Hardware Reviews

Microsoft Office Keyboard

Reviewed by Laurence Fenn

After the mixed opinions of Microsoft's Natural Keyboard, they have come up with another design (after three years of research), the Microsoft Office Keyboard. Installation is fairly standard, but the unique features of the keyboard will only work with the appropriate drivers installed, otherwise it will act like any ordinary keyboard. It connects to a USB or a PS/2 port, with an adapter. The system requirements states 35Mb of hard disc space needed, which is more than some major applications. If you install the software and Mackintosh computer you only 15Mb of hard disc space. With the extra grey space acting as a palm rest, the keyboard takes up a large amount of space (the box it was packed in was huge) and some people might have trouble fitting it in place. There are a series of interesting features.

Single Touch Pad - A collection of buttons on the left hand side of the main keyboard area, that include Internet Buttons back and forward to make surfing the web easier, a scroll wheel which works the same as the scroll wheel on a mouse, three shortcut keys for Cut, Copy and Paste, and an application switcher rocker button, that eliminates the cumbersome ALT+TAB method of switching between applications. It should be noted that many of the timesaving features mentioned in the guide combat the features of the operating system, designed by Microsoft in the first place!

Hot Keys - grey buttons along the top of the keyboard, that launch applications. Office hot keys for Word, Excel, Explorer, Outlook (marked as Mail), Calendar, Calculator and Files (explorer), multimedia hot keys that mute or adjust the volume of media player, Internet hot keys (well, one marked Web/Home that launches your web browser), and finally a log off and sleep key.

Simplified F-Keys - new functions (excuse the pun) assigned the to function keys, include Help, Office Home (link to the Office web site), Task Pane (the features for everyday tasks in Office XP), New, Open, Close, Reply, Fwd, Send, Spell, Save, Print, Undo, and Redo. The function keys can return to normal use by using the F Lock key on the top left hand side of the keyboard.

Numeric Functions - common numeric functions like =, (, ), BACKSPACE and TAB are now right above the number pad.

Programmable functions - Keys can be reassigned to launch a predefined application, choose from a list of commands, start a program, web page or file, or disable the key. This varies according to the key itself, as some can only be disabled. You can print a list of what each key does, which is handy if you have customised the keys.

The guide tries to convince you that this keyboard will help you work quicker. There is an included example of using Excel and Outlook, with the actions 'Open Outlook, open first e-mail, reply, cut and past text, undo paste, save, spell check, print, mute volume and send'. The graph shows the Office Keyboard uses 34 steps. If you used the soft keys, such as the scissors button, it would take an additional 13 steps (47 in total). If you used the drop-down menus, you would take an additional 26 steps (60 in total). If you used the right-hand mouse context menus, you would take an additional 28 steps (62 in total), and if you used keyboard shortcuts, you would take an additional 46 steps (80 in total). Instead of showing how good the new keyboard is at reducing the number of steps, it just highlights how bad the programs are designed.

Using the keyboard in everyday use, I did find the palm rest helpful. There is a five step Keyboard Healthy Computing Guide that explains how you should sit at your desk and use a keyboard to prevent painful and disabling injuries. The application switcher is very useful, and the handy copy and paste buttons were easy to get use to. The scroll wheel is supposed to compliment the scroll wheel on your mouse, but I couldn't switch to using it. Another annoying problem was the function keys and rearrangement of other keys. Without the F Lock button on, I found myself constantly pressing F12 in Paint Shop Pro to do a Save As command, and instead printing the image I was working on. The normal Insert, Home, Page Up buttons on one row and Delete, End, Page Down buttons on the next have been rearranged to Home, End on top, a double sized Delete and a Page Up and Down arrangement. Insert is now a SHIFT+0 or the = button above the number pad with the F Lock on. The Multimedia buttons work with CD Player, Deluxe CD player and Media Player 7 (included on the CD). It also works with my main MP3 player, WinAmp. Reassigning the Back and Forward buttons to Previous and Next made it very easy to control a list of mp3 files, or a music CD.

As previously stated, Microsoft has spent three years of research, and their studies found seven points. My comments are below each one:

On a daily basis, the average computer user touches their keyboard more often than their spouse or partner.
This maybe true, but does really have anything to do with the design of a keyboard?

The majority of users find their keyboard to be the most essential piece of computer equipment.
Well, as it's the major input device for your computer, it would be. You can use your PC with keyboard commands if your mouse fails, but you can't use your PC with just your mouse if you want to type a letter. Mind you, if you didn't have a monitor, you wouldn't be able to see what you were typing.

There is a resistance to moving or changing keys that are used every day, BUT a willingness for people to use new key functionality.
I certainly found the application switcher functionality easy to use. If people are happy to use CTRL+C and CTRL+V to copy and paste, why make them change?

The majority of people use Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint® programs frequently.
Yes, the Office Suite of programs are probably the most used, if they are installed. WordPad and other email programs like Eudora would probably rate high as well.

Some keys on a keyboard are rarely used.
Again, this is true, but it doesn't help when you move the ones that are used frequently.

One hand overwhelmingly completes more tasks than the other.
People are usually left-handed or right-handed, but the keys are spread across the keyboard. If you are taught to type properly (I took RSA typing I & II at school when the BBC Microcomputer was the latest machine) you should use both hands equally.

Users are not satisfied that the "ideal keyboard" has been developed. Yet.
I agreed with this, and the Office Keyboard is not the ideal keyboard either.

With an estimated retail price of £59.99, you would have to be serious about buying a new keyboard. Microsoft's Natural keyboard retails around £29.99, and a basic PS/2 keyboard can cost £9.99 or less.