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Function over form: Why Microsoft peripherals still trump Apple’s

microsoft wedge keyboard pc peripheralThough Apple has been long-heralded for innovation in industrial and software design, Microsoft may now have the lead in one of the most critical parts of the user interface. The introduction of Microsoft’s “Wedge” peripherals is the latest indicator that, though Apple makes better computers, Microsoft makes better tools for controlling them.

In the eye of the beholder

Apple’s biggest advantage might be its lead in industrial design. The company’s keyboards, mice, and touchpads are beautiful in a way that no other company has matched. The Magic Mouse may be the best example. Its combination of beautiful lines and excellent materials makes it look like something from the future — but not a dystopian future, a hopeful one. I can’t help but agree with our review’s description of the device as “absolutely gorgeous.”

magic trackpad appleApple’s Magic Trackpad and Wireless Keyboard are also beautiful products. While not as stunning as the Magic Mouse, they remain better-looking than input hardware produced by any other company. This lead in “beauty” is even more significant when you consider how old its peripherals are. The Wireless Keyboard (Chiclet-style), Magic Mouse, and Magic Trackpad were released in August 2007, October 2009, and July 2010, respectively.

Other hardware makers have caught up since those releases. A glance through Microsoft’s current crop of mouse offerings reveals many quite attractive products. Some of these — the Arc Touch MouseTouch Mouse, and Wedge Touch Mouse — seem at least partially inspired by Apple’s minimalist ethic. Others, like the Sculpt Touch Mouse or the Touch Mouse Limited Edition Artist Series, accent Microsoft’s hardware with color or graphics. While Jonathan Ive might find such ornamentation abhorrent, many users will leap at the opportunity to add personality to their computer hardware. Either way, Microsoft has differentiated its product line to provide less- and more-styled options, pleasing users of all stripes.

Getting hands on

Apple’s sexy designs only go so far, though. Peripherals must be highly usable. Apple’s design-centric models seem to fall flat here.

While we lauded the Magic Mouse’s beauty and build quality, read further and you will learn that the Magic Mouse is “terribly uncomfortable to hold.” Other reviewers agreed with this assessment, and some reports even implicate the Magic Mouse, Apple Wireless Keyboard, and Magic Trackpad in causing repetitive stress injuries.

Granted, too much time with any computer peripheral can cause an over-use injury. But Apple’s apparent disregard for ergonomics makes its products more stressful to use — a troubling choice given the tendency for Apple users to spend long periods of time on their machines.

arc touch mouse microsoft inputMicrosoft, in some cases, makes Apple’s mistake of eschewing hand comfort for striking design – the Wedge Touch Mouse and Arc Touch Mouse certainly favor flair. However, many of its offerings — notably the Comfort Mouse 6000, the Wireless Mouse 5000, and the aforementioned Touch Mouse — acknowledge the fact that mice are often used for hours on end. Each has been designed to be comfortably held by a human being. Point, Microsoft.

Redmond has even more of a lead in ergonomic keyboard design. Microsoft’s reduced-size Arc Keyboard has a footprint similar to that for the Apple Wireless Keyboard. It lacks the keyboard’s minimalism and materials, but it’s certainly not ugly. I’d be happy to pair one with my MacBook Pro. The Arc also beats Apple on comfort by offering a curved shape to reduce hand strain, and on price. At $59.95, it’s $10 cheaper than Apple’s Wireless Keyboard. Users seeking an ergonomic solution on a tighter budget can also look to the Comfort Curve Keyboard 3000, which Lifehacker credits as a good budget solution.

Innovation isn’t just new shapes

Apple’s history in peripherals has been one of innovation and technical excellence. Unfortunately, Apple may have spent too much time resting on its laurels. That the Magic Mouse, Magic Trackpad, and Wireless Keyboard remain competitive years after their release is a credit to Apple’s designers. But Apple’s last addition to the computer peripheral landscape was its Magic Trackpad. With that launch now more than two years in the past, all of the innovation seems to be by Apple’s competitors.

wedge keyboard surface tabletThe recently announced Wedge Keyboard is a great example. If it offers a quality typing experience, the Wedge Keyboard seems to be the clear choice for the tablet user in need of keyboard input thanks to three innovations: a compact form factor and two unique features in its cover. Held in place with magnets, the cover’s removal triggers the keyboard to connect to your computer (a la Apple’s Smart Covers). Very slick. It also folds into a stand for a tablet computer. This is a smart, innovative design choice. For tablet owners who need to type, the Wedge Keyboard very much deserves a home in your satchel alongside your tablet — even if it is an iPad.

The Arc Touch Mouse, though, is the strongest indicator of Microsoft’s growing peripheral design prowess. Its smartest innovation is its form factor. The Arc Touch’s body is flexible. When in use, the “handle” half of the mouse curves down to create a classic “mouse” shape — though with striking empty space where a traditional mouse’s body would be. When not in use, the user flattens the mouse’s handle, making it that much easier to pack and take with you. The neatest part is that curving the handle turns the Arc Touch on. Flattening turns it off. This is a brilliant design choice: An intuitive physical action removes the need for a power switch. Much like the Wedge Keyboard, activating the device in response to tactile input is a great trick, and I really like how Microsoft has implemented it in the Arc Touch.

The future

Apple has a lot of irons in the fire. The lack of innovation in its peripherals may simply be due to focus on other irons, or belief that other irons are more important. Apple’s most recent work in user input has been with its touch devices, and with Siri. Focusing on those methods of control means less focus on keyboards and mice.

Maybe an upcoming Apple keynote will conclude with a Stevenote-esque “one more thing” introducing new keyboards and mice. A guy can hope, anyway. In the meantime, at least I have Microsoft. And no — the irony of that statement is not lost on me.

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