Wireless mice, keyboards set users free

Input devices are not glamorous. But few pieces of equipment see more use — or have more potential to affect your computing experience — than the lowly keyboard and mouse. And who says input devices have to be mundane? A wireless mouse and keyboard not only provide the basic functionality that allows you to work with your computer, but also make your work much more pleasant.

For this review, we surveyed some of the major wireless mice and keyboards on the market: the Apple Wireless Mouse, Apple Wireless Keyboard, Belkin Bluetooth Wireless Optical Mouse, Kensington Wireless Optical Desktop (includes a mouse and a keyboard), Logitech Cordless MX Duo (includes a mouse and a keyboard), Macally rfkey, Macally rfmouse, and Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop (includes a mouse and a keyboard). We tested all products on OS X 10.2 and OS X 10.3 systems.

Wireless products fall into two categories: Bluetooth and 27MHz radio frequency (RF). Both have advantages and disadvantages. RF devices are less expensive, more widely available, and far more compatible with older Macs than their Bluetooth counterparts. Bluetooth devices have a much longer range, can transmit encrypted signals, and aren’t prone to interference from other devices operating on the same frequency. Furthermore, RF products rely on wired base stations that plug into your Mac’s USB port, while Bluetooth products can use either your Mac’s built-in Bluetooth receiver or a comparatively small USB adapter that connects directly to the port without any wires. We prefer Bluetooth technology for wireless input devices.

Except for the Apple Computer Inc. mouse, all these mice come with multiple buttons and scroll wheels. Many people prefer a one-button mouse, so we didn’t knock Apple for its lone button. In addition, we didn’t evaluate these products on an ergonomic basis, as that’s best done case by case. We also didn’t evaluate each mouse’s comfort level, as hands come in many shapes and sizes. Three of the mice — those from Apple, Microsoft Corp., and Logitech Inc. — have an ambidextrous design. The rest are configured for right-handed users. Indeed, lots of mice are curved to fit only right palms.

All the mice we tested used wireless technology and were optical. We found that the Logitech mouse did the best tracking job on a variety of surfaces; however, all performed very well. The Apple mouse has a nice on/off switch on the bottom; it slides back and forth to cover the optical sensor when it’s in the off position. Thanks to the switch, this is the only mouse that didn’t zap our pupils when we turned it upside down to change the batteries.

Only the Belkin Corp. and the Apple mice lack programmable buttons. The rest can be programmed via software. We liked the software that came with the Kensington Technology Group and Microsoft mice the best, but we gave a slight nod to Kensington. Both let you create application-specific settings and offer customization options.

The Apple and Belkin mice use Bluetooth; the others rely on RF. All the RF mice had problems with interference when used in a room with other RF mice; that has negative implications for lab settings and some offices. The Macally Group Inc. and Kensington mice were the likeliest to receive and cause interference, while Microsoft’s mouse was the least likely to do either. Neither Bluetooth mouse had problems with interference.

The Bluetooth products also had the longest range. Both Bluetooth mice worked at distances of more than 30 feet, while the best RF mouse, the Logitech, stopped receiving signals at a distance of just more than 13 feet. The other RF mice all had effective ranges of less than 10 feet. The Macally mouse had the shortest range, about five feet, followed closely by the Microsoft mouse, at six, and the Kensington mouse, at eight. All the mice performed well when barrier objects, such as a stack of books, were placed between the mice and their receivers.

Battery life is another concern that each mouse addresses differently. Our favorite setups were Kensington’s and Macally’s; both mice use a base station to charge a spare set of batteries. Logitech has a similar solution: the base doubles as a docking and charging station for the mouse. However, while the former two draw power from the USB port, Logitech — which does have a very rapid charge — relies on an additional power cord for its base. Although the cord can be connected and disconnected, this seems like a step most users wouldn’t want to take every time they need to charge the mouse. Many people use a wireless mouse to reduce cord clutter, and this defeats that purpose. Although the Apple and Microsoft mice don’t automatically recharge, they do have battery-life indicators, while the Belkin mouse relies on a flashing light in the scroll wheel.

Each mouse has unique characteristics. Our favorite feature, as well as the most functionally innovative one, is the scroll wheel on the Microsoft mouse, which can scroll both vertically and horizontally. We also particularly liked the Apple mouse’s tension switch, which lets you adjust how hard you have to press in order for the click to register.

The only mouse we don’t recommend is the Belkin Bluetooth Wireless Optical Mouse. One of its buttons, the one closest to the user’s thumb, doesn’t work on Mac systems. Belkin says an upcoming firmware upgrade will rectify this. Although the mouse worked perfectly well, we were unable to get it to establish a secure connection with the computer (called pairing). And the setup guide on Belkin’s Web site instructs users to ignore a message, from OS X’s Bluetooth setup assistant, saying that the “device does not have necessary services.” (Belkin says its firmware update will remedy this, too.)

And the Belkin mouse ships without OS X instructions, though they are on the Web site and will be included in future shipments (according to the company). On a positive note, the Belkin mouse does come with its own USB Bluetooth adapter that supports the full Bluetooth profile set, so it can support devices including phones, other mice, keyboards, or any other Bluetooth devices, not just the Belkin mouse. (Other Bluetooth adapters support only the device with which they ship.) This is a tremendous value, as most USB Bluetooth adapters cost nearly as much as this mouse.

We judged keyboards on transmission abilities, layout, and functionality. The only Bluetooth product we tested was the Apple Wireless Keyboard.

RF keyboards don’t have the same problems with interference as RF mice do. But we still prefer Bluetooth technology for keyboards. Its encryption abilities prevent other people from capturing keystrokes and, thus, passwords, credit card data, and similar information. Only the Macally had issues with interference, and that seemed to come only from, oddly enough, the Macally mouse (the Macally is also the only product we tested that relies on separate base stations for keyboard and mouse). When we used the two together, the mouse sometimes behaved erratically.

Wireless keyboards are an obvious choice for giving presentations. So we were interested in seeing what kind of range these keyboards had. The Apple keyboard had the longest maximum effective range, at about 30 feet, although we were able to get signals from as far away as 50 feet. The Microsoft keyboard had the shortest range, at a little under nine feet, while the Kensington had the longest range of the RF keyboards, at 14 feet. Both the Macally and the Logitech maxed out at around 11 feet. All the keyboards performed well when barriers were placed between them and their receivers.

We didn’t like the layout of the Microsoft keyboard. It’s essentially a Windows keyboard that you configure for the Mac by using the software to switch the position of the alt (option) keys. We highly preferred the setup of the Macally, Apple, and Kensington keyboards, which have the familiar one keys on either side of the spacebar. Although the Logitech keyboard also had the one keys in a familiar place, we felt that having two alt keys right next to each other (one for Mac users and one for PC users) was confusing. We also liked the Apple keyboard’s compact footprint. While the other keyboards extend several inches beyond the keys, the Apple ends almost where the keys stop. This is particularly nice for small workspaces.

All the keyboards except the Apple had extra media keys along the top that performed functions such as launching iTunes, e-mail apps, and Web browsers. We really liked these programmable keys; however, only the Microsoft keyboard and the Macally keyboard allowed application-specific programming. The Microsoft keyboard was the most highly customizable. For example, the same key that launches iBlog while Safari is running can add a Bcc field to a new message in Mail. Several keys on the Logitech — such as the ones labeled Messenger and Webcam — didn’t function at the default setting, but this was easily remedied with the accompanying software. Some of the keyboards — the Logitech, Macally, and Kensington — also had handy scroll wheels built in.

Power consumption is largely the same for the keyboards as for the mice; the two exceptions were the Logitech and Macally keyboards, which don’t recharge via the base station, as the mice do. The Kensington keyboard is the only product with a base station — the same one the mouse uses — designed to swap batteries.

We liked the Microsoft mouse best, thanks to its software, ability to overcome interference, horizontal scrolling, and keyboard integration (applicable for the mouse-keyboard combos that sell together and work with the same base station). The Apple Wireless Mouse, thanks to its Bluetooth functionality, came in a close second and is the best choice for a multiple-user setting. Individual users should consider the Kensington, which was a solid performer in all categories other than interference, and has excellent programmable software.

With no significant drawbacks, the Kensington keyboard is the best in this roundup. Apple came in next, due to its sleek design and Bluetooth compatibility, though we wish it had room for a few programmable keys.

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