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Kinesis’ Freestyle Edge ergonomic gaming keyboard reviewed

Zak Killian
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2017 is coming to a close before long. I’m not getting any younger, and neither are my wrists. I’ve been fortunate to avoid the worst of repetitive strain injuries so far, but the occasional aches and intermittent numbness in my wrists and fingers are getting harder and harder to ignore. In the early part of this year, I spent a considerable amount of effort looking for an ergonomic keyboard that wouldn’t impact my workflow or gameplay too much, but I just couldn’t find one that had all the features I was looking for.

Then, about a month after I gave up looking, we did a front-page news post about the Kickstarter campaign for an upcoming gaming keyboard. It seemed too good to be true. The keyboard ticked almost every single box on my wishlist of keyboard features: ergonomic design, mechanical keyswitches, LED backlighting, and even full programmability with macro support. I backed the crowdfunding campaign even as I was finishing up the news post about said campaign and eagerly waited for the keyboard to arrive. Well, now it has: gaze upon the Kinesis Gaming Freestyle Edge.

Well, not exactly. I’ve actually had my Freestyle Edge since the middle of September. The initial units went out to backers just a few months after the Kickstarter ended, and starting today, the company is selling them to the general public. When mine arrived, I gleefully broke into the box and started using it. That’s why the pictures in this review show quite a bit of wear on the keyboard—it’s been in heavy use (12+ hours a day, every day) for over 2 months. Let me assure you that when the Freestyle Edge came out of the box, its velvety finish was gorgeous and unmarred by the marks you see in these photos.

In all that time, I’ve put every function of the Freestyle Edge through the wringer, and it has come out smelling… well, mostly like plastic, actually. But its performance was and remains excellent. Kinesis has crafted Freestyle Edge keyboards using Cherry MX switches in Blue, Brown, and Red varieties. Genuine Cherry MX switches are more expensive than their clones, but you get what you pay for. The keys actuate smoothly with no grainy or rough texture, and the whole keyboard has a very consistent feeling.

My personal Freestyle Edge keyboard that I’m reviewing today uses Cherry MX Red keyswitches under its 95 keys. MX Reds are my favorite of the basic Cherry offerings, owing to my gamer tendencies. Since they don’t have audible or tactile feedback, most typists using MX Red keyswitches will bottom out on every keystroke as if they were using a membrane model. That can make MX Red typists ironically even louder than those using the noisy MX Blue switches as the loud “clack” of plastic on metal fills the room with every keystroke.

That’s not the case with the Freestyle Edge, though. The switches are mounted to a backplate that’s coated in a special shock-absorbing material. I have experience using a lot of mechanical keyboards with Cherry MX switches—both genuine and clones—and this is easily the quietest of them all. I don’t know what Kinesis’ shock-absorbing coating is made from, but it does the job. Key clatter is kept to a minimum, and it also softens the feel of the keyboard considerably.


Source: Kinesis

The Freestyle Edge’s blue LED backlighting looks great. The light shows through the ABS keys’ legends very clearly and sharply, and it has adjustable brightness in a range from “barely noticeable” to “I can’t see my monitors.” That’s only half a joke—when I took the keyboard out of the box and hooked it up the lighting was so bright it was legitimately uncomfortable to look at the board. Fortunately, not long after I got the keyboard Kinesis issued a firmware update that flattened the brightness curve a bit.

I’ll talk more about the keyboard’s logical functions in a bit, but let’s pause a moment to take a good gander at the Freestyle Edge’s physical functions and layout. Once again, keep in mind that this keyboard has been heavily abused for the last two months as you peruse the photos.

 

It’s two things

 

When I took the Freestyle Edge’s box in my hands, I was really surprised at how small it was. After all, in the pictures it had these huge wrist-rests on it. Those rests were included in the box, and it’s a snap to attach and detach them. That is, they literally snap on. If this were something users were likely to do often I might have concerns about the durability of this process, but most likely you’ll either attach the wrist-rests and leave them attached forever or leave them off entirely, depending on your typing style.

Wrist-rests attached, the Freestyle Edge is actually one of the deeper keyboards that I’ve used. That depth doesn’t cause any usability problems—the keys are normally sized and spaced—but it could be an issue if you’re really strapped for space on your desk. Fortunately, the split in the middle of the keyboard lets you position the halves however you like. Thanks to that flexibility, you could probably fit them in places where a regular keyboard wouldn’t. Most folks will probably just angle the halves slightly outward, but hey, it’s your keyboard. Have it your way.

One of the criticisms I could make about the Freestyle Edge is that it has no tilt or lift adjustments out of the box, not even dinky little snap-out feet. To get a three-dimensional ergonomic experience, you’ll have to spring for the $25 lift kit. Kinesis sent me a set to try, and I have to admit that I am really glad for these feet. I’m not someone who normally uses tilt or lift adjustments on keyboards, so I wasn’t going to order one. What a mistake that would have been.


Source: Kinesis

The lift kits are a pair of multi-part stands that attach to the bottom of the keyboard halves near the center split. Once attached, you can flip around the free-swinging stands to adjust the keyboard’s angle. Resting the keyboard on the stands in their default position provides a five-degree adjustment. If you want more height, you can snap the stands down in a “tent” to provide a ten-degree lift. If you still need more height, you can swing the snapped-together stands toward the inside edge of the keyboard and rest the halves on their longer feet to get the full 15-degree angle. After they’re all set up, the stands are completely stable thanks to their rubber feet, and you would never know that they’re not an integral part of the keyboard.

Without the lift kit, I simply used the board with its halves spread slightly and angled out to straighten my wrists. At that point, I was already impressed with the Freestyle Edge. My wrists felt looser and more relaxed, and even after gaming for hours I didn’t have that familiar tightness in my left hand. Adding the lift kit just made things even better. It’s difficult to describe the feeling if you’ve never used an ergonomic keyboard that declines toward the edges, and I certainly haven’t done so long enough to make any appraisals of its long-term benefits. I can say that it just “feels” more natural, though.

That said, let me remark that I use the lift kit in its lowest, five-degree inclination. The image above demonstrates the full 15 degree incline that the kit can provide, and while it is quite stable in this setup, it doesn’t work for my typing style. I’m sure this angle is very good for your wrists, but while trying to type this way I found that it was quite taxing on my forearms because you can’t set your wrists on the palm-rests or they’ll slide right off. Folks who don’t rest their wrists on the keyboard while typing might be better able to enjoy this degree of lift.

The picture above is representative of how I typically use the Freestyle Edge. The split in the middle is useful as heck. Not only does it let you move the halves of the keyboard apart for improved comfort, but you can also set things in the middle. I often go back and forth between a controller and keyboard-and-mouse setup for the myriad games that I play, and sometimes even within a single game (like for piloting in GTA V). Having the ability to set the controller down directly between the halves of my keyboard is a huge benefit for someone like me.

It’s also convenient for things like my smartphone, paper maps, documents that I’m re-typing, bowls of cereal, or really anything else you’d set on your desk in front of you. The cable linking the two halves can extend up to 20 inches, so even the most extreme splits should have plenty of slack. Honestly, I’ve been surprised just how much the split has become my favorite feature of the Freestyle Edge. This is true despite the fact that the split can actually be inconvenient as a gamer. Having a split keyboard like this makes it impossible to reach over to the right half with my left hand. I have to either remove my hand from my movement keys entirely, or lift my right hand from the mouse.

The split is eminently useful for typists, though. You can angle the halves of the keyboard toward your elbows to keep your wrist at a more natural angle. That said, the split has introduced a new kind of typo where I find the homing bumps on F and J and then completely screw up what I was typing because the keyboard is at an off angle. I also have some issues finding function and editing block keys without looking down at the keyboard. These are just sort of par for the course for this kind of keyboard, but they bear mentioning.

Kinesis talks up the ability to simply set aside the right half of the keyboard to make more mousing room, and that’s probably useful for folks who are really into games like Call of Duty or CS:GO that don’t require the right half of the keyboard. Even in those games you’ll probably want to chat with your teammates, though. However, if you don’t need to use text chat in your game you can certainly use the Freestyle Edge more or less like a Nostromo Speedpad or Razer Orbweaver.

Helpful for that use-case is the placement of the “fun cluster.” On the far left half of the keyboard, you get eight dedicated macro keys, as well as the keyboard’s Fn key and a clicker for toggling the backlight on and off. It’s here where we get into one of my many niggles with the layout of this keyboard. You see, above the fun block there’s a double-width Escape key. At first, I found this convenient since I often have to mash Esc to exit multi-layered game menus or skip cutscenes.

On most keyboards, though, Esc is directly above the backquote-and-tilde key. It’s easy enough to get used to the new placement of Esc on the Freestyle Edge, but its position still means that the whole standard function row is moved over one step. This shift is still screwing me up even as I write this article. It’s a major frustration for someone who uses the F-keys a lot, but for someone who doesn’t it may not be a problem. I’m slowly getting used to it, but I’m not there yet.

The Fn key on this keyboard is a toggle, so it works as a “lock” rather than as a shift. There’s even a light for it over on the opposite half of the board. Thanks to its toggled nature, the media controls on F1-F6 are very easy to use. At first, I was frustrated with the distance between Fn and the media functions, but once I realized you don’t have to hold the Fn key to use those keys, my concern was assuaged. The Fn key is actually more powerful than just that, though. It can shift the whole layout of the keyboard with the right configuration. I’ll talk more about that programmability in a moment.

Over on the right half of the keyboard we have a fairly standard layout, disregarding the compressed editing block along the right edge. There are four extra buttons on the top for accessing the keyboard’s programmable functions, and four “lock” lights in the top right. Usually I would nitpick this keyboard for having both right Alt and Ctrl keys rather than swapping one of those for a context menu key. Given the keyboard’s split nature, though, it would be virtually impossible to one-hand Alt or Ctrl shortcuts using the alphanumerics on the right side without the second set of modifier keys.

I will complain about the way Kinesis laid out the editing block, though. Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down are along the right side of the keyboard, which is neither here nor there. Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break ended up on the top row along with the F-keys where they belong. However, the Delete key is up there with them. I don’t know about you, gerbils, but I make a lot of typos, and I use the delete key more than anything else in the editing block. Some old Microsoft ergonomic keyboards actually came with a double-height Delete key just for that very reason. I have pressed Home when going for Delete far too many times on this keyboard. 

Fortunately, most of these gripes about the Freestyle Edge’s layout can be resolved using the SmartSet feature. Head on over to the next page where we’ll look at the Freestyle Edge’s programmability functions.

 

Game on
There are a fair few things that go into making a “gaming” keyboard these days, like the choice of keyswitch, the layout, and even the industrial design. Even so, the feature that I think really defines a keyboard as gaming-friendly is its programmability. When I ordered this keyboard, I was not really expecting it to be the most hard-core programmable keyboard I had ever used. It is, though. This is the keyboard for gamers who came up on DOS games, or who also happen to be UNIX nerds. Let me explain why.

As you can see in the picture above, along the top of the right half of the keyboard you have Layout, Macro, Remap, and SmartSet buttons. (The icon on that one button is the SmartSet logo.) Just below that on F8 through F12 you have v-Drive, Speed, NKRO, Game, and Reset functions. Those functions aren’t on the Fn layer; you activate them by holding the SmartSet button. Over on the left side the F7 key has a status function that also requires the SmartSet key rather than Fn to operate.

If you desire, you can program the Freestyle Edge using only these keys. The Macro key allows you to program macros, the Remap key allows you to move keys around, and the Speed key allows you to adjust the macro playback speed. You can toggle Game mode—which is just a toggle that enables or disables the Windows key—and you can enable or disable n-key roll-over mode. All of this can be done without any software on the host machine.

Impressively, you can even get a status readout from the keyboard without any software. Open up a text editor (or any window with a text entry box), hold the SmartSet button, and tap F7. The keyboard will spew out a listing of its current status, like so:

Model> FS Edge
Firmware> 1.0.64.us (4MB), 10/13/2017
Layout> layout1.txt
Remaps> 18
Macros> 3
Macro Speed 0-9> 5
Game Mode> Off
NKRO Mode> Off
Status Report Speed 0-4> 3
LED 0-9, B, P> B

Eagle-eyed gerbils may have noticed the “layout1.txt” filename in the readout above. Indeed, if you’re not up to the task of painstakingly programming the Freestyle Edge using the remap and macro keys, you can instead edit the layout files by hand. Hold the SmartSet key and tap F8 to open the “v-drive.” This function allows the host computer to see and access the 4 MB of memory inside the Freestyle Edge as if it were a USB flash drive. Inside the v-drive there are firmware, help, layouts, and settings folders, as well as the SmartSet executable.

Digging through the folders has predictable results: the firmware folder is where you place firmware updates (before installing them using Shift+U+SmartSet), the help folder holds a user manual, the layouts folder has the layout files, and the settings folder has plaintext setting files for the keyboard and the SmartSet app. There are nine available layout files, each of which supports the default and “shifted” (or “Fn”) layout, for a total of 18 full-coverage key bindings.

So yes, if you choose, you can load up your favorite text editor and create strings like “{hk2}>{x3}{ent}{d125}{lft}{d125}{ent}{d500}” to define macros and key bindings. As arcane as it might seem, I actually adore this feature of the Freestyle Edge. Not only does it offer an option to make macros for folks who don’t use Windows—something you simply won’t find with almost any other gaming keyboard—but it’s also just faster for someone well-acquainted with the syntax. Once you’ve made your layout changes, close the v-drive with SmartSet+F8 and the keyboard will re-load the layout file.

There has to be a better way
If I’m completely honest, I did not attempt to program the keyboard using the Macro key, nor did I use these keys to toggle the keyboard’s functions. I also spent very little time editing my layout files by hand. Instead, I used the SmartSet app. Behold:

I have a lot to say about SmartSet, and there’s really nothing else to screenshot on it, so settle in for a wall o’text. Kinesis’ configuration app is full-featured, and the interface is dense with functions. The entire app is what you see here—there are no secondary windows or other pages. As a result of those decisions, the app starts out being a little unintuitive to use. To set a key’s function, you click on it and then begin typing in the bottom macro area. This is how you remap keys even if you aren’t creating a macro.

If you are creating a macro, you can define the macro playback speed and how many times it repeats using the sliders to the right of the macro input window. The playback speed isn’t an absolute value, though—it’s based on the global macro speed, which you define separately using a dedicated slider off to the right. If you want to insert modifier keys, you’ll have to do that with the GUI buttons below the macro input window. If you want to copy and paste parts of a macro, you’ll have to use the clickables for that purpose because there’s no way to stop recording inputs for your macro while you’re working on it.

If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it can be. Once you understand how SmartSet works, it’s not hard to use. It’s pretty different from other companies’ configuration apps, though, so my wide experience using gaming input device configuration utilities is actually a detriment here. The key reason SmartSet is so different from other companies’ tools is that the entire application is barely a megabyte. It has to be that small, because it has to fit on the v-drive.

That was actually another unintuitive fact about SmartSet and the Freestyle Edge that I felt was poorly explained. You see, I didn’t even bother trying to run the version of SmartSet that was included on the keyboard. As I always do with new hardware, I went right to the manufacturer’s site to grab the latest version. Indeed, there was an update; downloading it and attempting to run it only gave me an uninformative black window with no options besides closing it.

That error has fortunately been replaced with the window above. It wasn’t until I dug into the documentation for the keyboard that I realized that you are required to run the SmartSet app from the root directory of the keyboard’s built-in memory. Once I deleted the 1.0 version that came on the keyboard and replaced it with the downloaded update, everything was peachy-keen.

Another thing worth mentioning is that copying over the 1-MB SmartSet executable takes around 45 seconds. In fact, everything you do with the v-drive will take quite a bit longer than you might expect. The SmartSet app itself takes around 20 seconds to launch. I’m not sure exactly why, but the transfer rate between my PC and the V-Drive is painfully slow, and I think that’s the cause of the sluggishness. Fortunately, the extra time cost is very small in absolute terms, but it’s one more thing to be aware of.

At this point I’ve become fairly accustomed to SmartSet, but I have to admit that it certainly isn’t for everyone. It reminds me a bit of using Linux on the desktop, in the sense that it’s trim and functional, but unfamiliar and sometimes a bit unintuitive. I don’t like the way you have to set macro playback speed as a multiplier of another imprecise factor. I also don’t like the lack of a “record” button for the macro editor, like other companies’ GUIs have, nor the way that you can’t record precise delays for macros. I do like that you can define mouse buttons and many obscure function keys in SmartSet, though.

 

Conclusions
Put simply, Kinesis’ Freestyle Edge is one of the best keyboards I’ve ever used. It’s certainly it’s the best keyboard I’ve ever owned. Cherry’s MX switches have become wildly popular because keyboards that implement them well, like the Freestyle Edge, are a joy to type on. While I haven’t really been using the Freestyle Edge long enough to say that it will help with my sore wrists and aching fingers in the long term, I can attest that it is eminently comfortable to use for typing and for gaming right now.

I will say that while everyone loves the classic Cherry MX switches for typing, I actually find that they’re a bit long-throw to be truly optimal for gaming. I asked Kinesis if the company had considered using the short-throw Cherry MX Speed switches for this keyboard. I was told that as long as demand remains strong, the company actually anticipates releasing a model of this very keyboard with Cherry’s MX Speed Silver switches.

Going by my chats with Kinesis, demand for the Freestyle Edge has in fact far outstripped the company’s ability to produce them. The company tells me that it had so many pre-orders at PAX and TwitchCon that it expects the Freestyle Edge to go on backorder shortly after today’s launch. The next batch of Freestyle Edge keyboards will hit in January, so if you want one and can’t justify the funds here right before Christmas, you can probably pick one up after.

Justifying the funds might be a concern, too, because the Freestyle Edge will run you $219. There’s just no getting around it: this is an expensive board. There are a lot of reasons for that price, not least of which is that this board isn’t far from a bespoke design. The Freestyle Edge has exceptionally high build quality and feels really solid in your hands. Key clatter, wobble, and vibration are all non-existent. As I talked about, the Freestyle Edge is ridiculously programmable, too. Also, Kinesis is serving a market that basically didn’t exist until this keyboard came about.

Whether all of those factors justify the price tag will be a decision you have to make for yourself. I was lucky enough to get in on the Kickstarter early bird pricing and picked mine up for a hair over $125. At that price, this keyboard is so good I would be shouting from the rooftops about it and insisting that everybody buy one. At $219, my enthusiasm is a but more muted. That’s a lot of money for a keyboard, even one as nice as this one. Considering the pricing, I’m going to hand the Kinesis Freestyle Edge a TR Recommended award.

Kinesis Gaming is a burgeoning new brand, and the company tells me it has a number of new products on the way. Besides second-generation Freestyle Edge keyboards, Kinesis is also developing a massive 31″ x 16″ (80 x 40cm) mousepad as well as two gaming mice. Given the quality of the Freestyle Edge, I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next from the ergonomics specialists.

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