Review: Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000

by Chris Howard Oct 23, 2006

Recently, when reviewing the iMac, some readers suggested there are better keyboards than Apple provides. Some recommended Microsoft’s Natural keyboards. Having used one at work ten years ago and been very happy with it, I decided - as the opportunity had arisen - to buy one.

With the kids’ keyboard on their eMac needing replacing (the left Command key had gone to a better place), I (magnanimously) decided to give them my new iMac’s keyboard and lash out and get myself a Microsoft Natural keyboard. Searching eBay, I found the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 fitted my price and requirements.

Natural Keyboards
Efforts to design a more ergonomic keyboard have been around since God banged his thumb while carving the 10 Commandments using his one key chisel. (And if you’re wondering, that is why he left off “Thou Shalt Not Swear”.)

So Microsoft were not the first but were the first to really popularise ergonomic keyboards. Microsoft’s interpretation was to split the keypad in two and slightly angle the two halves outwards. The theory is this presents a more natural position for the hands, thus reducing stresses caused by repetitive keyboarding actions.

Features
The latest incarnation of the Natural keyboard is the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 (let’s call it the NEK4000 else I will get RSI). Microsoft says: “This keyboard’s curved bed and natural arc encourage a more natural hand, wrist, and forearm position.”

The NEK4000 has a built-in wrist rest. Intriguingly, searching the internet reveals conflicting advice on wrist rests. Some say to rest your hands on them while typing, others others say don’t. Microsoft’s answer has been to include a stand that props the keyboard up at the front. From what I can interpret of the limited information Microsoft provides, the intended result is your hands should be both in the ideal typing position and they can safely rest on the wrist rest while typing. (I’m happy to be corrected, Bill). But I gotta say, it feels mighty weird. It makes you feel like you should change the angle of your screen to be perpendicular to the keyboard. Although, after an hour or so I’ve gotten reasonably used to it.

The NEK4000 has 12 F-keys although when used on a Mac, the F13, F14 and F15 are the PrtScn, SclLk and Pause keys. Therefore, as expected, the last two are used to adjust screen brightness.

An F-Lock key enables the F-keys to perform other functions such as Save, Open, Close and Reply

The NEK400 includes 10 Hotkeys which perform actions such as launching email, muting volume and launching calculator. Plus it has five favorites keys which can link to files, folders, web pages etc. These are clever in that to program one, you simply hold it down for several seconds and it will use the document, page, folder or file selected.

All the hotkeys and the secondary functions of the F-keys are user programmable. Thus on your Mac, you can make the Search key launch Spotlight instead of simulating Command-F.

For people who use the numeric keypad a lot, especially in Excel, the NEK4000 includes four additional keys being: = ( ) and a backspace.

In the middle of the NEK4000 is a Zoom toggle. In supported applications, it simulates the zoom function such as found in image editors.

Shortcomings
The NEK4000 has a few of issues:

- Although it is fully Mac OS X compatible and all extra keys are programmable, they all bear Windows only symbols. I appreciate Mac is only a small market, but if you’re going to make a Mac compatible keyboard, you should include the Option and Command abbreviations and/or symbols on those two keys.

- Zoom is not supported by many applications on the Mac, plus it’s behavior is inconsistent to say the least. For example, in MS Word it activates OS X’s built-in zooming, in Safari it adjusts the font size.

- NumLock doesn’t work. Fortunately it is locked onto numerics. Although, in MS Word it does operate as a delete key.

- Although Systems Preferences displays the NEK4000’s preference icon, clicking it launches a separate application.


Overall
It does take a day to adjust to the split keyboard and if you’re not a touch typist, you’ll soon discover if you’ve beeen cheating and crossing the keyboard. From reports I’ve read on line from touch typists, it also takes them a day to get used to this type of keyboard.

The NEK4000 has encouraged me to try to learn touch typing, which hopefully is a good thing. It would be interesting to know though if RSI is mainly a problem for touch typists. I observed with my typing, which uses only six fingers, that there’s a lot of movement of my hands. Whereas if I’m trying to learn touch type that will greatly minimize the movement of the hands.

On a Mac, the NEK4000 is let down by functionality issues, especially the zoom and num lock problems. So for functionality (on a Mac) I can only give it a 6/10

For it’s design and use though, it scores well no matter what platform you use, and I’ll give it an 8.5/10

So overall, I’ll give the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 a 7.5/10

Comments

  • Yuk.  Looks like a Microsoft product…

    sydneystephen had this to say on Oct 23, 2006 Posts: 124
  • And if you’re wondering, that is why he left off “Thou Shalt Not Swear”

    Heh, heh…and so is, “Thou Shalt Not Buy From Microsoft”.

    Jokes aside though, MS had been very consistent in offering and <yipes> innovating in the H.I.D. (or human interface devices) department.

    Without MS’s laser mice contraption years ago, who would have thought of inventing them? Logitech was on the way there, of course, with their optical red trackballs, but it was MS that wowed the PC-loving public with their bright, irridescent red lasers.

    I wonder if these M&K people actually work for MS? They should be a model for the rest of the company not just an after-thought.

    Robomac had this to say on Oct 23, 2006 Posts: 846
  • Hey! Who remembers the first optical mice? You had to use them on a special mouse pad that had lots of tiny squares on it and was all sort of metallic looking.

    Heheh. SydneyStephen - if you think the NEK4000 looks a little ordinary, you should see it beside an iMac! The original Natural keyboards were much nicer looking.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Oct 23, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • I appreciate Mac is only a small market, but if you’re going to make a Mac compatible keyboard, you should include the Option and Command abbreviations and/or symbols on those two keys.

    I agree with that.  Maybe put them in the box so Mac users can switch them out?  That said, I’m using my Apple keyboard with Vista and it’s not much of an adjustment.  CNTRL is CNTRL.  ALT is ALT.  And the Apple key is the Windows key.  They’re in different places, of course, but they do what they say they do.

    Aesthetics aside, there is no comparison between the feel of a natural keyboard and a regular one, particularly the Apple keyboards, which kind of suck.  I switched my wife to a Mac mini and an Apple keyboard and she HATES it.  She could care less what it looks like.  She was using a natural before so now I have to get one for her.

    Chris, how much is the one you tested?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Oct 24, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Mine was AU$65, Beeb, which is about US$50 according to my handy dandy Unit Converter widget.

    I can cope without the Apple symbols but other manufacturers provide them. It’s just a nicety. You know… the little things. Which is one thing Apple does get that MS don’t.

    Funny thing though is I always called the Command key the Alt key. So in my head I’d be saying “Alt-C to copy”. I guess coz I was used to all those keystrokes being control-somethings. Too many years on Windows. smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on Oct 24, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • You know… the little things. Which is one thing Apple does get that MS don’t.

    For the most part I agree, although I’m noticing some nice little things in Vista, like the per-application volume control I mentioned earlier.  Are the times a changing?  Nah, probably not.  smile

    Thanks for the price.  That’s about in line with what I’ve been seeing.  I’m wondering if a serial to USB adapter is a better solution, but I’m not having much luck finding one.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Oct 24, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • You’ll prob find a serial to USB adapter will cost more than it’s worth.

    That volume-per-app is a sensational idea that I hope Apple do copy (not that they’d admit as much). I still haven’t worked out what utility I saw it in.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Oct 24, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • If I recall correctly Microsoft wanted to use the Apple logo on a Mac specific keyboard and Apple said…... pound sand.
    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/255322_mackeyboard12.html

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Oct 24, 2006 Posts: 354
  • Thanks for the info, Chris.

    And nice catch, Chris.  It’s the “little things,” like Apple’s sue-crazy legal dept.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Oct 24, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Ah! Nice work Chris. ‘Tis interesting that that keyboard is Mac specific and Apple still didn’t allow it.

    No wonder the NEK4000, which is a Windows keyboard foremost, doesn’t have any Apple markings.

    And Beeb, ROFL. smile You’re gunna love my next piece where I make the ludicrous suggestion that Apple could improve its customer relations!! I better go check my flameproof suit is back from the dry cleaners. wink

    Chris Howard had this to say on Oct 24, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • Then I may have to hide somewhere, as my troll-proof suit is lately rather the worse for wear.

    raspberry

    Benji had this to say on Oct 24, 2006 Posts: 927
  • *cracks knuckles, takes a swig of gatorade…*

    Looking forward to it, Chris.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Oct 24, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • I love MS Natural Keyboards, but I haven’t been able to get over the looks of the 4000. I need a keyboard to replace the Apple one on my new iMac.

    The Natural Keyboard has been great at relieving pain in my shoulders from scrunching my arms together to type.

    Tiger had this to say on Oct 25, 2006 Posts: 14
  • When is Apple going to release their own natural keyboard????

    MacDan2004 had this to say on Oct 25, 2006 Posts: 8
  • Good question, MacDan! Very good question. For a company that prides itself on design and ergonomics, why don’t they?

    Chris Howard had this to say on Oct 25, 2006 Posts: 1209
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