I’ve used mechanical keyboards off and on for around 4 years and I always wanted to give the Kinesis Advantage a shot. About a month ago, I gave in to temptation and bought one off Ebay.
For the first few days, typing on the Advantage was difficult. As a touch typist, going from 100 WPM to 30 was very frustrating.
But within a week, I regained most of my original speed. My wrists felt a lot better and going back to a regular keyboard caused noticeable stiffness around my shoulders.
Although I could type without having to look up keys on every alternate keypress, I kept bottoming out and in general disliked the feel of the keyboard. I knew why — it was the switches.
The Advantage uses Cherry MX Brown switches. In fact, Cherry made them specifically for the original contoured Kinesis keyboard. While they are tactile, the browns aren’t clicky like the blues. I’ve been a huge fan of the blues ever since I got my hands on the TVS Bharat Gold keyboard. What I wanted was a Kinesis Advantage, but with the clicky blues.
Kinesis doesn’t make the Advantage with blues (they’re exploring a limited run for the Advantage2). I sent a DM to their Twitter account to explore possibilities and they suggested that I get in touch with their support team.
Their support team is amazing and super responsive. Within 10 minutes of me sending an email, they responded. I wasn’t the first one trying to modify an Advantage. They sent me links to blogs and part numbers for pieces I needed to make this happen.
I was surprised at how cheap the pieces were — especially given that a new Advantage costs over $250. The only problem was that my experience with soldering was limited to what I did in school, which was around 10 years ago. I spoke to a few people, who assured me that it isn’t as hard as it sounds and that watching a few youtube videos should be enough.
So I went ahead and ordered the 2 key-wells and their PCBs (the first 4 parts in the email). I didn’t order the thumb cluster because the switches are PCB-mounted and I could simply swap them. I also ordered a cheap soldering kit from Amazon along with solder and diodes.
Next, I had to source the switches. Original Cherry MX Blues are expensive! I needed roughly 70 of them and the cheapest ones I found were still around $50 with shipping. I’d heard a lot of good things about Gateron Blues from the friendly folks over at /r/MechanicalKeyboards and Switchtop sells them for $0.275 each (I’m fairly happy with the folks at switchtop for shipping the switches within a day!). In 4 days I had all the things I needed to make the “switch”.
Soldering was pretty daunting at first. I opened up an old alarm clock and tinkered with the PCB. I desoldered a bunch of components and tried to solder them back. I thought I did everything right, but the clock refused to start. Not a good first step. I did, however, get a hang of using the soldering iron and the solder. Now, the worst thing I could do was screw up a PCB worth $7.50.
I started by mounting the switches on the right hand key-well. Some switches were duds, so I made sure I tested the clicky-ness (if that’s even a word) before using a switch. This was the easy part.
Next up was adding the PCB and soldering the switches. Given the contoured shape of the key-wells, the PCB is flexible and, at times, difficult to align with the switch leads. The bottom row switches would keep falling out, so I removed them and decided to deal with the rest of the switches first. What worked best was soldering one column at a time, starting with the outermost one. I used a crocodile clip (the picture below shows the left key-well instead of the right, but you get the idea) to hold the PCB in place while I soldered away to glory.
I added the bottom row at the very end and unsurprisingly, this went a lot smoother now that the rest of the PCB was in place.
I then started soldering the diodes. With diodes, it’s important to make sure that you get the orientation right. On the Kinesis, the black part of the diode is oriented towards the left if the switch leads are to the top. This is true for both key-wells. I tested the board right after soldering one diode by removing the ribbon cable from the original PCB and plugging it into the new one.
At this point, I was somewhat confident of being on the right track. I soldered the rest of the diodes
and replaced the old key-well.
I tested all the switches using www.keyboardtester.com to make sure they registered and then added the keycaps. Doing the second key-well was much faster now that I had a good idea of what needed to be done, and in what order. It took me around 8 hours from start to finish, but that included time off to get dinner.
I haven’t modified the thumb cluster yet, mainly because I’m planning to add Gateron greens instead of blues. I’m also waiting for blank PBT keycaps that I ordered for cheap from China. All in all, this was a fun project and completely worth the hassle. I’ll post a photo of the keyboard once I get the new keycaps.
Update — I got the Chinese PBT keycaps.