As users across the world embrace a more mobile – and increasingly touch-focused – approach to computing, the market for ‘traditional’ peripherals is not what it once was. When the overwhelming majority of us relied on big, bulky Windows PCs as our main tools for emailing, creating documents and playing games, there was a vast and seemingly infinite market for PC accessories and peripherals – from speakers to webcams, printers to scanners, and keyboards to mice.
These days, the focus is on notebooks and tablets, which integrate or negate many of the features that the accessories market used to cater for. But the PC is not dead yet, and many still rely on desktop computers every day. While the PC lives, demand for peripherals will live on – and while the market for mice and keyboards is perhaps not quite as diverse and lively as it once was, it too lives on, dominated largely by the likes of Logitech and Microsoft.
Microsoft’s Sculpt Comfort Keyboard is no stranger to us here at Neowin. In fact, we reviewed it almost a year and half ago, and it performed pretty well. Since many of our readers still rely on desktop computers – with good ol’ fashioned mouse and keyboard set-ups – we thought it would be helpful to revisit this keyboard, alongside the mouse with which it is paired in a desktop set.
These two peripherals make up the Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Desktop. Despite being launched some time ago, the Desktop set is still on sale as one of the company’s range of Windows 8-focused accessories. But is it still worth considering, or should you be looking elsewhere for your system’s next input devices?
The Sculpt Comfort Desktop is just one package in a large family of keyboards and mice offered from Microsoft. The company offers a broad range of devices, catering for a similarly diverse range of price points, and includes ultra-affordable wired mice and keyboards (aimed primarily at businesses), as well as mobile-focused peripherals, such as compact mice.
One particularly important strand in Microsoft’s range of input devices is its ergonomic keyboards and mice, which have formed part of its line-up for two decades. Microsoft’s Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop set is the ultimate realisation of that product line so far, with a dramatically styled split keyboard including a vast integrated wrist-rest, and a striking ball-like mouse. We reviewed those devices, along with the standalone keypad that completes the package, just a few months ago, and we came away pretty impressed.
Microsoft is careful to avoid over-using the word ‘ergonomic’ in its marketing for the Sculpt Comfort Desktop, perhaps preferring to preserve the use of that word for the more focused (and more expensive) Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop. Nonetheless, you will see the word ‘ergonomic’ used here and there in reference to the Sculpt Comfort Desktop.
The contour on the keyboard is obvious, although it noticeably lacks the massive split of the Sculpt Ergo keyboard. On paper, at least, this seems like a sensible choice for those who are keen to enjoy the ergonomic benefits of a mouse and keyboard, but are perhaps put off by the learning curve associated with the Sculpt Ergonomic devices.
The Comfort mouse, too, is far more familiar and relatable to other mice than the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse ever was. Both the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard and Mouse connect to a computer, not via Bluetooth, but via a 2.4GHz wireless signal to a tiny USB dongle. As with the Sculpt Ergo Desktop, we have to note that this is an unusual choice, given the convenience of Bluetooth, and the need to surrender a USB port to the dongle. (Curiously, the standalone Sculpt Comfort Mouse, sold without the keyboard, does connect to a computer via Bluetooth.)
But while it may not be quite as ostentatiously ergonomic as its pricier counterpart, and despite the slight oddity of its connectivity arrangement, the Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Desktop looks like a decent package, on the face of it, and its recommended retail price is $79.95 in the US (£69.95 in the UK, €79.99 across Europe) – a full $50 cheaper than the Sculpt Ergo.
So is the Sculpt Comfort Desktop the perfect balance of function, comfort and price – or could the lower price indicate a need for compromise?
Compared with the outlandish styling of the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, the Comfort is far less interesting on an aesthetic level. Where the Ergo’s design is unique and exciting, the Comfort is rather ordinary by comparison; it looks like someone has taken a standard rectangular QWERTY keyboard and exaggerated its proportions. But don’t hold its plain looks against it – there’s still a competent keyboard underneath the unremarkable aesthetics, and for many users, that’s all that matters. For many, a keyboard is a purely functional device; not everybody demands that a keyboard be a work of art.
The layout of the keyboard gently sweeps upwards and inwards, peaking at around the F5 key. Whereas on the Ergo, the entire centre portion of the keyboard is raised – including the spacebar and the wrist-rest, only the upper section of the keyboard is raised on the Sculpt Comfort.
The spacebar on the Comfort has a split design; one half acts as a traditional spacebar, while the other half is a backspace key. This may seem a little odd, but it is an ergonomic concession that some may find useful.
The reasoning behind this quirky implementation is that the backspace key – which is so often used as we type – is positioned at one of the furthest extremes of the main QWERTY board, adding strain to users’ wrists and hands as they reach over to it with great frequency. By adding a secondary backspace key on the spacebar, it offers a more comfortable option than having to repeatedly strain to reach the top-right of the keyboard.
This arrangement presents the only real learning curve that this keyboard demands. The Ergo took a lot of getting used to with its alien key layout, but the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard is far more familiar and easy to get used to. But if you want to take on the challenge of using the backspace key on the spacebar, you may find that the learning curve is a bit too steep to warrant the effort.
I personally found that my efforts to embrace the spacebar-backspace key were not fruitful. After many struggles, I eventually managed to master using that secondary backspace key rather than the normal one, but I was only able to do so with much concentration, which often distracted me from what I was working on.
Ultimately, I decided that my efforts to embrace this new way of doing things were counter-productive for my workflow, and eventually returned to the standard layout. Perhaps I am too set in my ways to make that feature work effectively for me – I do type a lot, after all. You may well find that the split backspace/spacebar arrangement works perfectly for you.
The wrist-rest at the lower edge of the keyboard is actually a clip-on affair, rather than being a fully integrated part of the device. However, as you can see, the keyboard alone, without the rest, is rather inconsequential, and loses the ergonomic benefits that the rest brings.
The rest does not only provide comfort for weary wrists; on its underside, it also features two retractable struts, which can prop up the edge of the keyboard closest to you, raising the keys and wrist-rest to a level that you may find more comfortable as you type.
I personally found it more comfortable to use the keyboard with these struts extended – but your experience may differ. If you find that the raised position is just too uncomfortable, lowering the keyboard is as simple as snapping the retractable struts back into place.
If you find that you want to remove the wrist-rest too – although I can’t imagine why you would want to – just slide to unlock, and then detach it from the main keyboard.
The Sculpt Comfort Keyboard differs from the Ergo in one other significant way too: the keyboard layout on the Comfort is, fundamentally, identical to that of ‘regular’ keyboards, with a full-size integrated number-pad, arrow keys and secondary directional keys.
The far more conventional design of the Sculpt Comfort over the Ergo makes it much, much easier to get used to it, when transitioning from a standard rectangular QWERTY keyboard. It took just a few minutes for me to become accustomed to the positioning of the keys on the Comfort, after which I was able to type at my normal speed with relatively few errors.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the Sculpt Comfort is not a mechanical keyboard, and if that is your preference, then you should certainly steer clear of it. The keys on the Comfort are fairly shallow in their downward travel; while I wasn’t too bothered by this, you may find that the keys do not depress sufficiently for your tastes.
That said, reducing the amount of travel in the keys, thus reducing the effort required to push each one down, is an ergonomic feature. If you find that your fingers and wrists are feeling the strain lately, it may be worth considering a keyboard like the Sculpt Comfort that will help to diminish those symptoms in the long term.
The keys are pretty quiet in action; unless you slam each key particularly vigorously, you’ll hardly be able to hear the action of each key depressing as you type. As on many keyboards, the action of the space bar buttons is slightly louder than the others.
Typing on the keyboard is a pretty pleasant experience, thanks largely to the similarities with other keyboards. All of the keys you would expect to find on the overwhelming majority of keyboards are present and correct, so the only challenge is to adjust your typing to accommodate the slightly different positions of each key.
There will likely be a few more errors in your typing at first, while you become accustomed to these slight differences, but I would expect most users to adjust to the layout fairly quickly. That’s a point worth emphasising, because buyers who may be interested in the benefits of a more wrist-friendly keyboard may find themselves intimidated by the wacky design and unusual key layout of a device like the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard.
That said, it is evident that the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard does not come close to matching the ergonomic rewards of its more expensive sibling. That is not at all surprising – while there will be some ergonomic benefits of the wrist-rest and the gently curved ‘wave’ layout, it is clear that the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard is intended to take a familiar device and make it better for you, which is a long way from the Ergo, which was designed from the ground up as an ergonomically focused device.
Indeed, the differences between these two devices is spelt out in their names. If ergonomic benefits are of paramount importance to you, then the Ergo is the best choice; if comfort is what matters most, albeit with a couple of ergonomic concessions thrown in, then the Comfort, of course, is the better choice.
To put this another way, don’t expect the Sculpt Comfort Desktop to make everything better if you’re suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injury, or some other physical complaint related to the use of your computer. Feeling comfortable while you type does not guarantee that you are not doing damage to your body.
The Sculpt Comfort Keyboard is comfortable to type on, but it is not perfect to use.
My main gripe with the device is one that I found similarly irritating on the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard.
Like the Ergo, the Comfort is designed primarily for Windows 8. Microsoft officially supports use of the Comfort Desktop with Windows 7 too, but warns that the set is not compatible with Windows RT. You will also find that the keyboard works just fine with Mac and Linux too, albeit with some features unsupported.
In addition to the familiar Windows key, near the bottom-left, the Comfort keyboard also includes a set of standard function keys along the top row of the keyboard, above the numbers. Along with the typical functions of these buttons (e.g F1 for Help, F5 to refresh etc), Microsoft added a range of secondary functions to each button, intended to help users more quickly perform common tasks in Windows 8.
These Windows 8 shortcuts are highlighted in light blue (the same shade used to dramatic effect on the Sculpt Comfort Mouse) on the function keys, offering one-touch access to features such as media controls from F1-F4 and the Windows Charms (Search, Share, etc.) from F5-F8.
The PrtScn, Scroll Lock and Calculator launcher are also offered as secondary functions, highlighted in blue.
But, as on the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, the implementation of gaining access to these secondary functions is profoundly irritating. Instead of relying on an Fn key as the overwhelming majority of manufacturers do – usually found along the bottom row of the keyboard – Microsoft instead chose a different approach.
Instead, users must flick a mechanical switch in the upper-right of the keyboard, when they wish to alternate between the primary and secondary functions of each key.
And, just as on the Ergo, this system has proven to be confusing and annoying for me on the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard. There are three ways to deal with this system: 1) leave the switch permanently in ‘traditional’ function (white) mode; 2) leave the switch permanently in Windows 8 (blue) mode; or 3) check the switch every single time you use it, to ensure that pressing one of the function keys will yield the desired result.
If you’re content with options 1 or 2, then you’re sorted. For some, the secondary Windows 8 functions on the keyboard will add little – especially if the keyboard is being used on a desktop with a touchscreen display, or on a non-Windows system – and stick with the traditional functions. Others may well embrace the Windows 8 controls wholeheartedly, and consider them more valuable than the old-school function keys, and will therefore keep the switch in the blue position.
But I suspect there will be plenty of users out there who see great value in both sets of functions, and who value the ability to press F5 to refresh a page as much the ability to quickly bring up the Windows 8 Share Charm. For these users, the implementation is far from satisfactory.
As with the Ergo, I found myself encountering considerable frustrations with the function keys on the Comfort. Pressing the F1 key to play or pause a video often brought up a Help box instead; pressing F5 to refresh a web page frequently opened up the Windows 8 Search Charm instead. I found that the only way to guarantee success each time I pressed one of those keys was to check the mechanical switch each time I used them.
Hardly the epitome of convenience.
I see no advantages at all to Microsoft’s implementation of the function keys here. The benefits to those groups who would prefer one set or the other – either the traditional or Windows 8 function keys – could surely be adequately catered for with software customisation of the keyboard layout, rather than by compromising usability for everyone. Perhaps you may disagree, but I don’t see any particularly compelling case for Microsoft’s approach to this compared with using the more familiar Fn key that is more or less an industry standard.
The whole thing is made even more irritating given that a fairly superfluous ‘Application’ button sits on the bottom row of the keyboard in the spot where an Fn button would prove far more useful. I personally found this Application button to be entirely useless; other than making myself use it a couple of times to see what it had to offer, I had absolutely no occasion to use it in my natural workflow or general usage.
Still, the function keys themselves are at least pleasant to use, although a little on the small side. As with the other keys on this keyboard, there is relatively little downward travel on these, and in combination with their small size, this can make them a bit fiddly to use at first. You should find that you get used to them soon enough though.
Just as with the Sculpt Ergonomic, the Sculpt Comfort Mouse is designed exclusively for right-handed users. If you’re among the 10% or so of the world’s population that is left-handed, you’ll need to look elsewhere for your mousing needs.
But for the majority of those who do not fall into this category, the Sculpt Comfort Mouse is a pretty decent choice. Its design is far less exotic than the Ergo mouse, with a much more conventional form that will quickly feel familiar when transitioning from another mouse, such as the Logitech Performance MX shown in the image above, alongside the Sculpt Comfort and Ergo, respectively.
Take the mouse in hand for the first time, and it feels pretty decent. There is no real period of adjustment while your hand gets used to it; just grab the mouse and get on with whatever you need to do.
That said, given that it was designed for comfort – it even has the word in its name – I am surprised that the Sculpt Comfort Mouse isn’t more comfortable. I found that its upper area was a bit too flat to provide adequate support for my palms, while the overall width was also insufficient to provide true comfort over extended periods of working at the computer.
I do not have comically enormous hands. My fingers are not vast, throbbing sausages that would require a mouse the size of a football for proper ergonomic comfort. My hands are average-sized, and I can just about use a 4.5-inch smartphone one-handed, but it can be a bit of a stretch at times. So, with my average-sized hands, I'm a little disappointed that there isn't more comfort or support on offer with this mouse. It's usable, yes, but not so comfortable that it even comes close to justifying its 'Sculpt Comfort' name.
It is not that my palms or wrists were especially troubled by using the mouse – they weren’t – but I have used mice that are far more comfortable, and which offer better support for the hand.
I also observed in my use of the Sculpt Comfort Mouse that, as a result of its flatter shape, my wrist tended to lie flat on the desk, resulting in an awkward angle between my wrist on the desk, and my hand curled around the mouse.
As Microsoft’s own ergonomic studies show, this is not the ideal posture for the hand and wrist; your wrist should not be angled horizontally or vertically away from the arm while using the mouse, as this creates severe strain on the wrist which builds up over time. Indeed, you should ideally keep your arm straight - from your elbow down to the end of your fingers - while using, moving and maneuvering the mouse on your desktop. This is precisely why the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse has such a curious shape, which forces the wrist to be raised off the desk, ensuring a less damaging angle between wrist and hand while you use it, and encouraging you to move the mouse with your arm, rather than with just a damaging flick of the wrist.
The Comfort’s shape is therefore neither ideally suited to comfort, nor does it appear to be particularly well equipped to improve your desk-bound ergonomics. The majority of users will find it to be perfectly adequate for their needs, no doubt, but some may be put off by the compromises of the design.
The Comfort Mouse would look rather unremarkable, too, were it not for the ‘slash’ of colour down its left edge. This is more than an aesthetic feature; since the Sculpt Comfort Desktop is designed primarily for Windows 8, the blue diagonal strip is actually a Start button.
Like the backspace button on the keyboard’s spacebar, the mouse may seem like an odd place for a Start button. There is no particularly revolutionary thinking behind its inclusion – it is merely another means for you to open the Start screen. You may find it useful; others may not. Personally, I found myself using it far more often than I imagined I would – although not for the reason you may be thinking.
You see, the Start button on the mouse is located in exactly the position where, intuitively, one would expect to find the Back button. Consequently, more often than not, I’ve pushed the Start button, expecting the web browser or File Explorer to go back a page, only to see the Start screen appear instead.
But don’t go thinking that Microsoft launched this mouse without a Back button. Well, technically, it did – but it integrated the back/forward functionality into the Start button itself. The blue strip down the side of the mouse isn’t just a Start button – it is also a touch-sensitive strip.
Swipe down the strip with your thumb (from the top towards the desk), and you will go back; swipe upwards to go forwards. Simple.
…or rather, it would be if it worked reliably. Regardless of what web browser I was using, and even in Windows 8’s File Explorer, the touch strip was infuriating. Time and again, I would swipe down the strip, hoping to go back a page, and the mouse would gently vibrate to acknowledge that it had accepted my swipe, but nothing would happen on screen.
I tested the keyboard on two Windows 8.1 desktops and a Surface Pro tablet and, sadly, saw similarly patchy performance across all devices. The problem is not isolated to this particular mouse unit either; a quick browse around the web, including reviews of the Sculpt Comfort Mouse by other esteemed tech publications, reveals that others have experienced the same issues too with the device.
But despite these nuisances, the Sculpt Comfort performs adequately as a mouse and, aside from the distinctive Windows 8 button plastered down its side, you’ll also find the usual collection of mouse buttons, including left/right click, and a scroll wheel with both vertical and horizontal scroll support.
The Sculpt Comfort Desktop is a bit of an odd beast.
Microsoft has been careful not to imbue it with too many ergonomic features, lest it should tread on the toes of its pricier Ergo sibling, yet still infuses its marketing with hints of its capabilities in that area. And yet, neither the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard nor the Mouse really shine on that front.
Perhaps it is unfair to judge them by this standard, given that Microsoft has positioned these devices as being focused on comfort, rather than ergonomics. But here, too, neither keyboard nor mouse truly excel in providing the most comfortable experience, with the mouse suffering in particular.
The Sculpt Comfort Mouse is a very odd creature in its own right. It is noticeably smaller – in every dimension – than most desktop mice; indeed, it seems much more like a mobile mouse, designed for use with notebooks and tablets. Its small size and relatively flat design provide little of the support that a weary hand needs while working for hours at a computer.
While not especially uncomfortable, this mouse does not match the kind of comfort that many other mice can offer, even at similar price points.
But the mouse’s greatest failing is its Start button and integrated touch strip. I never found much genuine use for the Start button on the mouse personally, but you may well find it to be invaluable. Frankly, I would rather have seen the Start button removed entirely, in favour of Back/Forward buttons, especially given that I found the touch gesture implementation to be so poor and unreliable. This is profoundly disappointing, given that back/forward functionality is so fundamental to mouse-based navigation.
The Sculpt Comfort Keyboard, on the other hand, is a far more convincing product. It may lack the striking aesthetics of the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, but the Comfort still has plenty to offer.
It is genuinely comfortable to type on – perhaps not the most comfortable keyboard in the world, but the overwhelming majority of users will find it perfectly satisfactory. Indeed, some may find its gently curved key layout to be more comfortable, with a less damaging wrist/hand posture, than ‘standard’ rectangular keyboards.
The split backspace/space key is also an interesting feature for those that may wish to give it a try. I found it to be more hassle than it was worth, but switching this functionality on or off is simple.
But, just as with the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, I found the implementation of primary (traditional) and secondary (Windows 8) function keys to be infuriating. The mechanical switch-based system – to alternate between pressing F5 to refresh a page or to open the Windows 8 Search Charm, for example – is not just annoying, but does nothing to make the process of performing these tasks more easily.
There is no convenience in having to check that the switch is in the correct position, every single time, before you perform one of the tasks assigned to the function keys. From my perspective, if you have to perform an extra task – checking or flicking the switch – every time you’re going to use a function key, you may as well just ditch the switch, and go with the tried and tested Fn key that most other manufacturers use, and which users are broadly more familiar with.
Despite these foibles, the keyboard seems to be a far better proposition than the mouse to which it is paired in this package, which is why I think it’s important to take the unusual step of clarifying separate scores for the two devices, in addition to an aggregated score for the package as a whole.
The keyboard is good, but not great. It gets the job done, it’s easy to get used to the layout, and it is, for the most part, fairly comfortable to use. The function keys are annoying, and the backspace on the spacebar may be useless to many, but most users will be able to see past these irritations, perhaps more easily than I have been able to. For these reasons, the keyboard gets an 8 out of 10 – just slightly lower than its previous score here on Neowin back in 2012.
The mouse, however, doesn’t fare so well. There is nothing especially uncomfortable about the mouse, but it is hard to see what Microsoft has done to make it more comfortable than an ordinary mouse. The top is too flat to provide decent support to the hand; the profile is so low that it allows the wrist to lay flat on the desk in use (an ergonomic no-no); and its size is smaller than many desktop mice, making it feel more like a mobile mouse than one designed for all-day use with a PC.
Add to this the unreliable and annoying touch strip – with its will-it-won’t-it approach to responding to commands – and the mouse starts to make far less sense. Consequently, the Sculpt Comfort Mouse gets a lowly 6 out of 10, with its score saved mostly by its ease of set-up, decent aesthetics, and notable precision and flawless performance in tracking mouse movement.
At $79.95 – the manufacturer’s suggested retail price in the US – the Sculpt Comfort Desktop is a good deal cheaper than the $129 Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop, but some may feel that the compromises of the Comfort Keyboard and Mouse make this a price too high to pay. But if you shop around, you should be able to find this package on sale for far less.
In the US, at Amazon.com, for example, the Sculpt Comfort Desktop can be purchased for just $49.99 with free shipping. With Microsoft’s three-year worldwide warranty covering the keyboard and mouse, that’s a much more compelling offering, especially given the decent build quality and materials used in their construction, and the fact that the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard alone is currently priced at over $40 on the same site. You may well be able to find even better deals from other retailers and in other markets.
Should you buy it? If ergonomics are your priority, the answer is no. Spend a few extra bucks and get the upgrade to the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop instead. It'll cost more, and there's a bit of a learning curve to the keyboard, but your wrists will thank you in the long run.
The Sculpt Comfort Keyboard and Mouse are both decent, but neither one truly excels in any area. The decision to purchase it will come down entirely to whether or not you can deal with the shortcomings listed in this review. At full price, those issues may well look a lot more serious, but at under $50 for keyboard and mouse together, you may be able to overlook the flaws of the Sculpt Comfort Desktop more readily – and if you do, you’ll still be buying a capable and affordable pair of devices.
Our thanks to Microsoft UK for providing the Sculpt Comfort and Sculpt Ergonomic Desktops to us for review.