I have a thing for keyboards.
This doesn’t sound like a major deal to the subset of keyboard geeks out there, but maybe a little weird to the majority of the public who can’t be bothered with keyboard esoterica. But I have a real reason for my obsession; years ago I began to develop pain in my right wrist (from jiujitsu practice, people), and using a keyboard for long periods of time made it worse.
Seeing as using a keyboard for long periods of time is the way I make a living, this presented a conundrum. After doing some research, I bought a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 and my wrist pain eased. I haven’t looked back since and have grown to love the keyboard’s odd shape.
But the 4000 wasn’t perfect; it had mushy keys and the number-pad forced you to have your mouse way off to the right, which didn’t feel ergonomic at all. Would you believe it, it took Microsoft eight years to release the update to the 4000; the new Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop.
(Yes, Microsoft had curvy keyboards in the interim, but they were just that - curvy keyboards which mimicked the 4000 in shape but weren’t split all the way like a real ergonomic keyboard should be.)
The Sculpt solves the 4000’s number one problem instantly by detaching the number-pad. You can place it anywhere else you want, in my case I left it in the box and haven’t missed it. Without the number-pad, the Sculpt takes up much less space than the clunky 4000 and lets you place your mouse closer, and more comfortably, to your center.
The reason the number-pad can be detached is because the Sculpt is wireless, whereas the 4000 was not, so not only does it free up more real estate on your desk, it makes your desk neater too. Yay, minimalism. Notice that I say the Sculpt is wireless, not Bluetooth; you will need to dedicate a USB slot to keep the Sculpt’s wireless dongle.
The Sculpt also replaces the 4000’s mushy keys with laptop-like scissor keys. They feel better than the previous version, but the scissor keys sit closer to the Sculpt’s surface with less travel than the 4000’s, so you don’t get that satisfying ‘thud’, just a clicky click, and my fingers tend to mush against the Sculpt’s surface. All in all though, I’d rate the clicky click experience of the Sculpt’s keys an overall improvement over the 4000’s.
I would have loved for Microsoft to have made an ergonomic keyboard with delicious mechanical keys, which feel and sound great. Before the Sculpt arrived, I actually played around with a mechanical keyboard with the traditional layout, but within two days I could feel my wrist pain coming back and my back shoulders tensing up in ways I didn’t miss, so it was back to the 4000 for me.
If you’re into mechanical keyboards, Kinesis makes one which splits in two, but it’s not really ergonomic, without a real sprayed array - it’s just a traditional keyboard which splits in two, really. Truly Ergonomic makes the only ergonomic keyboard with mechanical keys that I know of, but its wallet-killing expensive, the base model starts at US$248.
One concern I had was over the Sculpt’s odd gap in the middle, which gives it a distinctly cool manta ray shape (in fact, the Sculpt project’s codename was ‘Manta Ray’). The edges forming the gap actually float above the desk with nothing but air between the two, but the keyboard stays firm and there’s no flex at all when banging on the keys.
With all the love for the Sculpt, it does have one major minus point. Unlike every other keyboard out there, the Sculpt eschews the Function key for a Function switch, on the top right of the layout. Yes, your Function keys can only serve either as Function keys, or as their assigned shortcut keys (like Play/Pause and Volume Up/Down).
I’ve kept mine on the Function switch as I use them regularly; while I miss the shortcuts it’s just too much of a hassle to keep pushing the switch back and forth. It’s so unnecessarily silly that I’m docking an entire point off an otherwise excellent product.
How about the mouse that comes with the Sculpt? I’m ambivalent about it; it does feel better for the hand, your wrist is elevated higher off a desk than a traditional mouse, but it never felt completely comfortable, and the scroll wheel is in an awkward place. I could have done without it honestly, but there’s no option to purchase the Sculpt without its mouse. I imagine a trackpad or tablet like the ones Wacom makes would prove better for my hand in the long run.
The Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard is a major upgrade to the 4000, and the fact that you can now comfortably place your mouse hand closer to you is worth the upgrade alone. It’s heartening to see Microsoft finally release a successor to the 4000, the company made one of the best ergonomic keyboards around and I was beginning to despair they’d given up on the business. If you have wrist pain like I did, I highly recommend you give the Sculpt a try and Microsoft...let’s try not to go eight years again without a word, okay?