MS Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000
WHEN AND WHY YOU SHOULD SWITCH TO AN ERGONOMIC KEYBOARD
Update Copyright © 2007 by John Passarella
As I prepared to post the article below, I was startled to realize that I've been using a natural (i.e., ergonomic) keyboard for ten years. Ostensibly, this article (first published in 1997 at the now defunct WindoWatch.com site) was a review of the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, but the meat of the article is really about the circumstances that necessitated my switching an ergonomic keyboard and my recommendations for what type of keyboard users would best be served by making the switch. I've recently upgraded to a newer model, the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 (MSNEK4000, see image above), which represents a big design improvement over the keyboard discussed in the 1997 piece.
In addition to the stylish black and silver color scheme, highlights of the MSNEK4000 include a padded extended wrist rest (the old one was hard plastic), a firm, but less clackety key press response, and a new set of function keys geared primarily for Web browsing. In addition to the Web home page, e-mail, calculator, and speaker volume controls buttons, the MSNEK4000 has a set of five "favorites" buttons which you can program to load your default browser to the pages you specify in your keyboard's favorites list; a rocker button that lets you scroll up and down Web pages without the need to reach for your mouse, and side by side Back & Forward browser keys below the spacebar. As Web use becomes increasingly more commonplace, these new keys are welcome additions to the ergonomic keyboard. If that wasn't enough, there is now a second layer of functionality to the standard F1-F12 keys. In their alternate mode, these keys perform the following functions: Help, Undo, Redo, New, Open, Close, Reply, Fwd, Send, Spell, Save, Print.
The MSNEK4000 lacks the two USB ports my last keyboard sported. Fortunately, my new monitor has two USB ports built into its side, so I still have two connections close at hand for my iPod and digital cameras. The MSNEK4000 won't break the bank: I bought mine at Staples and, after rebate, paid about $25 US.
Now, without further ado, here is the original review with my ergonomic notes...
MS Natural Keyboard (review)
Copyright © 1997 by Jack Passarella
It begins with a combination of numbness and tingling from the tip of my left little finger to my elbow, occasionally accompanied by a pinching pain on the left side of my collarbone. Occasionally — usually in the midst of extended email typing — I would experience a lack of strength in my left hand. I would have a hard time applying pressure to any keys under my left hand. I’d clutch the insensitive hand to my chest, while my right hand took over for both sides of the keyboard. Despite what I’ve read about ergonomics in general and repetitive stress injuries in particular, I don’t make the connection. It’s not until a co-worker tells me about somebody in the company who also experienced a collarbone pain that I start to wonder.
Then I catch a television show with a segment on repetitive stress injuries. They discuss a condition of the ulna — one of the two bones that extends from the wrist to the elbow — where the sufferer experiences numbness or tingling along that part of the arm. Apparently, this condition is caused by the unnatural inward twisting of the wrists to accommodate the standard keyboard. When you bring your arms in from your sides, your hands approach each other on an angle. You need to turn your hands straight, away from their natural positioning, to accommodate the infamous home row of the keyboard. That’s when, finally, it clicks. I’m on the verge of being a repetitive stress statistic. Maybe it’s already too late.
Enter the Microsoft Natural Keyboard.
When ergonomics first attained the status of buzzword du jour, I noticed the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, along with all the other natural keyboards that started appearing in my local computer super stores. If you’ve somehow managed to get through life without seeing one of these keyboards, let’s just say they look like a plastic wave breaking across your desk: twisted in a gentle V shape, with a hump right down the middle. So odd-looking is an ergonomic keyboard you might mistake it for a normal keyboard left too close to a space heater.
Check out the displays in your local computer store. The people who manage these stores obligingly place a sample of each ergonomic keyboard on a (usually chest high!) shelf so that interested customers can test-drive them before deciding whether they should buy one or not.
Even before I began experiencing numbness and tingling in my arms, I must have tried variations on this split-V-hump a half dozen times. Each time I was dissatisfied. I thought it would make more sense to have accordion folds down the middle so that the angle of the V could be adjusted to match individual users. Somehow, this ergonomic — natural — keyboard felt, well, unnatural. I remained unconvinced.
Once I associated the numbness and tingling along the back of my forearm with a repetitive stress injury in the offing, I probably would have purchased the ergonomic keyboard and dealt with the unnatural feeling on the assumption/hope that it really would make a difference. Around this time I happened to hear it takes several hours of use to get used to the curved design. That immediately made sense to me. After twenty-one years of heavy typing on a non-ergonomic keyboard, of course it would take me some time to get used to a natural, curved design. My recent affliction coincided with an equally recent price drop and rebate on the MS Natural Keyboard. (The quality of Microsoft’s workmanship was a factor in my purchase requirements. I have used Microsoft mice and cheaper mice. While they all do the same job, the cheap entries have proved flimsy and unreliable.) The price drop and rebate seemed like an alignment of the hardware stars. I bought the MS Natural keyboard for home but, realizing I do most of my typing at work, also requisitioned one through my employer’s purchasing channels. I believed going back and forth would not prove anything. At best, I felt the mixed keyboard designs would be ineffectual. It had to be all or nothing.
Yes, there is an adjustment period when you switch to the natural keyboard. I’m still in it, but I have turned a corner. I now make typing errors when I hop over to someone else’s desk and have to use a traditional keyboard. My synapses have obviously made some changes in my nervous system, remapping a few pathways in the last couple weeks. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. First I want to talk about the initial setup and first impressions.
The MS Natural Keyboard comes with a little installation handbook, which also lists some ergonomic tips and tricks. The first tip I noticed was that the riser under the keyboard has two positions. You should set the position (either up or down) so that your wrists are straight. To my dismay, my wrists were straight only with the riser in the up position. I say dismay because the up position makes the keyboard even stranger under your hands. The plastic wave looks like it’s about to crest, rather than having just crested. This up position made my adjustment period last even longer, well beyond the promised several hours.
The booklet also lists various tips on taking frequent breaks, using shrug and palming exercises to relieve shoulder tension and eye stress. Even though the natural keyboard comes with an extended wrist rest, the booklet advises light-touch typing, with the weight off your wrists. I try to follow all these guidelines, but sometimes my wrists get lazy and my palms rest on the spacious wrist rest.
I still have distance adjustment problems when I reach for the high numbered function keys — my right hand seems to travel unnaturally far from the home row. I still haven’t overcome that actual/perception problem. Likewise, the reach for the numeric keypad seems somewhat extended. On the plus side, the keyboard cable is overly long, which would seem to allow a variety of typing styles, e.g., the lap desk, although I’m not sure how ergonomic such an arrangement actually is. I noticed that the booklet stresses primary and secondary work zones and the keyboard necessarily falls in the primary work zone. You should not have to reach to use it. The extended cable would seem to facilitate bringing the keyboard much closer to the user.
The MS Natural Keyboard still seems strangely shaped and unnaturally high. Co-workers frequently comment on its appearance. For me, the appearance is the only strange aspect. My fingers, hands, wrist and arms are gradually getting accustomed to the design.
Gripes from the Usability Labs
I use the keyboard at home on Windows 95 and at work on Windows NT 4. As with the other Microsoft input devices I’ve purchased (Intellimouse, Easy Ball), the Natural Keyboard comes with usability software. The keyboard software is called IntelliType. The value of this software is limited on the NT 4 side because the keyboard property sheet takes precedence over the IntelliType features. Even if you try to load the software, after a pause, you are presented again with the property sheet.
Basically, NT 4 users can only change the delay before a pressed key repeats and the speed of the repeat. Also, on my NT 4 system, the NUM LOCK toggle defaults to off whenever I log out. My old keyboard maintained the NUM LOCK status between sessions, so I have to be reminded to switch NUM LOCK on with every login, usually by an application beeping in protest when I begin to enter ‘numbers.’ Finally, the application — or context-sensitive-menu — key does not work on the NT 4 desktop or in Explorer, although it does appears to work in applications. The Windows 95 Start key does work, however. (NT 3.51 and Windows 95 do not seem to suffer from these shortcomings.)
The application key is, at best, a minor annoyance. And the lack of software functionality in NT 4 is not a major drawback in my opinion. Frankly, I was surprised the keyboard even came with software. I bought the keyboard for the ergonomic shape of the hardware, not for the extent or quality of the software.
Yes, it is possible to get accustomed to the bizarre shape of the MS Natural Keyboard. I have, at least in part, adjusted to the new shape. My typing speed has climbed back steadily, though I still make some miscues when reaching for high numbered function keys.
Has it helped? I started out by explaining what was happening to me: numbness and tingling from the tip of my left little finger to my elbow, sometimes accompanied by an ache on the left side of my collarbone, and occasionally a lack of strength in the fingers of my left hand. These symptoms were happening on a regular basis, especially on heavy typing days. Since I started using the MS Natural Keyboard, these symptoms have not recurred. Not once. I waited about a month to be sure the test was true, through heavy typing days and light.
Am I cured? I don’t know. I do know the condition has not gotten worse. I believe it is better. I do still experience some numbness in my left palm, but this usually follows a period of typing with my lazy wrist resting on the broad wrist rest while typing. Occasionally, my fingers will get stiff and ache slightly, but that is an old symptom. The numbness and tingling were the alarming new symptoms. Those, thankfully, have not returned.
Limitations? If you are not a touch typist, I don’t believe the MS Natural Keyboard will do much for you. One of the benefits of being a hunt-&-peck typist is not being susceptible to these types of repetitive stress problems. I think the natural keyboard will prove a detriment to the accomplished hunt-&-peck crowd. It still seems unnatural reaching for single keys. Your hovering fingers will have to travel in three dimensions, over a hill and down in the valleys. Touch typists may actually, eventually experience an overall boost in speed. It’s too soon to tell.
The Touch typist sitting on the fence about making the purchase might want to apply the old hard disk analogy. You know, “it’s not a question of if it’s going to crash, but a question of when.” I firmly believe that a fluid typist who types a lot will eventually be in danger of repetitive stress problems. If you fit the profile, it’s time to take a look at your current keyboard. Remember: you can always keep it as a spare in case child or cat spills a soft drink in the brand new ergonomic keyboard. Microsoft is selling the Natural Keyboard for around $59, down from approximately $99.
Now is the time to stay healthy. It’s in the stars.