Keyboard Review: the Logitech diNovo Edge, with Linux

Monday November 27, 2006

Over thanksgiving weekend, the always excellent Ying purchased a very thoughtful gift for me - the Logitech diNovo Edge™ keyboard.

They keyboard itself is very slick. If you want to read a thorough review of the various features, I suggest here or here; but the best thing about this keyboard from my point of view is that Logitech has produced a grown-up looking product here without unnecessary features. It's simple, graceful, beautiful, and works well. This is really what the diNovo line should have originally been. I was very excited about, and ultimately very disappointed by, the original diNovo offering, so I can't help but compare it.

The previous diNovo looked cool, but it was a miniature circus. It was a keyboard, a bluetooth hub, a mouse, a charger, a detachable keypad, a calculator, an LCD display, custom software, and a partridge in a pear tree. The mouse charger / bluetooth hub combo itself had 4 wires coming out of the back: a PS2 mouse plug, a PS2 keyboard plug, a USB plug, and power. The software was intended to be used as a "media hub", aggregating all kinds of bluetooth devices into a whirlwind of frustration and insanity. (Bluetooth support still isn't great on most computers, but back then, it was positively obscene.)

The Edge is almost the exact opposite. There are 3 things in the box: a tiny USB receiver dongle, the charging stand, and the keyboard itself. Whereas the previous diNovo was thin and sleek, the Edge is incredibly pretty. It is actually made out of glass that was cut with a laser. The keyboard's two unusual features, an integrated trackpad (sorry, "TouchDisc") and volume slider, are tastefully small and relegated to the right side of the keyboard. Rather than hedge its bets with a detachable number pad, the new Edge makes a bolder statement: this isn't a keyboard for excel jockeys doing data-entry, and if it is, they're classy enough excel jockeys that they can touch-type on the number row.

The keyboard's bluetooth implementation is flawless. I've associated it with 3 different Bluetooth hubs already, and none of them took more than a second to work with it. It provides all of its buttons and features over standard protocols rather than requiring, as the original "Media Desktop" diNovo did, special drivers and custom hub hardware to take full advantage of it.

Despite this superior implementation, it has no pretensions to being a "media desktop" - it's a wireless keyboard. This is most clearly evidenced by the dongle: although the keyboard uses Bluetooth to communicate, the supplied dongle does not expose any Bluetooth functionality or require any Bluetooth drivers on your PC: it looks like a regular USB keyboard. If you've never been through the hell of configuring a bluetooth device, the significance of this merciful act may be lost on you, but trust me: it is the difference between suffering through 10 hours of obscure configuration error messages, and just plugging in a functioning keyboard.

And that brings me to the main event. Others have reviewed this keyboard's various features and suitability under Windows or the Mac; I'm going to tell you about Linux. I did suffer through those configuration error messages, but for good reason.

Out of the box, the keyboard almost works with Linux. All the special keys, the volume control, and the packaged dongle worked instantly, and that was pretty surprising. Even forgetting about driver issues, bluetooth devices typically take a few moments to "warm up".

There is a problem, however. Although the TouchDisc produces events of some kind, and is recognized as a mouse by Linux, the /dev/mouseX device produces no output. Similarly, nothing happens on /dev/input/mice. Telling Xorg to look at the devices created by the TouchDisc -- for example, to treat the output from the /dev/eventX as an evdev or /dev/tsX as synaptics device -- results in a segfault or an infinite hang, respectively.

I suspect that within a year or two, the Linux drivers will be fixed, but until then there is another option: configure the device with a different bluetooth hub. This post over at UnixAdminTalk pointed me in the right direction, and I originally tried using it with my original Bluetooth adapter. In this configuration, all of the keyboard's features worked: the optional keys, the TouchDisc, scrolling, etc. The problem is that I'd have to set up a potentially fragile boot-script to run the appropriate commands, and I'd be unable to use the keyboard to navigate my boot menus. Since I need to use Windows quite often on this computer, that was not really an option for me.

So there's a third option, which is what I'm sticking with.

The ANYCOM USB bluetooth Adapter "USB-250" was on sale at my local electronics store. It was hard to find an adapter that explicitly mentioned this feature, but it has a HID gateway (what they refer to as "mouse and keyboard binding") - the same feature that allows the Logitech dongle to start instantly at boot rather than waiting for OS drivers to tell it to pair. To do this, I had to install the most recent drivers from ANYCOM's website, run a program to flash the dongle, and then pair with the keyboard.

Once that's done, unfortunately, the dongle doesn't work properly as a Bluetooth (i.e. HCI) device in Linux. It just looks like a USB keyboard and mouse. The bluetooth feature shows up, but I wasn't able to get any of the Bluez utilities to tell it to talk to other devices, and hid2hci thinks it's already in HCI mode. Also, the keyboard's "special" buttons (and the volume slider) don't work through the ANYCOM's USB emulation in Linux! The important thing, though, is that it enables the keyboard at boot, and provides a functioning USB mouse emulator which allows it to be used in both operating systems. In Windows, the drivers transition it properly back into Bluetooth mode and I can use other Bluetooth devices. Again, I'm hopeful that the Linux driver situation will improve with time.

To sum up, you can get two of the following three features in linux right now: availability at boot, the touchdisc, and a the volume slider and FN key.

Personally, that's good enough for me, both because the keyboard is beautiful and because I'm using it in a unique situation. My desktop PC is also my media center PC. I want a keyboard that works for both.

While occasionally inconvenient, this dual-purpose hardware setup is intentional. My PC needs to switch to TV mode in order to watch TV, so the lovely donor of this keyboard can't turn on loud and colorful TV shows within my ADD-riddled line of sight while I'm trying to work at home. Similarly, I can't get distracted and wander off to work while we're watching a movie together.

I have gone through several other, cheaper, wireless keyboards, all of them too shoddy to even bother reviewing[1]. I have long wanted one which was good enough to be taken seriously as a desktop keyboard (as good as or better than the Déck) but simultaneously wireless, so I can pick it up and drag it to the couch when necessary. The Edge provides all that, plus the bonus of having a tiny footprint. Space is at a premium on my very, very small desk, and I now have enough room with the keyboard put away to use the same space to fill out forms and read books.

[1]: Hint: if you are going to buy a non-Bluetooth wireless product from Logitech, make sure that the "wireless" icon on the box also says "Pro", or you are going to get something with a range of 3 feet and a tendency to drop data entirely. There's no other indication of this massive difference in quality. My experience of other brands is even worse than that of Logitech's low-end offering.

Of course, all of this is moot unless the keys feel good. After working with several aggressively clickety keyboards for the last few months, it's a stark contrast. The keys are extremely quiet by normal standards, and completely silent when compared to an EnduraPro.

It's difficult to describe the precise feel of the keys. I'm not sure what the phrase they use to describe it, the (ahem) "PerfectStroke™ Key System" is supposed to mean. It feels like a sturdier version of the first diNovo's keys. One test I perform on scissor keyboards is pushing down one corner of the key to see how evenly the key as a whole will depress. Cheaper switches wiggle quite a bit, and the original diNovo had this problem so badly that the "alt" key eventually just gave up entirely.

The keys have very little travel, and a medium-to-well-defined click at the point of their activation, followed by a sort of "cushioned" feel when you've pressed past that point. They're normal sized. The keyboard's layout thankfully doesn't have any surprises (beyond the usual Logitech reconfiguration attempting to make the "Insert" key harder to hit, which I entirely approve of). I haven't quite gotten back up to the typespeed scores I could achieve with the Déck, but I've improved quite a bit after only a day. I don't expect there will be much of a difference.

While it's hard to say without a lot of hard use, I am hopeful that the keys are of a generally higher quality than the previous iteration. Although I had to use the older one for almost a year to break the "alt" key, many of the mildly disconcerting features of its keys aren't present here. Describing these phenomena would be tedious and difficult without diagrams, but they definitely aren't there. Most of all, the first iteration simply had the phrase "scissor keys" to describe the switches, but this version has a paragraph of prose devoted to its "key system". That could certainly just be sophistry, but it is encouraging to know that the product development people are devoting more attention to the key part of the keyboard. Logitech also states that they're using 10-million-cycle switches now, which while it doesn't live up to the insane specifications of the EnduraPro (25M cycles) or the Déck (50M cycles) still isn't the default "we don't say how many cycles our keys can handle", which is generally 1M or less.

The trackpad's not fantastic. It's a little hard to hit the right mouse button. The duplicate left mouse button on the left side of the keyboard is a nice touch though, allowing you to easily use the mouse while standing and holding the keyboard with both hands on either side. The trackpad is also sluggish, which is a bit of a pain because I have the very high-resolution G7 mouse plugged in as well, and there's no speed which accommodates them both. It wouldn't be usable for gaming. Still, it is quite a lot nicer than other integrated trackpads I've used, and its small size makes it ideal for the occasional need to tap a control or two while watching a movie or playing a game on the TV.

The Edge is a very nice keyboard. If you have a dual-purpose computer situation like mine, you may find it ideal. Indeed, it is the only keyboard I've yet seen that can handle both the "media center" and "desktop wireless keyboard" jobs equally well. It can even be made to work with Linux, although depending on what you want it can be a little bit of a pain. If you know your way around a command line and are willing to buy another bit of hardware it you can almost certainly get it set up the way you like it, though.

No review of a diNovo product can really conclude without mentioning the price. It's a $200 keyboard. I know, it's ridiculous. I am thrilled that Ying decided to spring for it, because despite heavy interest, I was pretty sure I wouldn't get it for myself after being disappointed by the original diNovo boondoggle.

However, this stylish and apparently high-quality keyboard is now serving two purposes: providing the quality key switches of a $100+ wired desktop keyboard, and one which would have been filled by a $90-or-so wireless keyboard. I have also been disappointed by and returned several just-sub-$100 wireless keyboards which don't have the range or small size required to sit comfortably on the couch. So, while Logitech could certainly lower the price without their customers complaining, at some level it makes sense. It's expensive, but especially for the keyboard aficionado with a wired home and a lot of typing to do, it isn't necessarily a waste of money.