Articles: September 2003 Archives

*Warning* This is still a work in progress.

As people who read my blog know, I've been strident supporter and long-time advocate of Microsoft peripherals - ie: mice and keyboards. I suppose I've just felt it's time to express some caveats and to qualify the superlative nature of my praise - provide some context if you will, about the peripheral market in general.

In starting things off, it might be a strange thing to say (or not, depending on how rabidly Anti-Microsoft you are) but Microsoft actually make really good hardware - it's just a pity about the software (more on that later). In fairness though, Microsoft hardware can be some of the most expensive around, so it's not surprising that the hardware should be of good quality; and while Microsoft's mouse and keyboard software (the Intellitype and Intellimouse series of software/drivers) have real issues, they are still pretty much some of the best that I've used.

Microsoft peripherals are fantastic for the ergonomically conscious. While honestly the only way to avoid RSI (repetitive stress injuries) is to not use your mouse and keyboard, Microsoft goes some way towards helping find a comfortable middle ground between pain and neglect. In a design that has never been successfully emulated or duplicated (probably due to legal concerns), the Natural series of Microsoft keyboards are fantastic for those of us who know how to type. Two-finger typists need not apply, since the split nature of the keyboard isn't ideal for people who have to see what they're typing as they type. But for those who spent the time learning to touch-type, the more natural positioning of the hands with the Natural keyboards is ideal for extended text entry. And the built in wrist rest is good for those of us who never bothered to get rid of the supposed bad habit of resting their wrists while they type.

What is a pity though, is that Microsoft is no longer actively producing the best keyboards they (or anyone else) has made: the Microsoft Natural Elite. This was probably the first stable generation of Microsoft's entry into the Natural keyboard business, and it still stands up as the best keyboard I've ever used. The mapping of certain keys might be "non-standard" but as with most things, it's just a matter of getting used to it. What is so fantastic about this keyboard over later iterations though, is that the response of the keys is light and not too springy, a quality that while not everyone might like initially, I can guarantee is the most comfortable way to type. Not to say that the later keyboards are bad, since for me, any Natural keyboard can't go too far wrong - it's simply that the keys aren't quite as nice, and they provide features that, for me, range from the redundant to the annoying to the unusable.

Reviewers seem to be quite universal in their dislike of the fact that these newer keyboards interchange the function keys with "commonly used functions" like copy, paste, save etc. I'm in wholehearted agreement - the feature itself I have no problem with, but as others have been quite vocal about, there is no way to automatically toggle back and forth at start-up, meaning that whenever you restart your computer, you have to manually reset the function-lock key. There are fixes available from frustrated users, a simple registry change will do it, but the fixes are not perfect and extraneous keys like the Scroll Lock key are excluded from the fix. This is particularly annoying since my KVM switch, and I suspect many others, use scroll lock to toggle between computers (more on KVM's later). The fact that there have been numerous iterations of the Intellitype software since the launch of these keyboards is all the more frustrating, since this issue remains unresolved, along with an annoying bug I experienced of my Ctrl and Alt keys becoming "stuck".

Not fixing problems is an ongoing theme with Microsoft software, from the the fact that IE has been stagnant for years now, and more pertinently, that the Intellimouse software has had issues that have been "fixed" finally in the worst way possible - the removal of the feature. With the launch of the new 5.x series of Intellitype, Microsoft have resorted to the oldest trick in the bible they wrote on how to screw with their customers. "It's not a bug, it's a feature." The issue I had had previously with the 4.x series was that the "Program Specific" mapping of functions for the 4th and 5th mouse buttons. This was a good feature, since it meant that you could make the same button do different things in different programs, for instance Maximise IE windows and Send and Recieve in Outlook. It was also a popular feature with gamers who could use these buttons to map frequently used key combinations, to swift and lethal effect.

The problem was that, in changing between programs, the functions would bleed into one another, so that you'd end up closing an entire window in Opera when you intended to close a page. In complaining about this to Microsoft's support personnel, I was told that they would submit feedback to the development team in time for the next round of point upgrade bumpiness. Unfortunately this resulted in the feature being removed in it's entirety from the software. No warning, no notice, if you "upgraded" your software to 5.x, you were stuck without a useful, if not entirely working, feature. As far as I'm concerned, this signals an unacceptable policy in terms of how Microsoft support their products. They provide a feature, something that you take into account when you pay money for the product, and when they can't make it work (as they should have from the beginning) they take the feature away. That's not to say that Microsoft is alone in this behaviour, even Opera Software, who I otherwise worship, are prey to such tactics - removing functionality, though not in such unscrupulous ways I have to admit, waiting till a significant (read: paid) update to do so etc.

That said, (and program specific functions are exempt from this amnesty) Microsoft has tended in a sense to improve their products by paring it down. I love 5 button mice and don't think I could live without them, but in terms of ergonomics, thumb buttons and the like aren't exactly the best things. As my aching thumb and ring finger attest to, these buttons, while useful, are perhaps best done away with, as Microsoft has done with most of it's low to mid-range offerings.

So just as the old school Natural Elite keyboard is superior in many way to the newer keyboards, many of the older mice are still the best options, though their continued production is anything but certain. As a low end offering, the Intellimouse is still the best of it's class, with actually probably the most ergonomic shape and feel of all the mice - partly a function of it only having 3 buttons. It's only problem is that it is not optical, so cleaning is mandatory to maintain it's proper functionality. Personally I use the Intellimouse Explorer the most, which I find the best compromise so far in terms of comfort and usability, since it still retains 5 buttons.

My specific omissions from my recommendations might seem particularly egregious, but I'll explain. I find Wireless mice a bane - so much so that I deem them to be overpriced crap. Not to say they don't have their specific uses - my wireless Intellimouse Explorer is now used to control my computer when I'm using my TV-out, and my other mouse is back with my desktop. This is useful, but not for the price you have to fork out for the mouse - I only use it in this capacity since it's the most use I can find for it having already paid the money.

Wireless mice are to my mind ergonomically unsound. My hands and shoulder have never ached as much as when I was using that wireless mouse. Occasional use in front of the TV when I'm watchin movies/TV series I've taped/downloaded is fine - but for day to day use in work and browsing/email, it will do bad things to your arm and hand. The main problem is that Wireless mice are heavy. Very heavy. Other than the normal amount of hardware present in a wired mouse, you require an additional 2 AA batteries. This is ludicrous. The resulting weight and heft make for an extremely unpleasant mousing experience. And this is not restricted to Microsoft wireless mice. The Logitech wireless mouse I own is subject to the same problems due to it's weight.

What makes all this all the more frustrating is the the responsiveness of wireless mice leaves much to be desired. If your mouse continuously this manifests as a feeling that you're mousing underwater - exacerbated by the weight of the mouse. This in itself isn't so horrible, but in order to save power, it seems as if the mice become unresponsive after a period of disuse, so that when you sit down to mouse again, there is a frustrating lag in responsiveness initially. The positioning of the wireless reciever is another consideration you have to be mindful of, since at certain angles/distances, the mouse just stops working. Batteries are also an issue in that since I really am on my computer that much, they don't last, with such frequent usage, much more than a month. All in all, it just adds up to more hassle for more money. You're better off chucking your money off the side of a bridge.

And people wonder why I refuse to install Wireless products.

Another annoyance I would note, and which encompasses the Microsoft peripheral range as a whole, is that they are not the most practical items for KVM usage. Except for their most expensive and redundantly wireless keyboard offerings, all Microsoft keyboards are PS/2. Fine, I suspect PS/2 KVM's are probably better anyway. But Microsoft mice are (now that the Intellimouse is put out to pasture) all USB. Yes they have USB to PS/2 converters that work fine, but on a sqeezy KVM, you fairly have to jam the converter in next to the video. And of course there's a reason why I don't know whether USB KVM's are any better, because the keyboards don't support USB. I suppose the solution I'm using for my notebook connection is a good one - using a PS/2 to USB converter (difficult to find unless you know where to look, and pretty expensive) - but the nature of these converters means that no extra driver software is supported. That means that in my case, anything above an Elite keyboard makes no sense, since the functions won't get used, not that I used them anyway.

Buying OEM, Cheap Intellimouse/keyboard. Crapness of the UK keyboard

Firmness of scroll wheel, accelerated scrolling, program specific buttons - contrast with limitedness of logitech software - a4tech still the best in terms of hover and scroll - lack of standards. Microsoft leads to lots of empty clicks.

Trend towards ps/2 keyboards, problems with KVM switches, (another reason to have no frills keyboard) Hotkey control, USB/ps/2 converters not good for mouse.

Ergonomics, Microsoft is still the first and best to have ergonomic keyboard layouts - I couldn't live without a split keyboard. And yet obviously for those people who are still 2 finger typists and haven't heard of mavis beacon, normal keyboards might be more of an idea.

Louis still gets mouse pains: goodness of Opera for keyboard shortcuts/mouse gestures.

New Mouse drivers with program/macro mapping gone - close not very good, but great for opera....

Powered by Movable Type 4.1

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Articles category from September 2003.

Articles: October 2003 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Opera web browser - downloadOpera Mini - Mobile Web Browser