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Peripheral Vision: High-Tech Computer Keyboards, Mice & Speakers

Manufacturers of computer peripherals—specifically keyboards, mice and speakers—are embracing portability and convenience by making more devices that are Bluetooth-compatible and allowing multiple wireless devices that use radio frequency to be accommodated by one receiver. A growing number of keyboards and mice also are capable of withstanding an old-fashioned cleaning.

JBL/Kensington/Logitech

When it comes to computer peripherals—keyboards, mice and speakers—consumers will find improved quality and more features on the devices in 2014.

The advent of tablet computers combined with falling sales of home computers brought about these changes to the marketplace. According to TECHnalysis Research, U.S. sales of home computers fell by 12 percent in 2013 from a year earlier. Ownership of tablets among U.S. consumers, meanwhile, rose by 6 percent in 2013 from a year earlier, according to an online survey by Consumer Electronics Association. Furthermore, a growing number of home computers that have touch-screen capability increasingly supplant computer keyboards and mice.

The good news is that prices for some computer peripherals are dropping. For example, you had to pay at least $80 at the beginning of the decade for a keyboard that had a built-in touchpad, which lets you use your finger to move a cursor on the screen and eliminates the need for a mouse. Now you can buy such a keyboard at half of that price. Likewise, entry-level wireless mice started at $30, but you now can find models that start at $14.99. You also can find more features for your dollar than ever before.

TOUCH-UPS. Although touch capability is increasingly available on various computers these days, Apple, Logitech and Microsoft now provide a total of seven mice that have touch capability. These mice mimic a touch screen—you move your cursor by moving your finger on the surface of the mouse. (They also operate the conventional way—by moving the mouse.)

Mice that have touch capability cost at least $50 and provide multitouch control, which allows you to complete tasks by using more than one finger. For example, you can swipe one finger left and right for horizontal scrolling or swipe two fingers left and right to move from a Web page that you’re viewing to a previously viewed Web page. Microsoft’s Arc Touch Mouse and Sculpt Touch Mouse models also feature haptic feedback on the touch surface, which amounts to a slight vibration while you use the mouse to recreate the feeling that you get when you use a scroll wheel on a conventional mouse.

At this point, however, we aren’t sure that touch capability on a mouse is worth the additional $25–$35 that you must pay for a model that has that capability. Stephen Baker of market-research company The NPD Group tells us that touch capability on mice—and on keyboards that have touchpads—is simply a way for manufacturers of computer peripherals to provide touch capability to consumers who buy computers that don’t include the technology. However, Baker isn’t sure of the future of touch capability in computer peripherals, because he expects that the technology will continue to expand in the computer market. Consequently, touch capability on computer peripherals will become increasingly redundant and, thus, irrelevant.

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Moreover, Alan Hedge, who is a professor of human ecology and who researches ergonomics at Cornell University, says computer peripherals that have touch capability might cause more discomfort over time than do conventional keyboards or mice. According to his research, the spring of a key or a mouse button provides a cushioned response when you press it, whereas a touch screen or other touch surface doesn’t provide any give. “So every time you hit the surface, the fingertip is compressed against the finger bone, and, with repetition, that makes the fingertips sore and painful,” he says.

MORE POWER. Like on other consumer electronics products, wireless connectivity is more rampant than ever before among computer peripherals. Interestingly, the big news among wireless computer peripherals is manufacturers’ renewed interest in Bluetooth technology.

Anecdotally, analysts tell us that, in particular, more Bluetooth mice are on the market, although our research found that Bluetooth mice make up only about 17 percent of the wireless-mice market. Still, analysts expect that percentage to increase, because sales are on the rise. According to NPD data, sales of Bluetooth mice jumped to 1.1 million in 2013 from 673,000 in 2011.