Apple Aluminium Keyboard and Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)3 min read

I finally sold my shiny “like new” Apple aluminium full-size keyboard (2008 model). It is a magnificent piece of hardware that had me drooling for days during the past winter before I took the leap and bought it. It is slim, looks good (that’s subjective), is built tough, and can act as a limited USB hub.
There is one critical thing where it went wrong: this particular keyboard causes RSI (at least in my case; your mileage may vary).

I came to this conclusion when I had symptoms of pain “in my fingers”. I wouldn’t say the joints, as it feels as if the bones themselves were painful. A disgusting feeling that even exercising (or cracking) your fingers can’t get rid of. The suffering builds up and can prevent you from typing for a day or two, and leave you confused as to what the heck is happening to you. For the record, I’m 21 years old and used the keyboard all the time since I was 7; I had never felt this before, and it was quite sudden.
In good empirical fashion, I decided to switch back to my cheap plastic Dell keyboard for a while, and back and forth with the Apple aluminium keyboard, leaving a few days/weeks (I can’t remember exactly) between each switch.
The end verdict is that the Apple keyboard is indeed causing RSI. This has been corroborated by the fact that I have been using extensively an IBM Thinkpad laptop (with the “legendary” thinkpad keyboard) for the past six months or so, and I never experienced any pain again.
So, I felt sad to sell my really nice, sturdy, quiet, sexy Apple keyboard because the damn thing is dangerous. You sure won’t see that in Apple’s marketing.
Now, I’ve spent a good deal of time reflecting upon the causes of this phenomenon. Why is it exactly that this particular keyboard induced serious pain in my fingers? Based on some research I did on the net, discussions with relatives and some more thinking, I came to suspect  the hard aluminium surface, combined with the fact that the keys are extremely flat.
This means that when you press a key, the key does not have enough “depth” to absorb the kinetic energy of your finger. In other words, each time you press a key, your finger’s bones slam onto aluminium, with almost no dampening of the impact;  stressing your bone/joints with insufficient keystroke impact cushioning would be the most probable cause of RSI that I can think of, in this case (the keyboard position, height, and other factors were controlled in this “experiment”). Combine this with a heavy typer like me (80 words per minute), and boom, you got your disaster.
Even the cheap 10$ plastic keyboards are better than the 50$ Apple keyboard in this regard. But you will only find out about RSI after using it intensively for a month or so. Fail.
I can only hope that Apple (and other companies) do not repeat mistakes such as this again. When I did research on the matter months ago, there did not seem to be any public outcry on The Internets about this keyboard causing RSI. Perhaps I am the only one who experienced such a problem, I don’t know. The one thing I know is that I cannot use this keyboard.
I would be interested in any recommendations for a good, lightweight (and small, does not need a numpad) keyboard for carrying in my laptop bag. It has to be no larger than a regular laptop, USB, not expensive (ha ha ha) and come as close as possible to the comfort of the IBM thinkpad keyboard. I know that you can buy the thinkpad keyboard as an external keyboard, but it’s a tad expensive to my tastes. Either that, or I need to find a nice seat cushion to elevate myself to the level of my laptop during classes (the seats are not adjustable, and you are bound to the table, which is too high).
2017 update: you might also want to read about my 2013 DIY sound suppressor for the Unicomp / model M keyboard. Also, learn to type in Dvorak.



12 responses to “Apple Aluminium Keyboard and Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)”

  1. I’ve developed a very similar pain in my right index finger. I thought it was my mouse, so I’ve trained to use my left hand for the mouse but the pain is not going away and is starting to move into other fingers as well. I’ve got an Apple aluminum too, I will definitely try a different keyboard for a while and see if it helps.

  2. Switched from XP to OSX two month ago, including full apple HW and -keyboard.
    both alu keyboard and mighty mouse are usable, very nice looking but awfull in ergonomics.
    I switched back to my MS style Genius keyboard because of RSI. I like the might mouse for its 2 dimensional scroll ball, so I do not switch that for now.
    I also blame OSX a little, because its shortcut mappings I believe to be far less ergonomic than in Windows. (there is a lot to like in OSX though)
    Before I read your post I did suspect the lack of key damping, also the small surfaces of e.g. [Enter] key.
    So, youre not alone. Im a webdeveloper (coder), and I think every coder/typists should stay far from the Apple keyboard.

  3. glad i’m not the only one…beautiful yet evil…

  4. good to see I am not alone in this. It’s true, I just love the way it looks but it’s hurting me at the same time…tough decision

  5. I switched to a mac recently and decided to go all the way with mouse and keyboard. This keyboard is awful, makes me not want to type: pain in wrist is intense – will change asap. Mouse is crap too – you have to hold down a key to right click – typical Apple arrogance – wish I’d stayed with PC, far uglier but I prefer function over form.

  6. Ehrlic Avatar

    Hmmm, different strokes for different folks I guess. I’ve been using this keyboard both at work and at home since a week after they were announced and have had zero problems. I had tried Apple’s more conventional white keyboard with the curved keycaps, a logitech ergo keyboard, and an one of the higher-end MS keyboards, they all caused pain in the wrists and carpal area. With the aluminum board my fingers “flutter” across the keys, frankly I think it enables me to type faster. My brother and boss both use the wired and wireless versions and I haven’t heard any complaints from them.
    Just wanted to chine in since the 5 comments so far have all agreeed on RSI symptoms, but not everyone gets them.

  7. ty mod Avatar
    ty mod

    v. interesting post. I have suspected this too.
    Unfortunately, with the case of apple, it always seems to be Apple’s way or no way.
    and it’s a strange phenomenon to witness.. but ppl begin to think that way. As someone posted above ” I just love the way it looks but it’s hurting me at the same time…tough decision”. Get real ppl! would ppl say this about any other brand of computer!? I really don’t think so.
    Apple’s marketing campaign seem to have really gotten under the skin of ppl – they begin to think that they can’t live without such products. get real.
    typing on the aluminium keyboard – as I am doing now, feels like hitting my fingers against rock. Of course it’s not good.
    Keyboards have stayed the same for about 3 decades now. Even the ergonomic keyboards have some reach.
    I sense that ppl get so involved and defensive about Apple, because they can’t fathom that the company could get something wrong. After all, with a company that attempts to exude perfection and coolness, who would not want to believe it. It’s easy to get sucked in. a big middle finger to you apple.

  8. ty mod Avatar
    ty mod

    ps, it would be interesting to see what sort of information you looked up to back your claims up.
    Looking on the net there seem to be a distinct lack of professional ergonomic bodies or organisations that can point someone in the direction of choosing a good keyboard, or simply ergonomics…

  9. Nick Avatar

    Yes, I have noticed similar pains in my wrists with this keyboard.
    Personally, I think it’s a combination of the keyboard, mighty mouse scroll wheel and the part of the mouse you squeeze on the sides to get Expose to show all open windows.
    I haven’t really had any issues like this before until using my new
    iMac a significant amount of time. Prior configurations have either
    been Thinkpad, Sun workstation or PC with IBM keyboard.

  10. Lo Fan Avatar
    Lo Fan

    I had been long term user of IBM 101 keyboard (the famous Model M). For the record, my oldest Model M was manufactured in 1992.
    I have been a heavy computer user but I had never experienced any serious pain before.
    Since my fellows at work always complain about the typing noise (which is in fact terrible to others) generated by my keyboard, I decided to buy a Apple Keyboard (the model with Numeric keypad) 2-3 weeks ago.
    Here comes the nightmare. I started developing pain in my back only 2-3 days since I swithced to the new keyboard. The pain further developed in a very short period. The pain in my back has increased to a level that I started having heat treatments at night. Pain also started to develop in my shoulders and neck.
    Okay, the new keyboard is quiet and good looking and draws attention from my fellows, but so what? the pain’s mine. I mean the serious pain’s mine.
    3 days ago, I switched back to my IBM Model M. I feel myself recovering (not that rapidly but I can feel it). I stopped having heat treatment last night. I hope the damange the Apple thing had done to me was not permanant.
    And Apple, please, please, be responsible when you throw something to the market.
    You are hurting people.

  11. morph Avatar

    I find it interesting and sometimes almost incredible how different people have different stories.
    In my case, I had pain with several keyboards, but found in Apple’s new Aluminum Keyboard the BEST solution EVER for typing for hours without a single problem. I’ve used several ergonomic and specially made keyboards, but none felt as good as this new one. Turns out that I bought another one just so I could keep one at the office and another at home.
    Now, the differences.
    Most older keyboards have large keys which also have a bigger “motion”. As a result, many people are used to press keys with too much strength, or even expecting those keys to go down 3mm or so. The Aluminum keyboard is not like that. The first lesson is to learn how to use it. If you’re used to smash keys so they get down and keep trying to do that in a keyboard that is meant to be used with quick soft touches, you’ll find yourself in pain, as you’re fighting against the keyboard, not using it.
    Second thing of notice is that as the vast majority of keyboards around are monolithic monsters with a 10 to sometimes 15mm base most people are used to have silicon bases or any other “thing” to lay your wrists on while typing. Again, wrong recipe for a good keyboard. As the Aluminum keyboard is extremely thin, you should NOT use one of those bases unless you really feel comfortable about it. Having your hands that much higher than the keyboard will only give you pain.
    Last but not least I particularly find Mac OS X shortcuts much better than Windows’ ones ergonomically speaking. The difference is, instead of using my little finger to press control all the time, I just use my thumb to press the command key, and all my other four fingers are still comfortably laying over “asdf”.
    If you’ve always driven a car and suddenly get a bike and crash, don’t blame the bike, learn how to ride it.

  12. @morph: I don’t “hammer” the keys, but I do expect a minimum of cushioning. I’m now using a plastic Lenovo keyboard (can be found for 20$ at some places) and it works wonders. Your mileage may vary.
    I do not use the “legs” of the keyboards, but do lean part of my forearms on the edge of my table, which means that my wrists are straight, not bent, and my hands are not higher or lower than the keyboard.

    Last but not least I particularly find Mac OS X shortcuts much better than Windows’ ones ergonomically speaking. […]
    If you’ve always driven a car and suddenly get a bike and crash, don’t blame the bike, learn how to ride it.

    Keyboard shortcuts: does not affect me. I am using Linux and I am a dvorak typist. I think I know how to use a keyboard, thanks. See if you can still manage this at 100 words per minute after a few months.