Computer keyboards are like mattresses--you don't know how crappy yours is until you try a good one. If you don't have an aversion to split keyboards, the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 can help you keep RSI therapy off your list of things to do this year. The split keys and the angled keyboard keep your wrists in a more natural and comfortable position, and the dedicated (and programmable) buttons reduce the amount of mousing you do. At $64.95, however, the keyboard is rather pricey, and it takes up a lot of desktop acreage.
Setting up the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 is a breeze. Load the IntelliType Pro 5.3 software from the included CD, restart your computer, and plug in the USB keyboard. The printed quick-start guide gives instructions for using a PS/2 adapter, but we tried it on two different systems and couldn't get that to work. Microsoft confirmed our findings that the keyboard isn't PS/2 compatible; we would rather use the PS/2 connector to free up a USB port.
Along the top edge of the bulky Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 is a row of programmable silver buttons. Aside from the five Favorites buttons, they come preprogrammed to do things such as open a browser window, open an e-mail client, control media playback, and open the desktop calculator. You can easily reprogram them to open a different version of a program (for example, Firefox instead of Internet Explorer or Outlook instead of Hotmail) or to do something different altogether (such as open a particular file or launch a program). The five Favorites buttons aren't preprogrammed; if you forget what functions you've assigned them, hitting the My Favorites button calls up a window that shows you.
The function keys also do double duty on this keyboard. With the F Lock on, they perform their standard functions. With the F Lock off, they execute a number of shortcuts, including undo/redo, save, print, and reply/forward/send for e-mail programs. The F keys are all labeled with their secondary functions.
In the area between the split keys resides a two-way toggle that lets you zoom in and out of the active page. Below the spacebar (and between the wrist pads) are two buttons--back and forth--that allow you to move between Web pages without having to reach for your mouse. Both features are welcome additions, as they cut down on mousing.
The Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 offers a couple of additional features that will appeal to those concerned about repetitive stress and proper wrist alignment. The two halves slant down from the middle, allowing you to keep your wrists in a more naturally rotated position. Also, the keyboard comes with a snap-on riser that gives the unit a bit of a backward slant, which prevents you from flexing your wrists. Some sort of faux leather covers the built-in wrist rests, giving them a smooth yet supple feel. Although the wrist rests are padded, they're still rather hard and not nearly as comfortable as the gel wrist rests you can get elsewhere.
Microsoft offers a three-year warranty on the keyboard and free phone support for the first 90-days--after that, support will cost $35 per request. Microsoft's support Web site has a searchable knowledge base, FAQs, and software updates. You can also access chat and e-mail support at the company's site.