With the upcoming release of Windows 8, Microsoft’s hardware division has been hard at work developing new peripherals that not only match the updated operating system, but help streamline user’s workflow. I’ve been testing five devices that the Redmond-based company is releasing shortly, and by far my favorite is the Sculpt Mobile Keyboard. It’s my favorite because it works great anywhere.

This keyboard takes the simplicity and ease-of-use of Bluetooth keyboards and brings it comfortably anywhere in the home. It’s a solid board that curves slightly to give it a rounded design and feel that may look odd, with the N, H, and B keys larger than the rest, but differing key size feels no different than on traditional keyboards. Typing on the Sculpt also feels quite good.

Microsoft has, in the past, produced thick rubberized keys that were often mushy, but the Sculpt doesn’t; the keys have solid bounce and they are low-profile for that quick, laptop feel. I like typing on the Sculpt Mobile, more than any keyboard of this size with exception to an old, outdated mechanical IBM keyboard that stopped receiving support back with Vista. It rivals and slightly beats Apple’s Wireless Keyboard, which uses Chiclet keys that feel great but the overall design isn’t – and forgive the pun – sculpted for the human hand. The keys themselves don’t have quite as much bounce, but the rounded edges and overall feel outperforms the competition.

It’s also Microsoft’s first major foray into the Bluetooth space. When I met with Microsoft at their campus in Redmond, WA, I was told the push for Bluetooth is because of Windows 8, and the growing mobile market. That certainly makes sense, though be sure that you have a Bluetooth dongle or built-in transceiver to use the Sculpt. None of Microsoft’s latest Bluetooth-ready devices come with a dongle, and while most laptops and all smartphones/tablets have Bluetooth, most desktops do not.

Bluetooth makes the Sculpt Mobile better for general home use than, though the competition for home supremacy revolves around ease-of-use, comfort, and portability. The Sculpt relatively compact, easy to store (though not as easy as more rectangular keyboards), and with 10-months of battery life (according to Microsoft), users don’t even need to worry about turning it on or off. Its biggest competition is Apple’s Wireless Keyboard and the Logitech K760, both of which are excellent but also both geared towards Mac users. The K760 also has the brilliant design of switching between any three Bluetooth devices instantly, which makes it far easier to use around the home when jumping between, say, the desktop, media center, and a tablet/smartphone. It’s too bad Microsoft didn’t implement such a feature; it would have instantly made the Sculpt the best keyboard in its class.

The only problem with the Sculpt is that some more frequently pressed keys, the spacebar and backspace in particular (according to Microsoft, those are the #1 and #2 most used keys on the keyboard), start squeak when pressed after very limited use. Within two weeks of testing both of these keys, especially when pressed from the side (as opposed to the middle, like most smaller keys are), sound like mice scampering about instead of just a keypress. It’s a slight nuisance, mitigated by the generally quiet type, but if you’re focused on writing it can throw you off.

I’ve also had some time to play with the Windows 8 functions, which of course are only available on Win8. All of the function keys have secondary functions, and like Apple’s OS X, the Sculpt makes the ordinarily secondary functions of the function keys the primary ones. F1-F4 controls media playback and volume, F5-F8 controls Win8 specific functions, and F9-F12 are general window functions (move window left, right, etc.). The Win8 functions includes search, share, UI switch (jumps between the Windows 8 interface and Windows 7 workspace), and a settings button. I’ll go more in-depth about Windows 8 in a later article, but having the function keys available as media and windows-specific keys is much more beneficial than the typically unused F1-F12 keys.

Handling battery placement, exchange, and removal is also extremely easy, and for those who like to travel with their keyboard, the keys are rounded so they don’t accidentally rip off the board. There’s also an on/off switch on the back, though I’d recommend the Microsoft Wedge Mobile Keyboard for travel over the Sculpt. But I can absolutely see the Sculpt Mobile Keyboard as a suitable replacement for a full-size desktop keyboard thanks to the very comfortable size and layout and the great typing experience. It’s an excellent keyboard for anywhere in the home.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Bottom Line: A great mobile keyboard for anywhere in the home

Pros:

  • Great typing experience with low-profile and bouncy keys
  • Excellent shape that is molded for the hands
  • Function keys are far more useful than normal Windows F1-F12 keys
  • Rated for 10 months of battery life

Cons:

  • The spacebar and backspace, after just 10 days, started to squeak like mice
  • Minimalist design means minimal features

The Sculpt Mobile Keyboard will be available from Microsoft later this month for $49.99










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.