Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000

As you may recall, I’m a big fan of split keyboards. In general, I believe that if you are the type of person who spends most of their life in front of a computer, you ought to invest in high quality input devices. Personally, I spend 8 hours at work sitting at a desk staring on a computer screen. Then I come back home, grab something to eat and sit back in front of a monitor. Last year I invested into some nice mice both for home and for work.

I also bought the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite which I use at the office. At home I was still using an old Dell keyboard that originally came with my computer. I didn’t mind it, because it was simple and functional. I was considering buying a split keyboard for myself, but since Christmas was coming I simply put that on my gift list. :)

My cousin was nice enough to get me the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 this year. It is actually the high end cousin of the Elite keyboard with the standard inverted T and normal Home/End/Insert key block.

microsoft-natural-keyboard-4000-2.jpg

It has all the features I look for in a keyboard these days, namely:

  1. Pronounced and raised wrist rest
  2. Keyboard split in two blocks
  3. Standard inverted T block for arrow keys
  4. Insert, Delete, Home, End keys being in predictable places

I especially like the wrist support section. It is nice and wide allowing you to rest your wrists as you type but unlike Elite it is actually soft to touch. I think it has some sort of jelly inside, but unlike many of the wrist support thingymabobs you can buy it has a slick leather like finish to it which it will be easy to keep clean and should be less prone to wear and tear. I found that the cloth finishes on things like that tend to thin out, lose color and start to look filthy after a while.

The keyboard itself seems a bit bigger than the elite. It is actually wider, and the keys seem to be more spaced out. The numeric pad is like 5 miles away from the home row for example. But it also might be an illusion caused by the curvature of this keyboard. All ergonomic keyboards tend to have this hump toward the middle (which culminates where the keys are being split) and the sides taper of at an angle. This is actually by design, and it helps you to keep your hands at a more natural position. As you can see on the image above the 4000 has a very pronounced hump where the designers placed the fairly useless zoom bar. At least useless to me, because I hardly ever use any zoom features for anything, and I have yet to figure out how to re-bind that thing. Needless to say, by being there it actually forces the split key blocks to be farther apart than in the elite. Which is probably why the whole thing seems so wide.

The keyboard has few dozen additional keys all over the place. There are actually 14 special buttons above the function key row, and additional parentheses , equals and backspace above the numpad. Fortunately you can re-bind nearly all of them using the InteliType software that shifts with the keyboard. Yeah, I really hate the fact that I must install a driver to actually use the full functionality of my keyboard but eh… You either do that, or you are left with bunch of dead keys.

5 out of the 13 special keys are so called “Favorites Buttons” which have no built in function. You are actually supposed to bind them yourself to commonly used programs:

croppercapture112.jpg

This is neat, until you realize that there is actually no way of reaching these keys from above the home row, without lifting your hand. This severely limits their usefulness, and relegates them to the realm of novelty feature. Next to these you have your volume control, calculator button (which I immediately rebound to use the XP Power Toy calc), and the Web, Search and Mail buttons which I will probably use for something else.

Strangely enough, the keyboard only has one Windows key (on the left) and one Menu Key (on the right). Most keyboards have them mirrored on both sides just like Alt keys. Then again, Elite also had one of each so I guess this is a design choice MS made for all of their ergonomic keyboards.

I have only one gripe with this keyboard. It is a minor annoyance, which I wouldn’t even mention if this was not a $60 keyboard. When I pay that much for a keyboard, I expect quality. Sadly, there seems to be a little play in the space bar. It seems to be a little loose on the left side. As if there was a few millimeter gap somewhere allowing the key to move up and down slightly without being depressed. It feels perfectly fine on the right, but when you hit it with your left thumb (as I commonly do) it makes an unusual “clunk” sound as it drops down a millimeter or two and the right side rises slightly in a sea-saw effect of sorts. At first I thought that this was simply a flawed keyboard, but I noticed that I was not the only person with this issues. Quite a few people are complaining of the same exact problem in Amazon comments and product forums and elsewhere online.

I believe that this is an inherent design flaw caused by the sheer size and curvature of the key. The space bar is actually bent and extends the whole length of the hump. This curvature combined with it’s length and would require some stabilization and support, which is likely missing here. Thus, it introduces the slight play which is detectable and a bit annoying. It is not a deal breaker though – I think I can live with it. I also heard you can correct this by taking off the key, and slightly bending the support bar inside of it. I might try that at some point if it keeps annoying me.

Here is a tip for Microsoft design team – in the next model, just split the damn space bar in two. Most ergonomic keyboard manufacturers do that these days, probably to avoid precisely this sort of issue from surfacing. Either that, or put the Windows key on both sides of the split, making the space bar smaller. A $60 keyboard should not have a clunky space bar!

Other than that, it is a fine piece of hardware. I’ve been using it for 3 days now and I think it is very comfortable. I’d recommend it whole heatedly if it wasn’t for the space bar issue. For some people it might be a deal breaker. If you are easily annoyed with that stuff you’d probably be better off with the Elite. But then you’d have to deal with the non-standard arrow key block, which may be even more annoying. :P

I have not tested this keyboard under Linux, and probably won’t for some time because the box I hooked it up to is currently running single boot WinXP. At some point I’ll try to hook it up to my Ubuntu box and see how it works, but I don’t feel like crawling underneath my desk and untangling cables again. Considering this is a Microsoft product, I’d expect half-assed Linux support. But, we shall see…

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11 Responses to Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000

  1. Ido ISRAEL Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    great keyboard :) I’m using it at home (Natural Ergonomic 7000, wireless+mouse) and office (Natural Ergonomic 4000).

    I started feeling pains on my wrist a few months ago, changed my keyboards to the 4000 series – and it practically solved the pain in a couple of days.

    I’m actually using the 7000 right now on ubuntu, so you won’t have any problems with it – worked right out of the box, even with the special keys (well, most of them anyway, not the zoom button)

    I’m not seeing the problem with the space bar on either of the models, but I mainly use the right side of the space bar, and maybe I’m just not sensitive enough ;)

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  2. Rob UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Nice! I’ve had good luck with Microsoft hardware believe it or not. I’ve got a Microsoft Wireless Optical Mouse that’s probably close to four years old now and it’s still kicking. I’ve only changed the batteries on it three times max? I’ve also got the the Microsoft Wireless Notebook Optical Mouse 3000 and it has been pretty solid too. Both of those work flawlessly under Ubuntu. Just plug and play. I’ve also got the Microsoft LifeChat LX-3000, works great under Windows (of course) but it’s hit or miss on Ubuntu. Oh well, can’t win them all. Still the hardware it’s self is nice quality, just wish it had better Linux support.

    I still contend however that this is the best keyboard ever: IBM Model M (for those who don’t want to follow the link)

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  3. Jaba ITALY Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I’ve always been a fan of ergonomic keyboards – my first model was the first split keyboard from Microsoft (can’t remember the model name).

    I’ve waited three years for the price of this beauty to decrease. No use. Some months ago, I started my thesis, so started the headaches – my work laptop is a 12″, and my game box has a 17″ crt screen that’s even worst for the eyes. Passing 10-12 hours a day on this little buddy was a pain, so I needed a better monitor.

    The problem is, the only usb keyboard at my disposal to use on the laptop with the screen, was THAT old split keyboard of mine. The problem is, that’s HUGE, old (read: filthy), and really heavy. It’s a sort of keyboard behemot, even the cable is thicker than the VGA one! So I needed a new keyboard, and I’ve been knowing the model I wanted for years by now ;)

    I’ve had this little black beauty for a couple months by now. Now I work from a chaise-longue sofa, with the monitor between my feet and the keyboard on the lap. PARADISE :P
    The keyboard’s light, the cable is thin, and it really is a relief for the hands. If you are a 10-fingers typer, you simply find that those keys are perfectly placed under your finger tips. You need very little movement, and it’s relaxing even for shoulders and arms.
    I didn’t notice the spacebar-issue until now, and I perfectly agree with your two-spacebar-buttons idea. That would be the best.
    The palm rest for arrow keys on the Natural 4000 isn’t adequate, but the one thing I really missed, was the presence of track control keys – that is, next/previous song. You just have volume up/down, mute, and play/stop controls.

    Well, I have the luck to work on ubuntu, and I simply bound from Shortcut preferences the last two “favorite” buttons (4 and 5) to “previous” and “next” functions. I don’t know if you can do this with the windows setting program – I didn’t install it, I use windows only for gaming -, but in linux it worked like a charm. Everything else works out of the box but for the over-function keys (well, I use function keys very often, so don’t care) (until I realized the presence of the “F Bloc” key I wasn’t able to close windows with alt+f4 – PANIC!!), the equal and parenthesis keys over the keypad (I think those should be easy to bind, but I don’t need them), and the zoom bar (men, I always wanted an analog control on my keyboard!). I’d really like to use the zoom bar to scroll pages on the browser, but out of the box ubuntu don’t even seems to recognize even it’s presence on the keyboard.

    About the dimensions: well, this keyboard really IS too big… my right hand has to fly for at least 30-40cm (think of the index finger trip from J key to left mouse button) to go from keys to mouse – that isn’t smart. But I would not buy a keyboard without the reverse-T arrows (I’m a gamer ;P ), neither without the horizontal disposition for the home-end-and-company keys (other than being a programmer, and I’m writing lots of text of every kind), so the smaller Elite was out of plan.

    My dream? To have a keyboard that has:
    1. Arrows and home-end-company BETWEEN the two main-keys parts – that is, where the zoom is on the Natural 4000. You would have the navigation keys right in front of your eyes – and those are the ones you usually look, not the single letters, if you are a blind-typer
    2. An external (usb?) numpad, that you can place at hand when you need it and away when you need the mouse
    3. A key that maps the arrow keys to WASD (or better, ESDF) or IJKL keys at will, so you can have your arrow keys right on the neutral position of your hands (and lots of configurable keys next to the arrows!)
    4. A small touchpad in the palm rest in central position, so that you can do little pointer’s movement without moving the wrists from the palm rest (or use the keyboard without a mouse, for example on a sofa… ;P
    5. A 2.0 usb hub on the back, where the 4000 has that beautiful useless CAVE. A mouse and usb keys could really be there that regularly, so I think at least three ports are needed. And don’t forget the numpad!

    This layout would permit to have a keyboard larger, with your wrists at an even better angle, with navigation controls and numpad accessible with both hands (left-handed would be relieved), and to reach the mouse you would have to move very slightly your preferred hand (the mouse would lay at the same distance you have the arrow keys now).

    Anyway, until I’ll build that myself (sigh), I think the Natural 4000 is the best keyboard for me.

    Sorry for the logorrhea :P hope you’ll appreciate my 2 cents

    – Jaba

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  4. Jaba ITALY Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Man, that comment was huge enough I think I could start a blog of myself :D :D ahahah

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  5. freelancer SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I always type with just my left hand (probably a side effect of playing too many FPS’ before starting to program :P), so a split keyboard wouldn’t really work for me.

    Also, that first mouse link (“for home”) actually goes to the product page for the Ergonomic Keyboard ;)

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Jaba: The zoom slider is fairly useless in Windows too. There doesn’t seem to be a way to redefine it to do something else other than zooming. :P

    @freelancer: Just left hand? Do you use some special one sided keyboard layout or do you just move your hand all over?

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  7. freelancer SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Luke Maciak: No, standard layout. I’m currently using a Logitech UltraX, which I love. And I move my hand all over it :P I’m quite good at it too. Although I probably wouldn’t win a contest for fastest typist or something, I do type a lot faster than…well, everyone I’ve met so far. It’s all about what you’re used to, I suppose. I feel handicapped if I try to type with both hands ;)

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  8. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox SuSE Linux says:

    FWIW, as Jaba pointed out, it works fine under Linux (OpenSUSE 11.0 for me). I was sad to see that the = and () keys over the numpad don’t work out of the box (seems like it wouldn’t be that hard to have two keys that send the same signal, not that I’m a keyboard hardware designer and thus probably don’t know what I’m talking about). I was pleased to see that the volume up/down and calculator keys (pretty much the only fancy keys I care about) work fine.

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  9. Jaba ITALY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The problem with the = ( ) keys is that every key send a code, and there is no key in our keyboards that has a code like = ( ). You should get the keys to give both the code of the shift key and of the number related. That’s why the tiny backspace works
    Well, that’s tricky. Win program simply has to translate a hit on the key with the insert of the right character, but I don’t know how to do this in linux. I bet there’s some keyboard.conf file or similar, in which to tell the system how to map key codes and symbols. If I needed it, I would simply find that config file and edit a couple rows.
    Let us know if you succeed! ^_^

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Jaba: You might be able to see the key codes these buttons send by running xev on the terminal.

    You may be able to map them to do something else via .Xmodmap. I wrote about this a while ago when I discussed disabling caps lock.

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