Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop Review

Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop Review

Change is hard, yes, but worth it

The arrival of the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop was sort of serendipitous when you consider that I've been speaking and writing about transitions a lot lately. As a writer, I spend a lot of time with my hands on a keyboard, and for my regular marathon sessions in front of a PC I prefer the comfort and durability of Microsoft's ergonomic keyboards and large mice. I figured both types of devices—crucial to my work—would be slowly phased out. But the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop suggests otherwise.

Of course, when something is as ingrained in your daily routine as was the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 and Microsoft Explorer Mouse (Blue Track) that I'd used and recommended for years, well ... change is hard. As I noted in Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop First Impressions and Photos, the keyboard part of this desktop set very closely follows the design of that Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 I love so much. In fact, they're basically the same.


The issue, as always, is in the details. The Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard does away with the numeric keyboard, providing it as an optional piece. I removed it from my keyboard tray to save space—the previous keyboard barely fit next to the mouse pad—but then realized how often I used it. I was a bank teller for several years in the late 1980's and early 1990's, and acquired two skills that persist to this day: I can count money faster than anyone you know, and I can race around a numeric keypad.

That said, I understand that a numeric keypad is superfluous for most. And since I've been using laptops and other portable computers for almost 20 years, I've certainly gotten used to using the top row of number keys on a normal keyboard. This is an adjustment I can make.

The bigger issues, however, is the layout of secondary keys like HOME, END, PAGE UP, PAGE DOWN, DELETE and INSERT. On the 4000, these keys sit in an island of sorts between the main keyboard and the numeric keypad. But on the Sculpt, they're now haphazardly lumped around the right edge of the keyboard, and on top of the arrow keys. I'm used to different layouts on my recent Ultrabooks, but the Sculpt is different from all of them. And I still have a hard time with HOME, END, PAGE UP and PAGE DOWN in particular. And it's been over two weeks.

I'll get there. I'll get over the more-than-occasional instances in which I've inadvertently tapped the INSERT key and then cursed aloud as I overwrite previously-typed text. But this kind of thing is maddening. It really is a tough transition.

But I'm willing to do it. I'm willing because this keyboard otherwise perfectly duplicates the sweep and layout of the 4000 I've used and loved for so long. I like the typing position and I like the new, lower profile keys that remind me very much of a modern ThinkPad keyboard, but ergonomic. I really do like this thing quite a bit.

I've even considered traveling with one, though I'll probably not follow through on that for various reasons. (The most obvious being that the 15-inch Ultrabook I prefer to travel with would be tedious to use with this keyboard while a more size-appropriate Surface Pro or whatever is just too small in screen department.) I really do like this keyboard.

The mouse, too, required a big learning curve. You may recall that I've attributed my protection from tunnel carpal syndrome all these years not just to regular ergonomic keyboard use but also to using a very large mouse. For years, this has meant a Microsoft Explorer Mouse (Blue Track) that is now no longer available unless you can stomach paying upwards of $100 for one on eBay. I've been buying black market Explorer mice for the past year, worried that the supply would run out, so the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse was naturally of interest.

Let's just say it went comically bad for the first week or ten days. I can't explain this, but I knocked this mouse off the keyboard tray and onto the floor several times a day for a while there and still do so every so often. When this happens, the mouse explodes into separate pieces, with the bottom plate—held on only by magnets—separating from the device and dislodging the batteries. This requires me to scramble around on the floor like an idiot, finding it all and putting it back together.

No big deal, right? Actually, it's a problem. The batteries sit in the expected tunnels in the underside of the mouse, but they're not tight enough so the batteries can actually become dislodged a bit within the mouse and then the mouse doesn't work. And it seems like the more I drop this thing, the looser it gets. Now, I can bump the mouse down on the mouse pad—often by almost but not quite knocking it off of there—and the batteries come loose inside, rendering the mouse dead. This forces me to open it up anyway to press down the batteries and hope for the best.

I had just gotten sick enough of this to give up and switch back to the old Explorer mouse when something interesting happened: I place my hand over the seemingly familiar Explorer mouse and ... it felt wrong. Alien. In using the Sculpt mouse for just a week or so, I had come to prefer its taller, ball-like shape.


I'm not a huge fan of wireless mice and keyboards, though the Sculpt system does at least come with only a single USB dongle, which will save a USB port. It could have saved one more by using Bluetooth, which is in inexplicable omission in 2013, I think. And it's worth noting that the keyboard, mouse, and numeric keyboard all require different kinds of batteries. Geesh. But I will learn to deal with all this. Time marches on and so forth.

There are aspects to this set that I'm not particularly interested in, like the Windows 8-specific keys. But this keyboard actually includes a hardware switch—a hardware switch!—to let you choose between old-school function keys and the new Windows 8 stuff. Someone up there is listening.

Overall, the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop is what I've been looking for, a viable replacement for the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 and Microsoft Explorer Mouse (Blue Track) that I never thought I'd ever be able to replace. It's not a perfect replacement—I'm not a fan of all the batteries, the too-loose mouse battery compartment, the strange layout of secondary keys, or the USB dongle—but I'm willing to make these concessions in the name of moving forward.

The most important thing—and it really is the most important thing—is that these devices are both ergonomic enough to really work. They will protect your wrists from damage, though to be clear I do use (and recommend) a gel-based wrist rest with the mouse. And that is why I will keep using this set and can recommend it to others. The Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop isn't perfect. But it is highly recommended.

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