Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 Review

I’ve been experiencing worryingly RSI-like pains in my fingers for a few months, and after trying a friend’s ‘natural’ keyboard I decided to pick one up. A day later I saw an Engadget preview of the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, so figured I’d wait for that. It arrived from Microdirect last Wednesday, and since reviews are thin on the ground I figure it’s worth writing my early thoughts.

First impressions on removing it from the box: it’s big. Much bigger than ‘normal’ keyboards. The effect is increased dramatically by the tilt: the front of the keyboard is raised a fair distance from the desk surface, for a ‘more natural wrist posture’. It’s not clear whether this allows you to rest your wrists while typing without it being bad for you. The wrist rest is leather and is much more comfortable than the waste-of-time plastic rests supplied with other keyboards.

Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 - Side Shot

The styling is black and silver, with a Microsoft logo in the top-right corner. It’s certainly eye-catching, and I think it’s very smart. It’s much heavier than your average keyboard, which gives it a solid feel. It’s corded, with a good length cable.

The keyboard is in the familiar ‘natural’ format, with a split after 6, T, G and B and both sides angled away from each other. I find this extremely comfortable. It’s a large change from the normal elbows-against-sides, arms straight forwards posture, but is immediately a much more pleasant experience. Usage is another matter, but I’ll come back to that. This keyboard is the first time that key sizes are different depending upon their position, with very wide N, T , G and H keys. Not having used the previous style of natural keyboard I can’t comment on how much easier this makes things, but I will say that I can easily reach every letter without excessive stretching – however my fingers are particularly long and thin, so your mileage may vary.

Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 - Key Angle

The top row contains multimedia keys. On the far left are Home Page, Search and Mail buttons. These are followed by five customizable Favourites buttons, then Mute, Volume Controls, Play/Pause and finally, bizarrely, Calculator. Below this row is a ‘My Favourites’ button, which brings up the interface for configuring the Favourites buttons.

The most important thing to note is that these keys are entirely configurable, and can each be set to open web pages, any application, a function (from a a pre-configured list) such as ‘minimize all windows’ or even be disabled entirely if you like. My previous Logitech keyboard had a Sleep button that wasn’t at all accessible, and when you have a computer that crashes on trying to enter the Sleep state it’s really not a button you want to hit accidentally!

The volume controls work straight out of the box, and the Play/Pause controlled iTunes without further configuration, although does experience problems if the iTunes window is in focus (attempting to pause a track causes it so stutter and continue.) It’d be nice to have a Next Track button, but I guess that’s do-able with the Favourites buttons.

The F-keys also have dual functions, which are toggled by the F-lock key located to the right of the F-key row. My previous problem with this functionality was that the F-lock setting would be reset on restarting the computer, but USB keyboards apparently don’t suffer from this problem (I’m told there is a utility to set the f-lock on Microsoft PS/2 keyboards, but no Logitech equivalent.) Again, the functions are all configurable, although descriptions are written on the keys.

There are four extra buttons above the number pad: equals, open and close brackets, and another backspace. I guess these are for people who work with the number pad for much of the day, and probably explains the Calculator button too. I can’t see these coming in very useful for me, however.

Below the spacebar are Forward and Back buttons for web browsing. These fall nicely under the thumbs, and are slightly easier to reach than backspace and, um, whatever Forward is normally.

Finally, between the keyboard split is zoom slider, and this is the keyboard’s only major failing for me. The zoom slider does exactly what you’d expect, and allows you to zoom into Word documents, web pages or digital photographs. However, you can’t reconfigure it to scroll. The zooming is of limited use to me, but a fast way to scroll would be very useful indeed. Yeah, there’re the arrow keys, but the placement of the zoom slider allow surfing with with very little movement of the wrists. I hope the next software release adds this functionality.

Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 - Overhead

So, it may have all of these features, but how is it to use?

The first thing I’d say is that you need to know how to type ‘properly’, if only in theory. Keeping the hands on their respective sides of the keyboard is a major feature of typing courses, but is a rule that can happily be broken on standard keyboards. The natural shape, along with the slant downwards, forces you to keep your hands in place, and this is surprisingly challenging! I learnt from my sister’s copy of Mavis Beacon about 18 months ago, but didn’t get much further than the intermediary stage and have slipped back into bad habits since. I’m not bad at the characters, but never got the hang of the number row and the associated symbols.

The height of the keyboard forces you to sit correctly. I’ve tried slouching backwards, wrists heavy on the rests, and this starts hurting quite quickly. You can’t sit at any kind of angle, either. The keyboard is basically forcing you to sit straight on, with a straight back and your arms angled inwards. As far as I’m aware, this is an excellent position for minimising RSI effects and back problems.

It’s definitely a keyboard for the serious typist. Typing with one hand (get your minds out of the gutter, people) gets annoying very quickly, and you really need two hands on the keyboard at all times. I also have to remove my watch due to the size of the wrist rest, but that’s not a big issue 🙂

The sound of the keys is surprisingly muted, but the keyboard doesn’t suffer from spongy keys. The tactile feedback is enough to be certain you’ve pressed the key, without being excessive. The height of the keys differs, dropping in the centre of the major key blocks, and I think this works very well. Your fingers should default to A, S, D and F on the left, and J, K, L and ; on the right. Because of the rise in the rows above and below this centre row, every time you reach for a key above or below the centre row you’re not pushing any further down than you would be on the centre row itself. Combined with the slanted keys, this makes for extremely easy typing.

Pros:

  • Very comfortable
  • Completely customizable buttons (with the exception of the zoom slider)
  • Stylish
  • Great for RSI and posture
  • Solid and of good build quality
  • Quiet, but responsive

Cons:

  • The zoom slider is less useful than a scroll slider
  • The keyboard takes some getting used to
  • Typing skills are a must
  • A little expensive (mine was