Some input devices are so unconventional that they create and fill an entirely new class all their own. The AlphaGrip, also called the iGrip or just the Grip, is such a device. It combines the body of a game controller with the functions of both a trackball and a keyboard. Is it ergonomic? The manufacturer itself specifically disclaims any such idea in its literature, but still seems to suggest that there could be ergonomic benefits. Read on for my impressions.
It should be noted, first of all, that I did not try the AlphaGrip for the recommended period of time. According to AlphaGrip inventor Mike Willner (who was nice enough to personally answer my inquiry and send me a review sample) it takes about 30-60 hours of use before most people can become productive on an AlphaGrip. In terms of time consumption, that’s pretty much like learning to type all over again. This didn’t bother me; however, a mild thumb injury I’ve been nursing did. After an hour or two on the Grip, it started acting up and forced me to go back to my regular keyboard. Which is a pity, because I would really have liked to see how fast I could get on this fascinatingly weird device!
How it works
The Grip is almost a solid mass of buttons. It has to be, in order to fit the essential functions of a standard keyboard – plus a trackball – on a video game controller body. Unlike a video game controller, most of the buttons that count are on the back, to be operated by your fingers rather than your thumbs. To be exact, there are four small one-position keys, and eight large two-position “rocker” keys. The eighteen actions of these keys correspond to eighteen of the most common letters of the alphabet. The remaining common letters – C, K, L, and Y – are grouped under your left thumb – a nice touch, as these form common blends in English. The last four letters – J, V, X, and Z – are pushed away toward the top of the unit, two on each side, where your thumbs can hit them with a slight reach. Space, Enter, Backspace and Tab are nestled under the right thumb.
Most keyboards have two Shift keys – one on each side. The AlphaGrip has six. Again, this is due to the unit’s small size and large keys. Each key on the back does at least three different things, and some of the rocker keys do as many as eight, depending on which shift mode is engaged and which way you press the key.
Standard Shift, which is lettered in white and positioned on the outside top edges of the unit, does exactly what it does on a normal keyboard – it capitalizes letters and alters certain punctuation marks. In addition to this, there’s Red Shift, which engages mostly numeric keypad-related functions, and Green Shift, which is used for punctuation beyond commas and periods. (With up to 7 percent of men in America being red/green blind, I can see a potential accessibility issue here, so I was glad to hear that future versions of the device will be changing Green to Blue.)
The function keys – F1-F12 – are not marked anywhere on the AlphaGrip, but can be activated by pressing Fn Lock. F1-F10 correspond to the red numbers on the back, and the remaining two function keys are assigned to R and H.
If all this sounds confusing, rest assured that it is – at first. The Grip takes time to learn. Anybody expecting a quick fix should look elsewhere.
Learning the layout
The AlphaGrip is advertised with an “enhanced QWERTY layout.” This means that the layout vaguely resembles QWERTY, but not in a way that will be much help while you’re learning. On the plus side, the Grip layout makes QWERTY work a little more like an advanced system such as Dvorak, putting the most common keys back under your resting finger positions where they belong. For instance, it’s possible to type the word “opposition” without moving your fingers from the home positions.
On the downside, clicking the alternate state of the rocker keys is a bit tricky at first. Depending on your hand size and preference, you can either pull your finger back to hit the key with your finger joint, or (recommended) just move your whole finger.
Once learned, I can easily see how this layout would be pretty easy to type on, though most users max out around 60 WPM (the inventor himself peaks at 80). The real question, to me, is whether adjusting to the Grip layout would have the same effect as switching to Dvorak does – making it difficult or impossible to type effectively on anything else. Again, I wasn’t able to keep using it long enough to find out.
What it’s good for
The advertised benefits of the AlphaGrip are things you probably don’t even know you need – like the ability to work while walking on the treadmill. This may sound odd, but I can see where some would benefit. No more using an urgent report or email as an excuse not to exercise! They have a demo video of someone actually typing and treadmilling at the same time, if you’re curious. Very cool.
Another advertised benefit is the suitability of the Grip for typing while lying in bed, lounging on the floor, or reclining in an easy chair. These ideas sound very comfortable and appealing, but I can see some practical issues. For instance, any of these positions would put your screen considerably further away than it is normally, forcing you to set your resolution lower in order to make your text bigger and avoid eyestrain. In the recliner demo, the user is shown operating with a large TV as her monitor.
The real sticking point for me on all of these ideas is the lack of a wireless version. According to Mike, such an upgrade is planned for the future, once the Grip gains enough market traction to justify it. For now, you’re stuck with a long, long USB cable – which could put a crimp in your treadmill-walking, couch-reclining style.
What it’s not good for
I think it’s safe to say that the AlphaGrip is not going to completely replace a computer keyboard and mouse for most people. For one thing, keys other than the standard alphabet are inconvenient to access, requiring extensive use of various shift and function buttons. More importantly, while the trackball on the Grip seems responsive and well-made, it doesn’t come close to the comfort or usability level of a full-sized ball like the Kensington Orbit Scroll. It’s also completely impossible to operate either the trackball or keyboard, even minimally, with just one hand.
The AlphaGrip website advertises it as “An ergonomic keyboard and trackball,” but the disclaimer in the manual tells a different story: “AlphaGrip, Inc… does not claim that using the iGrip is more ergonomic than typing on a standard keyboard or using a game controller or joystick or that use of the iGrip is ergonomic at all” (emphasis in original). In my opinion, this boils down to one thing: AlphaGrip thinks their product is ergonomically beneficial, but doesn’t have any scientific studies to fully back such a conclusion.
In the area of ergonomics, I don’t think the AlphaGrip compares favorably to a regular ergonomic keyboard and trackball – mostly because it relies too much on the thumbs. Ironically, the Grip seems to have been designed with the idea of reducing thumb use vs. a text-messaging device such as a QWERTY cell phone. And it probably is a big improvement over pecking away on a cell phone. But then, texting with your thumbs is so bad for you that it would be tough for any alternate device not to be improvement. In any case, it’s hard to imagine the average teenager propping his phone up on the dash or a pillow and plugging in an AlphaGrip to do some texting.
Also, input devices in general are considered more “ergonomic” when they use large motions of big muscle groups like the forearms. Devices that require many tiny motions with small muscles like those of the fingers are usually frowned upon.
That said, different things work for different people. I’ve seen setups that broke every ergonomic rule, but worked well for their owners. Come to think of it, I’m sitting in front of a setup that bends a few ergonomic “rules,” but works just fine for me.
If the ability to compute comfortably while walking on the treadmill or lounging in an easy chair sounds cool to you, and you’re willing to climb a 30-hour learning curve to get it, by all means go for an AlphaGrip. If ergonomics is your thing, it’s probably better to try something more conventional first, such as the Kinesis Freestyle. But if you’ve already tried the standard options and still aren’t happy, a radical change like the Grip could be just what you need.