With Windows 8 just around the corner, Microsoft Hardware has begun to roll out mice and keyboards designed to work with the company's latest operating system. We've spent some time with the first batch of devices: the matched pair of the Wedge Mobile Keyboard and Wedge Touch Mouse, and the Sculpt Touch Mouse.
All the new Windows 8 devices from Microsoft Hardware are Bluetooth devices (not surprising, considering the specifications of upcoming Windows RT devices, including Microsoft's own Surface). There's no need to plug in a dongle for a proprietary wireless connection: just turn on Bluetooth and pair. That does mean you won't be able to use them on aircraft, as wireless devices aren't permitted — even if there's on-board WiFi.
Intended to sit in your bag with a tablet PC, the Wedge Mobile Keyboard (£79.99 inc. VAT) is surprisingly light, packing a full set of 105 keys into a tiny 255-by-100mm metal frame. There's just enough travel on the keys, with action comparable to a Chiclet-style keyboard on a laptop. We did find the keys a little closer together than we'd normally like, which meant we occasionally hit the wrong key when typing fast, although practice should eventually make perfect.
The Wedge Mobile Keyboard has a good rake, with the battery case acting as a rear stand. There's no ergonomic curve, but the keyboard angle makes it easy to place your hands over the keys, using a desk or table to support your wrists. There's just enough width to get to all the keys without having to move your hands — even the media control keys are an easy reach.
Along the top of the keyboard you'll see the usual row of special function keys (which also double as F1 through F12). Like the two keyboard covers revealed at the Surface launch in June, the Wedge Mobile Keyboard also includes a set of four keys marked with Windows 8's distinctive charm icons. Tap them and you'll be taken straight to the search, share, devices and settings charms. They're useful shortcuts, especially when you're using the Wedge Keyboard with a non-touch device.
One of the Wedge Mobile Keyboard's more innovative features is its cover. A solid chunk of rubberised plastic, it's more than a protector. Slide it over the keys, and a small magnet turns off the keyboard. Take it off, and the keyboard powers up, ready to go — stopping random keystrokes running down the battery while it sits in your bag. Once removed, you can fold the cover in the middle, turning it into a non-slip tablet stand. Although use support a tablet in portrait mode, we'd recommend sticking with landscape — especially with a heavier device.
Getting started and connecting the keyboard to a PC is easy enough. The battery compartment will only close if you've put the two AAA batteries in the right way round, and then all you need to do is press a button on the other end of the battery holder to turn on Bluetooth pairing mode. Once the keyboard is detected and selected, you just type in the randomly generated connection key, and you're ready to go.
The tiny Wedge Touch Mouse (£69.99 inc. VAT) shares many of the same design cues as its keyboard sibling. Designed to be held between the thumb and ring finger, it's an unusual mouse, with a single four-way touch surface replacing buttons and scroll wheel. Perhaps best thought of as a moving trackpad, the Wedge Mouse uses Microsoft's BlueTrack optical sensor, so it works on just about any surface. Its gestures are minimal, with taps for button clicks and swipes for scroll gestures. If you're using Windows 8, and the new Mouse and Keyboard Center application you can also map additional application functions to taps and swipes, as well as turning on a gaming mode to improve gaming performance.
One side of the Wedge Mouse slides open to reveal a slot for a AA battery — and like the Wedge Keyboard, it won't shut unless the battery is the right way round. Power management is important, and there's a backpack mode, which turns off the mouse when a paired PC shuts down or sleeps, letting you drop it in your bag safely. Microsoft's designers have added additional touches, like the Cylon-like green light that briefly shines through a slit on the back of the mouse when it's turned on, and the little silver metal buttons on the underside that match the metal sides and switch on pairing mode, turn power on and off, and open the battery compartment.
If you're looking for a more traditional mouse, the Sculpt Touch Mouse (£49.99 inc. VAT) is based on the familiar Explorer Touch Mouse. Likke the Wedge Touch Mouse, it's a four-way scrolling mouse, but with standard left and right buttons. Like the Explorer, the Sculpt's touch surface is a simple metallic strip where you'd expect to find a scroll wheel — and you'll use it as one, too, although with the addition of a horizontal scroll for Windows 8's start screen and new-style panoramic applications. Like the Wedge Touch Mosue, there's support for flick gestures that act like a freewheeling scroll wheel, simplifying scrolling through long documents.
The Sculpt Touch Mouse takes Microsoft's existing touch technologies and brings them into the Windows 8 world. That's a good thing — it means you can start with familiar mouse techniques on the desktop, while still being able to work with Windows 8's new features on the Start screen. Haptic feedback helps too, through a simple vibrator under the touch sensor, as you can tell how much you've flicked. The resulting vibrations feel just like a freewheeling mousewheel.
Focusing on supporting a new generation of tablet devices, the Wedge Keyboard and Wedge Touch Mouse are ideal carry-along companions that can be left in a backpack or briefcase for when they're needed. Similarly the Sculpt Touch Mouse brings Windows 8's touch capabilities to a more traditionally-styled mouse. If you're looking at Windows 8, they’re all worth considering (along with the existing Touch Mouse, which is getting new drivers and new capabilities). 2012 is the thirtieth anniversary of Microsoft Hardware's first release, and this new batch of devices show that the division hasn't lost its mojo.