An Untethered Keyboard and Mouse

Wednesday Oct 13th 2004 by Gerry Blackwell

Bluetooth technology provides the power behind Microsoft's new wireless keyboard and mouse combo. It's a sweet keyboard with no strings attached.

Many small business offices are, well, small. Desktop real estate is at a premium and clutter, a real productivity killer, is endemic — which is why a wireless keyboard and mouse make particularly good sense in small and home offices.

Wireless keyboards and mice eliminate at least two cables trailing across your desk. They also give you the freedom to change the position of mouse or keyboard without yanking on wires. You can even roll your chair back — or to one side to let somebody else sit in front of the screen — and set the keyboard on your lap.

We recently had a chance to test the Microsoft Optical Desktop Elite for Bluetooth, a wireless mouse and keyboard kit that can reasonably claim to be the best available. It is relatively expensive with an MSRP of $149, although it was listed for $123 on Amazon when I checked recently.

Wireless mice and keyboards have been available for a few years but most use infrared (IR) technology, which is also used in television remote controls, for example. IR is a "line of sight" wireless technology. It requires plugging a wired sender into a USB keyboard or mouse port on your computer. The sender sits on the desk, taking up some space, and the keyboard and mouse must have unobstructed line of sight to it. If you set a pile of papers between mouse and sender, the mouse won't work.

The Microsoft product uses Bluetooth, a vastly superior wireless "personal area network" technology that works on the same 2.4 Gigahertz (GHz) radio spectrum as Wi-Fi (802.11) wireless LANs and some cordless home telephones. While interference between Bluetooth and other 2.4GHz devices is a theoretical possibility, we experienced no problems running this product in close proximity to a Wi-Fi WLAN.

You can also use Bluetooth to connect other PC peripherals, including telephone headsets and printers, though not many of the latter are Bluetooth enabled yet. It is still a relatively new technology, and many of the products available now are designed for use with mobile devices such as PDAs and smart phones rather than desktop PCs.

However, this is not the first keyboard or mouse to use Bluetooth. Microsoft came out with its first Bluetooth wireless desktop kit last year. The Optical Desktop Elite is a significant upgrade to that product. Apple and Logitech, among others, also have Bluetooth desktop kits. And more than one vendor has Bluetooth keyboards designed to work with PDAs.

Why is Bluetooth such a big deal? A Bluetooth transceiver has a range of about 30 feet and the radio waves can go through objects. This means you don't need line of sight between the transceiver and keyboard or mouse. Bluetooth also provides much higher data throughput than IR — 1 megabit per second (Mbps).

The transceiver in the Microsoft kit is a tiny USB dongle, a device shaped something like the plastic end on a car key and not much bigger. It plugs into a USB port on your PC, and sends signals to, and receives them from, the wireless keyboard and mouse. You can plug it into a USB port on the back of your PC where it takes up absolutely no desk space, and it will work fine. It will also work if you plug it into a USB hub, as long as the hub is powered.

In the Box
The Elite kit features a deluxe model keyboard and mouse. The mouse uses optical sensor technology rather than the traditional rubber ball that rolls across the mouse pad. This eliminates the need to constantly clean dust from inside the mouse that interferes with its proper functioning. The ball picks up dust as it rolls around and, over time, deposits enough inside to gum up the works. Optical mice, which use infrared beams to map mouse movements, are sealed so dust can't get in.

The Elite is a wheel mouse of the latest design, with a tilt wheel that not only lets you scroll vertically up and down pages by turning the wheel, but also lets you scroll horizontally by pushing with your index finger against the side of the wheel.

As well as the usual left and right keys that you press with index and fore finger, the Elite mouse also has two small buttons at the side within easy reach of your thumb. Their default functions are Forward and Back commands in a browser, but they can be programmed in the Microsoft IntelliPoint software that comes with the product to perform other functions instead.

 Microsoft Optical Desktop Elite for Bluetooth
This wireless keyboard and mouse from Microsoft relies on Bluetooth technology and offers a multitude of programmable keys to control all kinds of computing functions.

All Keyed Up
The keyboard features a comfortable padded wrist rest and numerous special function keys, some pre-programmed, or at least labeled, several that perform double duty and others that you can programmed to do whatever you want. In fact, you can program any of the special keys.

The standard function keys have alternate jobss. You can access them by holding down the Ctrl key or set them as the default functions by clicking the F Lock key. Most initiate commands common to more than one program, such as Undo, Redo, Save, Print, New, Open and so on, while others control application-specific commands such as Reply, Forward and Send in e-mail.

I don't much care for the dual-function Function keys with the F Lock toggle key, although I frequently use Shift-Insert and Control-Insert key combinations to copy data to the Windows clipboard or paste from it. I was constantly in the wrong F Lock state and unable to paste data using Shift-Insert. Pressing the Shift-Insert with the F Lock in the wrong state erases the clipboard, so you have to copy the data again before you can paste properly.

A cluster of keys — Play/Pause, Stop, Volume up and down, Mute and Skip ahead and back — for playing digital media. Labeled keys open My Documents, My Pictures and My Music folders, and launch your mail, instant messenger and browser applications, the Windows calculator, and the Log-off and Sleep dialogs.

The keyboard includes five numbered Favorites keys that you can program to execute any command within a program or to launch a program. The Elite keyboard also has a tilt wheel to the left of the letter keys.

None of these special keyboard and mouse features on its own is a big productivity booster, but taken together they may save a few seconds or even minutes a day, which add up over time.

External and Internal Differences
The addition of horizontal scrolling on the mouse with the tilt wheel, the vertical-horizontal scroll wheel on the keyboard and some additional special keys on the keyboard are the main visible changes. The other is the Bluetooth transceiver, which is smaller than its predecessor's.

Inside, Microsoft claims it has improved battery life so that batteries will last three times longer. This was one other complaint I had about the original Microsoft Bluetooth desktop kit — the batteries were constantly running dry. I switched to rechargeables and bought enough so I could always have one set charging, but it's still a pain when the keyboard stops working and you have to stop to change batteries.

Making It Play Nice
Installation is also easier this time, though the process is not much changed, so it may be that I just made fewer errors in following the instructions. After installing the software that comes with the product, run a Bluetooth Connection Guide that walks you through the hardware installation in easy steps.

First you plug in the USB transceiver and wait for it to self-install. Then put the batteries in the keyboard and mouse, press a tiny button on the bottom of each device to allow it to communicate with the receiver. Finally, use the Bluetooth Devices dialog, a Control Panel applet, to add the mouse and keyboard to your Bluetooth personal area network.

The only tricky bit in the installation is that you have to use a "passkey" to set up the connection between the transceiver and the keyboard. The Bluetooth Devices dialog automatically generates the passkey during the Add device process. You have to type it in on the Bluetooth keyboard and press Enter — within 30 seconds. If you don't do it in time, you'll have to start over with a new passkey. It's no big deal, but it took me a couple of tries to get it right.

The other big difference I noticed between this and the earlier product is that vertical scrolling with the wheel mouse is now a continuous, fluid motion rather than in steps that you can hear and feel clicking off as you turn the wheel. I found this change a little disconcerting at first. Scrolling also seemed faster and I had to go into the Mouse dialog in Control Panel to slow it down.

According to Microsoft, this iteration of the Bluetooth transceiver now supports other devices besides the Microsoft keyboard and mouse. We were only able to test this with one other device, a Logitech Bluetooth headset designed primarily for use with a cellular phone. It didn't work.

While the Microsoft Bluetooth software was able to "pair" the headset and transceiver successfully, the headset was not available for use in any Windows audio applications. I was unable to find an explanation or solution at either the Logitech or Microsoft technical support sites. I assume the headset is simply not compatible with the Microsoft Bluetooth network.

One final quibble. When you first boot up the computer with the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse installed, they don't respond immediately. You have to move the mouse around for a few seconds or press keys on the keyboard several times before they wake up. Again, no big deal, but irritating.

In general, though, this is an excellent product. If you need to conserve desk space and de-clutter, especially if you're already spending $1,000 or more for your computer, it makes sense to spend another $100 or so for a superior keyboard and mouse.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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