Saturday, July 11, 2015

Quick (ha!) review of the Microsoft Arc keyboard

Image stolen from, I happened to buy this at a Best Buy, so it's okay?

I'm trying to get myself on a daily writing routine, which has had mixed results so far.  But if I'm going to take this seriously, ergonomics is something I should spend some time researching.  Hell, even if I don't write a lot I spend so much time in front of a computer screen, I should pay a bit more tribute to getting my workspace right.

Concession one was that my screen should be at eye level, a bit of a problem when I'm using a tiny netbook to do most of my writing.  But a wireless keyboard and any sort of box can fix that.  (I also have a second solution which is working nicely in my bedroom, which is to use my television as my primary monitor, using it from across the room.  I have to scale the font size way up, but looking say twenty feet away for extended periods of time is supposed to be easier on the eyes than looking say a foot away for similar amounts of time, so hopefully a screen eight feet away will be a little better as well.  I'm not a doctor, a million doctors may be rolling their eyes at this right now, but it's not like my eyes have fallen out of their sockets or anything as a result either).

Okay, so I'm buying a keyboard, what keyboard?    I'm not interested in those split super-ergonomic keyboards (see picture above - source).  I've used them a little at work, not a fan.  Honestly I feel like the biggest boon to my hands would be just making a point to type as gently as possible.  Back when I wrote with a pen and paper like some kind of super-advanced caveman with access to advanced processing and mass production facilities, I noticed I wrote as if I thought the harder I clutched the pen the faster I would go.  Not so.  Buying better, smoother pens helped, but ultimately I had to keep reminding myself to go easier on my grip until I rewrote the habit.

Alternatively, I read one article on ergonomics that said just having multiple dissimilar keyboards that you switch between can help a lot.  The type of injuries I'm trying to avoid here are repetitive stress injuries of course, and a bigger, smaller, or differently shaped keyboard could help reduce the repetition.  So, want to know what kind of keyboard I bought?  Spoiler alert, look at the title of this post!

I've been using the Microsoft Arc keyboard for a month now.  Here is a random assortment of thoughts:

  • It's wireless, but not Bluetooth?  The lack of Bluetooth means 1) it uses an extra usb port, 2) I can't use it on my phone or tablet. 3) I'm fucked if I ever lose that dongle.  Does Bluetooth have some engineering problems I'm unaware of?  I'm pretty sure Bluetooth 4.0 makes it way easier to conform to their standards without paying for a license, or is that only for hobbyists?
  • Bluetooth does have one downside for say streaming music as many devices don't have a dedicated Bluetooth chip, so using Bluetooth slows your wifi a bit, and using wifi can degrade your Bluetooth signal.  That said, I doubt it applies too much to a keyboard, and even in music streaming it's a minor annoyance at best, I can always plug into a speaker's aux port if the data exchange is too vexing.
  • Looking at the box, I just noticed it says that it works on Xbox too!  Does that mean their refusal to use Bluetooth on the Xbox is why this keyboard isn't Bluetooth?  If so, way to steer into a poor decision.
  • It is not backlit, and the letters on the keys are off-white with a dull matte finish.  Why?  Why doesn't this shit ever end?  And why me???  But seriously, why not use bright reflective white (yellow is better but might be annoying to some) letter decals out of the factory?  Understand, I'm a touch-typist, largely.  But I do look at the keyboard occasionally, and lower contrast keys make my mind pause for a second to discern my hand's proper position, even if my hands already know where they are.  It's weird, but that's how it is.  Even if they're not reflective, why in Great Scott's name are they dull grey?  In the dimly lit room I'm typing in now it's really a bit of a strain to make them out. (I'm serious, not only is it a bit of a strain, it's really a bit.  Not metaphorically, but really.  A bit of a strain.  So you know I'm drawing some lines in the mothereffing sand here).
  • There are no separate directional keys, which I didn't notice at the time of purchase (I was more worried about the location of the CTRL key, which is in the right place, btw).  There is a single four-way rocker key that acts as all four arrow keys.  It's not as nice as dedicated keys, but it works, and smaller keyboards all make some sort of compromise to get all the keys we know and expect to fit in a uniform rectangle.
  • There are also only six dedicated F-keys (F1-F6), the rest of the top row are Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, volume keys and Delete.  You can use the Fn key to call up F7-F12 if you must. It doesn't affect my use in the slightest, F2 and F5 are the only two F-keys I really use.
  • I don't know if the curved shape is easier on my hands or anything.  I did notice I've been able to type quickly on it from the get go.  And it is different from my other keyboards without being prohibitively so, so I think it fits the bill.
  • All the keys cut off at a certain point if held down for too long.  The arrow keys have about 159 "key sends" (according to my text editor) before cutting off and something like 129 sends for a random letter I just held down to test.  I'm assuming they did some research and found the curved surface makes accidental presses more likely if you set the keyboard aside for a moment, or happen to set something like a magazine on it (on a flat keyboard the weight would be distributed equally over most of the keys, on this one some keys are naturally higher than the others).  Doesn't matter too much, except the arrow keys cutting out are really annoying if you're trying to select a long bit of text, for example.  Not a deal-breaker, but a minor annoyance.
  • No adjustable angle.  I know, most adjustable height tabs on keyboards are plastic and break really easily, they're mostly crap anyway and never seem to give enough angle.  But being a human, I need to feel like I have at least a little bit of control over my environment, you know?

Above is a picture of my keyboard. I applied some reflective yellow stickers to increase the visibility of the keys.  Note that this picture is taken with a flash, but it does highlight the difference between the stickers and the dull matte original labeling (which you can see on the top and bottom right corners of the keyboard).  The original decals look okay in this picture, but consider the flash and the contrast ratio between the decal types.  Imagine using this in low light. I wish manufacturers would realize that they don't even have to ship backlit keyboards, just make the key decals bright and reflective enough to be illuminated by a dim monitor.  They really do make a difference.

I like the action, the keys are fairly quiet but springy.  I might like a bit less resistance but that's probably because I'm more used to flimsy laptop keyboards. My real problem is the lack of Bluetooth---it means this device will stay at home when I travel, and a cheaper, backlit bluetooth keyboard will go with me, so I can break it out to continue work on my tablet if and when my laptop dies.  A backlit bluetooth version of this keyboard would make me a rabid evangelist in spite of all other flaws, because the design and feel of this keyboard really is quite good.

By the way, another tip I saw on saving your hands if you type a lot, don't hit two keys with one hand. Yeah.  So when you do CTRL+ something or SHIFT+something have one hand hit the Control or Shift keys and have your other do the other key, as I just didn't when typing them in caps.  It's a hard habit to get into, because using the shift key is usually so fast I don't think about it until half a sentence later.  Also, remember in your school's typing class how cool it was when you realized how many keys you could hit with one hand, or how far apart two keys could be and still be hit with one hand?  Well I do, and apparently that was me flipping off the future.  Conform to mediocrity, as I should have done!  Conform!  Also never do CTRL+ALT+DELETE unless you put a glass or something on the delete key, and don't spill your drink on the keyboard either.  And don't sue me if you do.  Also don't sue me if ergonomics ends up being less of a science than homeopathy.

Well heavens, my initiative to write more is working, look at all these words!  Can you feel the power?  Let me just make a note of this progress...  Oh, it seems that on my list of activities, blog posts are considered to be borderline stalling and don't necessarily count as "productive behavior". Well isn't that just the shits?   I blame you, Microsoft!  And Google, you know what you've done!

Ok, I guess it's back to stalling in other online spaces.


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