Product shootout: A comparison of six media center keyboards

Product shootout: A comparison of six media center keyboards

Summary: When the Bluetooth inside David Gewirtz' media center laptop died, he used it as an excuse to get and test six media center keyboards and see which would stand up to the rigors of couch-writing. The winner may surprise you.


I work from home and ever since my wife and I bought our new house last year, I've been able to work in an environment tuned to our particular lifestyle. One of the things we've done to optimize our work balance is to set up a media center PC attached to a large screen TV.

Because I spend so many hours in front of a computer each day, it's nice to be able to alternate from writing at my desk to writing in front of the media center PC, on the couch (which is what I'm doing this morning). Among other things, it's great for my back. If I've been at my desk for hours and hours, I'm able to change-up my position and keep writing.

Sadly, this weekend, the media center PC stopped accepting keyboard input. I'd noticed a problem a few times last week, and it wasn't until I rebooted that I was able to once again use the keyboards. The issue was that Bluetooth connectivity to the keyboards gave out.

We (my wife shares the media center PC) thought it was the older Apple Wireless Keyboards we had been using (we each have one, for each side of the couch). We've used them for a few years and thought maybe they just were going to that great keyboard graveyard in the sky. It didn't quite make sense, because both died at once (and that was a new behavior), but no matter what we did (reboot, reinstall Bluetooth drivers, etc), we couldn't get them to work.

So we decided to run out to the local Staples and Best Buy and pick up some new keyboards. As it turns out, the problem wasn't the keyboards at all. The Bluetooth module inside my 2009-vintage laptop that we use as our media center PC died. It just no longer works, although the rest of the laptop works fine. We went out and bought a small Bluetooth USB dongle, and now everything works again.

In the meantime, we got hands-on with six media center keyboards, and thought you'd like to learn our impressions of each. Before I go into each keyboard, one interesting note: Staples and Best Buy's prices were an average of about $15 more than the exact same item from Amazon. If brick-and-mortar wants to stay competitive, they're going to at least need to have comparable prices. On a $40 keyboard, a $15 difference is measurable.

Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 5000

Image courtesy Microsoft.

At first glance, my wife was really intrigued with the $49.95 Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 5000. She liked its shape, and she liked that it fit nicely on her lap. She felt she could use it without the normal lap desk we like to use when typing on the couch.

I didn't gravitate to it, because I don't like curved keyboards. As it turns out, she didn't either. The keys aren't all the same shape, which bothered her. But what killed her interest was the startup time. She had to pick up the keyboard, type a key, wait a few seconds, and then the letters would type.

It also didn't fit quite comfortably on the lap desks. We're giving this one a pass.

Microsoft Arc Keyboard

Image courtesy Microsoft.

We've actually had the $59.95 Microsoft Arc Keyboard for quite a while. It's the keyboard I have on one of my other machines, but it's not used all that often. It has the benefit of having its own "nano" transceiver, so it didn't have to work with the non-working Bluetooth inside of the laptop. I really like the dedicated nano transceiver technology, because you just plug them into the USB slot and they work. No fuss, no drivers, nothing.

Sadly, I can't stand typing on this keyboard. The keys are a little too narrow, and the deal breaker (to me) is that there are no arrow keys. Instead, there's an arrow pad, the size of one key, that you toggle in four directions. I type way too much to futz with this, so it's going back to dedicated service being the keyboard for a server I mostly remote desktop into.

Logitech Bluetooth Illuminated Keyboard K810

Image courtesy Logitech.

The $99 (list, we got it for $89) Logitech Bluetooth Illuminated Keyboard K810 is -- by far -- my favorite keyboard of the bunch. But we're returning it. Although it has chicklet keys, they're just far apart enough for my fingers. It has two very cool features. First, it has three Bluetooth connections, so by pressing a button, you can use it as a keyboard to the media center, an Xbox, or a PS3. Or to an iPad. You can easily toggle the keyboard between each of these devices. It's almost its own Bluetooth KVM.

My second favorite feature is it's backlit, so it's extremely easy to see the keys, even in dim light. I'm a touch typist, but I often need to find things like the carat ^ key, and that is something I need to see on the keyboard. The lighting on this is beautiful. In fact, the entire fit and finish of this keyboard is beautiful.

Sadly, this keyboard has one fatal flaw. It doesn't take batteries. Instead, it charges with a USB cable. This requires it to have dongle, a cable, a plug routed, and cord management, all for a wireless keyboard. I know two things: first I won't plug it in, and second, it'll run out of juice right in the middle of a deadline article, and I won't be able to swap batteries -- I'll have to wait for it to recharge. UPDATE: At least on Windows 7, you'll get a notification pop-up that the keyboard is down to 5% battery.

UPDATE: I decided to give this one another look, because it seems so cool and I really did want to keep it. Sadly, it wouldn't pair with the USB Bluetooth dongle we bought locally. The locally-sold dongle is Bluetooth 2.1 and although the specs of the keyboard simply say "Bluetooth capable," it refused to pair. I did test it with a third-generation iPad and it did pair, so I'm guessing there's a compatibility issue. The keyboard could require Bluetooth 3.0 or 4.0.

UPDATE 2: I ordered both a Bluetooth 3.0 and Bluetooth 4.0 dongle from Amazon, but Amazon chose to ship me two Bluetooth 4.0 dongles (so I can't test it with Bluetooth 3.0). The keyboard works quite well bound to the Bluetooth 4.0 dongle, as well as to my iPad 3. I've found I really like the device, even though it needs charging and I've decided to keep it. My plan is to just plug it in every Friday night and see if that will last out the week.

Very sadly, this one is going back. Actually, I'm keeping it. I like it. It's very pleasant to type on, and the lighted keyboard is great for both long-form articles and dark writing in front of the TV.

Next up: more Logitech keyboards and an Apple keyboard...

Topics: After Hours, Consumerization, Microsoft, SMBs


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • The k400 is not multitouch at all

    the scrolling is done in the hardware itself, and I checked and the only other feature the drivers mention is tap-to-click.
  • Apple Wireless Keyboard is simply the best at perfect price

    My only wish in Christmas 2013: Apple drops the keyboard price to $49.99 this holiday season.
  • A better keyboard

    You sell the Microsoft 5000 short. I have one I use with my iPad and love it. First off, the curved keyboard works because having your hands turned inward is the natural position to type in. Hold your hands in front of you and look at them. They’re turned in, unless you are forcing them to be parallel. I type a lot because I write novels, and hand comfort is important to me. When I try to use a “normal” non-curved keyboard, it feels awkward and I have to force my hands to be parallel by bending my wrists sideways.

    In addition, the 5000 is solid. I tried a number of blue-tooth keyboards and all of them flexed when typing fast. The solid feel of the 5000 is a blessing.

    I don’t know where you get this start up time problem. Mine does not do that.

    I like this keyboard and have even bought a couple for Xmas gifts to friends to use with their tablets.

    Have a nice day,

  • Has anyone...

    Had any experience with those small, Blackberry like keyboards with a media center (XBMC in my case)?

    Of those above, I have the Arc for use with my regular PC, but would prefer something more compact/remote like for my XBMC since it resides in my living room. I like the fact that these BB like remotes have a trackpad but yet are still small enough to sit on an end table rather than a full sized (even if compact) keyboard.
  • Logitech K400

    I have a Logitech K400 I use with a laptop connected to my TV via HDMI and I love it for that purpose. There are new drivers for it v6.5 that adds some more features to it for Windows 8
  • No number keypad?

    I keep a standard PS2 keyboard connected to my laptop when it's at my desk, but it's wearing out & causing even more mistakes than I do. I was hoping you'd show us a full-size keyboard with a number pad.
  • wireless keyboards

    I am happy with the Logitech K360 wireless mouse/keyboard combo, sadly I don't they are sold anymore.
    Its compact but still has a full keypad and the keyboard runs on 2 AA batteries while the mouse uses 1.
  • MS 5000 + companion 10-key + BT mouse

    The noted delay is a power saving function. It only happens when you haven't been typing for a few minutes and restart. Once started it keeps up. Many have said you either love curved keyboards or hate them. I've been using an ergonomic keyboard since the first MS Natural. 'nuff sed.

    I travel with my notebook and often find the boardroom projector (or hotel flat screen TV) is located somewhere other than the best place to sit. Bluetooth to the rescue. But a full keyboard is too big to fit in my PC bags. The MS 5000 and its separate companion 10-key pad fit separately. My mouse isn't MS. But with BT, I only need BT for all and not 1, 2, or even 3 USB nano transceivers. Screw cheap OEMs and their 2.4GHz wireless - gimme BT!

    Hint: Cyberguys markets replacement netbook feet (and notebook size, but they are too big). The netbook size is perfect for putting the MS-5000 keyboard at the right pitch when on a table, and fold when not needed.
    Jim Johnson
  • Logitech Bluetooth Illuminated K810 is the best! I solved the fatal flaw!

    David is right - the Logitech Bluetooth Illuminated Keyboard K810 is the best. And I solved the fatal flaw; I bought two on sale. I keep one plugged in next to the couch in my media room. When my first runs out of juice, I just unplug my second and keep on going. It cost me $149 + shipping for two of them, which is a little expensive, but my comfort and productivity are worth it.
    ks consulting
  • batteries

    are the spwn of shaitan run rampant upon the earth. My apple magic mouse (micky of course) eats them. It should be wirelessly rechargeable. My apple keyboard (pluto of course) is not as hungry, but it still eats em... It should be wirelessly rechargeable. I do have an mx5500 bundle, the mouse is rechargeable, the keyboard isn't. The keyboard does not live up to the spillproof brag. Though the worst of it came from my sugar junkie days... The bad thing about all logitch prods is that they do not have good drivers and they don't update them - my mx5500 should be the bees knees for w8, but it isn't... Bad logitech, but there may be a frisson of the Robber Barons freezing out the enemy aliens in this, dunno...
    I think we should MAKE the moghuls make products that are wirelessly rechargeable (on a industry standardised chargo-MAT-ic magic charging carpet for yer stuff say) And still be able to be wired up (and charged!) just using a standard usb cable...

    Lets stamp out the evil tyranny of batteries, for once and for all. We need a rechargeable spring (the season, not the slinky, although hmmm...)

    and david I think you are the visionary leader to lead the uprising... and lead us all to a battery-less future.

    (mind you I still want to be able to replace the rechargeable batteries in my devices with standard sized ones, none of this hermetically sealed apple tyranny please)

  • Good write upon on a *very* subjective topic

    This is a very subjective topic where the right answer is which keyboard works best for you. For some of us, that may mean we have multiple keyboards. In my own example, 95% of my typing is done on one of three keyboards.

    For mobile/wireless I have an Apple Wireless keyboard at my desk. I like it for all the reasons David mentions. It is primarily used for my iPad, but also gets paired to whatever BT device needs a keyboard at the moment. It's downside is that it is terrible for travel, due to the incredibly sensitive power button on the side and the concurrent tendency for the media keys to get bumped. When I almost drove off the road when my iPad jammed out the power chords to Bat Out of Hell, I decided I needed a change.

    For travel purposes, I've gone with the Targus BT keyboard. It types almost as well as the Apple, but has a physical power switch on the bottom, better battery life and a very useful set of iPad support keys. However, I've paired it with laptops and media centers with fantastic results.

    For home and office, what can I say? I'm an anachronism. I've got two Unicomp keyboard. For those who don't know, these are the original IBM Model M keyboards that us old fogeys started our careers using. They still make them. They're still loud. They're still heavy. They're still indestructible. And you can't still type all day on them and your wrists feel great. Frankly, for couch typing they're great. You can use them in the "Programmer's Sprawl" without a problem. You know... feet propped, sprawled back with the keyboard in your lap? Actually the 3-4 lb weight becomes a benefit here because of the added stability. The only downside is that you may need a USB extension as this is only a wired keyboard. Nevertheless, it's such a joy to write on that I'll unplug it from my main system and take it wherever it's needed in the house.

    Big point is David has it right. You have to try the keyboard out and see which really works best for you in the environment you'll be using it.