The SigO and I drove to California for the last week of November 2008 to visit friends. On the way there — because we don’t have one near where we live in northern Colorado — we stopped at the Fry’s Electronics in Las Vegas. For those of you who haven’t seen one, Fry’s Electronics is the Mecca of retail electronics. It’s everything we wish Best Buy could be, but to make an actual comparison between Best Buy and Fry’s would be an exercise in lunacy. The sheer scale of a Fry’s boggles the mind — like several Best Buys put together. The prices are generally significantly better than Best Buy’s prices. The service at Fry’s is not only good (where Best Buy’s is mostly crap), but also knowledgeable (apparently, experts need not apply at Best Buy).
The SigO and I
wasted enjoyed about 2.5 hours of browsing through Fry’s that day, if memory serves. While there, I found myself impressed by an HP keyboard that was set out with a demo HP computer. I was so impressed that I decided I wanted one. We found out that the normally $90 retail price had been cut to $40 for the HP Wireless Elite keyboard and mouse set, and the sale was made.
HP Input Peripherals
Before I go any further, I should mention that every single HP keyboard I’ve encountered before this was . . . well, I found them all loathsome. I’ve never really liked any of HP’s pointing devices (mouse, trackball, et cetera), either. They all looked and felt like cheap crap — membrane switches, incredibly mushy tactile feedback, et cetera. At best, they felt like a toy that wouldn’t last more than a month.
I fancy myself a bit of a keyboard connoisseur, and have definite opinions on what constitutes a “good” keyboard. It’s a state of affairs that has grown naturally, because of the amount of typing I do (and my aversion for keyboards that slow me down, increase error rates, or contribute to repetitive stress injury).
After a couple months of owning the thing, I discovered two things of particular interest:
- The mouse is surprisingly good, too. I hadn’t even considered the mouse at the time of purchase — I was just after the keyboard.
- This keyboard is the best new keyboard I’ve used in the last twenty years. No shit.
It has a very small footprint for the size of the key layout — which is expansive and comfortable. It’s about 17.25×6 inches. The thickness is almost unmeasurable: less than half an inch at the widest point. It does have flip-out “feet” if you want to elevate the back of the keyboard more, of course. Despite its minimal dimensions, though, the thing feels solid; there’s nothing flimsy or cheap feeling about this keyboard.
Key travel is fairly shallow, which is to be expected of something this thin. It isn’t much shallower than that of a ThinkPad keyboard (my second-favorite new keyboard of the last 20 years), though. Key travel is deeper than I would have expected, and the tactile feedback of the keyboard is the best I’ve felt on a new keyboard in the last two decades; my favor of the HP Wireless Elite keyboard is largely because of the feel of typing on it. The edges of the keys are “stepped”, so that it’s quite natural and easy to settle into the correct keys with one’s fingers, for touch-typists, because the edges of them are so obvious. The whole surface of the thing is very subtly textured, so I don’t get a too-slick feel, but it doesn’t feel rough.
Of course I’ve been using it with FreeBSD, so you know it’s not one of these things that requires a bunch of MS Windows “drivers” to work properly. It has a “sleep” button and volume control and mute buttons, though I haven’t used any of them (no need, really) — and I’m not sure they’d work without the extra MS Windows software that does come with the keyboard for users of that benighted OS. I haven’t installed the excess software nonsense on the MS Windows test system that is the other computer attached to the same KVM switch as the FreeBSD desktop and this keyboard, so that should give you an idea what I think of extra “driver” software for keyboards in general. Thus, if you want a review of that
excess extra software, you’ll have to get it elsewhere.
In case it matters to you, this keyboard (other than its tiny HP logo label and the Windows key) looks exactly like the sort of thing you’d expect to see in an artist’s rendition of a circa 2050 cyberpunk, with the keyboard attached by a fiber-optic cable directly to his brain via a plug in the side or back of his head. I have to wonder what the “sleep” and volume control buttons would do for such a character, though.
The mouse is a glossy, black, almost featureless thing. It has a fairly minimalistic design, but not to the uncomfortable extreme of those Mac one-button mouse atrocities of a few years back where the whole mouse was the button. It has two (mostly seamless) buttons, plus the standard mouse-wheel-as-third-button setup. The wheel has a satisfying clickiness to it, rather than that greasy-feeling smoothness of most Microsoft mice, but it isn’t the sort of industrial, chunky clickiness that some low-end mice have, that makes precision a relative impossibility. It’s a pseudo-ovoid thing that’s just the right size for most hands (especially mine). Perhaps most importantly, the underside of the thing is designed so that it just glides over a smooth surface. I haven’t once gotten that scratchy feeling for the mouse motion one tends to get after a week of use with most optical mice. It even has an on/off switch to conserve battery life when not in use, since otherwise bumping the thing would wake it up and cause it to consume battery power — a feature I don’t recall seeing on a wireless mouse before this.
The range seems to be pretty good on these things. I’ve tried it out from about 8.5 feet (far enough that seeing the text on the screen was a bit of a chore) and it worked without a hitch. It seems to hold up to playing World of Warcraft without the batteries draining quickly, which is surprising considering the amount of holding buttons one does in that game. It comes with batteries (AAA for the keyboard and AA for the mouse). Both devices run off a single USB wireless dongle, of course.
- They’re getting difficult to find. I think HP may have discontinued it.
- Being wireless, the keyboard and mouse run on (standard) batteries. This is a problem with every wireless keyboard and mouse, of course — and it’s a trade-off with the problem of having cables to deal with that comes with a non-wireless keyboard and mouse — but it’s still a problem. At the moment, it’s just a theoretical problem, since none of the batteries have died yet.
- The MS Windows logo on the Windows key doesn’t appear to be removable. Meh. No biggie, I guess.
- It’s a little pricey. I got my first HP Wireless Elite for a very good price, of course, but Fry’s doesn’t have them any longer at any price as far as I can tell, and certainly not online — and I haven’t found them anywhere near that inexpensiveness since (the cheapest I’ve found lately is $50 used — expect $70 or more new, if you want both the keyboard and mouse). It’s definitely worth the prices that can be found, though. (edit: More recently, I found the keyboard for $35 on Amazon.)
- The single dongle for both devices produced a problem with the current desktop setup here. I’m using an IOGEAR two “port” USB KVM switch with two computers (one running FreeBSD, natch, and the other an MS Windows test system). Unfortunately, that KVM switch expects a separate USB plug-in for each of the keyboard and mouse — and there’s only one USB dongle for both devices in the keyboard-and-mouse set. The documentation for the KVM switch indicates that it should work if I plug the dongle into the keyboard port on the KVM switch, but when I do so there is unacceptable lag in mouse responsiveness. If I plug it into the mouse port, many of the keyboard functions don’t work. This is really an IOGEAR problem, and not a problem with the keyboard and mouse per se. It’s not a problem at all for the keyboard alone, of course. It’s still something to watch out for if you’re using a KVM switch, though.
How much do I like it?
I’m hesitant to compare it with the glorious IBM Model M keyboard. I haven’t touched one in fifteen years, and haven’t seen a new one in more than twenty, so I don’t think I’m really qualified to judge them against each other at this point. I know, from memory, the Model M is at least close to the best ThinkPad keyboards — and it may be better than the HP Wireless Elite. I just don’t remember it clearly enough to be able to rank it against the HP Wireless Elite or the ThinkPad.
(edit: Actually, now that I have a mechanical spring switch keyboard again — the Das Keyboard — I know the Model M must easily outshine the HP Wireless Elite and the best ThinkPad keyboards. I need to get a Unicomp keyboard and compare it with my Das Keyboard Ultimate next, because Unicomp is the current purveyor of Model M keyboard technology.)
I’ll definitely compare it with Das Keyboard, just as soon as I get my own Das Keyboard Ultimate. I don’t know when that’s going to happen, though. I have other expenses ahead of it in the queue.
(edit: I’m now the proud owner of a Das Keyboard Ultimate! I quite like the thing.)
Perhaps the best indicator of how much I like the thing is what happened this last weekend:
The SigO mentioned that she needed a mouse to use with her new ThinkPad when she uses it to play World of Warcraft. This became an excuse to buy cool computer gear! Hooray!
I remembered having seen the HP Wireless Elite at Wal-Mart a couple weeks before. They had both the keyboard alone and the keyboard and mouse set. I checked around, and both the other Wal-Mart in town and the Best Buy here lacked this wonderful keyboard. I went to the Wal-Mart where I had already seen the thing, and saw that they still had it — but not the keyboard and mouse set. Luckily, all I wanted was the keyboard in this case, so I bought it for about $60. Yes, I like it that much. I’d buy another keyboard and mouse set (online, now that it’s not being sold locally — and since I don’t have the “need it now” excuse to buy it locally, anyway, so I should save money by buying online) if I could justify it. Sterling reports that CDW has the set for about $70 right now.
Anyway . . . I had previously been using the keyboard from keyboard and mouse set with my KVM switch, and using a separate mouse (leaving the mouse that came with the keyboard to sit unused). I brought the new keyboard home, hooked it up to the KVM switch, and passed the keyboard and mouse set to the SigO to use with her ThinkPad when she plays WoW.
. . . and they lived happily ever after.
I give it 4.5 stars out of 5, because it’s not perfect. It’s still better than anything else I’ve used in the last two decades, though.