Test Drive: Microsoft Natural MultiMedia Keyboard and Optical Mouse Blue

By Eric Grevstad

What’s up with the blue products, anyway? Lately we’ve seen Blue from American Express, Pepsi Blue, and now Microsoft has introduced a new line of desktop fall fashions anchored by an Optical Mouse Blue and keyboards with what it calls “astral blue” accents. There’s also a wireless version of the mouse, although it uses older models’ radio technology instead of Bluetooth.

Actually, the new blue hue is a nice change from the usual off-white, or the black and silver that seems to have replaced beige as desktop PC makers’ favorite. Besides highlighting the conventionally corded Optical Mouse Blue ($35) and Wireless Optical Mouse Blue ($45), it festoons the MultiMedia Keyboard ($35) and Natural MultiMedia Keyboard ($55), which share a new top-row layout of multimedia controls and shortcut keys with, respectively, a traditional layout and Microsoft’s split ergonomic setup. We tested the corded mouse and split keyboard for this article.

If you do prefer black and silver, Microsoft has chosen it instead of blue for two bundles of cordless keyboards (with the new top-row controls) and cordless mice, the Wireless Optical Desktop ($85) and split-keyboard Wireless Optical Desktop Pro ($105). All of the abovementioned mice use smooth-gliding, zero-maintenance optical instead of old-fashioned, crud-collecting rolling-ball technology, which fixes the obvious fault of Microsoft’s first cable-free mouse-and-keyboard combo (see our January 2002 review).

As Good As a Three-Button Mouse Gets
The Optical Mouse Blue squeezes into Microsoft’s overstuffed rodent roster just above the generic white Wheel Mouse Optical ($30) and below the IntelliMouse Optical ($45) and voluptuously ergonomic IntelliMouse Explorer ($55).

Unlike the latter two, it has no side buttons to mimic a Web browser’s Back and Forward toolbar icons – just the usual left and right mouse buttons with a scroll wheel between them, the wheel is also clickable as a button (triggering an auto-scroll function by default).

The new model’s scroll wheel is a bit wider than those of other mice, which makes for slightly more convenient vertical navigation, and translucent, which adds panache (as does the company’s trademark red taillight). Otherwise, the mouse offers an ordinary oval shape, comfortable for either right or left hands but not as cozy a hand rest as the Explorer, along with the familiar PC- and Mac-compatible USB cable with detachable PS/2 port adapter.

Like other optical mice, the Blue’s smooth motion (even on a desk with no mouse pad, as long as you avoid mirrored or glass desktops) will spoil you for a scratchy mechanical rolling ball.

The biggest negative is that we’ve been spoiled by four- and five-button mice to the point where we missed having a customizable side-mounted or thumb button, but consoled ourselves with the Optical Mouse Blue’s relatively low price – and Microsoft’s first-class IntelliPoint 4.1 driver software, which makes it easy to reprogram the wheel or other buttons for anything from launching a favorite program to a shortcut function such as copy, paste, or undo. It also supports different button assignments in different applications (say, auto-scroll for a click of the wheel in Word but Back for the same action in Internet Explorer).

In the past, we compared Microsoft’s old Office Keyboard to a white whale; the new color scheme makes the Natural MultiMedia Keyboard a white whale with a blue fin – and, surprisingly, just a good old PS/2 interface instead of USB connector, so you can’t use it with some of the newest USB-only notebook or desktop PCs. Nor can you detach the palm rest to reduce its 10 by 19-inch footprint.

It looked radical in 1994, but chances are you’ve encountered Microsoft’s “Natural” or ergonomically split keyboard layout by now. Even if you haven’t, the design’s keep-your-wrists-parallel left- and right-hand divide takes surprisingly little getting used to (although we were obliged to stop slouching low in our chair and using our right hand for the B key). You’ll want to prop up its swiveling feet and take some extra care or precision the first day or two, but should soon be at virtually full speed, enjoying the soft-without-being-mushy typing feel.

Like the Office Keyboard, the Natural MultiMedia turns the cursor-control sextet sideways, with Home alongside instead of above End and a double-sized Delete key. The last is marginally handy, but we fumbled occasionally, and the Insert key’s doubling for Print Screen clashed with Microsoft’s decision to assign the F1 through F12 function keys new functions, such as Undo for F2, Redo for F3, and Reply for F7. Since we’re hardwired to hit F12 for Save As, we had to press the “F lock” key that restores the default function keys, but then discovered the Alt-PrtScn application-screen-capture shortcut didn’t work.

But many users will like the new function keys, and nearly everyone will like the top-row special keys. A trio at the top left open the My Documents, My Pictures, and My Music folders, while three at the right launch your e-mail client, Web home page, and Windows Messenger (a.k.a. .Net Messenger).

At the center, volume up, down, and mute keys are handily arranged with play, pause, and next/previous track CD control buttons and a key to launch Windows Media Player. Finally, buttons above the keypad launch Windows’ Calculator and its logoff and sleep/suspend functions respectively.

If you’re like us, you’ll want to reassign a few of the above to launch other programs or utilities. And once again, Microsoft offsets its near-comical “What? Surely you’re not running anything other than Windows and Office, are you?” defaults with excellent software for changing them – IntelliType Pro 2.2 gives you plenty of options (for F1 through F12 and the bottom-row Windows and menu keys as well as the top-row launch buttons) and makes it easy to customize things.

All told, Microsoft’s new blues aren’t quite the ultimate ergonomic input devices – for that, the company would probably tell you to wait for the super-fancy, premium-priced Bluetooth wireless keyboard/mouse combo it’s shipping later this fall. But they strike a good balance of flexibility and affordability for anyone looking to jettison a boring PC-standard-equipment desk set.

Reprinted from hardwarecentral.com.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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