Tinkling these keys isn't worth $260

The Baltimore Sun

Having spent 40-plus years as a touch typist - and at least 15 years on computers running Windows or Mac software - I pay more attention than most to keyboards and mice.

Like all important tools, they can increase your productivity, but they can also be dangerous - through faulty design, carelessness by the user or both. Extensive keyboard and mouse use can hasten the onset of repetitive stress injury, so like others who work with tools for a living, I try to be careful. And I'm not averse to spending money for good equipment.

Even so, I was astonished when a hefty package arrived bearing the Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000. Inside were a keyboard and mouse. I was even more intrigued when I looked up the price: $299.95 list; a mere $260 or so on the street.

Reality check - $260 for a keyboard and mouse? That's almost four times as much as I spent for the wireless combo I use with the computer that's hooked up to our HDTV set. What could you possibly get for that much money?

As it turns out, you get the same thing you get when you buy a Mercedes instead of a Camry: more luxury and styling and gimmicks. There's a somewhat bigger payoff for couch potatoes, but is it enough to justify almost $300?

First things first. Microsoft has a long history as a mouse maker. Although Apple put the first mice on mass-market computers, until recently it stuck with the founders' original notion that users were too inept to deal with more than a single button.

Microsoft, to its credit, experimented over the years. It produced mice that had two, three or even five buttons, and a scroll wheel to boot - in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit a physically diverse clientele. Hundreds of millions of people have learned to use those extra features.

Less conspicuously, Microsoft has produced a variety of innovative keyboards, some ergonomically designed, others with dozens of programmable keys to run programs, help browse the Web and perform other chores.

In this context, Microsoft's Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000 is a three-piece affair that wraps the company's best available technology - and some silly stuff - into one elegant package.

For connectivity, the mouse and keyboard use Bluetooth wireless technology. Bluetooth was originally developed to eliminate the cables that connect computers to printers and other gadgets. But consumers ignored it until the technology found its real niche: hands-free headsets for cell phones.

Still, Bluetooth works well in this context, giving keyboard and mouse considerably more range than I've seen in other wireless devices.

Another feature that makes this package unique is a flat platform battery charger for the keyboard and mouse that nestles into the top edge of the keyboard. On the other end, it plugs into a wall outlet (for power) and into USB port on your computer. Underneath the charging platform is the Bluetooth transceiver, which can be removed and plugged into the USB port of a laptop if you want to use your wireless mouse elsewhere.

The charger also serves as a USB hub, with three additional ports for cameras, printers, MP3 players, scanners or other gadgets. All things considered, this is an clever piece of engineering that seems to do its jobs well.

The keyboard is by far the most interesting component of the package, and the most frustrating. To help understand the former, sit up straight in a chair and hold your forearms out in typing position. Notice that your fingers naturally point slightly inward. But when you sit down at a regular, straight keyboard you have to rotate your wrists outward to hit the keys properly.

That's strain your body doesn't need. So for years, Microsoft has made a series of "natural" keyboards that split the keys into two groups and angle them outward.

As a touch typist who expects standard key spacing, these "natural" keyboards are better in theory than practice. But the Wireless Entertainment Keyboard 8000 is less extreme than some of its predecessors, with the keys arranged in a gentle, elegant silver crescent that makes other keyboards look positively clunky.

Unfortunately, to make the shape wrist-friendly, the keys in the middle are larger than the keys on the outside, an arrangement I'm still having trouble getting used to after more than a week.

Compounding these problems, the function keys have shrunk to tiny, pressure-sensitive ridges, while the Delete, PageUp, Page Down, Home and End Keys are in odd locations. But five of the function keys can be programmed to launch your favorite programs, assuming you find them.

That said, the keyboard works much better in your lap than on the desktop - not surprising since it's designed more for play than work. First, it lights up in the dark, which helps in darkened rooms. In fact, to save battery life, it keeps the backlight turned off until it senses your body nearby. Cute, but silly. And nothing I would pay for.

To keep its width down to a lap-friendly 17.5 inches - a couple of inches narrower than traditional keyboards - Microsoft eliminated the numeric keypad altogether. That's no great loss unless you're an accountant.

If you really want laid-back Web surfing, gaming or access to your movies and music, there's no need to use Microsoft's excellent Laser Mouse 8000 at all.

That's because the keyboard has a tiny but surprisingly effective touch pad on the right side that replaces the mouse. "Clicking" the mouse button by tapping the pad is a bit awkward, but on the left side of the keyboard are dedicated left and right mouse buttons. Bottom line: you can control your computer from the keyboard alone - not perfectly, but enough for casual use.

There are some other bells and whistles - including one mouse-button access to Microsoft's well-designed screen magnifier. But are all these features worth close to $300?

Bottom line: I wouldn't pay that much. But if you (a) have the money, and (b) think you can get used to this lap-friendly, wireless keyboard and (c) want it packaged with a superb laser mouse, you won't be disappointed.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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