- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

Few things are more personal for a computer user — and yet less well-considered — than the keyboard used to enter data and surf the Internet.

Last week, Microsoft Corp. introduced some new keyboards and mice. The good news: The products are interesting and will be investigated further in this space. The bad news: I had uneven success in using these products with a Macintosh, even though Microsoft says they are Mac compatible.

Before delving into the Microsoft products, some thoughts on why a good keyboard is a good find.

I’m not sure of statistics, but my guess is that upward of 50 percent of computer users stay with the computer keyboard that arrived with their system. Fair enough, since the keyboard is part of the total price and, one assumes, was included by the manufacturer because it is optimal for a given application.

Many folks can happily stay with their keyboard until it breaks, gets a “bath” of coffee or diet soda. But whether it’s to replace a no-longer-functional device or out of personal preference, buying a new keyboard for a computer can be important.

For example, a “split” keyboard, whose left and right halves are slightly angled to help avoid repetitive stress injury, is a popular product. But it’s not often the “original equipment” that comes with a computer. Other users may want more “function keys” for multimedia and other applications. Some of these can be found as part of a system, but not always.

Thus, the replacement-keyboard market exists, and thus, the new Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop Elite package. It is a keyboard with a cushioned, leatherette wrist-rest and enough extra controls to mimic an airliner cockpit. It also has a wireless optical mouse that features some extra function buttons and a new “Tilt Wheel” technology for scrolling that not only rolls up and down, but also shifts side to side like a joystick.

The whole bundle will cost you $104.95 at full retail; discounts can be expected when the products reach shelves at the end of the month.

The mouse, which sells separately for $54.95, works just swimmingly with the desktop Mac in my office; response speed is fast and pointing is accurate. At home, my 450 MHz Mac G4 Cube didn’t like the new duo at all, for reasons I could not understand.

Function keys didn’t function, and so it was back to a much older device, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro, which is no longer sold at retail. Unlike the newer model, the old one’s function worked just fine with the Mac.

The wired Natural Keyboard Pro includes two USB ports, one of which holds a Bluetooth adapter and the other connects my mouse, the standard-issue Apple one.

Microsoft probably will contact me after this to suggest alternatives or solutions; some readers will say that the new duo probably works best with a Windows-based PC.

Future software refinements may let me use the new product with my Mac Cube, but my experiment raises some questions. One, how difficult should it be to swap out a keyboard and mouse? Second, when will Apple Computer Inc. come up with an input offering that goes beyond “plain vanilla”?

In the meantime, users should look carefully at reviews of potential replacement keyboards and check out user groups for others’ experiences and perspectives.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com or visit www.kellner.us

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