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Monday, 19 September 2005

Desktop hardware [Muz]

Good day, gentle readers. It struck me that I've not contributed anything to the collective braindump for a while, and seeing as I have a bit of time on my hands prior to returning to studentdom, I thought I'd make a brief contribution to the fount of knowledge that is our communal blog.
So, on to the topic: desktop setups. Previously, I had been using a Logitech DiNovo (as blogged in blog 917); I was quite happy with the keyboard and separate number pad/calculator/media control - batteries lasted a good lone while, and as mentioned in that blog, typing on it is just... nice. The mouse was sufficient for my use - never seemed to run out at inopportune times, and as solid and functional as we've come to expect from Logitech's peripherals. The only issue was, as ever, with Logitech's software. (Hacks for Forward/Back compatibility with Firefox, ropey media control performance, etc)
Recently, however, a couple of things happened that caused me to reassess my desktop situation. Firstly, my summer internship finished, leaving me with a surfeit of free time for gaming. This lead me to discover a fundamental flaw with cordless mice - they suck for playing games; not due to any inferiority in performance compared with their wired cousins, mind. There is no added latency, they're smooth and accurate to use, but... the batteries have an annoying tendency to run out just as you're in the middle of an elite quest in World of Warcraft, or some other similarly inconvenient time. Time for a new (corded) mouse, methinks.
The other issue, which is of a less immediate but more worrying nature, is that of RSI. This again has been covered before by shedir in blog 754 and more recently by His Beerness in blog 973. It's been brought to my attention as someone I know has recently been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. It looks painful as hell. As someone who's spent ten years at terminals of one sort or another as a hobby, and will probably spend the next twenty at least working at one, this issue has suddenly been put into stark relief. Spoke with an occupational therapist (it's great having a GP for a mum), and she recommended a 'split' keyboard, and, as Slim has said in an earlier blog, to rely on keyboard shortcuts wherever possible (I bought a Microsoft Natural Multimedia Keyboard).
So, how do they perform? Firstly, the mouse. I decided to stay with Logitech - though their software is at times an annoyance (forward and back buttons don't work with Firefox if you have SetPoint installed, FFS), their hardware is built to last. Also, I've always gotten along with their MX*** form factor - it seems to be just the right size and shape for my hand. It seemed to be a choice between the MX510 and the MX518. I decided to go with the 518, as all the custom stuff on the 510 requires their (shite) setpoint software, and the idea of being able to switch resolutions in hardware was intriguing. Ordered from eBuyer (Dabs don't stock the 518, sigh), it arrived this morning. Nuked my Setpoint install (required for the MX900 that came with the DiNovo), plugged it in, and away I go.
I'm actually really impressed with it. I'm not going to talk about the ergonomics, suffice to say it's the same form factor as the MX500, 700, 900 and so on. It just works. What I am impressed with though, is the inbuilt dpi switch. It's maximum is 1600 DPI, which, as you can imagine, is absolutely stupid, cursor flying all over the place. Handy if you're doing work on a dual monitor set up with both running at 1280*1024 though. The interesting bit is you can drop that down to 800dpi (good for your general gaming) or 400dpi (perfect for snip0rage) in hardware, with no need to install any software. And as a bonus, if you don't install SetPoint, the Forward and Back buttons Just Work. Winning!
Keyboard wise: I've had the Natural for about a week now, and again, I'm really impressed. (This, thankfully, Dabs do stock). Had it running side by side with the Dinovo for a while, just to get a feel - it's amazing how much more natural (forgive the pun) typing on a split key keyboard feels. All the media buttons and stuff work just as they should (MS drivers, MS operating system, you'd hope so eh?), and though I thought I'd miss having a seperate numpad that I could use as a calculator, it turns out that the Natural has a shortcut button to start up Windows calculator, which works just as well. Another win for new hardware. The only downside is that for this version, in their infinite wisdom, MS decided to change the shape of the Home/End/PgUp/PgDn/Insert/Delete block. It's a minor annoyance - a week later, and I've retrained myself. Thankfully, they appear to have reverted to a normal layout in the next model, the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000; unfortunately, it wasn't available in an EN-GB layout when I ordered. Of course, due to the universal pervasiveness of Murphy's law, it looks like the thing is being released in the UK pretty soon. Bah.
One bonus of having a Natural Keyboard which I didn't anticipate, though, is the fact that my typing speed has improved by leaps and bounds. I, like many of you, I imagine, learned to type by experience. I attended one course run by uni to learn the theory of 'proper' touch typing, but never really put it to use as my own method seemed to work sufficiently well. However, the split nature of ergonomic keyboard pretty much forces you to use the 'correct' keys, and as a result, I've noticed a marked increase in both speed an accuracy. It'd be interesting to see someone come up with a DVORAK layout natural keyboard...


  1. Given the complete lack of comments on this blog, I'm going to assume that no-one cares, but it seemed wasteful to create a new blog when this one serves perfectly well. I mentioned above that the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 was being released in the UK soon. Now, Dabs would have you part with £32 of your well earned pounds for the honour of using one, however a little use of Dealtime led to the discovery that charge a mere £17 for the OEM version. I was attempting to procrastinate in the face of impending exams, so I thought 'why not?'.
    Once again, the keyboard is split, however it boasts a few seeminly minor changes over its predecessor. Firstly, it ships with a rest that elevates the *front* of the keyboard, forcing your arms to remain off the table when typing. You wouldn't think this would make a huge difference, but it really really does. I find my arms are being coerced into the correct (right-angled) position without my thinking about it.
    The build quality is the next thing that one immediately notices. While the Natural Pro was solid, it still felt very much like a generic keyboard that wouldn't be out of place with what RM or Dell ship with their bulk-order machines. The NEK4000 (in addition to being black, and thus matching my monitors, speakers and mouse) feels just as solid, but the key action is softer, making the sound of typing much quieter. In addition, the plastic wrist rest has been replaced with neoprene, making things much more comfortable.
    Then there are a few minor things. As mentioned above the Home/End/PgUp/PgDn block has been returned to normal. Between the split keyboard has been added a 'zoom' wheel - essentially a wheel which produces the same output as Ctrl+Mousewheel does now. This being bound to zoom in/zoom out in several applications, including Firefox, is as you would expect quite useful. The one odd thing is that while the 'Play/Pause' media key remains, the 'Next/Previous Track' buttons have been removed. They shall be missed. Another minor niggle is the fact that the keyboard apparently can't be utilised through a USB->PS2 adapter. Most new machines have stupid numbers of USB ports, but I'd still rather use the PS2 adapter just to keep one free.
    Overall I think it's a better product than the Natural Pro. Given the choice between the two I'd pick the NEK4000 - especially now that it's available for so little.

  2. I'd been looking for a new kb for a while and saw this, but the lack of PS2 functionality is the only thing disuading me from getting one - it's a right pain in the butt trying to get into the BIOS with a USB keyboard sometimes, even if legacy USB support is enabled - sometimes the keyboard isn't detected in time for F2 to get you into the BIOS, meaning lots of resetting. PITA.