MCE Keyboard Review
September 2, 2005
They’re still a bit tough to find, but I finally got my hands on one of the new MCE Keyboards — for some reason, Best Buy seems to be about the only folks carrying them so far.
To digress a bit, the main reason why I’ve been quiet on the MCE front for the last month or so is that the drivers for the new keyboard that rolled out on Windows Update about six weeks ago essentially broke the hell out of my MCE system. When they installed, my other IR keyboard (a venerable AirBoard) ceased to function. This made it quite difficult to deal with a driver issue I had on the box, and with the combination of those problems, plus a lack of anything worth watching the last month or so, I just shut the damn thing off until I either had time to get it out of the cabinet and hang a real keyboard on it, or got one of the new MCE Keyboards.
Guess which came first?
Installation was simple enough; if you haven’t already gotten the driver update (that killed me), you’ll want to go to Windows Update and select the MCE Rollup from the “Custom Updates” section. Once you do that, put the batteries in and (assuming you have a genuine Microsoft IR receiver for your remote) you’re good to go.
Which is a point worth noting — the keyboard doesn’t come with a receiver of any kind. If you do not have a Microsoft Remote and IR receiver, then the keyboard is not going to work for you.
The keyboard itself isn’t much to write home about — outside of it’s odd shaped case (see the picture), it’s pretty much a basic Windows keyboard, with extra buttons to duplicate MCE Remote functionality on the left and right sides, and the top.
Without actually comparing it button for button, it appears at a glance that all of the remote functionality is duplicated on the keyboard, along with special buttons along the top for “My TV”, “My Video”, “My Pictures”, etc. — just in case you can’t be bothered to press the Green Button (which is also present) and go up or down an item or two to get to them. One extra button I did note that could be handy is a dedicated “DVD Menu” button.
The other two features of the keyboard are a “joybutton” mouse, and a lock switch. The “joybutton” (think of the little “eraser-head” joysticks you see on the keyboards of Thinkpads and other laptops) is exceedingly poorly implemented — you have to push down on the button and then move it up-down-left-right. It’s jerky and quite hard to control, even after adjusting the mouse speed down as far as possible in the control panel. It actually makes the joystick on the old AirBoard look precise and easy to use. Mounting the left and right buttons on the far side of the keyboard (the “joybutton” is in the upper right, the mouse buttons in the upper left) makes it that much more difficult to use. Notably missing is a “click and hold” function like the AirBoards have, which make it much easier to do extended selections from across the room.
If the mouse functionality is disappointing, I have to say that I’m very pleased to see a “lock” switch. This is a function that’s notably missing on a lot of IR keyboards, and given the way media centers get used (or the way I use them anyway), it’s a problem; I’m constantly setting the keyboard off to the side where it gets bumped, nudged, or a cat walks across it (or sleeps on it). With the lock, this problem goes away, and I also expect that it will increase battery life significantly.
So, it does the job, and can even be used by itself, without the remote just in case you already have a lap full of stuff while it’s being used. Even if the mouse functionality is lame, it’s still good enough for most MCE purposes.
But is it worth the money? Best Buy wanted $99 for it — I expect once it gets into wider distribution, it’ll be available down in the $70 – $80 dollar range. This isn’t bad compared to some $199 alternatives, but it’s still quite a bit more than a $40 AirBoard.
It was a no-brainer for me; I needed it to get my system back running (albeit that the drivers for the thing screwed it up in the first place) — whether it’s worth it for someone else would depend on what they have now (assuming it’s still working), and whether the additional integration is worth the money.