May 13, 2014
This week I’ve been trying to improve my workspace. Programming requires a lot of repetitive actions in a sedentary position, and I’m starting to feel the effects. Any effort invested in trying to make the work easier on your body is time well spent.
About six months ago I bought a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, and I’d like to write a short review. Bottom line: it’s pretty great.
I’d seen this keyboard a few times before buying one myself. It looks like a warped version of a standard Microsoft keyboard; the letter keys are different shapes and rise together in a low arc, with the right-hand and left-hand keys separated by a triangle of plastic dead space. There is a large wrist guard, an array of buttons at the top, and the whole thing can sit flat on a desk or almost two inches higher on a removable stand.
It’s different-looking and seems to imply a steep learning curve, but that was not my experience. I moved past the weirdness in about fifteen minutes, and in the process learned that I’ve been hitting the ‘7’ key with my left index finger instead of my right. On a normal keyboard this was trivial, but on this keyboard it’s a giant inefficiency. Fifteen minutes in and I’d already learned something.
On to the buttons and keys. In typical Microsoft fashion, there are a lot of them, which is either convenient or overkill, depending on your preferences. I am in the second camp, but they don’t do any harm.
The top of the keyboard has a row of buttons with icons, for ‘Home’, ‘Search’, and more. These keys are not useful to me professionally but might be to a home user.
All the other keys are standard, besides the fact that they are slightly shaped to better fit a human hand. They have a decent action and are much quieter than the standard keyboards around my office. That’s a plus, because I find loud typing distracting.
The keyboard comes in wired and wireless variants. I chose wired because I don’t like changing batteries.
The biggest thing I miss with this keyboard is the classic red Lenovo TrackPoint center button from my laptop. That button, combined with the ‘mouse keys’ under the space bar, gives you a lot of power without ever touching a mouse. The Microsoft Natural tries to address this with a slider toggle, found in the dead space between the left and right hands. It took some reading to figure out what it was supposed to do, and get it working on Ubuntu 12.04. This forum post was helpful, and once I fixed up my ‘/etc/udev/rules.d/98-ms-ergo.rules’, I had a working scroll. It’s not the same, but it gets the job done.
The big question is, does this keyboard make my life better? I think so. When typing, the hands rest naturally, more like they are on a piano keyboard in standard position than on a computer. The wrist rest provides good support. The wider distance between my hands means less strain on my upper body.
You can hack for hours in a coffee shop on a laptop keyboard, but for sustained coding over years, I think something like this is worth trying out.