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HTG Reviews the Sculpt: a Quirky Ergonomic Keyboard

Anyone who logs serious time at their computer desk knows the toll the keyboard and mouse can take on your wrists, shoulders, and even back. Today we take a look at the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop, a highly ergonomic keyboard and mouse combo that purports to realign your posture and chase away the carpal tunnel.

What Is The Sculpt?

The Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop (herein referred to as the Sculpt for brevity) is Microsoft’s most recent iteration in their long standing (and popular) ergonomic keyboard lineup. Unlike previous offerings, the Sculpt package includes an entire ergonomic input set.  It’s not just an ergonomically sculpted keyboard, but a detached number pad and an ergonomic mouse.

The premise of the keyboard and mouse is that by putting your hands, arms, and shoulders into a natural alignment, you’ll type and mouse more comfortably and reduce or eliminate repetitive stress injuries. How does that premise hold up in real world use and how big of a hassle is it to adjust to a completely different keyboard? Read on as we show you how to set it up and our experience using it.

How Do I Get Started?

Setting up the Sculpt is quite straightforward, and the biggest hassle you’ll encounter is actually getting it out of the box; those packaging engineers did a great job with beautiful presentation and ensuring nothing wiggled loose during shipping.

Once you’ve liberated the Sculpt keyboard and companion peripherals from the box, you’ll have to peel the miles of protective film off the piano black glossy surfaces on the keyboard, mouse, and numberpad. Enjoy looking at those lovely glossy black surfaces for as long as you’d like, because you’ll never see this set smudge free again.

After removing the film, turn all three peripherals over and pull the plastic battery-saver tabs out of the devices (we know it’s a minor thing but we’re always delighted when a new device has the battery installed and ready to go). On the number pad it’s the typical pull-out tab, on the keyboard and mouse you’ll need to open the bottom magnetic panels to access the tabs for removal.

The magnetic panels, by the way, are a really nice departure from the standard plastic-clasp style closures found on just about every electronic device under the sun. The magnetic closure has a nice solid feel and there’s zero risk of ever snapping the little plastic tab off during a future battery change.

When you have the bottom of the mouse open, take a moment to slide the small USB dongle out of its little storage slot in the middle of the mouse–you’ll notice that it, too, is held in by magnets.

After you’ve pulled all the battery-saver plastic tabs out and replaced the magnetic covers, place all the peripherals on your desktop and plug the USB dongle in. Windows will automatically install the drivers.

With setup completed, it’s time to get down to the business of actually typing on the keyboard, an exercise in fun or frustration depending on how well versed you are in ergonomic keyboard layouts when you start.

Using the Sculpt

The Sculpt is designed with what Microsoft calls the “Natural Arc”, which is their marketing phrase for describing the split keyboard and wave-like rise and fall of the keys. Marketing phrases aside, it certainly works. Placing your hands on the home row of the Sculpt keyboard puts your hands, arms, and shoulders in a much more natural and comfortable alignment. You’ll feel less like you’re shoving your hands out in front of you like a B-movie robot and much more like you’re resting them naturally in your lap.

On top of the wave-like inward angle of the split keys, the keyboard has a slight negative angle that brings your wrists into a slightly draped-forward pose which minimizes stress on your wrists. You can increase the negative angle with the included riser (which you place in the front of the keyboard to tilt the keyboard surface further away from you). Overall it’s quite comfortable, and when combined with a keyboard tray that already has negative angle adjustments, it’s like ergonomic heaven.

Speaking of ergonomic alignment, one great thing about the keyboard that Microsoft really underemphasized in their marketing  is the separate number pad. It isn’t that having a separate number pad is that big of a deal (or that many people even use their number pads very often), it’s that by not attaching it the right side of the keyboard (where it is traditionally located on standard keyboards), it allows you to move your mouse hand closer to the center axis of your body.

Years ago I bought a Microsoft Sidewinder gaming keyboard even though I wasn’t a heavy gamer at that point, simply because the keyboard was modular and allowed you to snap the number pad onto either side of the main keyboard. It seems like a minor thing, but the ability to butt your mouse pad up against the edge of the keyboard without the extra 4-6 inches taken up by the number pad radically cuts down on the strain you’re putting on your shoulder.

When you combine that beneficial change in angle with the natural shape the Sculpt mouse puts your hand in, it makes for a very comfortable user interface experience.

Before we return to the keyboard, let’s take a quick look at the mouse. I’m a die-hard fan of the Logitech Trackman trackball series of mice, so the shape of the Sculpt mouse (hand in a neutral position, thumb resting down) felt completely natural to me. If you’re used to a palm-down traditional mouse experience the rotation of your hand might take a little getting used to.

As far as mice goes it’s perfect serviceable. The buttons respond crisply, using the default software you can assign the buttons to different functions, call up the Windows menu, and otherwise enjoy life with a mouse more advanced than a PS/2 two-button model. Take the following criticism with a grain of salt because I’m used to a stationary track-ball mouse, but my biggest complaint about the Sculpt mouse was how slick the polymer glide points on the bottom of the mouse were.

I seriously felt like every time touched the mouse it was like nudging a hockey puck on freshly polished ice. If you’re a fan of mice that glide well, you’re in luck because this thing is, no hyperbole, greased lightning. I knocked it clean off my desk several times during the first week I was reviewing it as 1) I was unused to the slightly higher profile and 2) the whole thing is apparently coated in Teflon. With that minor complaint about the mouse aired, let’s return to the meat of the purchase and the reason people start researching ergonomic inputs: the keyboard.

If I had to summarize the experience of typing on any ergonomic keyboard (and especially the highly stylized Sculpt keyboard) in a single sentence it would be with this sentence: It’s very comfortable, but it will punish you savagely for even the slightest typing habit you have that varies from textbook typing skills.

For example, prior to reviewing this keyboard, I had never noticed that I have a habit of typing the letter “B” with my right index finger. Per formal typing instruction, I should be pressing the “B” with my left index finger. On any non-ergonomic keyboard this is a non-issue as the “B” key is always perfectly nestled and aligned beneath the “G” and “H” keys. On an ergonomic keyboard, however, there is a sizable split between the two halves of the keyboard (a full 2 inches between the “B” and “N” keys on the Sculpt). This particular deviation from standard typing was the only habit I uncovered while testing the keyboard, but it was really frustrating for the first week while I continually hit the “N” key with my right hand where my brain thought the “B” key should be. Every non-standard typing habit you have will increase the time it takes you to pick up the new keyboard style, so be braced for that.

Beyond discovering you’ve been pressing a key with the wrong finger your whole life, the other issue you’ll likely run into (but likely quickly get used to) is the variable key sizes. While it’s done with the intention of keeping keys under the finger that should naturally hit them and compensating for the changing slope of the keyboard, if you’re a touch typist that expects every letter key to be the same size, it can be very disorienting. The keys closest to the split are the most differentiated: The “Y” key is slightly larger than a regular key, the “H” key is even larger, and the “N” key is a little over twice as large as the regular keys. To say that it is disorienting to a typist used to a standard keyboard is an understatement; if you’re a touch typist, be prepared for accidentally hitting the “N” and “T” keys (the two largest on the keyboard) quite a bit.

The only other noteworthy quirks about the keyboard are the backspace key and the function key. Even after weeks of using the keyboard, the backspace key is still annoying. The placement is just far enough back from the typical keyboard location that it’s very easy to miss it. The spacebar is split in the middle and there are provisions for switching the spacebar side you don’t use with your dominant thumb to become a backspace key, but that’s a really poor work around as it trains you to backspace with your thumb (have fun using a regular keyboard with that habit).

The last quirk is the function keys. On just about every keyboard out there that uses the function keys both as actual F-number keys and secondary media (or other control) keys, there is a Fn button that allows you to, with a single keystroke, toggle between the uses. It’s the traditional way of doing it and it works well. For some reason, the Sculpt designers opted to go with an actual physical toggle. If you want F-number keys, you switch it to Fn. If you want the blue-highlighted secondary functions, you flip the switch in the opposite direction. After decades of using a keyboard key, typically down by the CTRL/ALT keys, to activate the secondary functions, the manual toggle switch feels really kludgy. If you’re going to use a laptop keyboard space-saving trick, you should stick with the same laptop keyboard convention for accessing the secondary function buttons.

Finger placement issues and quirks aside, the keyboard is very pleasant to type on. The action of the keys is scissor-based, which is a nice compromise between the cheap mushy rubber-dome keys in most low-end keyboards and the crisp mechanical response of older keyboards and modern premium keyboards. For those of you who aren’t so geeked out on keyboard mechanism design that you immediately related to the previous statements, rest easy with this summary: the Sculpt keyboard keys have the quiet and compact responsiveness you’d expect on a premium laptop keyboard.

The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict

After reading the breakdown of the keyboard’s faults and learning-curve points in the previous section, you might think we’re underwhelmed by it. Given that a keyboard is such an important and intimate component of the computing experience, we strived to be as detailed as possible in analyzing things that would throw a new user off when transitioning to an ergonomic keyboard.

The Good:

  • It’s really eye catching.
  • The key action is quiet and soft (without being mushy).
  • The ergonomics are spot on, and once you get over the frustration of learning the button layout, you’ll notice hands, arms, and shoulders are more relaxed.
  • The negative angle is subtle but effective.
  • If you’re not using an ergonomic mouse, the Sculpt mouse is a great upgrade that retails for $60 separate from the set.

The Bad:

  • If you’re not already using an ergonomic keyboard, the learning curve is steep.
  • The manual function-key switch is just awful.
  • Unless you have large hands with a wide reach, the backspace key feels like a stretch.
  • One of the things that makes it eye catching, the piano black finish, is (no matter how careful you are) perpetually smeared with fingerprints.
  • Mouse is right-hand only.

The Verdict: If you’re in the market for an ergonomic keyboard and mouse set, the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop is a really eye-catching and enjoyable keyboard to type on (once you get over the initial hump of adapting to the layout). If you’re already used to Microsoft’s previous ergonomic keyboards like the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, you’ll take to it even faster. In fact the only real “you shouldn’t buy this keyboard” caveat we can offer is for people who aren’t willing to invest the time to get used to an ergonomic keyboard; $100 is way too much money to spend on a mouse and keyboard set you’ll soon shove back into the box and forget about.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 09/30/13

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