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Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard hands-on: Solid, but not quite universal

Mark Hachman | Nov. 3, 2014
How can you call a keyboard universal if it doesn't work with Windows Phone? Microsoft's Universal Mobile Keyboard can't quite answer that question.

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Lawyers, pedants and fanboys may hold that Microsoft wasn't lying when it named its Universal Mobile Keyboard. But Windows Phone users may come away unconvinced.

From a hardware standpoint, Microsoft's $80 Universal Mobile Keyboard continues its tradition of excellence, with a well-thought-out design incorporating a hardware switch to reconfigure the keyboard for Android, iOS, and "Windows" devices. Look closer, though, and what Microsoft bills as a "universal" keyboard simply doesn't deliver, because it doesn't support Windows Phone. 

It's yet another frustration for Windows Phone users, who have become accustomed to playing second fiddle, even within Microsoft itself. It's a practice that Microsoft's Ifi Majid, head of experiences marketing for Microsoft's Devices Group, promised would end--but Microsoft's design teams apparently didn't get the memo.

Great hardware, if a trifle small
Closed, the keyboard looks something like a Lenovo ThinkPad--just a rectangular oblong of black plastic. But when opened, the keyboard reveals itself, and powers on automatically. Charge it overnight, Microsoft says, and it's good for six months. If you hold the power button on for several seconds, it pairs with discoverable Bluetooth devices that support the Bluetooth HID standard.

The upper part of the case "holds" a phone or tablet with one of two plastic ridges that grab it, like holding on to a ledge with your fingernails. But despite that metaphor, the construction is quite sturdy. Initially, the ridges didn't hold the mobile device at an angle I found convenient. Surprise! The keyboard's top half detaches, allowing you to find a comfortable angle to work. The most important consideration is how thin the device is: I would expect all modern smartphones to fit, but the the ridges wouldn't grab a thick Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablet. 

The flagship feature of the keyboard is to the upper right--a switch that slides between icons for the Android (4.0+), iOS (6.0+), Mac (10.7+) and Windows 8/RT operating systems. In this, Microsoft's Mobile Keyboard is similar to the Logitech Bluetooth Easy-Switch K811, a similar mobile keyboard released last year, which uses separate Bluetooth profiles for each device. What Microsoft's keyboard does is automatically remap some of the keyboard keys to functions each device supports. (If you forget the flip the switch, as I did, some function keys may exhibit wonky behavior.)

It only sounds confusing
On iOS, both the ESC and CMD keys on Microsoft's keyboard take you to the home screen of your iPhone and iPad. Pressing a dedicated function (Fn) key plus the ALT key can open or close your virtual keyboard on your iPad. If an Android phone or tablet is connected, tapping a dedicated "Home" key brings you back to the home screen. Hitting ESC equates to the Android back button. And tapping CMD is equivalent to the CTRL key on Android--which I would have assumed to be the menu option, showing a list of recently opened programs on my Galaxy Note 3. But it doesn't seem to have a specific function on that particular phone.

 

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