First Look: Big Brand Peripherials for Under $50

By Eric Grevstad | Posted January 07, 2003
We're not sure we remember who switched first — maybe Dell, closely followed by Compaq and eMachines? But over the last couple of years, almost all desktop PCs, which used to be some shade of white, off-white, or washday gray (remember "putty?"), have turned black, usually with silver accents. And if you haven't yet color-coordinated your desktop, Logitech's latest keyboard and Microsoft's newest mouse are ready to give you a makeover.

Indeed, Microsoft is appealing to your collector's instincts as well as your fashion sense: The Wireless Optical Mouse Special Edition, a black-cased clone of the company's Wireless Optical Mouse Blue at the same $45 price, will only be available for a limited time at Best Buy and other retail outlets.

As we found when we reviewed the corded version of the Optical Mouse Blue, it's a comfortable, slightly chunky oval mouse with two buttons flanking a wide, smooth scroll wheel — just the usual two buttons plus a clickable (and noticeably clicky, with firm feedback when scrolling) wheel, with no "forward" and "back" or other buttons for power users.

But Microsoft's first-rate IntelliPoint 4.1 driver software lets you reprogram the scroll wheel (or, for that matter, the left or right button) so clicking it performs some other function instead of the default auto-scroll. It also lets you assign different button functions in different applications, so clicking the wheel can be "back" in Internet Explorer but "undo" in Word, or enjoy other niceties such as hiding the mouse pointer while typing.

About our only gripe is that the driver doesn't provide a power gauge for the Wireless Optical Mouse's two AA batteries (nor a clue as to how long they should last; we're guessing three to four weeks). Setup is as simple as putting the batteries into the mouse's tummy and plugging the wireless receiver — a black plastic oval about the size of the mouse itself — into your PC; like the Logitech keyboard, the Microsoft mouse comes with a USB cord and PS/2 adapter plug.

Being an optical mouse, the Wireless Special Edition glides smoothly and resists picking up dust and crud on surfaces ranging from plain desks to pants legs. Being wireless, it lived up to its claimed six-foot range, letting us lean back and scroll comfortably, though its response seemed a bit leisurely for our fastest mouse maneuvers — twitch-reflex gamers will prefer Logitech's MX700.

Still, if you can live without the extra buttons of Microsoft's fancier IntelliMouse models, or extra range of its Bluetooth model, the ambidextrous black Special Edition is an attractive midpriced option.

Logitech's Elegant Elite
Reviewing mice and keyboards on a regular basis, we're often asked what really is the difference between market leaders and rivals Microsoft and Logitech. The answer is simple: Microsoft acknowledges the existence of no other companies, while Logitech touts them in tacky partnership deals, offering to install a desktop shortcut to eBay and providing a keyboard key that takes users to Amazon.com.

But once you get past the easily ignored words from its sponsors and easily reprogrammed button defaults, the Elite Keyboard — Logitech's premier corded keyboard, priced at $50 — is a keeper.

Though it's a bit bulky (19.2 by 11 inches) if you attach its snap-on wrist rest — and its black finish seems to show every speck of office dust — the low-profile, nearly-flat Elite offers a first-class, soft but not mushy typing feel, with a nicely-laid-out array of auxiliary controls. (Our only layout gripe is the "User" key that puts pre-Windows XP systems into suspend or sleep mode; it's dangerously close to the Esc key.)

At top center, you'll find a set of multimedia shortcuts: a button that pops up a menu of media players on your PC, whether Windows' own or others such as Apple's QuickTime; play/pause, stop, and next/previous track buttons for CD listening; and an audio volume dial and mute button.

At the Elite's left edge are Internet navigation (what Logitech calls iNav) controls: a scroll wheel, browser "back" button, and "go" button that pops up a dialog box with a Web address (or document file) of your choice — though it doesn't instantly launch your browser and load the site; you must first press "enter." The buttons are too small to use without looking — both they and the scroll wheel are downright tiny — but handy all the same.

If you'd like to skip the press-enter confirmation in favor of real one-button access to favorite sites or applications, reach for the 12 function keys plus eight oval buttons along the keyboard's top. By default, the latter launch your browser and home page; the same with IE's Favorites pane open; your e-mail program; your instant messaging program; your Webcam software (Logitech sells Webcams); the Google search and Amazon.com shopping pages; and a Web site of your choice. (In one temporarily annoying feature, the first time you press any of the Elite's special keys, you get not the expected site or program but an introductory help screen. It disappears after the first press, but that still means you'll see it a dozen times your first day using your new keyboard.)

What's Your Function?
Logitech has copied recent Microsoft keyboards' mixed blessing of stealing the function keys F1 through F12 for additional shortcuts — by default, opening a new document; sending, replying to, or forwarding an e-mail; undo; redo; print; save; and Windows' My Computer, My Documents, My Pictures, and My Music folders.

We give a thumbs-down to the Microsoft-style F Lock key that must be pressed at startup each morning to turn off the new functions if you prefer the original F1 through F12, but a thumbs-up to Logitech's not claiming or disabling the Print Screen key as Microsoft does — and to the "transparent pass-through" option that lets you turn off the new functions on a key-by-key basis, so you can, for example, keep Logitech's choice of Undo and Redo for F5 and F6 but still use F12 for Save As if that's what you're used to.

Indeed, Logitech's iTouch 2.0 driver does an exemplary job of letting you change or reprogram the launch and function keys, assigning each to a program; a Web site; one of numerous Windows functions ranging from Undo to Control Panel; or a customizable pop-up menu with as many sites or applications as you like (though we weren't able to rearrange or reorder menu entries).

All in all, we're thoroughly satisfied with both Microsoft's Wireless Optical Mouse Special Edition and Logitech's Elite Keyboard. The former is a smooth, sensibly priced way to get cable- and clutter-free convenience, while the latter is the best corded keyboard we've tried. And though the rival vendors may view it as unholy matrimony, we think the black-and-silver pair look great together.

Adapted from Hardware Central.

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