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There was a time when secretaries, data input professionals, and stenographers were generally the only ones who suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries. Fast-forward a few decades and everyone's posture is out of alignment thanks to the ubiquity of computers in the office and something called "text neck."
Microsoft endeavored to combat the physical effects of sitting in an unnatural position all day, and after two years, the design team came up with the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop: a keyboard-and-mouse combo that positions your hands to alleviate pressure on the wrists. Though it's priced ambitiously at $129.95, the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop will certainly satisfy users craving a more natural, comfortable position to keep wrist pain at bay.
Design and features
Microsoft tells us that the keyboard earned the code name Manta Ray during its test phase, a hat tip to the angled-in design of the keypad and the teardrop cutout in the center that truly emphasizes the separated form.
The keyboard is especially flat on the sides and gradually rises toward the center, forcing your hands into the proper position that feels very natural.
The design saves room by splitting off the number pad into a separate unit, which you can stick in a drawer if you're not using it. Without the number pad, the keyboard only measures a little more than 15 inches wide.
When you place your hands on the home row, you'll find that your wrists are delicately guided to the softly padded wrist rest that stretches beneath the device and measures nearly the width of the keyboard itself.
The integrated wrist pad is designed to combat bad habits before they become an issue. Those already suffering through carpal tunnel syndrome are surely familiar with the splints worn to prevent the hands from moving into problem positions.
The keyboard also comes with a removable riser bar that attaches to the bottom and pushes your wrists up even farther; personally, I prefer to type without it and still feel a relief from prolonged strain compared with a traditional, horizontal keyboard.
The riser and the battery compartment door underneath include magnets that snap them into place, and Microsoft adds another nice touch by including Duracell batteries instead of the usual generic brands typically bundled with other peripherals. The keyboard uses two AAA batteries for power, the mouse uses another two AAs, and a small internal lithium ion battery juices up the number pad.
Every keyboard requires some time to learn in order to get back up to normal typing speed, and this is especially a factor with the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop set. While the keys gave my fingers a comfortable home row, I found myself getting thrown off by the placement of the B key. Glance down at any standard keyboard and you'll see that the B sits directly underneath the G and the H keys, with an equal distance to access with either the right or the left hand.
I've been touch typing for more than 15 years with an average typing speed of 120 words per minute (humble brag) and consider the B an ambidextrous key, but Microsoft forces you to follow its standard and hit it with your index finger. It's a minor gripe, but an anecdotal poll around the office showed that roughly half of those surveyed access the B with both their right and left hands depending on the letters that come before and after it.
On a positive note, the chiclet-style keys themselves have a very short distance to depress and actuate, which makes for a very quick and quiet typing experience. I'm also a big fan of the decision to cut the spacebar into two parts, allowing a more unobtrusive click for either hand.
The Sculpted Ergonomic Desktop is optimized for Windows 8 so you'll recognize the Windows Metro button instead of the old Start icon to the left of the spacebar. Discerning typists might also notice the omission of the familiar Fn button that usually gives access to a secondary set of shortcuts on the number row.
Instead, this keyboard features a switch on the upper right corner to toggle among the functions of the F1-F12 keys, which isn't a deal breaker but will likely dissuade hard-core PC gamers whose virtual lives relies on these shortcuts.
The keyboard is a solid performer for ergonomics and easy access, but it doesn't have much by way of extra features, such as backlit keys or even a small LED diode to let the user know that it's on. I also would've liked to see the option to use an internal rechargeable battery with the keyboard-and-mouse combo, as well as the ability to power off the devices when not in use to prolong life between charges.
The mouse that comes with the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop bundle has a new shape for a Microsoft product and feels like a slightly oblong baseball in your hands. A cutout on the left side means this is a dead end for left-handed users, but like the keyboard, it guides your fingers into a position that minimizes contact between the desk and the palm of your hand.
In addition to two standard left and right clickers, the mouse also includes a notched scroll dial in the center along with an additional Windows Metro start button for easy access to the Windows 8 Start menu.
There's also a button on the left side that operates as a Back button in an Internet browser by default, but it's somewhat hard to find without looking for it specifically; I prefer the larger thumb rest on the Logitech Wireless Performance Mouse MX.
Unlike the matte keyboard, the Sculpt mouse is covered in a glossy, black plastic finish that attracts fingerprints and can leave your hands slightly sticky if you're prone to sweating. The undercarriage houses two AAs and you also get a built-in sheath for the USB dongle for easy access on the road.
As with the keyboard, there's no way to check the status of the battery when you're using the mouse, but at least you get a power switch underneath as well as a small laser that emits a blue light so you know it's on.
The Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop is not without its design flaws, and I wish Microsoft had included backlit keys and rechargeable batteries, but such features aren't the focus of the set.
The target customer for the Desktop is anyone who spends the day with his or her hands glued to input devices and who is concerned about painful hand and arm posture. Microsoft delivers a keyboard and mouse that force your hands into a more relaxed position, and while it may take some time to adjust to the placement and angles, once you do, you won't regret buying this set.