Katherine Boehret

Beyond the Standard-Issue Keyboard

Many computer users assume that the keyboard and mouse they receive with a new computer or built into a laptop are optimal for typing and quick access to digital media. But plenty of alternative keyboards and mice provide ergonomic comfort and/or shortcuts built into special keys or buttons. Though these options cost extra, chances are good that they’re worth the money.

This week, I tested three such replacement options: two keyboard sets that operate wirelessly using Bluetooth — the replacement for wires running short distances — and a stand-alone wired ergonomic keyboard made for touch typists who value comfort during long hours in front of a computer screen.

Top left: $150 Logitech Cordless Desktop MX 5000 Laser. Top right: $65 Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. $150 Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 7000.

The two wireless sets I used are Microsoft Corp.’s Wireless Entertainment Desktop 7000, which came out just a few months ago, and Logitech Inc.’s comparable but older Cordless Desktop MX 5000 Laser, which has been available for about a year and a half. Each costs $150. These keyboards have built-in shortcuts that make them handy to use on or off the desk when browsing through digital media like photos, videos and music.

I also tried Microsoft’s wired $65 Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. It incorporates some shortcut buttons of its own, but stands out more because of its appearance: its keys are split into two groupings for right and left hands and each side slants upward in the center around an arch, forcing your hands to rest more naturally as if positioned to shake. The keyboard comes with a detachable wrist rest that raises your wrists a third of an inch above the rest of the keyboard.

Each product brought something slightly different to the table: The ergo offers comfort and functionality; the wireless Logitech has a multifunctional mouse and a keyboard with a built-in LCD; the wireless Microsoft shows off a sleek look and 17 touch-sensitive buttons. As a touch typist, I preferred Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 for its hand-relaxing setup and 13 shortcut buttons. I’m using it now to type this column, and my fingers have less distance to go before reaching a key than on a regular keyboard.

The basic functions of these keyboards/keyboard sets work out of the box on Mac and Windows operating systems, but their extra features work only after installing included or downloaded software, and neither the wireless Microsoft set nor the Logitech set will work on a Mac, period. Both companies claim that these products will work with Windows Vista, Microsoft’s newest operating system, but the ergonomic keyboard’s extra bells and whistles didn’t work properly on my Vista laptop.

I easily got the wireless Logitech and Microsoft keyboard sets communicating with their corresponding Bluetooth receivers on PCs and laptops. I pressed a Connect button on the base of each set’s mouse and keyboard before pressing the same button on the USB Bluetooth receiver and a few seconds later, I was in business.

The Microsoft and Logitech wireless desktops use USB plug-in Bluetooth receivers to connect the computer with the mouse and keyboard. Both mice operated on rechargeable batteries and must be docked occasionally for recharging, which is annoying — especially if you’re forgetful. But each will fully recharge in two hours, giving two and three weeks for the Logitech and Microsoft mice, respectively. Both mice get enough juice for a full day of usage after charging for 10 minutes.

Both keyboards use regular keys and a series of touch-sensitive buttons that work when you hover your finger over the intended button and touch it very slightly. Logitech’s touch-sensitive media buttons are relegated to the far left of its keyboard, including zoom and volume buttons that adjust with a finger flick up or down. Microsoft’s touch-sensitive keys line the entire top edge of its keypad.

Logitech’s wireless keyboard is about two inches wider than Microsoft’s, and for good reason: the Microsoft keyboard lacks a numeric keypad on its far right side, a feature that I missed. In place of the keypad are a set of directional buttons that mimic the basic functionality of a mouse. These let you push back from your desktop to browse digital photos while leaving your mouse on the desk yet still taking advantage of some of its functions.

The Logitech Cordless Desktop MX 5000 Laser keyboard uses a built-in LCD at the center top of its keyboard. This screen reflected the keyboard’s synching with my computer: it displayed my name, the date and the time. When I played music, the artist and song title scrolled across the screen. This could come in handy if you planned to constantly use the keyboard away from the PC. But in most cases, the content on the LCD wasn’t that helpful, and seemed repetitive of what was on the computer screen.

The Logitech mouse is sculpted to fit a hand and it offered more buttons for scrolling and navigation than the Microsoft set’s mouse. To recharge, this mouse fits upright in a stand. Microsoft’s wireless mouse recharges by lying flat on a recharging strip.

I used Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 with my desktop computers at work and in place of a small laptop’s squished keyboard. Its arched center and split keys took a little getting used to, but I was soon hooked. A special feature in the center of the keyboard called the Zoom Slider lets you zoom in or out to adjust the view of a screen. This worked for me in Microsoft Word documents, but not in Outlook Express or within Firefox’s browser.

Five large, numbered buttons at the center top of this ergo keyboard are called My Favorites, and I programmed them with ease by pressing one and entering the desired destination, including folders, browsers, or specific Web sites.

But typing on this keyboard really won me over. Its split setup won’t work for everyone, but for touch typists, it’s truly more comfortable. I typed away with ease using my right and left fingers, and keys felt closer together due to their inward-tilting shape. I noticed that I made fewer mistakes typing on this keyboard than on a regular keyboard.

If you spend a lot of time at a computer each day, you may want to consider one of these keyboards or keyboard sets for better ergonomics and production. It takes a little while to get used to using keyboard shortcuts for things like music and photos, but these can be real time-savers. Whatever you choose, know that there are other options out there beyond what came with your computer, and that they’re usually worth the extra money.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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