February 11, 2010

(++++) ARC SPARK

Microsoft Arc Keyboard. Windows 7, Vista or XP; Mac OS X v. 10.4-10.6. Microsoft. $59.95.

Microsoft Arc Mouse. Windows 7, Vista or XP; Mac OS X v. 10.2-10.5. Microsoft. $49.95.

     Everyone knows that Microsoft is a software company. Not everyone knows that it has a really excellent hardware division that consistently turns out top-quality products with innovative designs and unusual features. The trademarked Arc line is a perfect example of this under-the-radar part of Microsoft, and the new Arc Keyboard shows clearly just how innovative the hardware division can be.

     This is a wireless keyboard specifically designed for casual use – a clever idea that immediately sets it apart from traditional business-oriented keyboards. It weighs less than a pound and measures only about 12 by six inches – roughly two-thirds the size of most full-featured wireless keyboards. And it is full-featured, although some of its design elements take a little getting used to. Things that do not require accommodation are the keyboard layout (traditional QWERTY), key size (keys are full size) and key action (positive, easy to depress, forthright in operation). The space bar is full size; the Tab, Caps Lock, Shift, Ctrl, Alt, Enter and Backspace keys are in expected positions and are of expected sizes; and for ordinary typing, the keyboard is a pleasure to use. It is also – by design – a personal statement, thereby becoming part of the current trend toward individualizing computers. Flat along the sides and front, but rising along the top center, the keyboard sits comfortably on a user’s lap while he or she types in a non-business position – sitting on the sofa or in an armchair, for example. Being very lightweight (less than a pound), the keyboard is easy to move around and never feels like an encumbrance; but it does feel solid, not cheap, and its reflective black plastic casing is shiny and surprisingly fingerprint-resistant. It simply looks good – and it feels good, too.

     Compromises? Well, yes. The top row of keys – above the numbers and Backspace key – is small and arranged nontraditionally. At the far left is the Esc key – a good position. The next six keys – only six – are F keys. Each does double duty: to use F7 through F12, you must depress the Fn key as well as the F key. The Fn key is second from the right in the bottom row – not a particularly intuitive location. Nor is the key very large. It sits just to the right of an Alt key, and since there are two of those, Microsoft could have eliminated one and doubled the size of the Fn key. On the other hand, if you rarely use F7 through F12, the keyboard layout will not be an issue. On the third hand, the Fn key is used to turn the keyboard on and off (Fn + Esc), so having it more prominent would certainly not have been a bad idea.

     Back to that top row. To the right of F6 (which doubles as F12) is the Home key (PrtScn when used with Fn), followed by End, PgUp and PgDn. These take a little getting used to, since they are all the same size and it is easy to press the wrong one. But it is not hard to adapt. Then, continuing left to right, there are three volume keys – mute, down and up – and finally, at the far right, the Del key. This small key sits directly above the much larger Backspace key, and although that might seem like good placement because each of the keys is used for deletion, in practice it is very easy to hit the wrong key (usually Backspace when you want Del). Nevertheless, regular users of the Arc Keyboard will surely adjust quickly to its atypical elements.

     Mac users need to do a little extra adjusting, since the bottom row has a Windows key second from the left. Going to System Preferences will allow Mac users to remap Ctrl/Windows/Alt to the Mac’s traditional Ctrl/Option/Command – but they will probably want to paste something over that Windows logo.

     The Arc Keyboard’s wireless connection, by the way, is 2.4 GHz RF, not Bluetooth. All it needs is the included USB transceiver, which plugs directly into any USB port and stores neatly on the bottom of the keyboard when not in use. The Arc Keyboard is a specialty item, designed for people who regularly use their computers in casual settings – and its layout and functionality are just different enough from those of other keyboards so it may be irritating to switch back and forth between the Arc and a standard keyboard. But the Arc Keyboard is so well made, light, portable and comfortable in your lap that many who try it may find they prefer it to bulkier traditional keyboards and have little desire to go back.

     Nor is this keyboard Microsoft’s first Arc product. Although the keyboard is sold by itself, many users of it will also be interested in the Arc Mouse, which goes well with the keyboard and shares many of the same “elegant but casual” design elements. The Arc Mouse also uses 2.4 GHz RF for its wireless connection. It has four customizable buttons, a snap-in transceiver that fits in the bottom, and a feature that starts Windows Aero on computers equipped with it and Exposé for Mac on computers that have it. The Arc Mouse works well with either hand – its design is genuinely ambidextrous. But, interestingly enough, one of its primary design features is not all that big a deal. This is the fact that it is foldable: the front part tucks down and under on a sturdy metal hinge, making the Arc Mouse 60% of its fully expanded size so it can be carried more easily (folding it automatically turns it off). But if it is portability you are after, there are other ways to get it that are at least as elegant and functional, such as Microsoft’s own Wireless Notebook Presenter Mouse 8000, which is both feature-packed (including presentation-related buttons on the bottom) and about the size of the folded Arc Mouse. It costs more ($79.95), but other Microsoft notebook mouse products are less expensive and retain the small footprint. Strictly from a size perspective, the Arc Mouse is for users who really want a full-size mouse – perhaps because of the size of their hands, or just because it is what they are used to – and also want easy portability. For that group, it is a highly attractive product. The fact that it is available in multiple colors (white, purple, green, blue and of course black) makes it a “dress-up accessory” for computer personalization – tying into the same approach that the Arc Keyboard uses. Neither the keyboard nor the Arc Mouse will be ideal for all users; but then, neither is intended to be. Both work very well while looking good and feeling like off-the-beaten-path equipment. Their first-rate functionality and unusual design show just how cleverly the Microsoft hardware division continues to set itself apart from other hardware manufacturers – and from the company’s own, much larger software side.

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