Compared to the plain old keyboard that comes with most PC’s, the Microsoft Natural 4000 ergonomic keyboard is a big improvement. The price tag is under 35 bucks – but you get what you pay for.
Microsoft has long been a leader in ergonomic hardware (which is a kind of funny niche, when you think about it, for the world’s biggest software provider). Their Natural and Elite boards from the 1990’s pretty much define what we think of as an “ergonomic keyboard.” I myself used a vintage Elite for years, up until just a few weeks ago, because I simply couldn’t find anything else as comfortable.
Released a few years ago, the 4000 is the latest in Micrsoft’s Natural series. It builds upon the earlier designs, greatly improving several areas.
A nice place to park your hands
Older Microsoft keyboards were made entirely of cold plastic, including the palm rest. While this reduced the temptation to lean on one’s wrists while typing – which can be very harmful – it wasn’t an inviting place to park your hands during breaks. All that changed with the 4000. Its palm rest is a silky-smooth leatherette with just the right amount of padding. In my opinion, Microsoft hit this feature out of the park. Some manufacturers, such as Kinesis, sell Lycra pads that feel curiously hard and scratchy to my rather sensitive palms. Not so the 4000. I have never felt any material so conducive to all-day comfort.
With the 4000, Microsoft brought back a great feature found on some of their early keyboards – negative tilt capability. Negative tilt has the exact opposite effect of the “feet” on the back of most keyboards. Instead of making the back higher than the front, it makes the front higher than the back. Why would you want this? Ergonomists have long decried positive tilt as a menace to correct wrist position. In recent years, they have begun to favor not just zero-tilt, but negative tilt as a beneficial position. Think about it: Are your hands more comfortable bent back as if you were waving someone off, or relaxed out in front of you, arms angled slightly down?
There is one major caveat when using the negative slope attachment: It won’t work on tall desks. If you don’t have a keyboard tray at or near lap level, putting a negative tilt on the keyboard will actually cause problems.
Every key you could want
The 4000 has more extra keys than most people will ever use. In addition to the standard multimedia buttons – play, pause, volume – there are keys to start the calculator, open your favorites, launch your email, search the Internet, and visit your homepage. In front of the space bar are dedicated Forward and Back buttons. Plus, there are five keys along the top that can be customized to do whatever you want using the keyboard driver software.
Right in the middle of the keyboard, between the two halves, is a puzzling “Zoom” control, which is a little like a Thinkpad joystick-pointer and a little like a scroll wheel, but isn’t as useful as either of them. I wish MS had decided to put an actual scroll wheel there instead.
A really, really big keyboard
All these extra whiz-bang buttons will cost you in terms of desk space. At 20 inches wide by over 10 inches deep, the 4000 is one of the biggest keyboards you can buy. Why should you care? A bigger keyboard means less room on your desk, particularly in the place where you need it most – the area to the immediate right of the keyboard, where the mouse lives. Push the mouse away and you risk major elbow problems from the overreach. Slide the keyboard to the left and your most-used keys are no longer centered in front of you.
A possible solution – really the only good solution – for this dilemma is to switch mousing hands. Putting the mouse on the left makes room for everything, even the biggest of keyboards.
Bring a bigger hammer
Now we come to the one feature of the Microsoft Natural 4000 keyboard that is surprisingly inadequate. Unfortunately, it’s also the single most important feature of any keyboard – the key action. The MS Natural 4000 has the most unpleasant key action of any keyboard I have ever tried. The majority of the keys are very difficult to press – but the space bar takes the cake. It is almost impossible to press it with one thumb from the normal resting position at one side of the bar. You either have to press with both thumbs at the same time – which is not the way typists are taught – or else scoot the actuating thumb closer to the middle of the space bar.
I am by no means the only user to notice this problem. There are several home remedies available for the ailing 4000 space bar. Some folks actually oil it. Others remove its metal spring. I have no idea how well these tricks work, because I haven’t tried them. To me, any decent keyboard – even a relatively inexpensive one – should not have to be riskily modded right out of the box.
For me, the space bar issue alone makes the 4000 a keyboard I’d be unlikely to use. However, some folks such as reviewer Alex Pavlov, don’t seem to mind, and others say that the space bar issue gets much better with constant use over time. And, obviously, a keyboard that averages 4 stars in over a thousand Amazon reviews can’t be wholly unpopular with the masses.
The bottom line
Not everybody is ready to drop $270 for a Kinesis Advantage, or even $90 for a Freestyle Solo. The Microsoft Natural 4000, which was going for less than $35 on Amazon at the time of this writing, is one of the most affordable ergonomic options out there. If you’re struggling along with a “standard” keyboard, a properly-used 4000 can be a fine first step in the right direction.