Review

Review: Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop

The seismic shift in personal computing over the last decade has dramatically changed the role that the desktop PC plays in our lives. For many, the only physical keyboards that they now use are attached to laptops, or connected to their tablets to improve input on touch-based devices.

But the death of the desktop PC isn’t quite upon us yet, and for as long as they exist, there will be a need for accessories to satisfy the needs of consumers and businesses alike.

Microsoft remains one of the largest providers of keyboards and mice, with a range encompassing a broad spectrum of price points, including both wired and wireless devices, and even some designed for mobile usage to support the steadily growing selection of Windows tablets that are making their way on to the market.

One of the most notable additions to its range was announced this past summer, in the form of a desktop set that continues a long and proud tradition of ergonomic peripherals from the company.

 

Microsoft’s first ergonomic keyboard went on sale almost twenty years ago, with the launch of the Natural Keyboard in 1994. While it wasn’t the first such peripheral to be ergonomically designed, the Natural Keyboard blazed the trail for a more affordable generation of wrist-friendly computing devices. (There are some nice details from Ziba, the company with which Microsoft collaborated on that device, on its website.)


Image via Ziba

Over the next two decades, Microsoft continued to develop new and improved ergonomic keyboards and mice, designed to reduce the risks of repetitive strain injury, carpal tunnel syndrome and other afflictions resulting from extended use of input devices.

With the latest arrival, the company has created a set of three peripherals that make up the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop: a keyboard, a mouse and a separate numeric keypad. Designed primarily for Windows 8, Microsoft also officially supports their use on Windows 7, although they will also function on Mac and Linux, albeit with some features unsupported. However, Microsoft’s Hardware Compatibility database warns that the set is not compatible with Windows RT.

Image via Microsoft

You might expect the trio of devices to connect to a computer via Bluetooth, but no – instead, they connect via a 2.4GHz wireless signal to a small USB dongle. While Microsoft had the presence of mind to ensure that they all connect to the same receiver – thereby only taking up one USB port – a Bluetooth connection would have negated this requirement entirely.

Similarly odd is the fact that each of the three peripherals uses its own battery type: the keyboard requires two AAAs; the mouse eats two AAs; and the keypad uses a ‘button’-type CR2430 lithium battery.

However, in spite of these curiosities, on the surface, it appears that this is a pretty decent set of products. But with a recommended retail price of $129.95 in the United States (£99.99 in the U.K. and €129.99 across other parts of Europe), is the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop a worthwhile purchase, or is this just a case of style over substance?

 

Microsoft’s internal development codename for the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard was ‘Manta Ray’, and even a casual glance in its direction makes it obvious why. With a design inspired by the vast and beautiful tropical fish from which the codename was borrowed, the keyboard is astonishing to look at from just about every angle.

Like its ergonomic predecessors, the keys are split in the centre of the QWERTY board, sweeping gently down towards each edge at a slight angle outward from the centre.

The keys in the middle are noticeably more raised than those further out, and a good deal larger too; the ‘N’ key, for example, is around 2.5 times the width of the ‘?/’ key – a result of extensive research into making touch-typing easier and more natural when using this ergonomic layout.

For the same reason, you’ll notice that the lowermost row of keys is vertically larger than the others. The Windows and Ctrl keys are simply huge.

The keyboard also has an integrated padded wrist-rest, which has a soft, luxurious feel.

An optional prop-stand is also included that easily connects to the underside of the keyboard and remains attached via magnets. This raises the keyboard at the front, angling the keys downwards and away from you as you type. Whether you choose to use it or not will come down to personal preference and comfort; I found it more comfortable to use the keyboard with the stand in place, but if you find it counter-productive, removing it is as simple and painless as unplugging a keyboard cover from a Surface tablet. The magnets secure it in place, but aren’t so powerful that they make removing it a torturous experience.

It’s been over a decade since I last used an ergonomic keyboard for any significant amount of time – and I’m sure that my wrists will pay the price for that soon enough – so to say that I was unaccustomed to using the split layout is a massive understatement. On the first day that I used it, I found myself making an absurd number of errors; I was, quite literally, unable to complete a single sentence without making mistakes. By the end of that first day, the only thoughts that I had of the keyboard were ones filled with murderous rage, and that night, I’m sure that I dreamt of very slowly lowering it into a bathtub filled with acid while cackling maniacally.

Of course, it would not have been fair to form a final opinion on something which, as its makers would no doubt acknowledge, takes time to become accustomed to. So I have been using the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard for several weeks now, and the period of initial adjustment is now over. My early frustrations have been calmed, and my overall impressions are more positive. But this is not a device without its flaws.

 

The good

I won’t dwell on the aesthetics any further, except to say that, to my eyes, this thing is gorgeous. Your opinion may vary, of course, and if it does, fair enough – one person’s beauty is another’s beast.

The keys are chiclet-style with scissor switches, requiring less downward travel to register each key press compared with mechanical keyboards. In use, key-tapping is impressively quiet, with only the two halves of the spacebar ever making enough noise to draw attention.

Once you’ve become more accustomed to the layout, typing on it is a breeze, for the most part, although depending on the size of your hands, you may occasionally find your fingers stretching just a tiny bit more than you might prefer from time to time.

Thanks to the comfortable wrist-rest and the optional prop-stand, in combination with a key layout that is the product of decades of research by Microsoft’s ergonomic specialists, it is generally easy to find an optimum typing position that allows for speedy input while still ensuring that your fingers and wrists don’t feel the strain.

On the whole, typing on this keyboard becomes a delight, once you’ve mastered it. Trying to get to that point will require time, effort and patience, but it’s worth it.

When it comes to using the keyboard for gaming, I’m not the best person to offer an expert opinion, as most of my gaming takes place on the Xbox 360 these days. However, I do enjoy playing Star Trek Online on the PC, and I found the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard to be adequate for this task, although the angle of the WASD keys relative to each other did feel slightly alien at first.

That said, keyboard-based gaming is usually pretty brutal on the fingers and wrists anyway – with lots of highly repetitive movements, and various contortions required to achieve key-combos as you try to pull off crazy moves on screen. It’s unlikely that buying an ergonomic keyboard will mitigate the damage being done to your hands by these kinds of inputs, so if you spend more of your time gaming on your PC than touch-typing, you’re probably best off sticking with a dedicated gaming keyboard.

 

The bad

The keyboard is fairly large as you’d expect, and that’s not a bad thing by any means. But to ensure that it didn’t end up becoming comically enormous, some layout compromises were made that have given rise to some mild irritations.

The underlying problem is one that notebook users will likely be familiar with. The cramped confines of smaller laptops requires manufacturers to cram keys in wherever they can possibly fit, and sometimes to do away with certain keys entirely. On the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, the space limitations caused Microsoft to reorganise the secondary directional keys, which ordinarily sit above the four arrow keys on a ‘standard’ keyboard layout.

These now occupy a dual-width ‘column’ of keys at the far-right edge of the keyboard, vertically stacked above the arrow keys, which sit at the bottom-right. Despite using the keyboard for several weeks now, I still haven’t become accustomed to the positioning of these keys, and – almost without exception – I have to look over whenever I need to press one of them, which causes a small but annoying break in my workflow when engaged in writing or editing documents and spreadsheets.


Image via Paul Thurrott / WinSuperSite.com

A further irritation is one that appears to be unique to the version of the keyboard that Microsoft UK sent to us for this review. In the image above, which Windows-watcher Paul Thurrott included in his excellent review of the US versions of these products on WinSuperSite.com, you can see that the left Shift key is of a similar width to the Ctrl key below it. However, in the image below…

…you can see that the UK version has an additional ‘|\’ key that the US version does not have, which results in the Shift key becoming very small indeed. It’s an annoyance that I’ve had to become accustomed to, but I still wish that this had been more thoughtfully executed. Luckily, for those in the US, at least, it’s not a problem they’ll have to deal with.

Finally, the review unit that Microsoft sent has some issues with its ‘+=’ key. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t, and requires me to push it numerous times, and at different angles, before the key press is finally registered. Having glanced through numerous other reviews of the product from esteemed tech publications, it appears that this is simply a glitch with this unit, rather than a widespread problem, but it would be remiss of me not to mention it here for your consideration.

 

The ugly

Since the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard was designed primarily for Windows 8, Microsoft thoughtfully included keyboard shortcuts to access various features that many users are likely to require when using their PCs.

These shortcut keys are doubled-up with the uppermost function keys; in addition to media controls on F1-F4, you’ll also find one-touch keyboard controls for the Windows Charms (Search, Share, etc.) from F5-F8, plus a smattering of other handy shortcuts on the other keys. The labels for these are highlighted in blue, making these added functions easier to identify – although unless you’re familiar with what each of these icons actually means, many of them will be meaningless to users.

The iconography isn’t my beef with these controls – it’s the implementation that I’ve found utterly infuriating. While most other keyboards provide secondary function controls by requiring the user to press the ‘Fn’ key – usually located somewhere along the bottom row – Microsoft decided not to employ this tried-and-tested method, and omitted an Fn key entirely.

So, to access these functions, you instead have to flick a mechanical switch at the top-right of the keyboard, which alternates the keys’ operations between their standard functions and the secondary Windows 8 controls.

In practice, this has been a complete usability disaster for me. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pressed F5 to refresh a web page, and ended up opening the Share Charm instead; or pressed F1 to pause music playback only to get a Help dialog box opening up on screen; or pressed Alt+F4 expecting the open program to shut down, and seeing nothing but the volume indicator appear on screen.

Sometimes you want to use media controls; sometimes you want the convenience of quick keyboard access to the Charms; sometimes you want to just use the function keys as they were originally intended and as you’ve probably been using them for the last five, ten, twenty years or more. Having to constantly check the Fn switch at the top-right, to make sure that it’s in the correct position to perform the function that you want to execute when pressing one of the keys, is a colossal pain in the ass.

Worse still is the fact that the function keys themselves are annoyingly small, making them more difficult to press. They also have an odd range of travel to them that differs from the other keys on the keyboard; sometimes it feels like you’ve pressed them, but the absence of any on-screen action tells you otherwise.

The decision to forego the inclusion of an Fn key – and to use such tiny function keys – was evidently another product of the need to work within the limited space defined by the form of the device. But the usability flaws that this presents makes me question the wisdom of the decisions that were made here.

Even more infuriating is the fact that a dedicated ‘Application’ button exists at the lower right of the keyboard – between AltGr and the right Ctrl button – which does nothing more than duplicate the right-click mouse function.

Perhaps this is a case of different people favouring different workflows, but I have never – not once – found this button to be of any use. An Fn key (or, at the very least, the option to easily map the Fn function to that key – something which is not possible in Microsoft’s Mouse & Keyboard Center configuration software) would have made far more sense to me.

 

Alongside the keyboard, the numeric keypad is a far more understated component of the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop – and also the only one to offer no ergonomic concessions at all.

Unlike the original Natural Keyboard, which featured an integrated number-pad, this one stands alone from the keyboard; in appearance, it is rather like a giant calculator with the numeric display missing. Helpfully, though, there is a dedicated calculator button. This button will open the Calculator on the Desktop; there is no way to configure it to open the ‘Modern’ Calculator app (which is pre-installed with Windows 8.1) instead, which is a bit of a shame, given that these devices were designed with Windows 8.x in mind.

The keypad has a NumLock button, but no number lock indicator, relying instead on an on-screen notification; this choice was presumably made to extend battery life and, personally, I’m okay with that.

The value of the modular design approach is that the keypad is as useful or as useless as you want it to be. If you’re comfortable inputting numbers via the row of digits along the top of the keyboard (as many notebook users have become accustomed to), you may find the keypad superfluous, in which case you can chuck it in a drawer and not worry about it getting in the way. If you spend your days working with spreadsheets, you may well find it invaluable, in which case it can be positioned in the optimum location on your desk.

The other benefit of this design is that it adds welcome convenience for left-handed users, who can position the keypad to allow for easier input with their left hand if desired. But there is one obstacle in the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop that would alienate them entirely: the mouse.

 

Alas, if you’re left-handed, the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse is not for you. This mouse is unashamedly designed for righties, so if you’re a leftie, you’re out of luck. It can be used with a left hand (and it’s actually not completely uncomfortable to do so for short periods), but the ergonomic benefits are designed with a right hand in mind, to say nothing of the fact that the thumb buttons are both located on the left – out of reach in left-handed use.

With around 10% of the world’s population being left-handed, that’s an issue that many users simply won’t have to face. For the dexterous or ambidextrous, the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse is a much more compelling product.

Aesthetically, it’s an intriguing thing to behold. In terms of its size – and, to some extent, its shape – it’s like someone took a baseball, squashed it down onto a desk to create a flat base, and squeezed an indentation into it on which the thumb can rest. Even as I write those words, I fear that my description may be more confusing than enlightening, but I would hope that, in tandem with the images, they give you a sense of just what the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse brings to the table… or desk.

Photos do little to communicate the experience of actually taking it in the hand for the first time though. It feels unnatural, frankly, when you initially use it – too high, too rounded, just weird. See how it compares in height to another well-liked mouse – the Logitech Performance MX – and you may get a sense of why it feels so unusual at first.

The design is intended to encourage you to keep your wrist raised off the surface of your desk as you use it. A major part of the strain created by extended mouse usage is caused by the angle at which your hand is raised relative to the position of your wrist lying flat on the desk. By keeping your wrist raised, and with your fingers embracing the curves of the mouse, it promotes a less angled posture between arm, wrist and hand that will, over time, help to reduce the damaging effects that lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and similar long-term strains and injuries.

Beyond the curiosities of its shape, though, this is essentially a mouse like any other, with left- and right-click buttons, a physical wheel with vertical and horizontal scroll capabilities, and a middle-click function built into the wheel.

Two additional buttons are included, and the first is one that really can’t be missed. The bright blue Windows button on the top does exactly what you (probably) expect it to do: one click and it will open the Windows 8 Start screen; a second click and the Start screen disappears and returns you to the previous view. The second button is located below and to the left of the Windows button, nestled into the thumb indentation; by default, this acts as a ‘back’ button in a web browser or File Explorer, but its function can be redefined.

You may find the Windows button on the mouse to be infinitely useful; to be honest, I rarely remembered that it was there, and on the very few occasions that I used it, it was because I consciously told myself to give it a try, rather than finding it genuinely useful to the point that it became second nature. You may find it utterly indispensable, of course. While I didn’t, I never found that it got in the way either, so if your experience mirrors mine, you can at least take comfort from knowing that it won’t be an irritation to have it there.

The back button was infinitely more useful, but I do wish it was slightly larger to make it just that little bit easier to push. I also found the position of the back button to be less than ideal; when using the mouse as prescribed, it felt like the button was situated too far back, such that my thumb ended up having to bend inwards a little too much every time I needed to use it. In that specific respect, the Logitech Performance MX Mouse feels more natural, and certainly more comfortable.

But in every other aspect, the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse was a joy to use. The learning curve isn’t anywhere near as steep as with the keyboard, and the period of adjustment was far shorter. I found myself becoming accustomed to its bulbous shape quite quickly and, though it may sound like an exaggeration, I have genuinely felt that my wrist is less troubled by extended periods of mouse usage while using the ergonomic device, compared with similar amounts of time using other mice.

Before I wrap things up and deliver a final verdict, there is one final thing that I’d like to share, something that made me giggle when I read it a few weeks ago. I mentioned Paul Thurrott’s review of the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop earlier in this piece, having read it before I even knew that I would be reviewing these devices. As Paul explains in his write-up, he has been a long-time user of ergonomic devices, and he shared his initial experiences with the mouse:

Let's just say it went comically bad for the first week or ten days. I can't explain this, but I knocked this mouse off the keyboard tray and onto the floor several times a day for a while there and still do so every so often. When this happens, the mouse explodes into separate pieces, with the bottom plate—held on only by magnets—separating from the device and dislodging the batteries. This requires me to scramble around on the floor like an idiot, finding it all and putting it back together.”

This amused me greatly until I did the same thing on one occasion, sending the mouse flying towards the trash can, and knocking my cup of tea over on my desk as my hands flailed all over the place, as I foolishly believed I could catch the mouse before it landed.

Perhaps I was a little more cautious and wary of what might happen after that, but that was the one and only occasion that things went completely tits-up in my experience with the mouse. I would hope that the mistakes made by even incredibly experienced pros like Paul, and lumbering butter-fingers like me, will serve as cautionary tales to approach this mouse with care in the early days.

 

There is a lot to like about the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop, and after having had it on my desk for several weeks now, I shall genuinely miss it.

The keyboard is fantastic, once you get used to it, and that’s an important point to underline – unless you’re accustomed to ergonomic keyboards, it will take some time to get used to this one. If you don’t have the patience for that, you’d be better off looking elsewhere – but you won’t get the ergonomic benefits that this keyboard offers.

It isn’t perfect though – the function keys were a usability nightmare in my experience, and that’s a tremendous shame, as this is a problem that would be so easily fixed with the presence of an Fn button, rather than the idiotic switch-based system that Microsoft chose to implement. The directional keys – Home, Page Up/Down etc – are also not ideally placed, and I’m still not used to their positioning after all this time.

I never found the keypad to be of much use, but that’s the beauty of having a standalone unit – if, like me, you find it to be superfluous, you can rid your desk of it entirely.

I would be rather sad to see the mouse go, but as I say goodbye to the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop, I’ve already purchased a replacement for the mouse that will stay with me long after the review units have departed (they’ll find a new home with one of our readers in an upcoming giveaway – stay on the lookout for that!). The mouse isn’t entirely perfect, but it impressed me enormously, and I was able to feel the ergonomic benefits that it offers after a few weeks of use. I can think of no higher praise when reviewing a product than actually buying it for oneself.  

The fact that I decided not to purchase the Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard ultimately came down to my own personal irritations regarding the usability of the function keys. I recognise, however, that not everyone will be as frustrated by these as I was, so I won’t mark the keyboard down too severely for this. And given the considerable ergonomic benefits that the keyboard offers – to say nothing of its incredible style – I may reconsider that decision in the future.

The recommended retail price of $129 / £99 / €129 is a little steep for the whole set, but in reality, you’ll find that many retailers sell it for considerably less. Amazon.com, for example, is currently selling it for $85.99, and if you shop around, you may find even better deals. With a three-year warranty included, that price range is far more compelling. 

Should you buy it? If you feel you can’t live with the irritations that I experienced – or if you don’t want to have to spend time becoming accustomed to the keyboard or the curiously shaped mouse – then you should look elsewhere. But if you can overlook the quirks that irked me, and you have the patience to put in some effort for considerable ergonomic benefits, then you should absolutely buy the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop without delay.

You’ll make your wrists very happy indeed. 


Giveaway! We'll be giving away the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop - including the mouse, keypad and that dramatically styled keyboard - later this week here on Neowin! Be sure to follow us on @NeowinFeed, so we can let you know when the contest goes live! Note: this giveaway has now ended.

Report a problem with article
Previous Story

Start menu rumors are heating up, currently referred to as 'mini-Start' internally

Next Story

Gabe Newell: I learned more in three months at Microsoft than entire time at Harvard

78 Comments - Add comment