Monday, October 03, 2005

Digital Retardation: Microsoft's Elite Keyboard and Mouse

After spending a lot of time doing layout for the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, my hands started bothering me. I started feeling my left pinky and my ring finger going numb (no it's not a stroke). So, I decided to venture into the realm of natural keyboards.

I. The Search

I was reluctant to buy a natural keyboard because the spacing of the keys seemed so awkward at first. But I started using one at the office and I really took a liking to it. The problem, however, was twofold. First, most ergonomic keyboards are barbones, lacking the function keys and the extras most other high-end keyboards have. This makes it very difficult for me because I have so many programs and shortcuts programmed into my keyboard.

There are plenty of specialized keyboards available. Take for example some of the specialty keyboards from DataHand, Safetype and Kinesis pictured below.

The problem with these keyboards is that they cost A LOT. Specialty keyboards usually run from $100 to $500. So, I decided to venture into the mass-market for computer peripheral. This market is dominated by Logitech and Microsoft.

Usually I prefer Logitech for keyboards and Microsoft for mice. I currently use the Logitech MX Duo, which has served me well for at least two years. It's got great layout and the driver software is far better than the competition. I will say, however, that Logitech's mouse is atrocious. It does not fit into your hand very well and the buttons are miniscule. So in addition to the Logitech combo, I also have Microsoft's Wireless Intellimouse Explorer, which is fantastic.

Unfortunately Logitech does not have a good ergonomic keyboard selection. So I opted for Microsoft's Elite Keyboard and Mouse duo. The duo costs $99.99.

I had high hopes, but as soon as I got home to install them, I ran into a few major problems.

II. Held Hostage

If you'll remember, I did a review of Microsoft's Wireless Intellimouse Explorer a few months back. That mouse is (and still is) the best I've ever used. As you can imagine, I had high hopes for my newly purchased product.

The first error message I received was that Microsoft's installer warned me that it could not install any software until Logitech's software was completely uninstalled. Typical Microsoft, trying to rid itself of competition.

III. Regression (Part 1)

Setting up this keyboard/mouse combo requires installation of two separate pieces of software: (1) Microsoft IntelliType 5.20 and (2) Microsoft IntelliPoint 5.20. I kid you not: it took me 55 minutes just to install the software, which required a number of restarts.

I finally started configuring the software. Holy crap! The so-called "media" keys on the keyboard (you know, the ones with Play, Stop, Rewind, Forward) only work with Windows Media Player. I use Winamp, so why should Microsoft determine my habits? So every media button on the top of the keyboard is useless now. I don't quite know if I am surprised.

Many of the other buttons on the keyboard are similarly hardwired. I cannot re-program certain buttons to open up applications that I want. I cannot tell you how infuriating it is to spend 100 dollars on something only to have some asshole programmer tell me how I can or cannot use my own keyboard.

Compare Microsoft's dim-witted IntelliType to Logitech's software, called iTouch. iTouch lets you control any media player you want. It lets you reprogram any and every button on the keyboard. You can open up any program, webpage, or program a custom keystroke.

IV. Regression (Part 2)

Now let's talk about Microsoft's mouse software, which is called IntelliPoint. I thought at least this part would work very well since my previous mouse also ran on IntelliPoint.

The IntelliPoint installer first made me uninstall the version of IntelliPoint I previously had installed (which is version 4.11) and replace it with version 5.20 instead. But version 5.20 inexplicably removes at least five of the most useful and efficient commands that were previously available! I can no longer map a custom keystroke to a button of my choosing. I can no longer open any program of my choosing. I can no longer open Windows Explorer from my mouse. I am dumbfounded.

So I thought, "Hey! Why don't I just install the older version of IntelliPoint and use that one instead?" Well, you can't; Microsoft has made their new products incompatible with older versions of IntelliPoint. So I'm stuck using a mouse that has five buttons, none of which I can program in a way that I want.

V. Design

I should say a word about the actual design and feel of Microsoft's keyboard and mouse. The keys, design, and layout are fine; nothing too special but they get the job done.

The problem, however, is that you can't remove the hard plastic wrist wrest along the bottom of the keyboard. You are stuck slamming your wrists against curved plastic the entire day, instead of using something like a gel wrest. What irony, a keyboard meant to be ergonomic and comfortble actually makes it even harder on my hands than a regular keyboard.

The mouse is remarkably similar to the mouse I already owned. The only difference is that it has a "tilt" feature on the scroll wheel, which lets you scroll left and right in addition to the standard up and down. This is mildly useful in theory, but not very well designed on the ground. Your finger is not very well positioned to get enough leverage to control movement comfortably. The other problem is that the scroll whell itself has a weird flow to it. It does not move with ease.

VI. Conclusion

I give Microsoft's keyboard an F- just because their programmers got greedy and forced me to choose between (1) using Windows Media Player or (2) losing all functionality of my keyboard's media buttons. Downright unforgiveable behavior.

I also give Microsoft an F- for REMOVING features that made its earlier products such best buys. It astonishes me that someone at Microsoft thought, "Hey, these customers are enjoying these features too much. We should scale back. I mean, being able to choose your own button assignments, that's surely a sign of the devil! Summon Mr. Gates."

If it looks like a turd and smells like a turd, its probably this product. The Elite Keyboard is completely useless. I returned it this afternoon.


Anonymous said...

I have the MS Elite Wireless desktop.. and I was pissed off at the WMP defaulted keys. You can disable those keys via the keyboard config, then use a Winamp plug in RM-X Media Edition to reprogram those keys outside of the MS config.

A.H. Rajani said...

Son of a . . . if only I knew that beforehand.

Nevertheless, it was still a mediocre package; I probably would have returned it anyway, but thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi, just in case you are fed up with Intellipoint check out, an alternative solution based on XML configuration.

MouseHook team