Thursday, November 22, 2007

Evoluent Keyboard and Mouse: Good On 'Em

I am chagrined to discover that it was so long ago that Evoluent LLC sent me their products for review (way back in May of 2006): The "Mouse-Friendly Keyboard" and "Vertical Mouse 2" (they've since gone on to the Vertical Mouse 3, pictured at right).

The reason I feel embarrassed is that these are really good products, and I wish I'd told you all so a year and a half ago. I found them innovative relief for the ergonomic problems posed by the standard keyboard/mouse setup, and well executed into the bargain.

The keyboard flies in the face of convention. It's small, for one thing, in an era of ever-more-enormous competitors. (Microsoft: "If It's The Size Of An Aircraft Carrier, It's Got To Be Good." I mean, honestly!) Small is good, wasting less desk space and not forcing your fingers to stretch anywhere. Oddly, for a keyboard claiming ergonomic chops, the Evoluent is perfectly rectilinear (which helps keep the size down). But the real idiosyncrasy is the key layout. The numeric keypad is on the left side.


Wait, it's not as insane as it sounds. For one thing, with your home-row fingers centered naturally in front of the monitor, the keyboard extends only a few centimeters to the right, so your right hand only has to twitch to be on your mouse. Less reaching, less stress, less delay. For another, with a bit of retraining you can turn off Num Lock and use the cursor-control keys on the keypad -- there's the full Home/End/PgUp/PgDown set -- with the left hand while you mouse with the right. The control keys are duplicated on the right side too, although they're dribbled somewhat willy-nilly around the perimeter. There's the row of by-now-de-rigeur dedicated special-purpose keys across the top (myself, I never use 'em, but YMMV).

The keyboard is quite flat, but has a completely delightful feel: Short travel so you can really rip, with that elusive perfect combination of soft touch but positive tactile feedback. I rarely press a key by mistake, yet my fingers don't get tired or sore as they do with my standard 'board (I have Microsoft Naturals on both my Mac and my Lin+Win boxen).

My only real complaint with the keyboard is that I gave it away before I'd completely retrained on it, so when I sit down at the Finn's machine I have to hunt for those repositioned cursor-control keys. (His need was greater than mine; what's a hacker to do when your partner is going carpal?)

As for the Vertical Mouse, it's a honey. Conventional mice make you flatten your wrist parallel to the desktop in order to grip them. It's not painful, but if you work your hand around to find its most comfortable position, you'll find that the least strain is when the thumb points about 25 deg. inward of vertical. And, surprise surprise, this is exactly how your hand falls upon the Vertical Mouse. There are a total of five buttons: Three in the standard positions (OK, they're on the side instead of the top, but your hand grips that way so you know what I mean), a clicky-wheel in the junction of the forefinger and middle buttons, and one on the other side, just above where your thumb rests. The current model (3) appears to have a more sculptured shape that looks to be even more comfy, but I haven't tried it; the 2 model is still available as well.

Despite the unusual hand position, it took all of 15 seconds before I was pointing without having to think about it. The high-res optical sensor works flawlessly, and the buttons have that same quality feel as the keyboard. The wheel on the model I tested does not have a detent, but rather scrolls smoothly; they changed that for model 3. If you're using Windows, Evoluent supplies drivers that allow you to program the 5 buttons (I really like mapping one to double-click and one to the Back browser function); the mouse works fine in 2-button mode on a Mac, and Evoluent gives links to freeware drivers that enable programmability. For Linux, Evoluent says that multiple buttons are available with recent versions of XFree out of the box.

Mind you, I'm a trackball guy myself. I gave up mice when I started having repetitive-motion stress problems in my wrist and forearm. So I'm a pretty tough sell for a mouse. I can tell you that if I had to give up my old Logitech trackball, I'd be getting a Vertical Mouse to replace it -- it's the only thing I've tried that gives anything close to the same level of comfort. The reason I chose the Logitech and Microsoft models that I did was the hand position: Tilted, like on the Vertical Mouse. (The old discontinued enormous-ball Logitech is much better than the Microsoft, BTW; current Logitechs don't compare at all).

Overall, this pair is pretty hard to beat. My only quibbles with the keyboard were the flat rectangular shape and the need to make my decades-entrenched habits conform to a new layout. Programmers have a much higher navigation/text entry ratio that standard typists, so having to hunt even a hundred milliseconds for a cursor key is much more disruptive for programming than writing (I know, 'cause I do both). Since the latter is a necessary consequence of the left-hand-control and adjacent-mouse features, I don't ding Evoluent for it. Pays your money and makes your choice, sez I, and it is possible to accustom yourself. The Finn is even older than me, and he has adapted without complaint. In fact he was sufficiently happy that he sold one of our professors on the setup, so we're pretty darned Evoluent around Soil Science these days.

And the Vertical Mouse is just a joy. Ten minutes with it and you'll grumble every time you twist your arm to feet a conventional mouse.

One caveat to this setup, however: If you work on multiple computers, think before you pop for these unless you can adapt readily (or unless you can afford to outfit them all). Although I love Apple keyboards, I use a Microsoft on my home AMD box as well as my University Mac just so I don't drive myself batty changing over.

The keyboard lists for $42 (sadly, you can no longer get the purple color shown above, they're all silver/black now). The Model 2 mouse is still available (in both left- and right-hand editions) listing for $80 ($70 if you want black-on-black), and the 3 lists for the same price (sorry, righties only for that one).

These days, keyboards and mice are so cheap they're practically disposable, so Evoluent's price tag might come as a bit of a shocker. If you spend a significant proportion of your life tied to a keyboard and mouse, though, cheap tools are very definitely false economy, and you will never regret the good ones. Now let's see, if I can get this one back from the Finn, I only have to buy another one for home...


Anonymous sockatume said...

I recall a study a few years ago which found left-handed mouse use to be ergonomically superior to right-handed, for the same reason as the "mouse-friendly keyboard" - the layout is simply better balanced. As a lefty this is fantastic, although the righties who share my terminal aren't too pleased with swapping the mouse back over every time they sit down.

10:49 AM  

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