Having launched a pair of Windows 8 tablet-focused input devices, Microsoft has now turned its attention to full-size peripherals. The Sculpt Comfort Keyboard comes equipped with Microsoft’s new array of Windows 8-specific buttons and a new take on the familiar spacebar. By bisecting and enlarging the standard spacebar, Microsoft offers you the option to turn the left space key into a dedicated backspace button. The backspace functionality is interesting, but the fatter spacebar gives the Sculpt Comfort a clunky feeling. At $59.99, the price is also high enough that you’ll definitely want to try it out before you buy. You might check it out if you’re looking to adjust your current typing style, but Microsoft’s Sculpt Comfort Keyboard feels more like a solution in search of a problem than a must-have input device.
The Sculpt Comfort feels like the La-Z-Boy of PC keyboards. A padded wrist rest juts out about 2.5 inches from the front of the device. A pair of feet under the wrist rest pops out to elevate your wrists off the desk like an ottoman for your hands. The enlarged spacebar keys create an expansive landing spot for your thumbs, and your fingers fall across Microsoft’s familiar wavy, curved key alignment (which you may have seen before). Even the key action feels soft, although in a way that’s overly mushy.
The problem is that not everyone wants the keyboard equivalent of an easy chair. The spacebar in particular feels unnecessarily large, and it sets the keys far enough back that you feel like you have to stretch to reach them. You can take the wrist rest off, which helps some, but the spacebar still feels like you have to reach over it to type. And compared with generally crisp laptop keyboards and the newer breed of mechanical typing devices, the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard feels a bit like you’re typing in mud.
Microsoft’s rationale for the large, bisected spacebar comes from its own research. It explains as follows:
This design choice is the result of internal research that showed 90 percent of typists use only their right thumb to press the spacebar, leaving a lot of unused real estate on the left side of the bar. Research also showed the backspace key is the third most pressed key on the keyboard — behind the spacebar itself and the letter “e” — but constantly striking backspace breaks a person’s typing stride because of its location on the top right-hand corner of the keyboard.
Simply hold down both the left and right spacebar keys to toggle the left-side assignment between “space” and “backspace.” And while I can’t necessarily disagree with Microsoft’s research findings, as a lifelong touch typist I also can’t say “the backspace problem” has ever really bothered me. Microsoft wisely allows you to adjust the function of the left-side spacebar on the fly. I had it set to backspace mode throughout the writing of this review, and as much as I tried to remember to use it, I never felt the need. It might pay off in a few extra words per minute if you thoroughly retrain yourself — stenographers, take note — but overall the reimagined spacebar is more experimental novelty than compelling innovation.
Along with the tweaked design, the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard comes with some useful features for Windows 8 users. As we saw in the Wedge Mobile Keyboard, Microsoft has superimposed four Windows 8 specific hot keys — Search, Share, Devices, and Settings — over a set of the top-row function keys. If you’d rather just have traditional “F” keys, a useful switch lets you lock the top buttons into either hot-key or function-key mode. The new Windows key, bearing Microsoft’s redesigned Windows logo, lets Windows 8 users swap between the new Windows 8 tile interface and your current active window. In older versions of Windows, the new Windows key opens the Start menu.
Otherwise the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard is a straightforward typing device. It is wireless, which means batteries and a wireless receiver. The 2.4GHz receiver is a larger dongle-style USB device, as opposed to Microsoft’s and Logitech’s tiny microreceiver designs. The good news is that the pairing process is practically instant. Simply plug the receiver in and start typing; there’s no messing with connect buttons or other hoops to jump through. For batteries, Microsoft includes a pair of standard AAAs.
The Sculpt Comfort Keyboard has some useful touches in its removable wrist rest, the front-side support feet, and its Windows 8-specific hot keys, but overall the keyboard has an overstuffed quality to it. From the too-soft key response, to the thick wrist rest and giant spacebar, the Sculpt comes across as cumbersome. And although it might be interesting to reexamine your relationship with the spacebar, the keyboard itself gets in the way of any fun you might have experimenting with it. Input device preferences are highly subjective, of course, so you may find what Microsoft has done here is just right. Just be sure to get some hands-on time with the Sculpt Comfort Keyboard before you make a purchase. Those used to crisp-feeling typing hardware will likely want to keep looking.