Two Microsoft products – a controller and a keyboard

By sheer coincidence, I replaced both my keyboard and game controller in August. And also by coincidence – or at least, not by design – both of my replacements came from the Microsoft Store. This short review will detail my experience with each of them; rolling two items into one article is certainly a rare example of efficiency from me!

First let’s look at the controller. This one, I have to admit, is a bit of a luxury. I’d had an Xbox One controller for years – it may have been the one I got when I bought an Xbox One at launch in 2013. Now that was a bad decision if there ever was one – the console may have improved somewhat in the years since, but at launch it was bad value and offered precious little to play! But we’re off-topic already; you can read more about my Xbox One experience by clicking or tapping here. I decided that it was time to replace the controller – one of the thumbsticks was loose, making it harder to make very precise movements in some games, and in addition its vibration/rumble function didn’t seem to be working right. It still vibrates, but it does so in a much more clunky way than it used to.

I considered a few different controller options, including the Hyperkin Duke, which is a reimagining of the classic Xbox controller from 2001. That controller was one I greatly enjoyed using during the original Xbox era, but unfortunately the new version is difficult to get hold of here in the UK. I found one on Amazon, but at quite a mark-up. So I decided to check out Xbox’s Design Labs website, where Microsoft sell customised controllers. I went with an all-blue design, with a metallic D-pad, black Start and Select buttons, and black A, B, X, and Y buttons with the proper colours for the letters. I’m sure some people feel that removing the coloured letters and replacing them with a grey or black design looks more sleek, but the colours can be a great visual reference when it comes to things like quick-time events or any other occasion where split-second button presses are required.

My new controller.

Microsoft stated when I bought the controller that it could take up to a month to arrive, so I wasn’t expecting it much before the beginning of September. To my pleasant surprise, though, it arrived much sooner – on the same day as my keyboard, no less! The design was just what I’d chosen – which it should have been, of course – and so far I’m satisfied with it. Was it worth the extra money to get a different colour compared to buying a standard controller? I don’t play that many games any more, so I guess you could argue that it wasn’t. The control pad is fundamentally no different from a standard Xbox One controller; unlike the Xbox One elite controller it doesn’t have swappable parts or extra buttons, and its construction is wholly plastic instead of the “rubberised” feel of the elite. But the elite controllers are twice the price! For around £20 more than a standard controller, Xbox Design Labs offer a huge range of colours, and different areas of the controller can be different colours. They brag about millions of colour combinations – most of which you’d never want, of course – but all of the main colours are there, and they have a couple of “fades” and “camo” options too.

Controllers can also be engraved – though to be honest, that’s a pretty impressive-sounding term for what seems to be just laser printing. But for someone who wants their gamertag on their controller – or to make a fun gag gift, perhaps – it’s nice that the option exists.

The Xbox One controller was very similar to the Xbox 360 controller, which was itself not massively different from the second iteration of the original Xbox controller. So I’m not really reviewing the controller from that perspective. I already know I like it as I’ve been using something similar for years! The Design Labs experience was solid. There were a number of options, the website worked smoothly and was well laid-out, and the colours on screen match perfectly with the product I received. Add to that the quicker than expected delivery and it’s hard to find fault.

The Xbox S controller from 2002 or 2003. The “S” may have originally meant “small”.

As someone who has never really been a “PlayStation guy”, I think I’ll always prefer Xbox’s controllers than those made for the rival console. They feel chunkier and more substantial in my (admittedly oversized) hands, but at the end of the day once you get used to a particular design you want to stick with it. That’s presumably why the Xbox Series X’s controller won’t be a significant departure from the current design.

Up next we have the keyboard.

I write almost every day, not just for this website but for other projects that I have on the go, as well as typing messages to friends and the like. For the last three years or so, I’ve been using a Corsair Strafe mechanical keyboard. The variant I have has a red backlight and Cherry MX blue mechanical switches – the “clicky” kind. I bought this keyboard on the recommendation of several tech reviewers who said that the blue switches were great for typing.

The Corsair Strafe.

This keyboard has been fine. It was interesting at first to go back to a keyboard that, for all its modern aesthetic, had a very retro feel and sound. It reminded me of the kind of keyboards I first learned to type on when I was very young. I actually remember the first time I ever used a computer, being concerned that the keyboard only had capital letters when I wanted to type something in lowercase! That was when I was at school, and the “computer” in those days was little more than a word processor. And of course there was no internet. How things have changed, eh?

Although the typing experience has been good overall with the Corsair, after very long typing sessions it can get a little tiring on my old fingertips. The space bar in particular has a strange, almost rough texture to it, and I often find that my thumb – which I use to hit the spacebar almost all of the time – can start to not exactly sting, but rather notice this texture in an unpleasant way after longer typing sessions. The mechanical keyboard has also proved a nightmare to keep clean, with deep chasms in between the keys that seem to attract dust and cat hair like magnets! Finally, several of the keys have started to wear down, and the backlight shows through on the edges of several of them now. Perhaps that’s simply the result of heavy use, but for something I haven’t owned that long it seems like it shouldn’t have happened so quickly. Regardless, the keyboard doesn’t look as nice as it once did, and while it does still work I thought I’d try out a replacement.

I don’t need backlighting on a keyboard, as I can type from muscle memory – something that will happen as you spend more time hunched over your computer! And my computer setup is in a well-lit room, so on the occasions where I need to look down to see what I’m doing I don’t need the keyboard to be its own light source. The keyboard I ultimately bought as a replacement is not backlit, and I don’t consider that to be a problem at all.

After looking at several options, both mechanical and non-mechanical, I opted for the Microsoft Surface bluetooth keyboard. I’ve used a Microsoft mouse in the past (though my current daily driver is a white Logitech G305 wireless mouse) and I’ve always considered Microsoft’s hardware products to be solid and of decent quality. After ruling out a few other options for a variety of reasons, I chose the Microsoft Surface.

The Microsoft Surface bluetooth keyboard.

Initial impressions were good. The packaging was premium – as the Xbox controller’s had been too – and I was very impressed with the look and feel of the keyboard. It has almost no give to it when pressure is applied; it’s very solid. The keys, despite being low profile, have a satisfying press, and unlike the loud “click” of the Corsair, are relatively quiet.

The keyboard also has a full number pad, which is important to me as I often use the right Enter key when writing. It takes AAA batteries instead of being rechargeable via USB, which for some people may be offputting, but it’s a feature I really wanted to have. AA or AAA batteries last ages in devices like mice and keyboards. I used to use a Logitech MX Master mouse, and that thing needed to be charged every few days, which was incredibly annoying. In comparison, a mouse I have in my bedroom which takes AAs has been using the same pair of batteries for at least a year – probably longer. And since I replaced the MX Master with the G305 I’ve gone through precisely one battery. Why anyone would favour rechargeable devices that have such a short battery life over devices that take AA or AAA batteries that last months or years is beyond me. But we’re off-topic again! The battery cover is magnetic, which was a very neat feature. The magnet seems strong enough to keep the battery compartment closed, which is important for obvious reasons, and I like the modern touch it offers over an older-style plastic latch.

I did have an issue with the keyboard – but it’s one that seems almost unique to me that anyone with a modern setup should be able to avoid. The keyboard connects via bluetooth. Duh, right? It’s in the name. But my PC doesn’t have bluetooth connectivity built in, as several years ago I didn’t see any need to spend extra money on that additional feature. Most wireless keyboards come with a dongle so you can plug them into your PC, but presumably Microsoft’s expectation is that the Surface keyboard will be paired with a Surface PC – which must all come with bluetooth as standard. Like I said, this is a minor gripe that probably won’t affect anyone else who buys this product, but if your PC lacks bluetooth connectivity like mine, you’ll need to buy a separate dongle to be able to use the keyboard.

As with many things I’ve accumulated over the years, I could have sworn I owned a USB bluetooth dongle – but I haven’t the faintest idea where it is. I had to get a replacement on Amazon – not a big deal as they aren’t expensive, but it meant waiting an extra couple of days after the keyboard arrived before I could use it! It reminded me of the Christmas where I got a Nintendo 64 – I was all set to play with my new console when there was a power cut! The N64 sat in its box for what seemed like an eternity, unable to be played because the electric was out. Decades later and I’m back in that position. Life is funny like that sometimes.

Ah, memories.

When the dongle finally arrived, pairing the keyboard was easy. From the settings menu in Windows 10 – for which the keyboard has a designated button – it’s possible to see the device’s battery status. The keyboard is also in the standard UK layout – which means that a few symbols are in different places than on a US layout keyboard – which is obviously important to me as that’s how I’m used to typing. I’m on Windows 10, but the keyboard should be compatible with Windows 8.1 – or indeed any device capable of using bluetooth.

The typing experience is pleasant. As mentioned, the keys have a satisfying press, and they also have a slightly soft feel that’s definitely nicer than the hard plastic keycaps of the Corsair that I’d been using. It feels closer to typing on a laptop – a premium, high-end laptop – than any desktop keyboard I’ve ever used. Microsoft promises a whopping five million presses per key over the lifespan of the keyboard – so let’s put that to the test over the next few months and years! Unlike in the picture above, the Return/Enter key is full-size, which is something else I greatly appreciate. A single press of the Function button switches between the F-keys (F1 for help, F5 for refreshing web pages, etc) and a variety of other functions. The aforementioned settings button is one, and there are also keys to control the volume, media player keys to play, pause, etc. and even screen brightness controls. I don’t use such keys that often, but the additional functionality is nice, and not having to hold down a second key to use them is also a neat feature.

Of all the “premium” keyboards I looked at, the Microsoft Surface seemed like the best option for me at this point. I was ready for a change from the clicky mechanical switches I’d been using for the past few years, and as someone who does a lot of typing I wanted something I’d be comfortable with. So far, the Surface has accomplished that and I’m happy with my purchase.

It’s hard to make product recommendations, because I don’t know your circumstances. If you have a spare £20 burning a hole in your pocket and you like customised things, get the Design Labs controller and show off your unique style. But if you’re on a budget, skip that and just get a standard controller. Or better yet, find a pre-owned one or a 360 controller and save even more money.

Likewise for the keyboard. If you write as much as I do on a daily basis and want something solid and premium, the Surface could be a good option if you don’t want a mechanical keyboard. But it’s impossible to deny that you can get a perfectly functional keyboard with a number pad – wired or wireless – for a fraction of the price. I just looked on Amazon, and one of the top results was a Microsoft wired keyboard for £10 – a full £80 less than I paid for the Surface. So the question is – what do you want from a keyboard? If you don’t type a lot – or even if you do but are on a tight budget – save your money. Nothing the Surface does is essential and you could get identical functionality far cheaper.

Speaking for myself, though, I’m happy with what I got. Sometimes it’s worth spending the extra money on a higher-end product, and sometimes it’s worth splurging a little on a cool-looking or custom product just for the fun of it. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what best suits your setup and where you want to invest your money.

The Xbox and Surface brands are the copyright of Microsoft. No sponsorship was involved; these are products I purchased for myself with my own money and the article comprises my genuine impressions regarding them. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.