December 06, 2007


Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000. Windows Vista or XP/SP2. Microsoft Hardware. $299.95.

      Nobody needs a sports car. All cars are essentially the same thing: boxes on wheels, designed to carry people from Point A to Point B. Sports cars do their job far less efficiently than most: smaller passenger compartment, smaller space for carrying items, smaller overall profile (making it harder to see over and around trucks, SUVs, etc.), high-speed capabilities that are irrelevant or illegal in everyday driving, and so on. But sports cars have panache: they put the fun in “functional.” Even when doing mundane tasks, many a sports-car driver feels elevated, energized, full of enjoyment that would never be experienced in a more ordinary vehicle.

      By the same token, nobody needs the Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000. At $300, it costs 50% more than a full computer running Linux, available at Wal-Mart. Heck, it costs as much as a basic computer running Microsoft’s own Windows operating system. Furthermore, its small-profile rechargeable wireless keyboard, lacking a separate numeric keypad and requiring frequent use of a function (Fn) key to accomplish everyday tasks, has a steeper-than-usual learning curve and a Byzantine recharging system. And its rechargeable wireless mouse is not much different from similar input devices made by Microsoft and available for far less money.

      But the Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000 is gorgeous. It lends instant class to even the most ordinary computer; turns dull, mundane tasks into adventures; and happens to have a truly excellent ergonomic design that, once you adapt to it, makes the keyboard seem intuitive and so enjoyable to use (even on your lap) that everything else becomes clunky and old-fashioned by comparison. It elevates the computing experience in the same way that a high-quality sports car elevates the driving experience – even when you’re stuck in traffic or (the office or home equivalent) doing word processing and spreadsheets.

      Not that the Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000 is designed just for word processing and spreadsheets. The “entertainment” in its name belongs there: there is a neat button on the right, bearing the Windows logo, that provides instant access to the Windows Media Center on computers equipped with it; and there are buttons to the left of the keyboard that control most aspects of media use: play, stop, pause, raise and lower volume, change channels, even record. There is also a button for instant startup of Windows Live Call, if you use it. And since the keyboard is optimized not only for Windows Media Center but also for Windows Vista, it has a separate “Gadgets” button as well. And right in the middle, at the bottom, just below the space bar, there is a large Windows-logo button that takes you to the Start menu with a single touch.

      The keyboard itself is elegant in the extreme. In two-tone grey, solid and sleek, it has an extremely low profile (like a sports car), being only ¾” high at its highest point. It has a tremendously nifty (although electricity-hogging) backlighting system that automatically adjusts to ambient lighting and comes on when it senses a user’s proximity. The system is manually adjustable, too, and you can shut it off to conserve battery life. The batteries – four for the keyboard, one for the mouse – are rechargeable, and are included. Keyboard and mouse both flash small red lights when they need recharging (although the light on the keyboard is almost imperceptibly tiny). And here’s a neat feature: the keyboard can handle all mouse functions while the mouse recharges, thanks to a touchpad that can function in two different ways (with a switch to click between modes) and buttons that duplicate left and right mouse clicks.

      The beauty of the keyboard’s design is really something to behold. The function keys (F1 through F12) are small bars that you activate by barely touching them; the Escape, Home and End keys are similar. You do have to hold down the Fn key to use F1 through F12 differently – for example, to gain direct access to five favorite Internet sites. The Fn key is also needed for Number Lock (which lets certain letter keys work as numbers), for instant access to photos, and more; but it is not required for Caps Lock. A user soon adapts to this layout (think of adapting to a sports car’s manual transmission after usually driving automatics) – and from then on, it’s fun.

The gently curved keyboard, with enlarged letter keys in the central section, has a simply wonderful design. The mouse is more ordinary, similar to other Microsoft mouse products and to products made by other companies; a smaller, sleeker mouse, like the ones in Microsoft’s Notebook line, would better have complemented the keyboard. Still, the mouse works extremely smoothly, is accurate in pointing, has a scroll wheel that functions both vertically and horizontally, and has a small button on the right that brings up a magnifier – a wonderful tool for seeing the tiny type on some Web pages. There is a magnifier button on the keyboard, too, so you can reassign the mouse magnifier if you like – for example, to page forward on the Web. In fact, many mouse and keyboard functions are changeable – easily and reversibly. This is not unique to the Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000, but it is very helpful.

One thing users will not want to change is the mouse wheel’s function as a button. Press down on the wheel and it instantly splits your screen among all currently open windows – a great feature that, among other things, lets XP users approximate the cascading-windows feature in Vista. One thing users will want to change – but can’t – is the recharging system, which uses a small docking station that has to be kept nearby and requires AC power as well as a USB plug-in. The mouse sits on top of the charging station; the keyboard slides under it to touch two contacts. It must have looked good in the design stage, but if your desk already has a lot of things on it, finding the extra room for the cords, plugs and occasional-use charging station will be irritating. Microsoft cleverly dulls the potential pain by making the charging station into a USB hub with three ports (well, four, actually, but one is needed for a transceiver; the whole wireless system runs through a Bluetooth connection). But the setup is still irritating. Speaking of which, you can expect longer-than-usual setup time as the Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000 configures Bluetooth, validates your Microsoft operating system, downloads and installs any needed hotfixes or updates (there is an included warning about this for Vista users), does an initial charge (minimum one hour), and configures the keyboard and mouse. There’s nothing plug-and-play here. But just as in a fine sports car, the initial adaptations and adjustments are quickly forgotten in the sheer joy of ongoing use. So although it is true that nobody needs the Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000, it is equally true that nobody who buys it is likely to regret the purchase, and everybody who uses it will find it a triumphant example of making the ordinary (in this case ordinary input devices) into the extraordinary.

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