Microsoft Sculpt Keyboard

A couple of weeks ago I decided to pick up a new ergonomic keyboard for my home PC setup: The Microsoft Sculpt

While I'm not a particularly huge fan of Microsoft, I've always had a fondness for their ergonomic keyboards, having owned just about every iteration going all the way back to the original Microsoft Natural Keyboard. Sure, they're no Kenesis, but they do tend to provide better comfort over a standard keyboard for a moderate price.

The Sculpt is Microsoft's newest ergonomic offering, and I think it is their best iteration to date. It replaces the aging Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 in their product lineup - the very keyboard I replaced with my recent purchase. The Sculpt isn't perfect, but I do think it does a good job of hitting the mark in terms of affordability and comfort.

Unlike previous versions, Microsoft's Sculp is a compact, sleek keyboard that isn't just a rehash of the same old design: They've removed a considerable amount bulk from the device which has drastically reduced it's overall footprint and given it a more modern look. The Sculpt actually looks good sitting on a desk, which is something that you don't often get to say when talking about an ergonomic keyboard.

As part of this slimming down, Microsoft has opted to make the numeric keypad its own separate peripheral. This separation probably won't bother most users, but it is something that might bother someone who makes heavy use of the the keypad in their day-to-day work. However, since most ergonomic keyboards tend to take up a lot of desk space in general, breaking off the numeric keypad goes a long way toward making the Sculpt keyboard much more desk-friendly compared to its predecessors: Combined with a lower profile, the narrower width, sans-keypad, means the keyboard should fit nicely on desk keyboard drawers/trays - something that previous models always had a hard time with. It also allows for a mouse to sit much closer at hand in a more comfortable, ergonimically-appropriate location, which is something the older model keyboards made nearly impossible.

Speaking of lower profile, another aspect of the size reduction of the Sculpt keyboard comes in the form of flatter keys that seem to have a shorter keystroke and require much less effort to push into contact with the underlying switches. These changes make for a much more pleasant typing surface compared to older models: My hands glide effortlessly over the shorter keys and I find myself typing much faster and with more confidence (I'm noticing far fewer fat-finger typos) than I have with past versions.

Microsoft also decided to reorganize the auxillary key arrangment and bring them closer to the main typing keys: Arrow keys, page-up/page-down, etc. all have been reconfigured into a more convenient configuration for touch typists. A larger delete key (conveniently placed near backspace) and a vertical orientation to the page-up, page-down, home and end keys make all the keys much easier to reach than the convential setup. Of course, if you're used to the standard arrangment this will take some getting used to. But with a little practice, it's not too difficult adjust to the new configuration.

The only design change that's a negative is the function keys: The entire row of function keys, along with the print screen, scroll lock and pause keys have all been shrunken down considerably along the top. This is the one feature that I'm actually not too happy with: The keys are just too small to reliably hit and when pressing down they feel a bit wobbly and it's sometimes hard to tell when a key has been successfully pressed. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the keys on the keyboard, which feel good and solid and there's definite feedback from the keypress to ensure that you've hit them properly. I'm not sure why Microsoft felt they needed to reduce the size of these particular keys - I think the keyboard would have been just fine with full-size function keys - but this is the one change that didn't need to be made.

On a more positive note, Microsoft dropped the annoying multimedia keys that lived above the function keys on the 4000. These were rather useless and were more of an annoyance since it was all too easy to accidentally hit them when reaching for a function key. They also changed the alternate function switch (a switch that allowed the function keys to be toggled into an alternate mode and used for some Windows-specific features), opting for a physical switch that has to be flipped on/off. This is a vast improvement over the 4000, which had a soft switch/key next to the F12 button...making it way too easy to hit accidentally (something I did all too frequently).

With all of the changes Microsoft has made to their ergonomic keyboard, and despite a few minor design issues, I've enjoyed using this keyboard over the past few weeks. In fact, after only the first couple of days using the the Sculpt at home I decided to order a second keyboard for my system at work. I like it that much. The Sculpt keyboard design feels considerably more confortable than previous models, and I can go much longer typing/hacking/whatever before my hands get stiff or tired.

I think Microsoft did a really good job with the Sculpt keyboard. If you're in the market for an ergonomic keyboard and don't want to break the bank, I would definitely recommend trying the Sculpt.