Product Guide: Alternative keyboards

The days when you were stuck with the plain-vanilla keyboard that came with your desktop PC are long gone. Stylish, sleek, and sporty keyboards to fit all lifestyles and ergonomic preferences are now available.

Three of the standouts are the EluminX, a backlit keyboard suitable for low-light computing from Auravision LLC; Creative's Prodikeys, a keyboard that makes music; and the Cordless Navigator Duo from Logitech Inc., a combo keyboard and mouse setup.

All three add to the cost of your system, of course, as opposed to that plain-Jane keyboard that is usually bundled. Both wired keyboards from Creative and Auravision are priced at US$100 and are compatible with Windows-based machines. The Prodikeys works with Windows 98 Second Edition up through Windows XP; EluminX works with all Windows flavors (including Windows 95). Logitech's entry costs US$80 and is compatible with Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0, and later versions of Windows, and also works with Macintosh OS X.

Backlit Keyboard Glows in the Dark

In a well-lit room, the EluminX appears to be just another slim, trim keyboard. Dim the lights, however, and everything changes. The keyboard illuminates.

The backlit keys are responsive, with a precise feel and confident click to the touch. The glowing light shining through the transparent keys contrasts nicely with the black plastic keyboard base. There are two luminescent color options available: aquamarine and sapphire blue (the keyboard shown here sports the sapphire blue hue).

The glowing effect is produced by a flat-panel display that sits underneath the keys. Auravision, the company that makes the EluminX, uses patented ElectroLuminescent technology to light up the keyboard.

The company promotes this wired keyboard as a great tool for late-night computer sessions and for use in dimly lit workspaces. Consider it well-suited for an all-night dorm-room study session, for example.

Many fully loaded keyboards are just too big to fit into a pullout keyboard drawer, but the compact EluminX slid into place with plenty of room to spare.

As for the layout, everything was easy to find and functional. The number pad is conveniently tucked in right next to the main group of letter keys.

Key Wishes

Compact isn't everything; your hands may feel a bit cramped after a couple of hours of typing on the EluminX keyboard, which is 16.8 inches long and 6.24 inches wide--a bit smaller than most keyboards. The keyboard height angles up from about 0.50 inches on the bottom to 0.75 inches at the top--a fairly gentle upward slope, but it lacks the concavity of most keyboards.

The low-profile keyboard has a dozen function keys, just like its standard-size cousins, but each is about three-quarters of the size of the letter and number keys, which measure 0.75 by 0.75 inches. PC users with small and medium-size fingers shouldn't have any problems, but for some of us, it might feel more like typing on a laptop than a desktop keyboard, as the keys are flatter.

Unlike unlit models costing less, the EluminX provides no special function buttons for Internet access, e-mail, instant messaging, or digital music connections.

The Delete key felt out of place. On this keyboard, it's the last key on the upper right corner, at the end of the sixth row of keys. On many other models, the delete key sits in two rows of three keys each situated above the cursor block. If you're accustomed to finding it in that location, you may experience several miscues until you get the hang of the EluminX setup. Like us, however, you may prefer the traditional spot for the Delete key.

Also, if you use a padded wrist rest for extended typing sessions, you may be unable to employ it comfortably with the EluminX--we found the pad was about double the thickness of this lean keyboard. And if you like a keyboard with fold-up legs, that too is missing from the EluminX, so you can't tilt the board back for a steeper angle.

Add-Ons and Options

The test unit came with a conventional PS/2 connector. If you want to connect via a USB port, however, you'll have to buy an adapter (which costs less than US$10).

Our test production model's fit and finish were clean, and its keys were lit consistently across the board. The illumination technology itself is a bit reminiscent of typing on some kind of X-ray device. It was originally intended for rugged laptops used at night or in low-light situations by the military and crime-fighting organizations.

Auravision introduced its consumer keyboard model in the US last October. In addition to basic black, bases in silver and bone are also available. The company expects to have more color choices ready for introduction this summer.

As novelties go, the EluminX is a fully functional device that works well in dark, tight spaces, and spots where overhead lighting poses a hazard. For most other uses, however, the same money or less gets you a conventional keyboard and a table lamp.

Check out the Auravision Web site for more details: http://www.auravisionllc.com/

--Frank Thorsberg

A Keyboard You Can Play

Depending on how you look at it, Creative's $100 Prodikeys is either a PC keyboard that plays music or a music keyboard you can type on. Either way, it's great fun for kids who are learning to play--or adults who never did.

The oversize unit plugs into your PC's keyboard (PS/2) port and sports both a standard 104-key QWERTY PC keyboard and 37 touch-sensitive, piano-style keys. (A cover protects the keys when not in use and doubles as a wrist rest.)

Slick bundled software lets you practice songs note-by-note or simply show off with a mode that does much of the playing for you, in styles from Latin to hip-hop. Multiple voices mimic a piano (naturally), but also a clarinet, accordion, and other instruments, and you can record your performances for later playback.

The sound you get will depend on the quality of your sound system. I tested the Prodikeys using basic Altec-Lansing speakers and a Sound Blaster Live card (superior to the audio card bundled with the Prodikeys), and the sound quality was good. Once you tire of the songs built into the software, you can import any MIDI tune--thousands of Web sites offer them for free--and learn to play it. True music geeks can even attach a neck strap (not included) and play the Prodikeys guitar-style.

This clever keyboard's only real downside? A few of the PC key choices are peculiar: The Esc key is positioned off by itself, and it sits low on the surface. I found I had to stretch my hand more than usual to press both Ctrl and Esc at the same time, for instance. In addition, three keys exist only to take you to various Creative Web sites--you can't reprogram them. But all in all, Prodikeys is uniquely entertaining, and a good deal at $100--which includes a Sound Blaster audio card.

More information can be found on the Creative US Web site: www.creative.com

--Harry McCracken

Compute From a Distance

The Logitech Cordless Navigator Duo is a hard-working SUV-type keyboard and mouse setup. Since they are wireless, you can move back several feet (as long as you're within direct line of sight of your monitor) and still stay connected.

The keyboard has stylish good looks, punctuated by an off-white base and silver accents, plus a lot of extra buttons--a suspend key and F-Lock key, plus communication, multimedia, and Internet keys--that are designed to keep tap-happy computer enthusiasts busy.

This is no slimmed-down, squared-off boxy unit. It's only 1.5 inches high, but it's nearly 19 inches long. The base is 8 inches wide but adds 3 more inches with its undulating snap-on wrist rest. The keyboard, which slopes gently upward (something Logitech calls Zero Degree Tilt design), felt quite comfortable.

The keyboard also features special oval-shaped silver buttons grouped in three sections along the top edge of the keyboard.

The first button locks the entire row of function keys, providing a dozen single-click inputs to create a new document, handle e-mail, undo or re-do keystrokes, print, save to a file, and jump to a document, picture, or music folder. The next three buttons provide one-push access to e-mail, instant messenger services, and Webcam connections.

The next group of multimedia buttons is set in a silver arc in the middle of the top row. They provide master volume control and audio-muting capabilities plus track switching, play, pause, and stop controls for music players.

The last five buttons, at the far right of the upper row, are dedicated to Internet functions--search, shopping, favorites, and your browser's default home page. When you're connected to the Internet, a fifth member in this group--the iTouch button--is a one-touch link to Logitech's online resource center. When you're not online, the button displays a keyboard reference guide to remind you what all the keys can do.

Mouse Matters

The wireless optical mouse included in this package is a breeze to use, with its two-button controls and a scroll wheel that's simple to master. Lefties will like this simple-looking device, since it is symmetrical and comfortable to use from either side of the keyboard.

We couldn't verify Logitech's claim that its optical sensor provides twice the speed and twice the accuracy of standard optical mice, but a nonscientific test showed that this one worked well for general-purpose computing.

The mouse functioned without a hitch when slid across a variety of surfaces: the smooth wood of a desk, a gel-filled mouse pad, a keyboard drawer, the side of the monitor, and a stack of PC World magazines. The cordless rodent even worked when dragged across a plastic chair pad--and even across a rug! This mouse balked only once: on skin.

Quirks and Keys

Setup was simple and took about five minutes, but the accompanying documentation is pretty slim on anything other than the simplest details. For example, the button marked "user," located just left of the escape key on the keyboard, caused us some momentary panic: When we pressed it, the screen went blank. The image returned after a minute without dire consequences. Turns out the button activates a "sleep mode" control that is useful on Windows XP systems when another user logs on.

Another minor beef is that the keys seem more close-set than we're used to, so those with large or extra-large fingers may find them a tight fit. The keyboard's actual layout is standard, though. We liked the wrist rest that snaps onto the keyboard base, but it makes the keyboard too big to fit onto some keyboard drawers.

The keyboard and mouse both operate on two AA batteries, which are included. However, you might want to upgrade to rechargeable batteries as soon as the originals start to fail.

As far as distance support, the mouse operated six feet farther away from the PC than the keyboard did. We're not sure why anyone would want or need to operate a mouse 14 feet away from the computer--but this unit can handle it.

More information on the product can be found at: www.logitech.com

--Frank Thorsberg

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