When Microsoft launched the Natural Keyboard everyone though it had been at the industrial chemicals again. Who in their right mind would want to buy a keyboard that looked like it had been melted, then one half sat on by an elephant? In fact, the Natural keyboard became a bit of a phenomenon. If you're a touch-typist, it's actually a very usable design, although single-finger users might find it a bit harder.
Years on, and the Natural name has gone, and we're left with the new Sculpt keyboard. The look is similar, but the name has changed and the Microsoft logo reflects the new look of the company. This is also a keyboard designed for Windows 8, so there's more here than just a name change.
The first thing to note about the Sculpt is that it uses a proprietary wireless dongle to communicate with your computer. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, it takes up a USB socket, and it's a fairly large dongle. Within about three minutes of plugging it in to the front of our Windows desktop, we'd kicked, and bent it. This wasn't fatal, but over time it's really bad for both the dongle and the socket. We moved ours to a more hidden location as a result.
On the plus side, the wireless dongles are good, because they don't have all of the problems that come with Bluetooth devices. The problem with Bluetooth is that it's picky, and some of the dongles and PC chips that are built-in to PCs are rubbish, and often use old technology. This can make pairing a pain, and we've tried to pair Microsoft Bluetooth keyboards with Linux PCs and come unstuck. With USB, it's almost like the keyboard is wired, and there's very little fuss about just plugging it in and starting to type.
The range on these things can be a little less than ideal though, and while we didn't have any problem with this keyboard, previous ones have struggled when we've had the dongle plugged in to a desktop's rear USB port, with the keyboard being quite laggy. It's all worth bearing in mind, but this Sculpt gave us no problems at all.
Windows 8 controls
As you might expect for a keyboard that's on sale just as Windows 8 is about to launch, this input device is festooned with specific controls for Microsoft's new operating system. And if you've used Windows 8, you'll probably appreciate all the help you can get.
For example, there's a very clear button for accessing the "charms" menu. This is the context-sensitive sidebar that holds crucial access to some of Windows' new configuration options. And, it's here that you can shut your PC down, so don't underestimate the usefulness of having a button on a keyboard to access it.
But there's good news if you're a Windows 7 user. You get media keys too, which work fine on the older OS, and there's also a way to access Aero flip, although it doesn't work quite as well as it should, and in some cases seems to delete text from documents containing reviews.
Interestingly, MS includes a switch that allows you to toggle between using the media and other control keys, or accessing the standard F1 to F12 functions. It's nice to have a choice, and this makes the keyboard useful for lots of different users.
Time for a rest
As you might expect, there's a wrist rest included with the Sculpt. If you're a proper typist, who adopts a decent typing position, this will probably work out very well for you. It's quite comfortable, and bends with the keyboard, giving the whole thing a pretty swanky look, while being practical too.
We found, with our less than touch-typing style, that it got in the way and reduced our accuracy. But that's no massive problem, because detaching the thing is no more difficult than flipping a clasp on the bottom and pulling it off.
Perhaps the biggest downside with the Sculpt is that there are no adjustments you can make to the angle of the keyboard, so if the default doesn't suit you, you're a bit scuppered.
The split spacebar
The Sculpt's gimmick - does a keyboard need a gimmick? - is that it has two space bars. Well, it's actually one spacebar that's been cut in half. Optionally, if you want, you can assign the left to be a backspace key, while the right is a traditional spacebar.
We have no idea why you'd want to do that. Literally. No idea.
To be honest, life is confusing enough, especially when you get to our age, so why on earth would you want to make it more confusing by splitting your spacebar in half and making 50 per cent of it do something that's the exact opposite of what the other 50 per cent does. It makes no sense.
The wretched caps lock
Mostly, we got on brilliantly with the Sculpt. It took a little while for us to get to grips with it. We haven't spent a lot of time with the Natural range in the past, so this was all new for us.
Typing is comfortable, and we got up to a pretty good speed for non-touch typists. Accuracy was never really a problem either, which is good, although as we said, for some reason, putting the wrist rest on really ruined our ability to type properly.
But the biggest problem, by far, is the caps lock key. We found that our finger would often find it when we typed A. And, as this is a battery powered keyboard, there are no lights on it, to let you know you're in SHOUTY MODE. So we'd flick it on, then realise only when we had typed some ludicrous upper-case nonsense. It was a pain.
Using the keyboard with a laptop was better, because we could see the caps lock light come on, but on a desktop, we were forever yelling at the keyboard for making us look like idiot internet trolls. It's a small point, and we're already learning to stop ourselves doing it, but even so, just a slightly different design and the problem would go away.
The Sculpt isn't overly expensive - especially when considered against the hopeless Wedge keyboard. It's a proper typing keyboard too, so if words are your business, then it's likely you'll find its firm, but positive action most pleasing, and touch-typists will take to it well.
The caps lock key, overly-big wireless dongle and lack of adjustment are downsides, but all minor ones and even together don't add up to enough to put us off recommending this keyboard.
Forget about the split backspace and space key too, unless you're 16 there's no way you'll ever train yourself to use it, and it will end up making you scream. Happily, it's optional, and the two buttons work just as well as one long one would.