Forget operating systems or office suites; in fact, forget software. One of the things that Microsoft has been spectacularly good at over the last five years has been hardware or, more accurately, keyboards and mice. From the first Natural keyboard, through the first optical IntelliMouse - up until recent times, Microsoft has consistently churned out good quality, ergonomic kit.
It's no surprise, then, that Microsoft has made an effort to make kit based around their current plat(form) du jour, Media Center. We have already looked at the remote control that ships with most Media Center PCs, and proclaimed it worthy of attachment to your nearest USB port.
However, one of the great things about Media Center PCs is that whilst they can do all the cool TV stuff, you can still use them as normal PCs. OK, so you might not want to write your doctoral thesis on a 42" plasma, but you can certainly browse the web or check your email - or even root around for photos to show friends and whatnot. This requires a keyboard, not just a remote control. Undoubtedly, there's no point having Media Center in the living room and using a standard, wired keyboard and mouse - that just looks ugly. So, Microsoft has come up with this, which aims to be the only Media Center control device you need.
The Microsoft Remote Keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition, to give it its full moniker, is a small keyboard with media buttons on either side and a pointing device built in. The mouse pointer is a small 'nipple', not unlike those seen on IBM Thinkpads. The functions of the Media Center remote are replicated on the left and right of the keyboard, with the iconic Start button and the other sundry shortcuts. Across the top of the keyboard are shortcuts to sections in the software like My Music or My Photos.
In terms of the keys, they are a cross between low-profile laptop keys and full-size ones. The layout is pretty spacious, but eschews a number pad in favour of additional function buttons. The arrow keys are a little cramped, and things are a little tighter than your average desktop keyboard, but the typing experience is a good one, overall.
There's no software included in the box: to install the keyboard, you'll need to get a Windows Update from the web. I don't know why Microsoft can't include a CD with this on in the box - perhaps because it wants people to go through the rigmarole of Windows Genuine Advantage? This restricts downloads to verified non-pirated installations of Windows - something that already applies to stuff like DirectX 9.0c downloads.
Let's take look at those buttons then. They are mounted on sections that are raised on either side of the keys. This puts them squarely over your legs if you're sitting down. However, if you're holding the keyboard, all the buttons are within a thumb's distance, meaning you can happily operate it without having to rest it on a surface.
The backlight is a cool orange, which looks pretty snazzy in the dark. However, we can't help but wonder if it should have been green or blue, carrying on the Media Center colour scheme?
There is not a lot to say about the tactile quality of the buttons - they are pretty hardy rather than weak little bits of plastic, and they're firmly attached. The only complaint is that there is no button to quick launch Internet Explorer, which is surely one of the main uses this keyboard will be put to.