Changing the Key Switches in a Kinesis Advantage Keyboard

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What the Hell?

The key switches on a Kinesis Advantage keyboard can be changed. It's neither cheap nor easy. You're looking at a minimum of about $100 for key switches, more if you need a soldering iron or solder sucker, and more than that if you wreck your keyboard in the process. And you're looking at 6-8 hours of work depending on your skill with a soldering iron. Is it worth it? You forked over several hundred for a Kinesis in the first place: you're already so damn hardcore about your keyboards that I'd say the answer is yes - at least if your keys are developing bounce or getting sticky. If not, think about it a bit longer.

Update!:

I wish I'd known this before I started ... As of 2015-04, Kinesis is willing to sell you all the boards (key well and thumbs) and the plastic retainers for them for about $30 US for the full set (email "techsupport@kinesis.com"). This doesn't include key switches, that's still you. This is a great deal, and I'd highly recommend it: if/when I do this modification again, I'll be going this route. This means that you can do all the construction work (soldering, hot gluing) without ever touching your original keyboard, and the switch just involves a few screws and a four ZIF connectors (going from memory here). No desoldering, no tearing off hot glue, and if you mess up, you can put the old key wells back in because you never modified them. This will probably also reduce your work time down to about four hours.

The Story

In 2012 I owned two Kinesis Advantage keyboards (humour me, I like to tell stories ... or just skip this section). Early in 2011(?) one of them developed a lot of bounce in several keys, so I contacted Kinesis. They immediately sent me replacement "cups" for the left and right hands. This required me to disassemble the keyboard, but it was a very simple operation (about a dozen screws and a couple edge connectors). Kinesis didn't ask for the old set back, and that gave me an idea. The Kinesis is made with Cherry Brown key switches. Fairly good, but not my favourite: I've always been a fan of the IBM Model M with their spectacularly good (and loud) buckling spring switches. There are a couple companies that still make keyboards with buckling spring key switches, but nobody makes a good ergonomic keyboard with buckling springs. Cherry's Blue key switches are similar to the buckling spring (not the same, but similar), with a very distinct audible click and physical feel. The Brown switches are tactile, quiet, have a softer touch, and a somewhat different feel. So what about removing all the Brown keys and replacing them with Blue?

I did the first keyboard surgery in 2012 with extensive help from my friend Paul. I acquired a third (and much older) Kinesis Advantage in 2013 at a used computer shop, and in June 2014 I swapped its Cherry Brown keys out for Cherry Clears. The clears are very similar to the browns (tactile, quiet) but with a higher activation force. This time I did most of the work myself as my de-soldering and soldering skills have improved. What you'll find below is a step-by-step guide to replacing the keys in a Kinesis Advantage keyboard. Pictures will show (at least) two different keyboards, but the steps are applicable across both. Note that one keyboard was from ~2008 and the other from ~1988 and the construction is nearly identical: you should find the instructions work for you if you have a Kinesis Advantage of any age.

Should I?

Was it a success? The blues: absolutely. The clears: less so. The keys (referring to the Blue surgery) now have a very distinct physical and audible click to them. The keyboard is now fairly loud. I'm not keen on the noise, but it's a side effect that I'm willing to live with. We now know why a Kinesis is so damned expensive: because of the curved shape, they were probably hand-assembled in the first place and they're just generally tough to work with.

The clears were less successful. Individually if you press a Cherry Clear key switch you'll think "just like a brown, but I guess it's a little stiffer." I assumed it was no big deal - but when I assembled the thing and start typing on it all day ... it was kind of tiring. And I really shouldn't have gone with the Clears, because they're still like the browns and don't feel as good as the blues. And at this point I doubt the boards would survive another round of de-soldering, disassembly, and re-soldering. They take a bit of damage each time they go through this process.

If I do it again, I would definitely stick with the blue key switches. One of my Kinesis keyboards remains unmodified with those annoying browns ... And I'll solder the diodes on separately.

Bibliography

To help you decide which key style you want and where to order them:

What You'll Need

The Biggest Caveat

You can't order the Blue key switches with built-in diodes except on special order, and that requires an order in the thousands. As the key switches are over a dollar a piece, that's not viable for most people. So I got them without diodes, and had to populate the keyboard matrix circuit with separately soldered diodes - fortunately, in this application, very small ones were fine so there was no physical interference with the case.

I used an alternative, but not recommended, method when I did the second surgery installing Cherry Clear switches in an older Kinesis. I disassembled every brown key switch, pulled out the diode, disassembled every clear key switch, stuffed a diode in, and closed the clear key switch back up. This takes a very long time. I thought it was a good idea mechanically because the switch will be soldered down at four points instead of two, but the fact is the switches are primarily secured by the plastic cup shell - not the board. And when you're trying to put the board over the switches (the assembly order is odd: the switches go into a physical grid before the board goes over them), it's a lot easier if there are only two connectors instead of four per switch.

Steps

Image KinesisKeys.20140624.0101.GO.CanonSX150.html, size 131563 b
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Image KinesisKeys.20140705.0107.hilite.GO.CanonSX150.html, size 132813 b
Image KinesisKeys.20120616.0058.GO.OlympusFE26.html, size 565134 b
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Image KinesisKeys.20140714.0108.GO.CanonSX150.html, size 71574 b
Image KinesisKeys.20120616.0065.GO.OlympusFE26.html, size 485867 b

https://www.gilesorr.com/misc/keyboards/kinesiskeys.html ( 13Kb)
Last modified 2016-02-09 by giles