After Microsoft announced a slew of Windows 8- and RT-based mobile mice and keyboards earlier this season, I was wondering if the firm would ignore the desktop. No worries there: The recently revealed Sculpt Comfort Keyboard is a full-sized, desktop-bound entry that combines some ergonomics with Windows 8 (and RT) specific functionality.
I’ve written fairly extensively about Microsoft’s new Windows 8/RT-based keyboards and mice in the recent past. Please refer to the following articles for more information about the mobile products:
Windows 8 Tip: New Mice and Keyboards
Photo Gallery: Microsoft’s New Mice and Keyboards for Windows 8
Hands On with Microsoft’s Mice and Keyboards for Windows 8, Part 1
Hands On, Part 2: Wedge Touch Mouse
Hands On, Part 3: Wedge Mobile Keyboard
Hands On, Part 4: Sculpt Touch Mouse
Hands On, Part 5: Microsoft Touch Mouse + Explorer Touch Mouse
And of course I previously provided a photo gallery of this article’s subject, the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard, in Photo Gallery: Sculpt Comfort Keyboard for Windows 8.
If you’re paying attention to the naming schemes here, Microsoft has thus far introduced exactly two hardware product lines aimed at Windows 8 and RT: Wedge and Sculpt. The Wedge lineup consists of just two products, a mobile mouse and a mobile keyboard, and they bear a striking and obvious similarity to each other. Usability aside, there’s a distinct familial relationship there.
The Sculpt lineup, however, is all over the map, and looking at these products in front of me now, I don’t see any relation between them at all. For example, the Sculpt Touch Mouse comes in a medium gray color and has wide light gray accents. The Sculpt Mobile Keyboard (which I did not review this year since it’s basically just a rebranded Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 5000/6000, meanwhile, is all black, as is the Sculpt Comfort.
OK, so it’s unclear what the Sculpt name stands for beyond, apparently, curved edges, as opposed to the sharp and angular profile of the Wedge products. That seems to be the differentiator.
As a somewhat ergonomic entry, the Sculpt Comfort keyboard has a contoured keyboard design that Microsoft says helps position the wrists in a more natural position that presumably helps overcome the effects of repetitive stress injury. (Though no overt claims to that effect are made.) Compared to the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 that I use and recommend, however, a number of comparisons can be made.
First, the typing position is very, very similar between the two, and that’s a good thing. More specifically, the angle at which the wrists line up on the keyboard is, from what I can tell, basically identical. Given my longtime success with the 4000, I’m pleased to see this.
Second, because the Sculpt Comfort keyboard lacks the giant gap in the middle of the keyboard as with the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, your hands are in fact quite a bit closer together than they are with the latter. On the 4000, the home keys (F and J) are four inches apart. But on the Sculpt Comfort, they’re just 1.5 inches apart. That’s a big difference, but I’m willing to chalk up my unfamiliarity with the positioning to two factors: I’m just used to the 4000, having used it for years, and I’m a big, wide guy, so I find the 4000’s size and layout to work more naturally. If you’re coming at this keyboard having previously used the terrible, non-ergonomic keyboards that most PC makers supply with their machines, this is indeed better.
Third, like the 4000, the Sculpt Comfort keyboard provides a palm lift, in this case using two retractable feet that is a better design than the 4000’s removable, curved bezel. This is important for achieving the correct typing position, which requires a number of adjustments related to the height of the keyboard (so that your arms are level), the angle of the keyboard (which should be higher in the front than in the back) and of course your wrist positions. Used on the same flat surface, it’s not possible to configure the Sculpt Comfort keyboard to the same overall position as the 4000, as it’s just not as sculpted, if that makes sense. The 4000’s keyboard has a bigger bump, or hill in its center, than does the Sculpt Comfort keyboard. Put another way, the Sculpt Comfort keyboard is just less ergonomic than the keyboard I prefer.
(That said, I do use a retractable and very adjustable keyboard holder arm on my desk, and this holder provides for more angle and height adjustments than does just a keyboard on a flat desk surface. This type of configuration is hard to find but worth it if you spend too much time in front of computer as I do. But it can’t overcome the natural weakness of a sort-of-ergonomic keyboard like the Sculpt Comfort keyboard.)
The Sculpt Comfort keyboard features a nicely padded (and, curiously, removable) palm rest that I like better, from a comfort standpoint, than the wrist rest on the 4000. (That said, the latter keyboard’s wrist rest is deeper, which I prefer.) It’s also wireless, which I’m iffy about on keyboards (the 4000 is wired), but unlike the mobile keyboards and mice, it uses a proprietary transceiver, not Bluetooth, and requires a USB dongle. My guess is that this decision was pragmatic: Most desktop computers do not have Bluetooth built-in.
The Sculpt Comfort keyboard is notably smaller than the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. Looking just at the alphabetical part of the keyboard, the Sculpt Comfort is about an inch less wide in the center. And its keys are flatter, with less feedback. Since I type all day long—and am a larger person—these factors matter to me. And combined with the previously noted issues, they make the Sculpt Comfort keyboard a non-starter for me. But I suspect this would be a nice upgrade for anyone with a normal, non-ergonomic keyboard, especially those—and I’m guessing this is most people—who don’t type for a living. So don’t let my keyboard pickiness get in the way.
From a Windows 8 and RT perspective, the Sculpt Comfort keyboard provides more OS-specific functionality than any Microsoft keyboard to date. It has the requisite Windows key (with the new logo, naturally), Charms keys (Search, Share, Devices, and Settings), and volume/playback keys that we saw on the mobile keyboards. But it also includes four new Windows 8/RT-specific keys that are, thus far at least, unique to this keyboard. They occupy the F9-F12 block of keys (where volume/playback is at F1-F4) and Charms are at F5-F8), and break down as follows:
Back (F9). This key emulates the Windows 8 Back tip in that it navigates backwards through the running app stack, one app for each tap.
List View (F10). This key displays the Switcher app switching utility in Windows 8, providing access to a graphical list of the running Metro-style apps and the Start screen.
Snap (F11). This key toggles the Snap state of the currently-running Metro-style app (or desktop) between full screen, snapped right, and snapped left.
App Bar (F12). This key toggles the display of the app bar in the currently running Metro-style app.
The Sculpt Comfort keyboard offers a few other unique features, the most notable of which is a very strange and new split spacebar in which the left side of the spacebar can be configured to work as Backspace instead. To achieve this pointless new mode, press and hold both spacebar halves for about three seconds (or until the battery charge light flashes). Why would you want to do this? I have no idea: I’ve never found Backspace hard to use as-is. If Microsoft was really interested in evolving the keyboard, I’d recommend getting rid of the CAPS LOCK key no ever uses for starters.
Beyond this, you get a fairly large and obvious function key toggle switch (for those who prefer that key combinations like ALT + F4 actually work), and, strangely, exactly one dedicated app key, for Calculator. No, I have no idea why. (Guess: People who buy a keyboard with dedicated number keys are more likely to need Calculator?)
Overall, the Sculpt Comfort keyboard is a decent desktop keyboard, large enough and just ergonomic for daily use. If you’re a career typist, however, I strongly recommend moving up the ergonomic ladder to at least something like the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, which I find superior. But with a nod to the other 99 percent of the population, the Sculpt Comfort keyboard gets the job done and includes some very interesting Windows 8 functions, including a few you won’t see anywhere else.