A4 Tech Full Comfort Wireless Desktop Review

By Eric Grevstad | Posted May 13, 2003
Compared to slickly packaged keyboard-and-mouse bundles from Microsoft and Logitech, the Full Comfort Wireless Desktop from A4 Tech doesn't look very glamorous. The software driver and typing tutor come on 3.5-inch floppies instead of a CD. The box and manual are written in Taiwan-import English ("The unit is designed to fit into your thumb ergonomically to feel the ever comfort").

But the Full Comfort is a fair value — available at Datavision, J&R, and the company's own online store for $70, it's less than other cordless combos with optical mice (Logitech's Cordless Navigator Duo is $80; Microsoft's Wireless Optical Desktop is $85). It has features reserved for the big brands' higher-end models, such as Forward and Back buttons and a mouse-alternative scroll wheel at the edge of the keyboard.

A4 Tech's keyboard design also stands out from other cordless desk sets: Its "A-shaped" or dual-diagonal skew of the standard QWERTY layout (with slightly trapezoidal instead of square keys ascending to a pyramidal number 6) leaves your hands aligned with the inward curve of your forearms when seated at a keyboard, instead of flexed at the wrist. It doesn't feel like a huge difference when typing, but it does feel more natural when at rest.

And, if you haven't already noticed, the numeric keypad is on the left instead of right side. This will be nirvana for left-handed spreadsheet jockeys, who can enter reams of numbers with one hand while maneuvering the mouse with the other. Righties may need a bit of practice to enter numbers accurately with their left hands, but they'll find it's more convenient to have the mouse closer to home — with keyboard-to-mouse (and back) hand movement reduced almost four inches, we noticed ourselves using the mouse in conjunction with the keyboard (say, selecting text with the mouse instead of the Shift and arrow keys) more often. Sometimes, a small and simple change makes a lot of sense.

Add a precise and smooth-moving optical mouse, and the Full Comfort Desktop looks downright attractive. On the other hand, the right-hand rearrangement can make a few familiar moves feel clumsy, and our test unit's radio-frequency wireless setup seemed less reliable than others we've tried — it's the first time we've tested a cordless keyboard and mouse and found ourselves wishing for a more conventional corded set.

Let Function Keys Be Function Keys
The A4 Tech keyboard and mouse come with two AA alkaline batteries for the former and two sets of two AA rechargeable batteries for the latter — instead of having to remember to return the mouse to a charging cradle at the end of each day as some cordless rodents require (and which we invariably forget), whichever pair of batteries you're not using in the mouse pop into the radio receiver, which doubles as a recharger. The receiver has two PS/2 jacks to plug into your desktop's keyboard and mouse ports.

Though the keypad's at the left, the keyboard does squeeze Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, and Delete keys and cursor arrows to the right of the main keys (the rarely used Insert key is above the keypad, to the left of the Esc key). It takes some practice for touch typists to relearn the Delete key, plunked dangerously between Page Down and the up arrow, and the cursor-movement commands Ctrl-Home and Ctrl-End become quite a stretch.

Like Microsoft and Logitech, A4 Tech offers an alternate, Microsoft Office-friendly set of functions for the function keys F1 through F12, such as Undo and Redo for F5 and F6 and e-mail Reply and Forward for F9 and F11. To its great credit, however, these are options toggled by pressing an "Office" button instead of like-it-or-not defaults — when your PC boots up, you get the real function keys, with no need to press an "F Lock" key to undo the vendor's meddling. You can tell whether Office mode, Caps Lock, or Scroll Lock are active by glancing at icons alongside the keyboard and mouse driver in the Windows Taskbar tray.

Shiny Buttons In addition to the double-duty function keys, some 19 chrome buttons along the top of the keyboard offer customizable program-launch shortcuts — defaults include your e-mail client, My Documents, Calculator, Windows CD Player, and your Web browser's home page — and operations such as raising, lowering, or muting audio volume; play, pause, and next and previous track for listening to music CDs; and Internet Explorer's Favorites, Refresh, and Cancel buttons.

Browser Forward and Back buttons and a rather sticky scroll wheel are at the right edge of the keyboard, instead of the left edge where some Microsoft and Logitech models have them. We think this makes little sense, since keyboard scroll wheels were invented to let you keep your hands on the keyboard instead of reaching for the mouse; why put a substitute scroller right next to the one on the newly nearby mouse?

By contrast, the Full Comfort mouse's own scroll wheel is clicky but capable, and the optical mouse moves smoothly, as almost all of its no-cleaning-required brethren do. Though it's shaped strictly for right-handed users (the "ever comfort" thumb scoop mentioned above), the mouse feels comfortable and its left and right buttons have a good, firm feel.

By default, pressing or clicking the mouse wheel serves not as an auto-scroll middle button but pops up a "LuckyJump" or "NetJump" mini-menu of icons for launching various programs or functions such as the Start menu, Forward and Back, and Control Panel.

The supplied software driver lets you customize the buttons, just as the keyboard driver lets you reassign the special keys (though you get more choices for the latter than the former). Alas, you can't assign different mouse-button shortcuts to different applications — making the middle button, say, Back in Internet Explorer but Undo in Word — as you can with Microsoft's driver.

Missed Signals?
A slight lag between movement on your mouse pad and the cordless link's reaching the mouse pointer on screen makes the 800-dpi unit, like many other wireless mice, unsuitable for fast-response game fans. But otherwise, the Full Comfort mouse rates with the best we've tried — and if its on-screen "gas gauge" is at all accurate, you can look forward to a good week of mousing around before you'll need to swap the rechargeable NiMH batteries.

By contrast, the Full Comfort keyboard has a merely fair typing feel — firm and plasticky when keys are pressed, though not particularly responsive or springy in release (the first day, we thought once or twice the Enter key was stuck down after a carriage return, but that was just its normal feel).

And our test unit seemed to be a weak link in our combo, or rather, to have a weaker link to the wireless receiver. During our first day with the system, copy and paste (Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V) commands we could have sworn we typed just as always proved, about a third of the time, to be misfires. Moving the receiver more in line with the keyboard, and typing with a bit more care and pressure, fixed the problem, but after three days we started experiencing occasional dropped keys. Installing a new pair of alkaline batteries helped, but we still noticed infrequent skipped letters or Web-site password rejections.

That's why we say we'd like to see a corded version of the diagonal-angled, keypad-on-left keyboard (A4 Tech's online catalog doesn't currently list one, though it offers several keypad-on-right models). When you have a layout that genuinely improves typing comfort and keyboard/mouse synergy, you don't want to be slowed by needless typos.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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