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  • Reviewed on: Windows XP
  • Also available for: All Windows PCs, Macintosh computers
  • The Good: Excellent wireless performance; no cables to tangle the desktop; eyecatching design; designed for right- or left-handed users; keyboard available in standard layout or split versions; mouse uses latest optical technology.
  • The Bad: The mouse is designed for either hand, which is a positive thing in most respects, but this means some ergonomic tradeoffs; the mouse also has an appetite for batteries; the ergonomic split keyboard might not be to the liking of hunt-and-peck typing (there is a standard straight-key alternative keyboard with the same features, though); no LEDs on keyboard for Caps Lock, F Lock, Number Lock, and so on makes it hard to tell when these functions are enabled or disabled; high price.
  • The Verdict: This keyboard-and-mouse combo offers excellent wireless performance, great key response, has a wide selection of time-saving special function keys, and even looks cool on the desktop. If you can afford it, it's a worthwhile upgrade.

REVIEW:

Microsoft's Wireless Optical Desktop Pro is at the top end of the price range for a keyboard-and-mouse combo, but you get a decent amount of bang for your buck.

To begin with, this is no bland vanilla-coloured, run-of-the-mill set of peripherals. Both the keyboard and mouse are done in black plastic with eye-catching silver trim.

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As the name suggests, the Wireless Optical Desktop Pro's components communicate with Windows and Macintosh computers using radio waves. There are transmitters in the keyboard and mouse that communicate with a small radio receiver box that plugs into any USB port on a desktop or notebook. The kit includes a PS/2 adapter for older systems, and AA-size batteries for the keyboard and mouse (each is rated for several months of use on a set of batteries). Once the adapter is plugged in, the computer treats the hardware as if it were a standard wired keyboard and mouse.

The only thing you may have to do upon installation if the keyboard or mouse aren't immediately recognized by the computer is press a small "connect" button on each one and then on the receiver box. This forces the receiver to scan for new devices and lock on to their signal, a process that takes a couple of seconds. After that, from the performance of the hardware, there's no way to tell that you're not using a wired keyboard or mouse.

The keyboard is very thin and the keys are set into it in such a way that you end up typing just millimeters above the actual desktop - a design that is supposed to reduce the risk of things like carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury, according to Microsoft. There's also a built-in wrist rest for the same reasons (it's not removable, so if you don't like it you're stuck - best to check it out in the store before you buy).

But the most remarkable thing about the keyboard is that it uses a split design. To visualize this, imagine taking a normal keyboard and bending it slightly in the shape of a smile. The keys for a touch-typist's left hand are angled slightly out and away to the left from the centre line of the keyboard, and the right-hand keys angle the opposite way. This leaves a strip of plastic a couple of centimeters wide between the two blocks of keys.

One word of warning - this design is horrible for most hunt-and-peck typists. If you're not a true touch-typist, this keyboard probably won't be much to your liking, but Microsoft's Wireless Optical Desktop is the same package with a standard straight-across (ie. not split) keyboard. But if you are able to touch-type and are willing to take an hour or so to get used to it, a split keyboard can help take some of the strain off your wrists.

Despite the split design, extra drivers aren't needed to get the basic keyboard and mouse functions to work, the ones built into Windows and the Mac OS will recognize and activate them. But you'll need Microsoft's Intellitype Pro software to activate all the special function keys - which are really what you're paying for with this package.

The keyboard has all the regular buttons you'd expect to see, including the now-standard "Windows" and "menu" keys beside the left and right Alt buttons. But there are some surprises, too, geared for people who regularly use their computers for Web surfing, office work and audio-video playback.

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First of all, the F1 to F12 keys all have a secondary function. If you press the F-Lock key, it switches the F keys into a special function mode. They're all programmable to carry out a range of Windows-based functions, but they default to things like Open, Close and New for files, and Reply, Forward and Send for e-mail.

If these 12 shortcuts aren't enough to streamline your computer-based work and play habits, there are also extra keys added to the top of the keyboard. Across the top left-hand side of the keyboard is a block of programmable keys that provide shortcuts to launch the My Documents, Personal Files and Music Files folders. In the centre of the top row is something Microsoft calls the Multimedia Centre. It's a group of keys for control the playback and volume of audio and video files (including a quick Mute key). Across the top left-hand side of the keyboard are quick-access buttons for the Windows or Mac media player, e-mail program, instant messenger and calculator, as well as buttons to activate the logoff or sleep mode commands for the system. A big weakness, though, is the lack of LEDs on the keyboard to show when the Caps Lock, F Lock and Number Lock are enabled. There's a small icon that appears in the Windows task bar, but this is of little use in programs or games that take up the entire screen.

Using the IntelliType drivers, you can program the special function keys to perform an array of actions, open specific programs, open a browser and go straight to specific sites, and so on. It also provides a battery monitor for the keyboard and mouse, and a way to tune the performance of the mouse. It's a slick, easy-to-use package, and even people with little computer experience can program the buttons with a couple of mouse clicks.

The mouse is a standard two-button model with a clickable scroll wheel. The wheel has grooves cut in its rubber surface for a non-slip grip, and it has a nice firm roll to it without being too tight. The mouse wheel also has a new feature called "accelerated scrolling" - it senses how fast the wheel is turning, and the faster you roll it the faster pages will scroll.

The optical sensor in the mouse replaces the old rolling-ball system. It works on any surface, and exhibited none of the sudden tiny cursor-jumps or odd lags that some of Microsoft's first-generation of optical mice were prone to.

The optical mouse is designed to fit the left or right hand equally well. It has slightly indented sides covered in a rubber coating for a comfortable grip. I personally prefer a mouse that is built specifically for a right- or left-handed user, since the design of these models tends to be a bit more ergonomic. But Microsoft has struck an nice balance with this mouse, designing a device that should be usable for just about anyone.

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There's not a lot to pick on with the Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop Pro besides its high price (it lists for about $100 U.S.). The hardware is well designed and well built, the IntelliType software is a solid and easy-to-use package for customizing the special function buttons, and the special shortcut keys can save a lot of time for common, repetitive tasks like opening your song-file folder or sending e-mail. If you can afford it, this keyboard-and-mouse combo is a great desktop investment that can help you get the most out of the multimedia features and office software on your PC.

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