Keyboards can be fun, too

Those who know me know that I have something of a keyboard/mouse fascination. I’ve gotten almost every interesting new keyboard and/or mouse that the company makes.

imageTo be clear though, what I’m looking for is a better keyboard and mouse, not just a pretty one. So I avoid the purely aesthetic devices that we create, like the ones designed by Philippe Starck, and I will probably not get the new ones due this holiday.

My current keyboard of choice is the Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000 (pictured at right). It’s a light, thin, completely wireless (rechargeable) keyboard designed for use with media center. I actually have three of these – two at work, and one at home for use with my Vista Media Center setup.

As a media center keyboard, it’s near perfect. It has a complete set of media controls, including “record” and volume controls, as well as a built-in mini-touchpad, so I almost never use the mouse itself at home – and I do browse the web quite a bit on the big TV (often to go over to to watch episodes of shows I forgot to record, or otherwise missed).

Surprisingly though, it’s also a great keyboard for work. The best feature (and the reason I have two) is that it’s compact. Aside from being thin, it’s one of the few keyboards we make that doesn’t have a numeric keypad – something I never use. Overall, it takes up little space on my desk, allowing me to have a fairly small desk, with little space taken up by my monitor and the keyboard/mouse charger.

It’s thinness also means that the keys themselves are very similar to keyboards on laptops – i.e., very short travel, which is something I have come to like a lot for fast, light, quiet typing. The media keys are less useful than at home, but still come in handy, and I occasionally find myself use the mouse touchpad for quick things when I’m sitting back.

image The major travesty of this keyboard is that ridiculous blue Vista button in the middle, which is the “win” key. It is different from the other keys on the keyboard in that it requires a pretty solid “click” to depress, which makes it difficult hit the various “Win”-key shortcuts.

Less serious, but a pet peeve: I wish manufacturers would come to agreement about the position of the “Fn” key, relative to the Ctrl and Win keys. On Lenovo keyboards, it’s “Fn-Ctrl-Win-Alt”, and on this keyboard, it’s “Ctrl-Fn-Alt”. The difference between the two makes me hit “Fn-C” to copy more often than I’d like – on both keyboards, since my fingers get used to one when I’m at home, and the other when I’m at work. Yay.

Over time, I have come to look for a series of specific things in a keyboard:

imageFirst, ergonomic is a must. I started with the full-split “Natural” keyboards, such as Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000 (nice soft palm rest on this one). With the development of the “Comfort Curve” layout (starting with the Wireless Laser Desktop 4000 and the related 6000), I came to prefer the less drastic split – more compact, and seems to just as comfortable.

The latter two keyboards above represent another thing I look for – the design of the delete, page up/down and arrow keys. The keyboard on the left (the Desktop 6000) has the 30 year old “standard” layout, which people may be used to, but which is completely silly, since it gives legitimate space to the “Ins” key, which is used by almost no one (except to accidentally change the Insert mode in Word and wonder why it’s in overwrite mode). The design on the right, which is also more compact (a theme with me) rearranges those keys. The delete key is large and easy to hit, the page up/down keys are aligned vertically next to it, and the Home/End keys are aligned horizontally above it, which is a design that actually reflects how people use keyboards.

Of the many keyboards I’ve had, most have plenty of extra keys. In practice, I use almost none of them. The main ones I use are media keys: play/stop, next track, and volume controls (in particular, mute), so I look for keyboards with those. I never use programmable keys, though I have occasionally tried to program one to be an “lock” key, but it works so inconsistently, that I just got used to Win+L, which always works. The most useless keys tend to be connected to some particular app: the “Windows Live Call” key, the Gadget key (Win-Space works much better and consistently), the Magnifier button, the Messenger buttons. I also never use the browser buttons, since I prefer the back/forward buttons on the mouse (or I press “backspace” on the keyboard). Part of the problem with specialized buttons is that because I move from laptop to desktop, my fingers can’t get used to a consistent location.

I don’t care if they are bluetooth or not, as long as they are wireless. Rechargeable is also something I don’t care about (battery life on these things tends to be great).

image On the mouse front, Microsoft has made had a great wireless mouse design for a several years, so I have a few variations of that mouse, in different colors and textures. I’m not particularly picky with mice (in fact the reason I have a few of them is that they tend to come with the keyboards) – they need to be wireless, have good weight, and have a scroll wheel, and back/forward buttons. Most of the mice Microsoft has made in the past few years meet those needs well. My current mouse is the one that came with the Desktop 8000 (pictured above).

I also have one of the nice new portable mice, Yes, that’s right, "Dragon Fruit”, beaatch.

A few years ago, I would pick up a new keyboard with every launch, looking for that something better. Most of the time they would improve something and make something else worse. But, in both the mouse and keyboard space, I’ve become pickier over time as I seen what works and what doesn’t, and I’m pretty happy with what I have now. So I don’t expect to pick up whatever the team produces for this fall, unless they produce a new variation on the WED 8000 with a less-stupid Windows key.