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Tapping into the wireless zone

A good keyboard can make a big difference in preventing aching wrists. We test drive seven of the latest wireless models and find two winners

The keyboard is a necessary but often neglected part of a computer system. Desktop systems often come with gruesome $8 specials that torture their users with poor touch and poorer ergonomics.

Tapping into the wireless zone

A good keyboard can make a big difference in preventing aching wrists. We test drive seven of the latest wireless models and find two winners

The keyboard is a necessary but often neglected part of a computer system. Desktop systems often come with gruesome $8 specials that torture their users with poor touch and poorer ergonomics.

It’s no wonder that people are tired and sore after a day of typing.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Users and companies invest in decent monitors to protect peoples’ eyesight; a few dollars spent on a good keyboard would improve productivity too.

There are, of course, many varieties of keyboards – wired, wireless, ergonomic, corded, with alternate key layouts such as Dvorak – the list goes on. Each has its pros and cons. We chose to look at a type that is becoming increasingly popular: wireless.

Wireless keyboards rely on a transmitter of some sort, typically radio, but sometimes infrared or Bluetooth, which replaces the cable that usually carries keystrokes from fingers to computer (and power from computer to keyboard – be prepared to buy batteries). This allows users to eliminate some of the tangle of wires surrounding the average machine, and gives them the option to sit back in a comfy chair, keyboard on lap and work.

Of course, if you have a wireless keyboard, the next logical step – if you want flexibility – is a wireless mouse, so vendors frequently offer keyboard/mouse bundles that work from a single transmitter. All of the units we tested came that way; you’ll see some mouse notes later. However, we concentrated mainly on the keyboards.

Prices are all in Canadian dollars, converted from U.S. if necessary.

Belkin Wireless Keyboard-Editor’s Choice

Warranty: Lifetime
Layout: 4.5
Touch: 3.5
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 3
Total: 19.5
Bundle price: $89.99
Average: 3.9

Belkin’s combo connects either over USB or PS/2. The transceiver is a flat oval with two lights on it (mouse and keyboard). Two AAA batteries power the keyboard. The layout is standard, with all keys the expected size, shape and position, which will make touch-typists happy. Above the function keys, there’s an extra set of buttons: three to go directly to special folders (My Documents, My Pictures, My Music), seven control audio, an e-mail launch button, and three that launch and control the Web browser. Under Windows XP, they all work without additional drivers.

The touch is comfortable, although the space bar makes a frightful clatter when pressed. When you’re typing at a brisk clip, it’s a bit disconcerting. There’s no caps lock or num lock indicator on the unit – typical for wireless models for some reason. A few models transplant the lights to their transceiver, but Belkin chose not to. Indicators are provided in the system tray after you load the drivers.

Gyration Cordless Optical Keyboard Suite

Warranty: Two years
Layout: 4.5
Touch: 3.5
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 4.5
Total: 19.5
Bundle Price: $149.99
Average: 3.9

Running on four AA batteries, this keyboard has a standard key layout.

The shape is attractive, with enough heft to be stable without being too heavy. This is the only unit that admits it’s Mac-compatible by printing an Apple keycap (the Alt key for a PC) and an alt option key (the Windows key). A removable palm rest snaps on, though I found it quite comfortable without. Across the top of the keyboard you’ll find browser control, e-mail and multimedia control keys, separated in the middle by a little green light that flashes as you type to tell you the keyboard and transceiver are talking. Since the transceiver is a USB key, that’s handy. As usual on these wireless units, there’s no caps lock or num lock indicator on the keyboard itself.

The touch is quite heavy for my taste.

Centrios Wireless Keyboard

Warranty: 90 days
Layout: 4.5
Touch: 3
Controls: 3
Compatibility: 3
Total: 14.5
Bundle price: $79.99
Average: 2.9

The Centrios suite is an interesting combination of “isn’t that clever” and “what were they thinking?” For example, There’s a low battery indicator on top of the keyboard, and the transceiver is also the mouse charging cradle, which has a compartment in the bottom to charge the included batteries so you can keep a spare set ready. But Centrios is the only vendor that didn’t include keyboard batteries in the box. Key layout is standard, with additional buttons controlling power and audio, plus quick launch buttons for My Computer, Search, Home, Mail and Refresh. A herd of unmarked lights on the transceiver indicate the status of things like caps lock and num lock.

Interlink Remotepoint RF Combo

Warranty: One year
Layout: 3
Touch: 3
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 3.5
Total: 16
Bundle price: $343.08
Average: 3.2

One heck of a price for a wireless keyboard/mouse combo, but this is a specialized duo. Designed for conference room presentations, and connecting to either a PC or a Mac G3, the keyboard is optimized for handheld operation. It even has mouse buttons in the top left corner and a cursor control in the right, where your thumbs would naturally fall when holding it. The bottom is gently sculpted, providing grips. I’m not convinced you’d do anything but occasional typing on this thing, so the lack of a numeric keypad is not a disaster. The keys are packed closer together than on a standard keyboard and the key travel is shorter. The keys also felt a bit sticky to me.

Lenovo Enhanced Performance Wireless Keyboard

Warranty: One year
Layout: 4.5
Touch: 4
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 3
Total: 18
Bundle price: $94
Average: 3.6

This lovely unit feels sturdy without being overly heavy and the touch is delightful. There’s minimal key clatter. Key layouts are standard.The wireless transceiver is a USB data key. Plug it into a port, wait until Windows recognizes it, then press its “Connect” button, followed by the button on the keyboard bottom. Included software activates special function keys, including multimedia controls, browser forward and back buttons and programmable quick access buttons for frequently used programs. There’s even an Access IBM button. The software also gives Taskbar indicators to replace missing Caps Lock, Num Lock and Scroll Lock lights.

Logitech Cordless Desktop MX 3100

Warranty: Five years
Layout: 4
Touch: 3.5
Controls: 4
Compatibility: 3
Total: 19
Bundle price: $172.05
Average: 3.8

The radio for this USB-PS/2 unit doubles as a mouse charging station. There are no keyboard indicators for caps lock, etc., but the transceiver has indicator lights (though they sometimes lie about the state of the F-lock key), and the driver flashes status changes on the screen. The standard key layout is confused by an oversized Delete key sitting beside Page Up and Page Down; Insert is relegated to a sliver of a key in the function key row, sharing with Scroll Lock (you press F-Lock to get at the alternate function).

Microsoft

Warranty: 4
Layout: 3.5
Touch: 3
Controls: 3.5
Compatibility: 4
Total: 18
Bundle price: $139.95
Average: 3.6

The keys of the Wirless Optical Desktop 4000 are arranged in a slight wave, which makes it weird to type on. The middle keys are oversized, and the CTRL, Alt and Windows keys are extra-tall. There’s also a giant Delete key with Insert relegated to a function key. The function keys, however, are full-sized, and serve as program controls when the F-lock is engaged. Across the top and down the left edge there’s five programmable “My Favorites” and multimedia controls, and quick access buttons for the usually suspects (e-mail, instant messenger, My Documents, Calendar and Web), plus a “Zoom” switch that expands whatever the cursor is sitting on.

Mouse tales
The mice in our bundles range from mundane to downright funky. Lenovo’s looks like a garden-variety two-button optical wheel mouse, but when you touch it, it feels like suede. How long that coating lasts is anyone’s guess, but it’s comfy under the fingers. Belkin’s mouse is an ordinary, comfortable to use optical mouse that just happens to be wireless. Logitech’s unit is purely for right-handers, with its sculpted design and navigation buttons placed conveniently under the thumb. I liked the battery indicator on it that tells you when it needs recharging.

Centrios’ mouse has rechargeable batteries and a cleverly placed charger in the transceiver/base station so you can charge a spare set. Microsoft’s is another right-handers only model and it, like the keyboard, feels like a cheap kid’s toy. But it’s funky.

Gyration, on the other hand, is a unique combination of standard mouse and gyroscopic handheld controller. It has standard buttons with a wheel on top and a trigger on the bottom for use when you’re doing presentations and need to change slides. It comes with a charging cradle.

Also in the funky category is InterLink’s RemotePoint RF, a device that looks more like a TV remote control than a mouse.