June 23rd, 2006
On May 30th, if you felt a slight tremble of the earth beneath your feet, it was probably caused by Microsoft's announcement of the availability of the Microsoft Wireless Laser Desktop for Mac, its first ever "Mac-specific desktop complete with a stylish wireless Comfort Curve Keyboard and a wireless High Definition laser mouse." True, Microsoft has been selling Mac-compatible mice and keyboard combos for quite some time. But this is the first set designed specifically for the Mac.
The keyboard matches the typical Mac layout, with the Control, Option, and Apple (Command) buttons in the expected locations -- and it is the only Microsoft keyboard that omits a Windows Start button. Otherwise, it is similar in features to comparable existing members of Microsoft's lineup.
I have no special insight as to why Microsoft chose this particular moment to release this product. I assume it is at least partially a grudging(?) recognition of the growing significance (and thus potential profitability) of Mac products in the computer marketplace. But there is a bit of irony here. At just the moment when it is easier than ever to run Windows on a Mac, and when at least some users might welcome a Windows Start key on a Mac keyboard, Microsoft promotes its absence.
Still, for the vast majority of Mac users, there is now another viable keyboard and mouse combo to consider as a replacement for the wired set that comes standard with desktop Macs. And with a suggested retail price of $99.95 (although you can probably get it for $10-$20 less), it is cheaper than a separate replacement purchase of Apple's wireless keyboard and mouse. So should you consider getting the Microsoft duo? Perhaps. It's a solid effort with several stand-out features. But before we get to them, let's look at some reasons you might want to pass on this (or any other similar) product:
- Is wireless worth it? For many, perhaps most, Mac users, a wireless keyboard and mouse is simply not worth the added cost. Yes, you may appreciate the clutter-free feel of having those wires vanish. But be honest. They don't normally get in your way. Wireless might be a plus if you keep your keyboard on one of those slide-out shelves that sit under a desktop. Otherwise, unless you prefer to sit with the keyboard in your lap several feet away for your display, a wireless setup offers very little in terms of convenience. And with the keyboard straddling your lap, you still have to solve how to position the mouse.
Plus, by sticking with a wired unit, you avoid any possibility of problems due to a temporarily interrupted signal or a dead battery. And speaking of batteries, a wired unit saves you the ongoing cost of replacing batteries or the hassle of recharging ones.
Finally, wireless keyboards, at least the ones I have seen, do not have the USB ports typically included on wired keyboards. I have found such ports convenient for plugging in a flash drive, for example.
On the plus side of the ledger for Microsoft, the company claims that batteries should last six months or more with its hardware. I can't confirm this as yet. But if it's true, that's certainly much longer than batteries have lasted in the Apple wireless mouse and keyboard I have used.
- Is RF preferable to Bluetooth? If you are committed to wireless, and your Mac has Bluetooth capability built-in, going with a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard (such as the ones from Apple) eliminates the need for an additional piece of hardware. Microsoft's Desktop duo, however, does not use Bluetooth. Instead, you need to attach a 27MHz RF Smart Receiver (included with the desktop combo purchase) via a USB connection, for the wireless magic to work. Not a big deal perhaps, especially since the receiver is bus-powered, so you don't need more batteries or an AC outlet to use it; but it adds clutter to your desktop and it's one more thing that can go wrong.
On the other hand, Microsoft's Web site claims, that the Desktop's laser mouse is "more precise, more responsive, and delivers smoother tracking" than optical ones. In my admittedly brief testing, I can attest that the precision of movement with the Microsoft mouse did seem especially smooth. The mouse may also be more reliable. My Apple Bluetooth mouse would periodically stop working for brief intervals, for no apparent reason. This has so far never happened with the Microsoft mouse.
The only troubles I have had with the Microsoft unit so far are: (a) Waking from sleep by pressing a key on the keyboard is inconsistent; sometimes it works on the first try; sometimes I randomly press a half-dozen or so keys to wake the Mac up; (b) Similarly, I have found that copying text with Command-C occasionally fails to work on the first try. When I try again a second time, more slowly, it works. If there is a secret to getting these things to work right the first time all the time, I have not yet found it for sure. I suspect that at least part of the solution is to press the keys harder and/or hold them longer than I needed to do with the Apple keyboard. However, even doing that has not consistently led to success.
On a related note, one time I got a warning message that the "wireless keyboard signal quality was low." However, the keyboard continued to work just fine. I dismissed the message and it never returned.
- Do you prefer an "ergonomic" design? The Microsoft keyboard is shaped with the slight curve common in ergonomically designed units. It also includes a place to rest the heal of your hand. The mouse is similarly designed to fit the shape of your hand (at least if you are right-handed). These designs look less attractive, at least for my taste, than the traditional shapes. However, if they truly provide the promised comfort and reduce the chance of a repetitive stress injury, they are worth it. You'll have to decide whether they do the job for you or not.
Personally, I found the Microsoft duo to be a comfortable fit but not a dramatic improvement from my previous standard-shaped duo. I did find Microsoft's keys to be stiffer than those on the Apple keyboard, which I did not prefer.
- Do you really want a mouse with 5 buttons? When it comes to mice, I like them simple. I don't want to have to study a manual to learn how to use the device. So I tend to prefer a mouse with fewer rather than more buttons. Microsoft apparently believes that more is better; its mouse has five buttons plus a scroll wheel.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate the advantages of a two-button mouse (as opposed to Apple's original single button unit); it's much better than having to deal with Control-clicking to access contextual menus and the like. And I am slowly coming to accept the value of a scroll wheel, although I still don't use one much. Microsoft's scroll wheel, however, is cooler than most: you are not limited to rolling the wheel for vertical scrolling; the wheel also tilts to the right or left to scroll horizontally.
Pressing the scroll wheel acts as a third button. Plus there are two additional "thumb" buttons, to get the total up to five. While I recognize that some users may prefer this abundance, they are just overkill for me. The best I can say is that, even though they exist, you can choose to ignore them.
Finally, there is a question of special importance for any Mac wireless keyboard: What about the keys used to invoke startup modes, such as Command-S for single-user mode or the Shift key for a Safe Boot? Do they work with the Microsoft keyboard? In brief, yes.
As you may recall, these keys did not work with early versions of Bluetooth firmware and Bluetooth keyboards. It turned out that the keyboard was not recognized by the Mac until after it was too late in the startup sequence to invoke the relevant startup mode. Apple subsequently fixed this. I wondered if this issue had been similarly addressed in the design of the Microsoft keyboard.
The initial news was bad: all my attempts to get these key combinations to work failed. However, Microsoft claimed they should work. So it was back to the drawing board. After more consulting with Microsoft and some experimenting on my own, I at last figured out what was going on. Here's the deal: After you select to Restart the Mac, watch the power light on the Smart Receiver unit. At some point shortly after the startup tones sound, the light will briefly flash. If you now press the desired startup keys, the Mac will respond as expected. It is essential, however, that you wait to press the keys until after that light flashes. If you press the keys before the light flash, the Mac will not respond -- even if you continue to hold down the keys past the point of the light flash. The procedure is awkward but it works.
If you survived this gauntlet and are still interested in purchasing the Microsoft setup, you will be rewarded with some cool features beyond the ones I've already mentioned. My favorites are:
- Zoom slider and magnification. A slide on the keyboard can be used to Zoom In and Zoom Out from any application that supports zooming. Try it in Safari to get a quick feel for how well it works.
From the mouse, you can also access the Zoom feature included as part of Mac OS X's Universal Access System Preference. This zooms in and out of your entire display. You'll need one of the thumb buttons plus the scroll wheel to do it.
- User-definable keys and buttons. There are 5 unassigned buttons on the keyboard. You can assign any of a variety of actions to them, such as opening a specific folder or launching an application. You can also assign functions to the F keys and change the assignment of several of the pre-assigned special keys (such as the ones for opening your choice of Web browser and email application, etc.). Similarly, you can customize what the different mouse buttons do. These, and numerous other customization options, are all handled via the two Microsoft System Preferences panes that you install.
- Application-aware Find key. The keyboard has a Find key. Press it and it opens the Find feature of whatever application you are currently using.
Bottom line: I have been using the Microsoft keyboard and mouse for about two weeks now. Overall, I have been very pleased with them and would be content to continue using them as a replacement for my Apple wired duo. While they're not a "you gotta get it" product, if you are willing to pay the extra bucks and can live with its limitations, you won't be disappointed.
Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.
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