Back in early June 2005, I had some folks from the former eHome Division at Microsoft over for a meeting about Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2 (UR2, codenamed Emerald), a product revision that was originally due in August but was recently delayed until later this year. In addition to the expected UR2 details, I also got my first look at the remote keyboard, now dubbed Microsoft Remote Keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition, Microsoft was planning to ship this year. I knew when I first saw it that I'd have to get one, and since the keyboard is now shipping, I thought I'd provide a short review.

Yes, you read that right: A short review. While I tend to prattle on like a mother hen in many reviews, there's just not a lot to say here. The Microsoft Remote Keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition (henceforth referred to simply as the Remote Keyboard) works almost exactly as you'd expect it to, and with a single nagging exception, it appears to work quite well. It's pretty straightforward.

Let's take a look.

What is it?

Despite its name, Remote Keyboard is actually an all-in-one device that combines a keyboard, mouse, and Media Center remote control into a single wireless device (Figure). Powered by four AA batteries, the Remote Keyboard features a pleasantly contoured design that aids a two-handed grip, with both the left and right sides of the device curved upwards to accommodate your hands (Figure). On the underside of the keyboard, on both sides, are rubberized areas that further aid your grip.

The Remote Keyboard is separated into a few distinct areas, or zones. On the left hand grip (Figure), you get various playback buttons, such as Back, Forward, Play, Record, Pause, Stop, Reverse, and Fast Forward, as well as Change Page Up, Change Page Down, volume up and down, and Mute buttons. On the right hand grip (Figure) are the buttons most people commonly associate with Media Center: There are top, right, bottom, left, OK/Go, Back and More Info buttons, the familiar Start button (sometimes referred to as the "Green button") and dedicated buttons for Live TV, Recorded TV, Guide, DVD Menu, and Messenger.

In the center of the Remote Keyboard is a standard Windows keyboard, complete with a Windows ("Start") key and dedicated number and function keys. Along the top of the device is a strip of buttons. Mouse functionality is enabled via Click and Right-Click buttons on the top left of the Remote Keyboard, while a Pointer nubbin on the top-right provides the pointer movement. In the center top of the device are buttons for turning off the PC and TV, backlight, My Music, My Radio, My Pictures, My Videos, and My TV.

So why would you want this thing? Many Media Center PC owners, including myself, simply plunk the PC right in their den, either on top of or next to the TV. There are good reasons to do this, despite my reservations about introducing the unreliability of a PC into your family room. But assuming you do have a Media Center in the den, you're going to occasionally need keyboard and mouse functionality. I've tried various wireless keyboard/mouse combinations, but none worked well, or worked well over time. (The worst of the lot is made by Gyration: I would enjoy destroying that equipment.) So I've resorted to permanently leaving a wired mouse plugged into my Media Center, and I keep a wired keyboard hidden under a hutch just in case. Really elegant.

The Remote Keyboard obviates this need. It can't completely replace the Media Center remote because of its size, but because it's wireless and small for a keyboard, you can just toss it on top of the Media Center PC, or in a drawer, and use it when needed. What's really nice is that it's not based on some proprietary wireless technology that's not already installed on your Media Center. You have everything you need to make it work already.

Packaging

The Remote Keyboard is packaged in a standard blue and green Microsoft box (Figure) that is molded to roughly approximate the size and shape of the actual device (Figure). You get precious little with the Remote Keyboard: You get the keyboard itself, a short users guide, and four AA batteries. There is no CD to install.

I should point out one other thing. I've often criticized Apple Computer for the lame "Designed by Apple in California" logos that it puts on all its products. On the back of the Remote Keyboard, however, it literally says "Designed in Redmond, WA USA," later adding, in smaller type, "Made in China." Just like Apple. I appreciate that Microsoft is busy trying to be as hip as Apple, but this is one area where emulation is not necessary.

How it Works

Before you can use the Remote Keyboard, you must have Windows Media Center Edition 2005 (see my review) with an IR receiver that was originally designed for the Media Center remote control. Also, you must download and install a software update for that IR receiver that enables the keyboard functionality (i.e. the non-remote control functionality) to work through the receiver. This is all pretty straightforward stuff, though I did have to reboot the Media Center PC to get it to work.

In use, the Remote Keyboard works largely as expected and it works pretty well in both the Media Center environment and from within the normal Windows desktop. In Media Center, the keyboard is superior. The Media Center-centric buttons all work well, and I like the two-handed grip that's naturally facilitated by the shape of the device itself. Media Center mavens will feel right at home with this device, and the keyboard itself is wonderful when you hit those rare moments when you need to type something in: Say, to buy a song from the Media Center version of Napster, or to perform some other act that would take you out of the cozy Media Center environment for some reason.

In the normal Windows interface, things aren't so smooth. Here, instead of the confined up/down/left/right movements you experience in Media Center, users expect a full range of movement with a mouse or similar pointing device. The Pointer nubbin on the Remote Keyboard does not provide this type of freedom at all. In fact, it's horrible. It can only move in eight directions (up, down, left, right, and diagonal) and you have to really push the thing to make it go at all. I'm a pretty strong guy, and I have trouble making it move. My kid would be reduced to tears if I made him use this. The Click and Right Click buttons, which emulate the first two buttons on a typical mouse, work fine.

While this keyboard is a handy addition to a Media Center PC, it cannot replace a real keyboard. Put simply, don't think about using the Remote Keyboard as a keyboard on a desk-based Media Center PC. It is designed specifically, and solely, for occasional use only, and is appropriate only for those Media Centers that are found in dens, family rooms, and other areas where you're not going to attempt to use it for the next great American novel.

Pricing and availability

At $99, the Remote Keyboard is a bit expensive, but given its three-in-one functionality and the fact that, for its intended audience, it is certainly meeting a very real need, many Media Center users will want to grab one. And for the price, it is certainly superior to any other wireless keyboard/mouse combination that would be used in a den/family room environment. The Remote Keyboard should be broadly available when you read this. There are currently stocked at Best Buy retail locations and should be available on the Web as well.

Conclusions

Microsoft's hardware is generally excellent, and the Remote Keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition certainly follows that tradition. With the notable exception of the Pointer functionality, which is workable if a bit painful, the Remote Keyboard works as advertised and provides an elegant replacement for the lousy wireless keyboards and mice I've tried over the years. You won't want to replace your Media Center remote with this device, but as an add-on to that remote, the Remote Keyboard fills a niche and fills it well. I'm ordering another one for our basement Media Center PC. If you've got a Media Center in your living room or den, definitely give the Remote Keyboard a look.