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Microsoft Arc Keyboard Review

As a programmer I sit in front of a keyboard for at least 8 hours a day. Since I love what I do I often work on personal projects or contribute to open source software after formal work hours. That means a lot of typing and for a lot of typing you need the right keyboard.

My most recent keyboard purchase was the Microsoft Arc keyboard (aff link). The main reasons I wanted to try this keyboard out were its compact size and the fact that it’s wireless. I prefer fully ergonimic keyboards and I hoped that the slight upward curve in the keyboard would be enough to keep my wrists from getting sore since I’ve had a long standing issue with carpal tunnel from lots and lots of cycling with poor wrist posture. I’ve also had a great experience with a Microsoft Arc mouse (aff link) for travel and even for a sort time as my main mouse. It’s been a solid product for a few years.

To give this keyboard a real decent go I used it exclusively for a month. It was my day in day out keyboard getting at least 160 hours of work.

Great Points

First off I love how small the keyboard is. I’ve got a small desk for the simple fact that if you only have enough room for a keyboard mouse and cup of coffee you can’t ever let your desk become cluttered. One piece of paper on the desk for reference is totally workable but it’s enough of a nuisance that once I’m done the paper has to go away. My former keyboard of choice, the Microsoft Ergonomic 4000 (aff link), is simply too big for my desk now. The Microsoft Arc is a perfect size without being silly small like you get with some other ‘portable’ keyboards. The keys are still close enough to fullsize that you don’t notice the transition. I’ve previously owned a netbook with a cramped keyboard and sure I got used to it but it never felt totally comfortable.

The small footprint of the Arc fits perfect on the desk.
The small footprint of the Arc fits perfect on the desk.

Secondly I’m adverse to wires and obviously avoid their clutter whenever possible. The Arc has no wires at all but comes with a USB dongle to wirelessly communicate with your computer. Under the keyboard is a little recessed area that the USB dongle sits in when you’re not using it. Simply remove the dongle from it’s storage space, plug it in to a free USB port and you’re off to the races. If you’d like you can download the Microsoft Intellisense drivers which will give you a bit more control over the keyboard function but it’s certainly not required if you’d just like to use it as a keyboard. The volume controls even work out of the box with iTunes. I don’t really use any of the other keys for Exposé or Mission Control regularly so I don’t miss them. If I do end up needing them then I can simply reach over to my laptop and use the keys, if you’re on an iMac you’re not going to have that option so take a careful look at what you use for you’re secondary function keys.

USB dongle storage
USB dongle storage

The Arc also comes with a nice little bag to protect the keyboard for travel. It fits tight without being so tight you have a tough time getting the keyboard back in it’s packaging. Obviously if you’re using the Arc as your main keyboard the bag is going to sit somewhere unused but if you take it travelling you can know that the keyboard is reasonably protected in your baggage.

Often mobile keyboards have pretty crappy keys. Overall the keys on the Arc feel pretty decent. Sure they’re not quite as nice as my MS 4000 but they’re not terrible and with a few exceptions I’m going to get in to later, I’d say they’re at least as good as the ones on Apple Wireless keyboard or my MacBook Pro and I’m totally fine with those keys.

While looking at the keyboard in the store the overall height was giving me pause. I’ve use the Apple keyboard’s (wired and wireless) and they’ve always been way to low for me. I end putting the Apple keyboards on a magazine to make them approach anything near comfortable. Once I’ve done that they are tall enough and thus reasonably comfortable (but not ergonomic at all) but it’s dang ugly and given a choice I like an aesthetically pleasing work area. The Arc keyboard is not very tall but it doesn’t feel as low as the Apple keyboards. Granted this is a different desk setup from my previous one and I’ve never used the Apple keyboard with this posture so it might be okay but given two years of trying to make an Apple keyboard work I’m skeptical that a different posture would fix the faulty ‘minimal’ design. After a month of use the Arc never felt like it was too short for all day typisting. (yeah that’s not a word)

While many Mac users would be annoyed by the lack of a Mac specific keyboard layout it doesn’t bother me at all. You can configure the keys to function in the same layout as they would on your Mac so it’s not like you have to learn a new keyboard layout. The little stickers don’t match, get over yourself.

Meh

My biggest complaint about the keyboard is the keys on the top corners, specifically the ‘escape’ key. I use Vim all day for programming which means copious use of the escape key and it frankly sucks. It barely moves when you hit it and you’ve got to hit it hard to make it work. The same complaint is applicable to the delete key but I use that much less so it never annoyed me.

Others will also hate the arrow keys. While the standard Apple arrow keys are half sized the Arc provides a single square which is supposed to be all four directions. As I mentioned I use Vim so I rarely use the arrow keys and they were not a real problem for me. Yes sometimes I did click up when I meant to use the right arrow but not often enough to be of any real annoyance. I can certainly see how anyone that uses the arrow keys regularly would hate them. They do have the same ‘too short’ response of the escape key.

Single button for all keys on the Microsoft Arc keyboard
Single button for all keys on the Microsoft Arc keyboard

My second complaint about the keys is that the backspace key squeaks something fierce. Maybe I’ve got a funky model that just happens to have a funny backspace key or maybe I just use it way too much (lack of typing accuracy anyone) but in a month of use backspace squeaks if I press it at all. It still works works and I don’t have to press it hard but it’s dang annoying and makes me wonder if the key is going to wear out prematurely. When you use something daily little things like a squeaky key become big problems.

While I love that the keyboard is black and thus matches my black desk, the sort of glossy finish is a magnet for finger prints which drives me bonkers. I’m probably a bit OCD in that I clean the outside rim of the keyboard a few times a day because it’s got smudges on it. If smudges on things bug you in general stay away from this keyboard or you might end up with a clinical diagnosis of OCD.

I also dislike the lack of configuration available for the keyboard. Sure the Intellisense drivers let you deal with the function keys but that’s it. After digging around online it seems that with the Windows version of the software you can change what the Capslock key does. As I’ve mentioned a few times I code with Vim and I’d rather have the capslock key be escape, something that I haven’t found a way to accomplish even with Keyboard Maestro. Even if I could just turn it off instead of remapping it I’d be happy.

Coming hot on the heals of not being able to change the function of the capslock key, is the complaint that there is no visual indicator that you’ve got the capslock key on. For me it’s not a big issue but I can certainly understand why it would be for others.

Finally while the keyboard is wireless it’s not a Bluetooth keyboard so that means you’ve got something else to plug in. If you’re going to use this as a travel keyboard then you’ve got another thing to use. I am continually amazed/baffled at new wireless keyboards and mice that don’t just use Bluetooth. All Macs have Bluetooth built in and a most of the laptops I’ve seen lately. Why add another item to the mix when there is a perfectly valide wireless technology available?

Verdict

The real question is will the Microsoft Arc continue to be the keyboard I use? Nope. I’ve found over the last month that my wrist pain has increased, well actually it’s started again. Because of the pain I’ve been moving my old MS 4000 back on to the desk for prolonged typing. The Arc isn’t a bad keyboard, I typed this article on it, it’s just not quite what I need to keep my wrists healthy and happy. I’m going to keep it around for travel since it would allow me to put my MBP on a raised surface so I’m not looking down all the time. A perfect use of it would have been for my 8 weeks spent with family this summer. I didn’t have the room for a full keyboard and I was working every day. Over the course of 8 weeks my neck got progressively more sore and having the laptop raised up would have prevented the neck strain.

If you are looking for a portable/small keyboard that has good keys and don’t mind the issues I’ve noted on the finish, escape and delete keys, and you don’t use the arrow keys much this might be the perfect keyboard for you.

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