We go fingers-on with Logitech's latest multidevice keyboard and its Crown, a dial for supplementing the controls in some Adobe Creative Cloud and Microsoft Office applications.
Context-sensitive complements to the mouse and touchpad aren't new, but recently there's been a resurgence, led by options like Apple's Touch Bar and the Microsoft Dial. Logitech calls its keyboard addition to the MX design line of accessories the Craft, going after the same creative-focused folks, though its implementation has a strong Microsoft Office component as well -- as long as you're on Windows. It's slated to ship in September for $200. (I don't have UK or Australian pricing or availability info, but that converts to about £155 or AU$250.)
The goal of these devices is to provide more natural-feeling input for specific types of operations, like scrubbing through video, and to let you keep your attention focused on the screen (so you don't have to look at the keyboard to find shortcuts). But there are reasons that there are so many variations on this theme and why they're not exceptionally popular outside their niches: there's no one-size-fits-all solution, and to be really useful they require deep integration with the applications.
Logitech's twist is a dial incorporated into the top of the keyboard, and at the very least it's a nice control for audio welded to a good keyboard. The Crown, as Logitech calls it, provides context-sensitive options for a specific set of applications: Adobe CC versions of Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator and Premiere; Chrome and Firefox; and Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint and Word (Office initially only on Windows). In each, if there are multiple options for a given tool -- such as brightness, contrast and opacity -- you tap to cycle through them and dial to apply. There's also a "ratchet" option that toggles the dial between discrete steps and continuous operation. Pressing and turning accesses global functions, such as system volume; tapping it will start and pause audio.
It's easy to set up, automatically searching for compatible applications on installation, and if you subsequently add an application it prompts you to install the relevant profile.
The presets are all custom plug-ins. You can also map functions in other applications, as long as there's a keyboard shortcut that makes sense. I tried to create custom profiles for other applications, but the beta Logitech software I was using did not cooperate. Logitech also plans to offer a software developer's kit to create application-specific profiles, and is going to roll out support for more applications over time.
The implementations are pretty well thought out. For example, if you're in Photoshop's layers palette and you choose to adjust brightness, contrast and so on, it creates a new adjustment layer and names it "Craft" plus the name of the adjustment. While it defaults to cycling through tabs in a browser, I remapped it to zooming the browser window in Chrome, which I find a lot more useful.
One of the problems is that you can't consistently use it for a given task; it doesn't work in any dialog boxes, so, for example, you can only use it to adjust brush size when you're on the canvas, not when you're fine-tuning multiple brush parameters in the dialog. It doesn't work with color pickers, but can cycle through the colors in the current palettes in Illustrator. This isn't really Logitech's fault; there is simply a lack of software hooks to allow it to work that way. However, I think it should be entirely possible to allow the Crown to respond to taps, say on the side, for next track and previous track.
Operation was somewhat disconnected in the latest version of the software I used, with the adjustment values lagging behind the dial by a lot. I also think there are a lot of forced use cases. In the Office applications, for example, you can use it to cycle through styles. That seems like an awfully inefficient way to work compared with directly selecting. But you can resize text with it in multiple applications, too, which is nice.
A potentially bigger problem: It's not good for lefties. That's one way in which a detached device like the Dial has a big advantage. And if you have a keyboard you like better -- I'm addicted to my Razer Chroma Ornata, for instance -- no Crown for you.
The MX line uses Logitech's Flow wireless architecture, and in the case of the Craft, enables you to seamlessly switch among up to three devices connected via Bluetooth or with Logitech's wireless Unifying Receiver, simply by pressing a button on the keyboard. Initial pairing went smoothly as well.
Even connected to my phone I can use the dial to control my music (at least in Google Play), jump between a couple of apps with Alt+Tab, and reply to texts. There's a little lag switching with the Bluetooth connection compared with the receiver -- for typing, Logitech says the Bluetooth has an 11ms report rate compared with 8ms for the proprietary connection -- but it's all generally pretty smooth. The keyboard is designed for simultaneous Mac/PC use, with appropriately labeled keys for both operating systems.
Its backlight operation has some nice touches, which are intended in part to help save battery life. Ambient light detection automatically chooses from one of three intensity levels -- you can manually choose from up to 15 -- and a proximity sensor turns the backlight on when your hand comes within a few inches of it. Logitech estimates the power should last about a week with 8 hours of use a day, 2 hours of it with the backlight on, and about three months with no backlight usage. An LED warns you when the battery is low.
For typing, the Craft feels like a good laptop keyboard. It doesn't have as much travel as a well-made desktop keyboard and it feels like I'm hitting metal as I type, but it's still pretty comfortable for a full day of touch typing. The keycaps are designed with depressions to guide your fingers to the center of the keys, which is nice, especially since they're a little slippery. It's easy to overshoot the Escape key and hit the Crown, but otherwise the layout is pretty sensible. It feels well built, heavy and made of aluminum, and rubber feet keep it firmly in place.
Logitech makes great keyboards for use simultaneously with multiple devices, and while they're not as pretty or design-coordinated, they're half the price of the Craft. While I was initially skeptical, the Craft's Crown has started to grow on me. It has its merits, especially if you hate reaching for the bracket keys to resize your Photoshop brushes or don't already have a physical jog/shuttle for scrubbing in Premiere.