Microsoft spends a lot of time thinking about how people use PCs, from the organisation of an operating system to the design of a tablet. There's a lot of attention to detail that goes into a Microsoft product, but one category that many overlook is the keyboard. Microsoft's newest PC peripheral package, the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop, shows an impressive level of attention to detail, not to mention an awareness of design and style, and dedication to functionality.
Ergonomic desk set
The Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop is the latest entry in Microsoft's line of ergonomic PC peripherals. It’s a three-piece desktop set, consisting of a keyboard, numeric keypad, and an ergonomic mouse. In addition to upgrading the ergonomics of your workspace, the Sculpt trio also looks great, with a sleek new look and clutter-free wireless design.
All three devices connect to your Windows or Mac PC via 2.4GHz wireless signal through a shared USB receiver. That shared receiver also means that, unlike a wired keyboard and mouse, you'll only be using one USB port on your PC for all three devices. The mouse and main keyboard are each powered by two AA and AAA batteries respectively, and the separate keypad uses a CR2430 button battery. All three come with new batteries already installed; you just need to pull out the little plastic strips that keep them from connecting.
The Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop is also made with Windows 8 in mind, with built-in features that take advantage of shortcuts and commands to provide a faster, more intuitive Windows experience. All three devices are plug-n-play (compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux PCs, but many features are Windows only), but for more fine-tuned control, you can download Mouse and Keyboard Centre 2.2 for Windows 8 (Windows only). Microsoft covers the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop with a three year warranty.
Keyboard and keypad
Designed from the ground up for use with Windows 8, the keyboard and mouse both sport a few distinctive features that streamline Windows 8 use. The keyboard features built-in media controls and several hotkeys that pull up specific functions on the Windows Charm bar, while the mouse features a bright blue Windows thumb button, letting you jump back to the start screen without having to look down at the keyboard.
It's also worth noting the peculiarities of the buttons on the top row of the keyboard (Escape through F1 to F12). The keys themselves are half the size of the regular chiclet keys, and rounded to provide a visual and tactile distinction from the rest of the keyboard. Instead of a "Fn" button allowing you quick access to extra functions, the keyboard uses a slider switch which switches the keys from standard F1-F12 functionality to media and Charms functionality.
The "manta ray" design combines the curves of the Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Keyboard with a divided layout similar to the Smartfish Engage Keyboard, but without the automatic angle adjustment. To compensate a bit for the adjustment to the two-halves design, the keys alongside the split are slightly larger, helping you to touch-type just as quickly without having to fumble into the gap in the middle.
The two halves of the keyboard are angled into a slightly domed shape, putting the wrists and forearms into a very natural position. Along the bottom edge of the keyboard is a padded wrist rest that follows the same contours and provides a comfortable support. The keyboard can also be raised and the angle adjusted thanks to a plastic riser that magnetically latches to the bottom of the keyboard, raising the palmrest up and changing the pitch for an alternative position.
Along with the distinctive ergonomic keyboard is a wireless numeric keypad, providing ten-key functionality in a self-contained device. It's similar to the two-part design seen on the Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000, and the detached keypad offers some ergonomic benefit itself.
You can either position the numeric pad immediately next to the keyboard, as it would be on the traditional office keyboard, or it can be positioned anywhere else within the range of the wireless USB, letting you angle it, stack it on a pile of papers, pick it up and use it like a calculator, or enter numbers one-handed like it's a TV remote. The fact that it's separate and wireless makes it extremely flexible, which in turn makes it far more ergonomically sound than the flat design might suggest.
Both keyboard and keypad use chiclet keys with scissor switches, much the same as you'll find on the average laptop. The keys are extremely quiet, so there's none of the clickity-clack noise you would get with a mechanical keyboard. The one complaint I have is that the key lettering is pad printed, meaning that the individual letters are like stickers affixed to the surface of the keycap. Compared with laser etched keys, the lettering will wear off much sooner, but this isn’t uncommon with consumer keyboards.
The mouse, which is also sold alone as the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse, has a very geometric-looking design, with an overall spherical shape and an indentation serving as a thumb rest. The raised rounded shape provides plenty of support, sitting taller than most, ostensibly preventing drag between your forearm or hand and the surface of your desk. It also puts the wrist in a more neutral position, almost like the Evoluent VerticalMouse 4, but without the vertical orientation. With the scooped thumb cradle, Microsoft’s effort is also like the Hippus HandShoe Mouse (with LightClick), providing similar support for the entire hand.
The mouse sports the usual right and left buttons, along with a clickable scroll wheel, and two thumb buttons. Unlike most mice, these thumb buttons aren't dedicated to forward and back for browser navigation. Instead, they are a back button and Windows button, which will be a real boon to anyone using Windows 8 or 8.1. The back button also has the option of being reprogrammed with you choice of commands, such as the Alt or Tab buttons, or macros for copy, paste, undo, and others. The mouse features an optical sensor with 1000 dpi tracking, and will work on most surfaces, with the exception of reflective surfaces like glass.
Using the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop at my own desk for a week really highlighted what does and doesn't quite work with this shapely desk set. The wave design of the keyboard does reduce wrist discomfort, but it comes with a trade off in that you need to relearn your keyboard layout. The split design may require some relearning if you commonly use your right hand on the left-hand side of the keyboard or vice versa, and touch typists may be thrown by the odd size of keys along the right/left divide. That said, once you've grown accustomed to the new shape and layout, the benefits are clear. The neutral wrist position is much easier on the wrists, and alleviated my own carpal tunnel discomfort while using the keyboard.
The separate numeric keypad is great, with the wireless design letting you position it with ease. The mouse is also beneficial, but the spherical design felt a bit weird, even when compared to other ergonomic mice. The regular mouse functions all worked exactly as they should, and the thumb accessible Windows button is a feature I'd love to see added to other mice.
The Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop combines an excellent ergonomic design with Windows 8 features that will power-up your regular PC use in addition to making it more comfortable. Throw in the simplicity of wireless and a distinctive stylish design, and this is one of the best ergonomic peripheral packages we’ve ever used. The keyboard, however, may take some acclimatisation.