Product Review: Microsoft Arc Keyboard

The ideal keyboard for your coding lifestyle?

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Website: http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/mouseandkeyboard/ProductDetails.aspx?pid=120
Price: $59.95

Like many application developers, I spend a considerable number of my waking hours typing on a keyboard. Just as runners are serious about the kind of shoes they wear, I very carefully select the keyboard I use. I’m concerned not only with comfort but also with preventing carpal tunnel syndrome, a work hazard that affects a small percentage of my peers. 

Over the past 25 years of my application development career, I’ve written code using a number of keyboard variations, ranging from simple to exotic, cheap to extravagant, and wired to wireless. Although each keyboard had its strengths, nearly all of them had flaws in one form or another that kept me from finding the perfect fit. The keys were too spongy or too noisy, boards were too flat or too curved, wireless keyboards gulped batteries like water, additional features were too few or too overwhelming. Even with all the innovations in the computing space in the past 25 years, we’re still entering characters using the same QWERTY key entry approach used by 100-year-old Royal typewriters, and we remain bound by this archaic means of data entry. 

Computing has grown beyond the solitary PC experience and moved into the living room, the pocket, and the car. As a result, the lowly keyboard is getting more attention than ever these days. Microsoft is no stranger to the keyboard market, having created several designs primarily for office workers. Although these keyboards were adequate for the general user, my personal preference was for a more streamlined, wireless approach. When Microsoft sent me its newest wireless keyboard for review, the Microsoft Arc Keyboard, I thought my search for keyboard nirvana had ended; however, the Arc still lacks that complete keyboard bliss I’ve beenseeking.

Weighing in at less than a pound, the Arc is a solid-built, low-noise, comfortable radio frequency (RF) keyboard that has a remarkable 30-foot range. The Arc communicates with the host computer via a small RF USB receiver that can be easily transported in the magnetic holder in the keyboard’s base. In an effort to keep the Arc as small yet as functional as possible, Microsoft made certain design compromises. The keyboard has no numeric keypad, the arrow keys are condensed into a single 4-way toggle key, and there's no onboard mouse for those moments when keyboard accelerators just don't cut it.

The keyboard isn't perfect. However, when I'm in a coding frenzy, I seldom need such extra features anyway. I most highly value a comfortable sitting position, a stress-free wrist angle, and a responsive key press action. Most of all, the keyboard’s name really is accurate—the curvature of the Arc feels much more comfortable than a traditional flat keyboard. The Arc met my high expectations, and I felt more productive using it because the keyboard helped me quickly achieve my trance-like code flow state. 

Given the timing of the Arc's release, one might conclude that it was in competitive response to Apple's recently released wireless keyboard, a design that’s nearly identical in size. However, although the Apple product has a more elegant design aesthetic (and costs $9 more than the Arc’s $59.95), I found it to be uncomfortable. Its flat design forced my wrists to unnaturally supinate, placing noticeable strain on my wrists and fingers. Apple’s keyboard is also dependent on Bluetooth, making it less attractive for anything other than a Bluetooth-enabled Apple computer. In contrast, the Microsoft Arc worked flawlessly on a Windows, Mac, and Linux workstation due to its reliance on RF independent of the computer's internal hardware. 

After I got the hang of the Arc’s small form factor and design aesthetics, I became enthralled with it. However, after I used the keyboard for a few weeks and my infatuation dimmed, the Arc’s shortcomings and rare unresponsive key presses reset my ultra-high expectations. The keyboard works extremely well for media center–style couch control and casual surfing, emailing and eMacs, and vi-style coding. But if you’re a developer who uses the arrow keys or enters a lot of numbers using a full-sized keyboard number pad, the Arc’s elegance will be overshadowed by these intentional design omissions. 

Minimalists who value maximum comfort above all other data-entry criteria will find the Microsoft Arc to be a remarkable, efficient keyboard. Although the addition of a keypad would have added greater functionality, it also would have negatively affected the Arc’s lightweight design philosophy. The lack of a mouse forced me to rely on keyboard accelerators more than I’m used to (especially when dealing with all the window panes in Visual Studio), but after I acclimated to this minor annoyance, I quickly adapted to the new approach this comfortable keyboard afforded me. If you're looking for a different kind of keyboard for your coding runs, consider giving the Microsoft Arc a try. 

Mike Riley ([email protected]) is an advanced computing professional specializing in emerging technologies and new development trends. He is also a contributing editor for DevConnections.

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