When most people say “ergonomic keyboard,” what they’re envisioning is a Microsoft-style curved model such as the popular Natural 4000. As discussed elsewhere, the Natural 4000 has significant shortcomings such as its size and key action. Because of these I have long hoped that Microsoft would introduce a more worthy successor to the world’s most popular ergonomic keyboard. Last summer, they finally did.
The Ergo in Sculpt Ergo
In principle, all Microsoft ergonomic keyboards work the same way: The keyboard is curved or split, so that your wrists can stay more nearly straight and relaxed while typing. Different models implement this concept to varying degrees – some so subtly you’d barely know you’re typing on a curve at all. The Sculpt Ergo is at the fully-split end of this spectrum, featuring about the same wrist angle as the Natural 4000 – but the resemblence pretty much ends there. The Sculpt is by far smaller and thinner than its predecessor, features chiclet-style keys, and shows a better quality level in its build. If you liked previous split ergonomic keyboards, you will probably like the Microsoft Sculpt Ergo even more.
You can put away your hacksaw
Large keyboards tend to be bad for ergonomics, as they make you reach too far for the mouse. Ironically, this calls into question all previous Microsoft ergonomic keyboards. The Natural 4000, for example, is one of the widest keyboards ever made, featuring not only a giant curved deck of large-size keys in the middle, but a numeric keypad on the right. This keypad is the main problem – not just on the 4000, but on most standard and ergonomic keyboards as well.
Goldtouch, Kinesis, and others have addressed the numeric keypad width issue by dispensing with it altogether, usually replacing it with an “overlay” keypad like the one found on laptops. Back in the old days, some of us actually removed the numpad from our Microsoft Elite ergonomic keyboards with the aid of a hacksaw and some packaging tape. Don’t laugh; it really worked, and for those not in need of a numeric keypad anyway, it made a lot of sense.
Now, however, we can all retire our hacksaws and put away our packaging tape. In the Sculpt Ergo, Redmond has finally – finally! – given a nod to the narrow-footprint crowd, and they’ve managed to do it without disenfranchising the ten-keyers either. At 15.5″ wide, the Sculpt is comparable to the Goldtouch and Freestyle. But unlike those keyboards, it comes with the numeric keypad included and matched to the same wireless receiver. Want it on the left? No problem. Insist on putting it on the right? No problem. And if you don’t need it at all, you can always just leave it in the box.
Key action and layout
While I like the Microsoft Sculpt ergo keyboard overall, the key action is not my favorite thing about it. The Sculpt uses snappy chiclet-style keys, which just don’t provide the same experience I enjoy on other ergonomic keyboards. The Freestyle and Goldtouch have full-height keyswitches, built so that you can actuate a stroke without quite reaching end-of-travel. With the Sculpt and its chiclets, you are pretty much at end-of-travel as soon as you touch the key. This can feel to your fingers like a hard stop on every stroke, so it should be taken into account if smooth, low-force typing is an important point for you.
More than the chiclet alphanumeric keys, however, I’m bothered – and frankly puzzled – by the F1-F12 function keys along the top. Microsoft has taken a great leap backwards with these important keys. Not content with just making them half-size, they’ve demoted them from keys to spongy-feeling buttons. I can’t imagine that developers will take kindly to this change.
The positives of negativity
Back in the days of my aforementioned sawed-off MS Natural Elite, I felt in need of a negative-tilted keyboard to go with my low work surface. My brother Tim is a born improviser, and I wish I had a picture of what he and I cooked up to do the job. Our solution consisted of two screw-out appliance feet, nested inside two trim holes in the bottom of the keyboard along the front. They were press-fitted with masking tape to keep things tight, and we added two non-slip rubber “dots” to prevent the setup from sliding around. It worked quite well, and had the advantage of being adjustable if not all that sturdy.
Built-in negative tilt was implemented on the Natural 4000, but its huge snap-in plastic bar is quite clumsy compare to the compact, elegant one that comes with the Sculpt Ergo. Unless you work with a really high surface (in which case you might want to do something about that) my guess is you’ll be most comfortable with the Sculpt when it’s leveled out by negative tilt. Personally, I do not use a keyboard tray, and I still find that I like the negative tilt bar on the Sculpt.
Marks of class
With the Sculpt Ergo, Microsoft has made heavy use of powerful but manageable magnets to hold everything together. Who needs a snap-on, finger-pinching battery cover when it can be magnetized instead? Same thing with the negative tilt bar we discussed earlier; no more trying to line up plastic pegs and keyholes to get the thing attached. Even the tiny wireless receiver gets in on the magnetic act, stowing effortlessly inside the mouse for storage or carrying.
Even apart from its classy magnetic embellishments, the Microsoft Sculpt set has a weighty feel of quality that compares well to any other consumer-grade device. Especially considering its price, this is one nice keyboard.
The Sculpt Ergo mouse
Normally, I pretty much tend to dismiss “consumer-grade” ergonomic mice – the ones you find for $49 on the shelf at Staples. These designs usually just take a perfectly ordinary mouse, add a few curves in the shell, and call the result ergonomic. Not so the new Sculpt Ergo mouse from Microsoft, a worthy accessory which mates to the Sculpt Ergo keyboard on the same wireless receiver.
Despite its unexciting shape – it resembles a smooth black river rock with a notch taken out – the Sculpt Ergo mouse is amazingly comfortable to grip and use. I particularly like the design and placement of the buttons, which are curved down onto the front in such a way that minimum clicking effort is required. Actually, the click action on this mouse puts me oddly in mind of my old Contour mouse, which was designed so that the click force comes more from the knuckle than the finger joints.
Lately all Microsoft accessories seem designed to promote Windows 8 (which, I suppose, needs all the promotion it can get). Accordingly, the Sculpt mouse has a little plug for Windows 8 built into the top of it, a blue Windows logo button that evidently has some exciting function on the latest-greatest Redmond OS. Not having said OS, I am not sure what this exciting function would be. On Windows 7 (which Steve Ballmer will have to pry from my cold dead hands) the button simply brings up the start menu, making it a yawn-worthy supplement to the dedicated Windows logo key found on most keyboards.
A good starter set for basic computer ergonomics
The Sculpt Ergo will never be my top recommended keyboard, mainly because of its hard-action chiclet keys, pathetic function row, and lack of adjustability vs. the Goldtouch or Freestyle. Still, I am aware that many users adore chiclet keys, use the top-row functions only for media control, and are fine with an “average” working position. If this describes you, the Sculpt Ergo is worth considering.
Among other pluses discussed here, this keyboard has the very convincing advantage of cost. This is a good wireless ergonomic keyboard, keypad, and mouse combo that will set you back little more than most wired ergonomic keyboards – and far less than some.