Microsoft’s Sculpt Keyboard Makes Ergonomic Desktops Cool

Our keyboards are killing us.

Okay, not really. But if you sit and type at a desk for hours, you might very well feel aches and pains at the end of a long workday.

A recent survey conducted by Microsoft showed that more than 85 percent of workers complain of discomfort at work. The top three reasons cited for this discomfort? Sitting at a desk all day, staring at a computer screen and typing. Over time, these unhealthy repetitive motions can lead to more serious issues.

With this in mind, Microsoft has just released its newest ergonomic keyboard and mouse set, called the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop. Microsoft has been making a line of ergonomic products for nearly 20 years; its “Natural” keyboard is considered by many to be the leading ergonomic keyboard.

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At $130, the Sculpt keyboard and mouse bundle is slightly pricier than the previous set, the Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000, but the Sculpt has a brand-new look that might make it worth the upgrade for ergonomics fans.

Separately, the Sculpt keyboard will sell for $80, and the mouse will sell for $60. The keyboard uses two AAA batteries, while the mouse takes two AAs. They connect wirelessly to your computer or laptop via a tiny transceiver plugged into the USB port of your computer.

The Sculpt's project code name was

The Sculpt’s project code name was “manta ray,” due to its likeness to the flattened fish

The set is optimized for PCs running Windows, but also works with Mac computers. I’ve been using the plastic Sculpt keyboard and mouse for the past week and a half, connecting both devices to my 15-inch Mac laptop.

It should be noted that my current desk area at home is, quite possibly, the least ergonomic setup ever. Most days I’m hunched over a laptop on a small desk while seated in a sagging, fold-up director’s chair. (“Oh no, not one of those!” an ergonomics expert said when I consulted him for this column.)

Such is life in a small New York City apartment.

In researching other ergonomic keyboards, I found surprisingly few keyboards that, like the Sculpt, can claim to be both ergonomic and stylish while not breaking the bank. Logitech has offered some popular ergonomic keyboards in the past, but hasn’t introduced a new one in a while. A company called Truly Ergonomic makes a keyboard of the same name – but it costs almost $250 dollars. The Kinesis Advantage keyboard costs $299.

The Sculpt has flat, Chiclet-style keys.

The Sculpt has flat, Chiclet-style keys.

Kinesis does have a new ergonomic keyboard called the Freestyle2 that comes close to the same price point as the Sculpt – $109 for the basic model and $129 for a slightly different configuration – and comes in both Mac and PC models.

Like the Sculpt, it has a split design (split keyboards like this are supposed to help keep your hands aligned with your shoulders and elbows, for a more natural typing position). The bulkier Kinesis keyboard actually has two separate “wings,” one for each hand, whereas the Sculpt has a split down the middle but it’s still all one piece.

The split in the Sculpt comes down to the space bar. Below that, there’s a soft cushion that acts as a palm rest. It’s wider than most standard keyboards, but not as clunky or utilitarian-feeling as some other specialty keyboards.

ErgoSidebar

Instead, it’s thin and light, with chiclet-style keys and a nice, mellow curve to it, rising up toward the split in the middle and allowing for a more natural position of the hands. Microsoft’s pre-release, internal name for this new keyboard was manta ray, and in looking at it, you can easily see why.

If the keyboard was code-named “manta ray,” the round, bulbous, right-handed Sculpt mouse might have very well been nicknamed “fat hamster,” because that’s what it looks like. A round mouse, Microsoft says, is more comfortable because your hand can rest gently on top of it, taking the strain off your wrist. (If your palm is resting behind the mouse, with your wrist bent back and your fingers curling over the top of the mouse, you’re doing it wrong, experts say.)

As fat as the mouse seemed to me at first, I liked using it. My hands and wrists felt a heck of a lot better than they normally do fighting for space on my laptop keyboard and trackpad. The mouse also has a button that takes you to the Windows 8 Start menu with one tap, provided you’re using a machine that’s running that operating system.

The Sculpt mouse has a designated Windows 8 button, for quick access to the OS's start menu.

The Sculpt mouse has a designated Windows 8 button, for quick access to the OS’s start menu.

And the keyboard comes with a separate, unattached number pad to give the other keys the full real estate of the keyboard (there’s also a number row at the top of the keyboard, per usual). I barely used the pad, but having a separate num-pad leaves more space for the rest of the keys. It can also be a handy tool for business users, accountants and other people who regularly crunch numbers.

My one gripe about the Sculpt is that there are no lights – anywhere. The keys aren’t backlit, and there are no indicator lights, such as a caps-lock light, a wireless-connectivity signal, or a battery gauge. In keeping with my trend of working in a less-than-comfortable environment, I often write late at night, in a dimly lit space, and have come to rather like backlit keys. (For what it’s worth, the new Kinesis model has indicator lights, as well as a couple additional USB ports thrown into the keyboard.)

The Sculpt keyboard comes with a separate number pad.

The Sculpt keyboard comes with a separate number pad.

Still, by the end of the week I was wondering where the Microsoft Sculpt keyboard had been all my computing life. Not only did I feel slightly less strained in my wrist and shoulders, but the keyboard, frankly, wasn’t ugly. It’s not the kind of keyboard you’d be ashamed to pair up with your new Ultrabook, your sleek MacBook Air or your high-tech, multiscreen desktop computer system.

So, if you’re in the market for a new ergonomic keyboard, I can recommend the Sculpt as a solid option.

Now, I just need to address that back-destroying director’s chair.

The Iconia W3: A Windows Tablet Aimed for a Mini Market

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Windows PC makers have had a tough time selling tablets, even though Microsoft’s new Windows 8 operating system is touch-centric, sports a tablet interface called the Start Screen, and, as a bonus, allows tablets to run traditional Windows desktop programs.

The best example of this struggle came in recent weeks when Microsoft had to slash by about 30 percent the price of its own Surface RT, a well-built, full-size tablet that runs desktop Microsoft Office. That led to a $900 million charge in the software giant’s financial results.

Now, one of the major PC makers, Acer, is making a new attempt to dent the tablet market that is dominated by Apple’s iPad, but is seeing growing sales by companies using Google’s Android operating system. Last month, Acer introduced a smaller, less expensive Windows 8 tablet, the Iconia W3.

Acer, which also makes Android tablets, is hoping the W3, which has an 8.1-inch screen compared with the 10-inch screens of standard tablets, will hit a sweet spot that has eluded other Windows tablets.

But after testing the W3, I doubt it. The W3 has some advantages over its most obvious competitor, the 7.9-inch iPad mini, including a higher screen resolution and the same built-in, limited edition of desktop Microsoft Office featured on the Surface RT.

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The Iconia W3 has a higher screen resolution than the iPad mini and a special $80 full-size keyboard with a slot on top for the tablet.

Overall, I found it to be no match for the iPad mini. Compared with the smallest iPad, the Acer features cheaper, bulkier construction; a worse-looking, slower-responding screen; significantly less battery life; and drastically worse cameras. And it’s Wi-Fi only, with no cellular data option.

Plus, like all Windows 8 computers, it’s burdened by a paucity of tablet-style apps and a dual interface that is best used with touch in one mode, and with a keyboard (which costs extra) in the other.

One sign the W3 isn’t a runaway hit: After only seven weeks or so on the market, Acer has cut the price of the product. Last month, the entry-level price was $380, for a 32-gigabyte model. Now, that same model is $300. The iPad mini starts at $329, with 16GB. (Windows 8 machines need more memory because the operating system itself takes up a huge chunk of storage.) Samsung’s new 8-inch Android-based Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 tablet costs $300 with 16GB.

The Iconia W3 is a white, plastic tablet that can be easily held with one hand. Unlike the iPad, it has a USB port and an HDMI port for exporting video to a TV over a cable. But these are mini ports, which require adapters and cables, and those accessories aren’t included. It also has a memory-card slot that can add up to 32GB of memory with an optional card.

It runs the full version of W8, so in addition to tablet apps, it can be switched to the traditional Windows desktop, where you can install and run most programs that work on Windows 7. The most important of these, Microsoft Office, is included in the price, though in a version that omits Outlook. Office, which must be installed manually using a free activation code, worked fine in my tests.

The W3 starts up quickly and the screen has a resolution of 1280 x 800, compared with just 1024 x 768 on the iPad mini.

However, the W3 had many key disadvantages compared with the iPad mini. It weighs about 60 percent more and is about 61 percent thicker. While the mini isn’t as svelte as the 7-inch Android tablets, I can carry it in my back jeans pocket, even with its cover on and with a wallet sharing the space. Not so with the W3. And the small iPad also has a sturdier metal case.

The screen on the W3 was very distracting. It has a faint speckling, especially visible when viewing white. I also found the screen occasionally slow to respond to touch.

In my standard tablet battery test, where I keep the screen at 75 percent brightness, leave the Wi-Fi on to collect email and play videos until the battery dies, the Acer lasted seven hours and 22 minutes. This means that, in normal use, you could almost certainly get the unit’s claimed eight hours of battery life. In the same test, the iPad mini lasted nearly 3 hours more, even though it’s much thinner and lighter.

Then there are the cameras. The Acer’s main rear camera is only 2 megapixels, compared with 5 megapixels for the iPad mini. Photos I took with the W3 were fuzzy, both indoors and out, much worse than similar shots taken with the iPad.

Acer boasts it has created a special accessory keyboard for the W3, which costs $80. Like other add-on keyboards for tablets I’ve tested, it has a slot at the top for the tablet and it works fine. I consider it a necessity for Windows 8 desktop apps, like Office, because they don’t work optimally with the on-screen keyboard.

The Acer keyboard is full-size, much longer and wider than the tablet itself. It has a cavity underneath to store the small tablet for traveling. But that makes for a large package, since the keyboard is much wider and longer than the tablet.

Bottom line: The Acer Iconia W3 has too many flaws for me to recommend, despite its compact size and lower price.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.

Review: Sky’s NOW TV box. We put this tiny £10 Roku device to the test

NOWTV 520x245 Review: Skys NOW TV box. We put this tiny   10 Roku device to the test

Sky’s NOW TV service might not be as well known as others under its auspices, such as Sky Go, for example, but at under 10 for a little white box that promises to make your boring old TV an internet-connected one, it sounds like a no-brainer. Plus it introduces the option to pay for on demand access to Sky’s sport and movie channels too.

The one thing that’s critical for an internet-connected TV is….yep, an internet connection. This is where my experience with NOW TV started: with a failure to connect.

Opening up the box, you’ll find the unit itself (which will be very familiar if you’ve seen or used Roku’s little streaming player), an HDMI cable for connecting it to the TV, a remote (plus batteries) and a power pack. Naturally setting it up is as easy as plugging all those things in.

NOWTV rear 730x391 Review: Skys NOW TV box. We put this tiny   10 Roku device to the test

Once you’re ready and the unit is switched on, you’ll see a welcome screen asking you to connect to a WiFi network. Despite trying several times, having double and triple checked that I’d put in the correct password, it simply wouldn’t connect to my (Virgin Media) router. I tried disabling security on the router altogether, to no avail.

However, tethering it to my phone worked no problem at all. First time, in fact.

Once connected, the software will update itself and then ask you to sign in to NOW TV. If you don’t have an account you’ll need one, and you can’t set one up from the box, so you’ll need a laptop or tablet or something.

Once that hurdled has been safely cleared you finally get to the NOW TV menu screen which provides access to all installed channels (apps) and the settings menu.

Now TV Menu 730x422 Review: Skys NOW TV box. We put this tiny   10 Roku device to the test

Navigation is simple enough, all performed via the arrow and enter keys on the remote and it’s responsive enough to keep you from being frustrated at having to wait around.

New apps can be installed by pressing the apps button on the controller and then navigating to the desired option, whether that’s dedicated channels like BBC News 24 or things like Spotify or the Facebook photos and videos app.

apps1 730x482 Review: Skys NOW TV box. We put this tiny   10 Roku device to the test

Actual streaming performance, which will undoubtedly vary depending on your connections – tethered to 4G in this instance, was without problems and it didn’t balk at the BBC iPlayer HD content, though it only supports output at up to 720p.

Obviously, Sky’s hoping you’ll shell out for its on-demand Sky Sport and Sky Movies. Pricing has been set at 9.99 per day for all six Sky Sports channels and subscription to the movies channel is being offered on a 30 day free trial for new customers, followed by a one month introductory price of 8.99, which then rises to 15 per month.

Essentially, the unit is a rebranded Roku unit with Sky’s software on board and a few services removed. While Roku devices tend to retail for a little more than the price of the Sky branded-offering (which is around $15), Sky’s not really in this for the hardware cash. To it, the value of those ad-hoc daily sports, or monthly movies are far more important.

Personally, I’m not that interested in Sky’s movie or TV offerings, and with no access to services like Netflix, LOVEFiLM, ITV Player, and 4oD (for obvious reasons – as competing on-demand streaming platforms) it’s slightly less smart than I’d like, but to be able to turn a normal HD TV into an at least semi-smart TV for 10 has got to be worth anyone’s money. Providing it’ll play nicely with your router. I’ll let you know if I get it working with mine.

Update: After much wrangling the WiFi connectivity issue was eventually resolved by accessing the hidden menu (press home button 5 times followed by fast-forward, play, rewind, play and then fast-forward again) and selecting “disable network pings” in the options.

NOW TV

Timehub lets developers generate invoices from their GitHub repositories

coding php 520x245 Timehub lets developers generate invoices from their GitHub repositories

Created by Canadian development firm Yafoy, Timehub is a service which lets programmers generate invoices from their GitHub repositories. Yes, developers can now track the time they spend on projects without ever leaving GitHub.

Yafoy details that Timehub is targeted towards “freelancers who need to submit time-based invoices and who spend their time on GitHub.” Given that GitHub passed 3 million users last month, there’s clearly a large potential user base.

To get started, you’ll need to sign in with your GitHub account – that way Timehub can load in your repositories and commits. Then, annotate your commits with the time you spent coding, select which commits to include and generate your invoice (you can send it via email or download it as a PDF).

By tracking the time spent on each commit, developers end up with an easy way to monitor and summarize their work. Timehub also touts itself as a way for developers (aka usually non-designers) to create “beautiful invoices” with little work.

Check it out via the link below and let us know what you think!

Timehub

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