Shareware Beach

Monday, 6 August 2007

DataHand Review

Filed under: Ergonomics,Hardware & Gadgets — Jan @ 17:59

I’ve already shown you the DataHand in my Behind the scenes 2007 post earlier this year. In early 2006 I was feeling significant discomfort in my hands and wrists, clear early symptoms of RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury). Though this wasn’t preventing me from using the computer like before, I decided to start improving my working habits and equipment right away. It’s far more comfortable to experiment while you still have the option of falling back on your old ways. I’ll share my experiments in the new Ergonomics category on my blog.

I purchased the DataHand in March 2006. While this review is indeed a bit overdue, you really shouldn’t take the advice of a magazine reviewer who toyed with the unit for two days and then wrote an opinion on his old keyboard. The DataHand is completely different from a traditional keyboard. When you first use it, your productivity will drop to zero. RSI symptoms will fade not because the DataHand is a miracle, but because you’ll be limping along at 10 words per minute instead of 70. Stopping doing any repetitive fine movements with your fingers and hands is obviously the best RSI cure, if not very practical for the bottom line.

What I did was set aside three full days to get familiar with the DataHand, using the enclosed typing tutor software. Though the software was designed for a traditional keyboard, that wasn’t really a problem. The DataHand Personal (which I have), uses a QWERTY layout. What this means is that you’re using the same fingers to type the same letters on the DataHand (e.g. left pinky for Q) as on a regular keyboard. On paper, this may seem conterproductive from an ergonomics standpoint. In practice, it really makes learning the DataHand and particularly switching between the DataHand and a regular keyboard much easier for touch typists. Touch typing involves a surprising amount of motor memory. You’ll discover this when learning the DataHand. You’ll learn 22 letters pretty quickly, but you’ll struggle with the B, T, Y and N. These are the only 4 letters that are typed with a different finger on the DataHand than with a regular keyboard. The reason is that the DataHand’s design only allows for 5 keys per finger (north, east, south, west and down).

After my 3 days of learning, I could type ordinary at about 40 words per minute. That’s no speed record, but enough to use the DataHand without too much frustration. Programming, with its heavy use of special symbols, was more of a challenge though. To type numbers and symbols, you need to use the various thumb keys to switch the DataHand from “normal” mode to “numbers and symbols” mode. Initially, this is frustrating. With a standard keyboard you move your fingers to the top row. With the DataHand you slightly hold down your right thumb, or press it down and release to lock the mode.

Same story with cursor keys. Instead of moving your hand to the arrow key area, you flip the right hand upper thumb switch to go into “function” mode. This mode also provides the F1 through F12 keys. Again, this is frustrating initially. But once I was used to it, I find flipping a switch much faster and more comfortable than having to move my hands around the keyboard. With the DataHand, you’re always at the home row. Right thumb goes into function mode, left thumb goes back into normal mode. These are absolute switches, so you don’t have to look at the status LED to see which mode you’re in. Just hit the thumb key and blaze away.

It took me about a month to get comfortable enough with the DataHand during programming as not to feel frustrated with it any more. One thing I did the first few weeks was to use a regular keyboard for programming, and the DataHand for email and other activities that involved more plain English than weird symbol combinations. Though this delayed the learning process, feeling productive is important too.

During the initial month I would actually rely much more on the mouse than I used to, because using the function keys didn’t come natural. But now that I’m comfortable with the DataHand, I use far more keyboard shortcuts than I used to. On a normal keyboard, key combinations with function keys and modifier keys (Shift, Ctrl, Alt) require uncomfortable finger acrobatics. Moving my hand to the row of function keys takes almost as much time as moving it to the mouse. With the DataHand, you flip into function mode, press modifier keys with your thumbs, and a function key with one of your fingers, all while your hands and fingers stay in place. Same when navigating a file with the arrow keys.

It took me about three months to feel as productive or even more productive with the DataHand than with a regular keyboard. If you take into account I touch type at 60 to 70 words per minute on a regular keyboard, I believe that’s an excellent result for the DataHand. Though there is quite a learning curve and adaptation period, you certainly don’t have to trade productivity for improved comfort and ergonomics.

Once you’re familiar with the DataHand, switching between a regular keyboard and the DataHand isn’t a problem. While I’d recommend getting a DataHand for all the desktop computers that you use, you won’t suddenly be unable to use a laptop keyboard when you’re on the road. It can feel a bit weird though. When switching from the DataHand to a regular keyboard, the regular keyboard is obviously “heavier”, requiring much more effort to use. When switching back to the DataHand, it always takes a few minutes to relax myself and readjust to the DataHand, which only takes a very light touch. The difference in comfort is remarkable.

The DataHand can also replace your mouse. It comes with two PS/2 connectors, one for the keyboard port, and one for the mouse port. I don’t use the mouse function myself. It’s about as (un)comfortable as moving the mouse pointer with the arrow keys on a keyboard. In fact, that’s exactly what you do with the DataHand. In function mode, you can press a key to make the arrow keys on the DataHand move the mouse pointer instead. Another key restores makes the arrow keys work like arrow keys again. The two Home keys become the left click and right click keys. There’s no scroll wheel function, though you can still use the Page Up and Down keys in mouse mode. That said, if your RSI is killing you and you really can’t use a mouse, the DataHand will certainly do the job. But learning keyboard shortcuts would be far more productive.

Using a regular mouse, or a trackball like I do, in combination with the DataHand is more comfortable (or less uncomfortable) than with a regular keyboard. The reason is that there’s no numeric keypad taking up space between your right hand when typing and the mouse. So the amount travel and extension required of your right arm is significantly reduced. In fact, if you feel discomfort in your right arm, switching to a regular keyboard without the numeric pad may be a quick and cheap improvement.

If the story ended here, I would strongly recommend the DataHand to everybody who spends more than a few hours a day with his or her hands on a keyboard, even if the DataHand Personal does cost 500 US dollars. Unless you’re working for a hunger wage, it doesn’t need to prevent much RSI-related downtime to earn back its cost.

Update: While my conclusion below is still the same, I’m using the DataHand again. I have a new DataHand that works flawlessly.

Unfortunately, the story does not end here. I’m typing this on a Microsoft Natural Keyboard, even though it feels terribly unnatural after having used the DataHand for more than a year. The DataHand units, two pairs of them in fact, are sitting on the floor while I await a reply to yet another email to DataHand’s support staff. The problem isn’t that they’re slow to reply (they are), but that I need the support in the first place.

In November 2006, the DataHand I had bought in March started having issues. Sometimes the unit would freeze up completely. Though all keys still worked fine physically, no characters were sent to the computer. At other times, the unit would send several extranous characters with each right hand key. The problem was intermittent. If I unplugged the DataHand for a day or two, it would function fine for a week or so until the same problem returned.

Since I really didn’t want to stop using the DataHand, and the emails back and forth with support were slow going, I ordered a second unit in December. I figured I had bad luck getting a lemon, and didn’t mind spending another $500 on a piece of equipment that was making my life more comfortable every day. My plan was to use the new unit for some time to make sure it didn’t have any problems, and then send the old one back for repair, so I could keep it on hand as a backup.

Unfortunately, I never got around to sending the old unit back until the new unit developed a problem on its own. One day in May, I came back from lunch, having left the computer on. For no apparent reason, the right pinky north and west keys no longer functioned. They still moved, but didn’t send any character or function key to the computer. This left me unable to type the P, [, { or use Page Up. So that killed the new unit. I tried the let-it-sleep-a-few-days trick that was still capable of reviving the old unit, but that didn’t seem to work. Both keys had gone to pasture permanently.

So I sent in an RMA request, shipped the units back, paid $300 for the repair job($80 per hour at one hour each unit, plus $140 for international shipping), argued with DHL for two weeks to get the stuff back through customs, and found both units were still having the exact same problems. The new unit’s two pinky keys were still permanently dead. The old unit worked fine for a week or two, until it froze up again in the same way it did before repair. The DataHand folks claim they were unable to reproduce either problem, but did replace some wiring inside the units based on my problem description.

Now, for me, the problem isn’t really that this is costing me a lot of money. I’d happily buy a new $500 DataHand every year if that’s what it takes. That’s less than $2 per day that I use the unit. Some people pay more than that per day just for their daily stop at Starbucks. (Yes, Starbucks is everywhere in Thailand, and their prices are almost as high, which is crazy if you consider typical salaries here.)

The problem is that DataHand Inc. just doesn’t back their products with warranty and support suitable for a product that’s not only very expensive (compared to what it replaces), but also something people rely upon. Instead of a 90-day parts and labor warranty, they should offer a one-year full warranty. If it breaks within the year, you get a new one.

Anyone who can afford a $500 keyboard (or $525 including a $25 USB converter, which was previously optional) can also afford a $550 keyboard. That should be more than enough to cover for a no-quibbles warranty, even if they have an appalingly high 10% defect rate. (Mine is 100% within the first year, but I can’t extrapolate from a sample of 2.) Then I’d just have to budget $550 or even $599 a year. If it last longer, that’s great. If it breaks, I simply ship it back and get a new one in no time. No worries about botched repair jobs. No aggravation about being the sucker to get the lemon. Though their email support is slow, they ship out new (paid for) units in a jiffy.

I’ve suggested this several times during my email conversations about my broken units with them. But I didn’t even get a boilerplate “thank you for your feedback”.

So until then, I can only really recommend the DataHand if your regular keyboard is killing you. I’m getting ready to smash my Microsoft Unnatural to pieces, so I’d better go looking for my credit card. But I’ll think I’ll try some competing products first. I have become a bit of an input device gadget freak over the past 18 months. I’ll show some of the other stuff I’ve tried later.

Double DataHand down on the floor

Update: While my conclusion is still the same, I’m using the DataHand again. I did not get around to trying any other alternative keyboards. I did search for alternatives, but most seem like ordinary keyboards with a coat of ergonomic paint rather than a radical solution like the DataHand.


  1. Having been through more RSI/Carpel Tunnel episodes than I want to remember, I really understand what you’ve been through Jan! A couple of suggestions:

    1. Inflammation is often the root cause – and until you get that under control, it’s very difficult to make any progress. Steroid shots – administered by a MD, mind you – can bring the inflammation under control so that changes in behavior have an effect.
    2. After years of different trying different keyboards, trackballs and mice, I’ve come to the conclusion that 1) no one keyboard, mouse or trackball is ergonomically superior to all the rest, 2) switching between different combinations of keyboards/mice over the course of the workday works. 3) Breaks are a must, 4) Gaming has to go – as much fun as computer games are, they put a good 10x more strain on your hands than non-gaming.
    3. On the Windows side, Dragon Naturally Speaking 9 – finally! – is good enough (98%) to use for all your non-programming needs. I recommend it.

    Hope this helps, and by the way, I think your blog is excellent, but it really needs a prominent About page :)!

    Comment by Bob Walsh — Wednesday, 8 August 2007 @ 3:33

  2. Your points are all valid, Bob. In this article I merely intended to review one particular keyboard replacement. In my own experience, I really do feel a significant improvement when using the DataHand compared to the Microsoft Natural Keyboard. Obviously, there’s far more to RSI than the keyboard you’re using. I’m planning to write more articles on the subject in the future.

    Comment by Jan Goyvaerts — Wednesday, 8 August 2007 @ 8:09

  3. Datahands saved my career.

    But they are somewhat flaky, and more
    worrying to me – the company may go away
    at some point in the next 40 years (what
    the actuarial tables say I have left to
    live …)

    So I have 10 of them.

    Comment by David Ziegler — Thursday, 1 November 2007 @ 18:21

  4. I have been using the datahand keyboard for about six years now without a single technical problem occuring ever.

    The first set lasted about three years without a single problem ever occuring. Spilling a large dose of orange juice over the unit and then breaking off a key in the process of cleaning brought the unit to it’s end. Possibly I could have returned it to get it repaired but the cost of shipping & repairs would probably come close to having to buy a new set.

    I am now using three sets that I use at different places. These sets are used slightly less intensive as the first one as each PC (work / home / etc.) has a different set. But still no problem whatsoever. Occassionally there is an issue with a key not properly functioning but this can generally be resolved easily with an air duster.

    Very unfortunate to hear that the support Datahand is giving is not so good.

    Comment by Sijbrandus Noorman — Saturday, 29 December 2007 @ 17:00

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