Microsoft Natural Keyboard: Back to nature

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Our Computer Player, May 1995

"Why should I spend $129 on a keyboard? I got one free with my computer. Besides, that Natural Keyboard thing looks like it belongs on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise".

Microsoft, the software giant has only rarely ventured into the realm of selling hardware to the general public. Way back when, they produced a CP/M card for the original Apple IIs... insert the card into  your Apple and you could run CP/M business software, such as WordStar or dBase II... and run Microsoft's CP/M Basic. (Ironically, a strategy that Apple has revived, with its 486-card for Macs).

Then there's the industry-standard Microsoft Mouse. This too was originally sold to get users to purchase Microsoft software-- initially PC Word, later on, various early versions of Windows.

Now, Microsoft is marketing a futuristic-appearing keyboard; with the letter section split in the middle, with each section off at a 30-degree angle, gently sloping downward from the center. There's a large, curving wrist-rest, making the whole thing almost appear to be some sort of a cross between an ivory electric guitar and a typewriter.

And it comes with a manual whose first page starts off "WARNING!" almost as if it were a cigarette package.

That's because the computer industry as a whole is being forced to pay attention to Repetitive Stress Injury-- a range of problems that can be related to the long-term use of computer keyboards. On the same day that I received my Microsoft Natural Keyboard, the newspaper reported that Apple had settled out of court with a woman who had sued the company, claiming that she had not been properly notified that use of one of their computers could be dangerous.

With studies suggesting that use of computers could be linked to syndromes including Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Tendinitis, and Tenosynovitis, and with employers as well as computer manufacturers being potentially liable, suddenly it makes good business sense to design computers around human physical needs rather than try to force people to adapt to computers.

Try this little experiment-- first hold your hands out as if you are typing; arms bent at the elbows, hands and wrists straight. Does it feel natural? Comfortable? Hold it in the air that way for 30 seconds or so.

Now repeat the test, only this time, let your thumbs gently touch. With your elbows at your sides, let your arms make a 'V'. See how your hands tend to slope down. Doesn't it feel more comfortable? Especially if you hold it for some time.

A traditional keyboard forces you into the first position. Microsoft's keyboard lets you take the second position-- the one your hands naturally fall into.

Despite its unusual appearance, this keyboard feels very comfortable. Still, it took me a little while to get used to typing on it. I'm not a trained typist, and when I'd make my furtive little peeks at the keyboard, the letters were no longer where I expected to see them.

As well, I've always preferred the crisp, hard keyclicks of a classic IBM keyboard, and have purchased an equally hard Northgate for my personal use. Compared to those, the Microsoft has a soft, almost mushy feel. (Microsoft claims its healthier).

Still, within a half hour or so, I was happily hunting-and-pecking away almost as fast as ever, aside from a distressing tendancy to reach for the space-bar with my left thumb and hit the ALT key instead. I also miss the oversized ENTER key of my Northgate, replaced with a more standard-sized key on this keyboard.

The lights indicating the various key-locks are peculiarly labelled-- with a number 1 for the num lock light, a letter A for the caps lock, and a down-arrow for the scroll lock (does anyone actually use that anyway? And what is SysRq?)

There are two new keys on this keyboard... one has an icon that looks like a drop-down menu. In Windows 3.1, it brings up an enhanced version of the Windows Task Manager, assuming you've installed the keyboard's software. The second key, with the Flying Windows icon, does nothing at all under Windows 3.1.

In Win95, however, that key brings up the Start menu... equivalent to clicking on the Start button. The other iconized key is the equivalent of a right-mouse click, bringing up a Properties menu.

I mentioned that the keyboard comes complete with software. This works with Windows 3.x only-- it won't install under NT or WIN95 (I can't comment on OS/2). It installs a Program Manager group, and an (ugly) icon in the Control Panel. Either gives you several tabbed pages worth of controls-- over the repeat rate and sensitivity, and a wide range of optional key-click replacements. Water drips anyone? Maracas? How about silence?

As well, you can set the keyboard to emulate the mouse, using the number pad. As well, there's a nice feature that can find your missing cursor when you press the Control key.

Even with its comfort and customization features, many people may find it hard to justify spending over $100 to replace something that they originally got 'for free' as part of their system. While that's an understandable attitude, the keyboard, along with the screen and the mouse, is a part of the system that you actually interact with. Since you are probably going to spend many hours in close contact with your keyboard, it makes sense to get one that feels right for you.

Give this one a test, and see if you think it makes a difference-- I do. And especially if you're getting a new system, think about asking your dealer what it would cost to add it into the total bundle.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan