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Sunday, November 10, 2002

Technology

Microsoft consistently does hardware right
Gizmos

By D. Ian Hopper
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Whether or not you like Microsoft Corp.'s software or business practices, there's one thing the company consistently does right: hardware.

Whether it's gamepads, joysticks, keyboards or mice, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant has a well-deserved reputation for building devices that are easy to use, rugged, featured-filled and precise.

Microsoft released seven new products this fall: one wired and one wireless optical mouse, a tiny optical mouse for notebook computers, one regular and one ''natural'' splitdesign keyboard and two wireless desktop mouse-and-keyboard combo sets.

I've been playing with two devices, the Wireless Optical Desktop Pro ($104.95, including the natural keyboard) and the Notebook Optical Mouse ($34.95.)

I haven't used a wireless keyboard and mouse since Logitech's first iteration several years ago, and that experience wasn't happy. Not only did the mouse feel cheap and too light, but setup was a pain. It took some doing to get the keyboard and mouse to respond to the transmitter.

To be fair, Logitech has a newer wireless keyboard/mouse combo called the Cordless Elite Duo for $99.95, which is bound to be better.

Microsoft's devices work similarly.

You can plug the transmitter into your keyboard and mouse ports on the back of your computer, or into a USB slot. You'll get smoother mouse movement with USB, although it'll take up one of those precious plugs. As someone who has a total of 10 USB ports and still must choose which peripherals to plug in, I preferred not to give up a port.

The keyboard and mouse need two AA batteries (included) each, since they require power to send signals to the transmitter. After plugging in everything and pressing reset on each device, Windows XP saw them and it all worked.

The two devices have a roughly sixfoot range and use radio waves so you don't need a direct line of sight.

The mouse was great. I'm a big fan of optical mice, which don't gum up because they don't have a ball in them. And you don't need a mousepad. As long as you use them on a surface with a visible texture the tiny camera inside tracks movement and creates smooth strokes.

Though I found the mouse's scroll wheel to have a little too much resistance at first, when I got used to it I liked its increased precision. The keyboard is appealing, too. Microsoft has changed the multimedia keys across the top again -- I don't use them often but the volume keys are very smart and useful.

There is an extra key next to F12 called ''Function Lock.'' Without that engaged, the F-keys are mapped to common workplace and e-mail tasks, like Open, Reply, and Send. It's not a bad idea, since F-keys haven't been heavily used since the days of DOS WordPerfect and old flight simulator games. Still, the old control-key shortcuts for those still work and habit moved me to keep the F-keys as originally intended.

Also, the Num Lock and Caps Lock lights are on the transmitter rather than the keyboard itself. That's not overly distracting as long as you keep the transmitter within sight.

The whole package is a joy, except for one environmental hazard. Since the mouse is small, cordless and has a cool red light glowing from the bottom, it was far too much of a temptation for my 1-year-old. Several times, I have had to chase him across the room after he grabbed the mouse.

The Notebook Mouse is perfect for his hands and designed to replace a laptop pointing device. Some people like the little eraserhead mouse, or trackpoint as some manufacturers call it. I prefer trackpads but I don't think anyone really likes either.

In response, Microsoft has a baby mouse a couple of inches long that fits well into a laptop bag.

When I placed it on a nice big book it was elevated enough to use comfortably with my laptop. It was also perfect for mobile gaming, where a trackpad or eraserhead mouse can be awkward.

There are a couple of caveats here. The mouse really is small, so people with big hands might not like it. Also, I found the cord to be about a foot too short. It was fine for me, since my USB port is on the back of my laptop, though the cord is bound to be fairly taut if your port is on the opposite side of where you place the mouse.

Here's the rest of Microsoft's slate of peripherals:

--Optical Mouse Blue: $34.95

--Wireless Optical Mouse Blue: $44.95

--MultiMedia Keyboard: $34.95

--Natural MultiMedia Keyboard: $54.95

--Wireless Optical Desktop: $84.95

On the Net: http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/

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