Has Microsoft built the mouse of the future?
When Microsoft first announced the Wedge Touch mouse for Windows 8, plenty of people wondered whether the blunt, flipper-shaped device was actually practical. Its accompanying keyboard, meanwhile, looked unusually small, with a magnetized rubber cover that folded into a tablet stand. Depending on who you asked, it was bold, gimmicky, or both. Windows 8 is still months away, but I got a chance to try out the new $69.99 mouse and $79.99 keyboard.
While they’ll work almost anywhere, the keyboard has a row of custom Charm keys, and both are portable enough to be used on Microsoft’s new tablets. Is it worth the cost to experience Microsoft’s input devices of the future? Read on.
Despite being small, neither mouse nor keyboard felt cramped
The two dongle-free Bluetooth devices are designed for portability, hence the decision to cut off everything below the mouse’s buttons and to equip the keyboard with a protective cover that keeps it from accidentally turning on or collecting debris. The mouse is about two inches square and under an inch tall, weighing two ounces, while the keyboard is ten inches by four inches and comes in at about a pound with cover. They’re both made almost entirely out of brushed metal and black rubber, which does a good job of disguising the dust they accumulate inside a messenger bag or purse. Unfortunately, the mouse still quickly picked up several tiny but highly visible white scratches along the top edge.
Despite being small, neither the mouse nor the keyboard felt cramped. The key tray is a couple inches smaller than that of my 15-inch laptop, but there’s no bezel or other empty space around it. Instead, it’s bounded with a round-cornered metal band that fits neatly against the cover. There’s no space between the keys themselves, either. If you’re as used to chiclet keys as I am, the decision to forgo them means you’ll have to get used to less clear delineation between letters. On the other hand, it also means each key gets a bit more real estate, and the design fits well with the compact aesthetic. On the brushed-metal underside, a rubber wedge holds the pairing key and two AAA batteries.
The mouse follows the same basic cues, but its shape is understandably confusing at first. It’s more or less a trackpad placed on a black rounded wedge, with metal caps on either end. Once you actually start using it, though, it’s relatively comfortable.
It's the mouse equivalent of a standing desk
With no bulb to rest your palm on, the Wedge Touch mouse takes a little more conscious effort to hold and move, and the flat surface doesn’t guide your fingers onto it with bumps or depressions. It’s a bit like the mouse equivalent of a standing desk, with a stark disregard for conventional comfort. But its weight lets it slide easily while keeping movement even, and the sloped buttons have enough resistance that accidental clicks aren’t a problem. I generally use a wired mouse, and I only noticed lag on one of the devices I tried — an HP notebook running Windows 7.
The mouse also supports four-way swiping to scroll, a feature that’s a little less consistent. Horizontal swipes work well, as does downward scrolling, but trying to scroll back up produces uncomfortable friction or pushes the mouse across the desk. I also wasn’t able to find a way to center-click, though I never found that limiting.
Strangely, though, the mouse doesn’t use Windows 8’s gesture features beyond simple scrolling. That meant I wasn’t able to swipe to bring up Charms or other functions, and pinch-to-zoom was nowhere to be found. Granted, you wouldn’t be able to do any of these things on a traditional mouse either, but it’s a huge missed opportunity to integrate new capabilities with a form factor that seems built for them.
Despite these issues, it’s still considerably better than cheaper compact mice I’ve used, and it could replace a standard three-button for most everyday use. It’s supposed to last four months on a single AA battery, partly because of a power management system that automatically shuts it down along with your computer or puts it in a low-power state when idle. And people with moderately larger hands than mine shouldn’t have trouble using it, though its size may not work for everyone.
The keyboard has Windows 8-specific keys, but the mouse doesn't support any gestures besides scrolling
I used the mouse and keyboard with a Windows 8 notebook, but I didn’t have any of the latest tablets on hand. I did, however, try the combination stand and keyboard cover with the Nexus 7 and iPad. While it looks stiff at first glance, the cover's central hinge bends easily and holds its shape, supporting 7-inch and 10-inch devices at basically any angle without slipping. After being bent flat again, it slides snugly onto the keyboard, turning it off and protecting the keys from dust. It’s honestly a great idea, and the hinge kept its shape well, though after several bends it became harder to make sure it was flattened enough to fit around the keys without leaving gaps.
Windows 8-specific functions get a little more love from the keyboard. The keys across the top are set to work with the Charms system, bringing up search bars or settings. Windows 8 already supports a basic Charms gesture, but having individual keys for them would be great in any case, and it becomes almost vital with a mouse that doesn’t support gestures. I imagine the keys will be built into plenty of Windows 8 notebook and desktop keyboards, but the compact size and cover / stand on this one means it’ll also be an easy way to interface with tablets.
On other platforms, the Charm keys don’t seem to do anything. Depending on device, the top volume, media, and navigation ones fare better, but it does become slightly annoying to have F5 through F8 disabled by default with nothing to take their place.
For now, the mouse and keyboard should connect to just about anything with Bluetooth. Although instructions are only given for Windows 7 and Windows 8, I didn’t have trouble connecting it on other platforms, though my Nexus 7 suffered from an apparently common Android issue that caused several seconds of lag. That’s hardly Microsoft’s fault, but it is a reminder that people who are ready to go all-in on Windows 8 will benefit most from the setup. Since the latest Windows tablet line is still largely a mystery, it’s hard to say how big a population that will be.
The new design is great, but Microsoft could have taken it further
Contrary to my expectations, the real problem with the Wedge Touch Mouse is that it doesn't do enough with its odd design. Using it as an ordinary mouse worked well, and I didn't find it uncomfortable or jarring. Four-way scrolling is simple and convenient, and the shape makes it nicely portable. If Microsoft is going to put a trackpad on a traditional mouse, though, not including the gestures it's built into Windows 8 is a strange decision. As with the keyboard, I admire Microsoft for creating a distinctive product that stays functional, even if the price seems a little too high for what you get. But I'm hoping to see more done with the design as Windows 8 rolls out.
Clever but pricey
The Wedge Mobile Keyboard is a great little device, with solid build quality and stylistic touches that set it apart. The combination stand and cover turned out to be pretty useful, either for keeping dirt out of the keys or for propping up a tablet while typing. While the dedicated Charm keys meant I got more out of it on Windows 8, I could easily see using it long-term on other platforms. For $79.99, I probably wouldn't spring for it, but bring the price down or bundle it with a tablet and we've got a deal.