Moonlander Cons: Keys Caps

The key caps are great…but there are a lot of blank caps (there’s just a horizontal line). So, for instance, there’s no Windows/Apple keycap, no tab keycap, no ESC keycap…no shift, no ctrl, no alt, no home, no end, no page up, no page down…

It would be nice to have a few more labelled keys (or the option to buy such key caps).

Which is Right for You?

Keyboards—especially ergonomic keyboards—are highly personal pieces of kit. A behavior I like, you may hate…what makes my hands hurt may not be a problem for you. Hopefully, this summary has illustrated some of the issues that might matter to you if you are deciding between the Moonlander and the Advantage.

While it’s not perfect, for me, the Moonlander is preferable to the Advantage. However, if the only choice was the Advantage, I would be happy to keep using that board.

If you’re in the market for an ergonomic keyboard try before you purchase (if you can). If you can’t try before you buy, then make sure any purchase is returnable (or be prepared to have a large piece of desk art).

Filed under

Category: tools
Tags: Moonlander   Kinesis Advantage