Tapping into the wireless zone

The keyboard is a necessary and often neglected part of a computer system. Desktop systems often come with gruesome $8 specials that torture their users with poor touch and poorer ergonomics. It’s no wonder that people are tired and sore after a day of typing.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Users and companies invest in decent monitors to protect peoples’ eyesight; a few dollars spent on a good keyboard would improve productivity too.

There are, of course, many varieties of keyboards – wired, wireless, ergonomic, chorded, with alternate key layouts such as Dvorak – the list goes on and on. Each has its pros and cons. We chose to look at a type that is becoming increasingly popular: wireless.

Wireless keyboards rely on a transmitter of some sort, typically radio, but sometimes infrared or Bluetooth, which replaces the cable that usually carries keystrokes from fingers to computer (and power from computer to keyboard – be prepared to buy batteries). This allows users to eliminate some of the tangle of wires surrounding the average machine, and gives them the option to sit back in a comfy chair, keyboard on lap and work.

Of course, if you have a wireless keyboard, the next logical step – if you want flexibility – is a wireless mouse, so vendors frequently offer keyboard/mouse bundles that work off a single transmitter. All of the units we tested came that way; you’ll see some mouse notes later. However, we concentrated mainly on the keyboards.

Prices are all in Canadian dollars, converted from U.S. if necessary.

Belkin Wireless Keyboard
Warranty: Lifetime
Layout: 4.5
Touch: 3.5
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 3
Total: 19.5

Bundle price: $89.99
Average: 3.9

Belkin’s duo can connect either over USB or PS/2, making it usable on older, pre-USB PCs. The transceiver is a flat oval with two lights on it (mouse and keyboard). Two AAA batteries power the keyboard.

The layout is standard, with all keys the expected size, shape and position, which will make touch-typists happy. Above the function keys, there’s an extra set of buttons: three to go directly to special folders (My Documents, My Pictures, My Music), seven to control audio, an e-mail launch button, and three that launch and control the Web browser. Under Windows XP, they all work without additional drivers.

The touch is comfortable, although the space bar makes a frightful clatter when pressed. When you’re typing at a brisk clip, it’s a bit disconcerting. There’s no caps lock or num lock indicator on the unit – typical for wireless models for some reason. A few models transplant the lights to their transceiver, but Belkin chose not to. Indicators are provided in the system tray after you load the drivers.

Gyration Cordless Optical Keyboard Suite
Warranty: Two years
Layout: 4.5
Touch: 3.5
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 4.5
Total: 19.5

Bundle price: $149.99
Average: 3.9

The Gyration keyboard runs on four AA batteries. It has a standard key layout, with the usual block of six keys, including Insert and Delete, between the alphabetic keys and the numeric keypad.

The shape is attractive, with enough heft to be stable without being too heavy. This is the only unit that actually blatantly admits it’s Mac-compatible by printing an Apple keycap (the Alt key for a PC) and an alt option key (the Windows key). A removable palm rest snaps on if you like, though I found it quite comfortable without.

Across the top of the keyboard you’ll find browser control, e-mail and multimedia control keys, separated in the middle by a little green light that flashes as you type to tell you the keyboard and transceiver are talking. Since the transceiver is a USB key, that’s handy. As usual on these wireless units, there’s no caps lock or num lock indicator on the keyboard itself. The touch is quite heavy for my taste.

Centrios Wireless Keyboard
Warranty: 90 days
Layout: 4.5
Touch: 3
Controls: 3
Compatibility: 3
Total: 14.5

Bundle price: $79.99
Average: 2.9

The Centrios suite is an interesting combination of “isn’t that clever” and “what were they thinking?” For example, the transceiver is also the mouse charging cradle, and has a compartment in the bottom to charge the included batteries so you can keep a spare set ready if you like. That’s good. But unless you have a pair of standard AAA batteries handy, you’ll have to go shopping – Centrios is the only vendor that didn’t include keyboard batteries in the box. That’s silly. Yet there’s actually a low battery indicator on top of the keyboard, which is clever.

Key layout is completely standard, with additional buttons controlling power and audio, plus quick launch buttons for My Computer, Search, Home, Mail and Refresh. The audio controls do not work under Windows 98. A herd of unmarked lights on the transceiver indicate the status of things like caps lock and num lock.

Interlink Remotepoint RF Combo
Warranty: One year
Layout: 3
Touch: 3
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 3.5
Total 16

Bundle price: $343.08
Average: 3.2

This probably looks like one heck of a price for a wireless keyboard/mouse combo, but this is a specialized duo. Designed for use in conference rooms during presentations, and connecting to either a PC or a Mac G3, the keyboard is optimized for handheld operation. It even has mouse buttons in the top left corner and a cursor control in the right, exactly where your thumbs would naturally fall when holding it. The bottom is gently sculpted, providing grips.

I’m not convinced you’d do anything but occasional typing on this thing, so the lack of a numeric keypad is not a disaster. The keys are packed closer together than on a standard keyboard, too, and the key travel is shorter. The keys also feel a bit sticky to me.

Lenovo Enhanced Performance Wireless Keyboard
Warranty: One year
Layout: 4.5
Touch: 4
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 3
Total: 18

Bundle price: $94
Average: 3.6

This is a lovely unit. It feels sturdy without being overly heavy, and the touch is delightful: crisp but gentle, without feeling mushy. There’s minimal key clatter, mostly from the space bar. Key layouts are standard, so users will have no trouble adapting to it.

The wireless transceiver is a USB data key. Just plug it into an available port, wait until Windows recognizes it, then press its “Connect” button, followed by the button on the bottom of the keyboard. Included software activates the special function keys, including multimedia controls, browser forward and back buttons and programmable quick access buttons for frequently used programs. There’s even an Access IBM button. The software also gives you Taskbar indicators to replace missing Caps Lock, Num Lock and Scroll Lock lights.

Logitech Cordless Desktop MX 3100
Warranty: Five years
Layout: 4
Touch: 3.5
Controls: 4
Compatibility: 3
Total: 19

Bundle price: $172.05
Average: 3.8

The radio for this unit doubles as a charging station for the mouse.

It will connect to the computer via either USB or PS/2. There are no indicators for caps lock, etc on the keyboard itself, but the transceiver unit has appropriate indicator lights (though they sometimes lie about the state of the F-lock key), and the driver flashes up notification of state changes in large green letters on the screen.

An otherwise standard key layout is confused by an oversized Delete key sitting beside Page Up and Page Down; Insert is relegated to a sliver of a key in the function key row, sharing with Scroll Lock (you press F-Lock to get at the alternate function).

Microsoft
Warranty: 4
Layout: 3.5
Touch: 3
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 4
Total: 18

Bundle price: $139.95
Average: 3.6

Microsoft’s keyboard is silvery molded plastic with a cushioned wrist rest built in. The keys are arranged in a slight wave, which makes it weird to type on. The keys in the middle – N, B, G, H, Y and T – are oversized, and the CTRL, Alt and Windows keys are extra-tall. This keyboard also has the same unusual configuration of a giant Delete key with Insert relegated to a function key much like Logitech’s keyboard. The function keys, however, are full-sized, and serve as program controls when the F-lock is engaged.

Across the top and down the left edge, you find all sorts of extra keys: five programmable “My Favorites” and multimedia controls on top, and quick access buttons for the usually suspects (e-mail, instant messenger, My Documents, Calendar and Web), plus a “Zoom” switch that expands whatever the cursor is sitting on.

Mouse tales
The mice in our bundles range from mundane to downright funky. Lenovo’s rodent, for example, looks like a garden-variety two-button optical wheel mouse, but when you touch it, it feels like suede. How long that coating lasts is anyone’s guess, but it’s comfy under the fingers. Belkin’s mouse is an ordinary, comfortable to use optical mouse that just happens to be wireless. Logitech’s unit is purely for right-handers, with its sculpted design and navigation buttons placed conveniently under the thumb. I liked the battery indicator on it that tells you when it needs recharging.

Centrios’ mouse has rechargeable batteries too, and a cleverly placed charger in the transceiver/base station so you can charge a spare set. Microsoft’s is another right-handers only model, and it, like the keyboard, feels like a cheap kid’s toy. But it’s funky.

Gyration, on the other hand, is a unique combination of standard mouse and gyroscopic handheld controller. It has standard mouse buttons and a wheel on top, and a trigger on the bottom for use when you’re doing presentations and need to change slides. It comes with a charging cradle.

Also in the funky category is InterLink’s RemotePoint RF, a rodent that looks more like a TV remote control than a mouse.

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