Like many people, I have unseen accessibility needs. I don’t feel constant barely bearable pain these days (I used to!), but some movements have a physical cost: sustained reaching, bending over a laptop – things like that.
The complicating factor is that I hate using computer accessories marketed for “accessibility”. Too many accessibility tools compromise on the user experience – whether in terms of functionality, comfort or simplicity.
Too many accessibility tools compromise on user experience in terms of functionality, convenience, or simplicity
Consequently, I have become fixed in my habits regarding my work setup. I use a well-placed trackpad (with a wrist rest) instead of a mouse, and I keep a keyboard on my lap so I can sit in my overpriced ergonomic chair without reaching forward. Still, it’s not the most practical thing in the world. So if there’s a better way, I’m all for it.
All of these are compatible with Windows 10 and 11 – good news for the upgrade-phobics among you – and can be configured through the Microsoft Accessory Center app. They can also be used with devices running other operating systems, but they require initial setup on a Windows PC. They also work wirelessly (via Bluetooth) or wired via a USB-C cable (which also charges them).
Overall, these devices do a good job of providing the ability to make many actions and features more accessible via simple long and short button presses without having to reach forward on a desk (which is very important for people like me; see above). In other words, they more or less do what they set out to do. They’re also sized for portability – and therefore, accessibility. Any of them (barring, perhaps, the adaptive mouse tail) could fit comfortably in your pocket – even the too-small pockets on women’s jeans.
I have quirks, though. I’m not a fan of materials/texture. All of the Microsoft Adaptive accessories I’ve tested have a very (and forgive me, this is going to seem oddly obvious) laminated feel. They are both too textured and not textured enough. The cases are cheap and unpleasantly rough.
Speaking of accessibility, let’s take a look at these accessibility features. (Keep in mind that I reviewed them based on my own needs; for other people, these accessories may work differently or suit them better.)
The Microsoft Adaptive Hub
The Adaptive Hub is a small, black box-shaped device about the size and shape of a portable USB charger. “Hub” is the key word here. It does not provide so many features as it enables devices that provide accessibility. It’s kind of a wireless docking station for your other adaptive devices, not just other Microsoft adaptive accessories. The Adaptive Hub has five 3.5mm ports and three USB-C ports (not including the charging port), all configurable for connecting adaptive buttons and switches. It also has a Bluetooth pairing button.
What I really like about Adaptive Hub is that it has a profile button that lets you switch between three separate device profiles. Each profile can be customized so that your adaptive devices work in a particular way when the Adaptive Hub is set to that profile. This means that up to three different people can use the same adaptive accessories with their own individual configurations via the Adaptive Hub. Or, if you don’t have to share, that means a person can effectively triple the number of functions offered by their individual adaptive accessories.
You can also customize a set of button actions for a specific application via a fourth profile, profile 0.
The Microsoft Adaptive D-pad button
The adaptive button is a small, square-shaped device about the size of the set of keys one through nine on my keyboard’s 10-key number pad. The one I received came with a D-pad speaker, but the adaptive button is customizable. Microsoft also sells at least two other toppers, including a joystick topper and a two-button topper. The company has also partnered with Shapeways, a 3D printing company that creates other 3D printed mattress toppers and complements to meet specific needs. (By the way, changing the topper requires some awkward pressing and twisting.)
This review, however, will focus on the D-pad.
The D-pad features a push button for eight cardinal directions plus the center for a ninth push zone. You can use the Microsoft Accessory Center app to customize what each does for short press and long press; effectively, the D-pad gives you 18 functions or actions (including, if desired, macros) per profile.
The Adaptive Button is small and has rubber feet so you can hold or place it however you want – almost. The boxy shape of the Adaptive Button device isn’t the most ergonomic design, depending on how you want to use it. I found it uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time (i.e. control with my thumb); the size and shape are more for portability than anything else.
Also, because it’s perfectly square, perfectly symmetrical, and completely black, it’s not always easy to tell which side it’s on. All you need to do is the power button and pairing button (both small and the same color as the rest of the device) on the bottom side and the USB-C charging port on the upper side. There are no other indicators. It might be helpful to put some stickers on the D-pad.
My biggest complaint about the D-pad is the lack of satisfying haptics. The button is mushy and not deep at all. I didn’t particularly feel like I pressed it when I did. (Some people, I think, prefer these types of haptics; I’m not one of them.) Haptics were also inconsistent on the D-pad. Some sides/corners were different from others in terms of click. Meanwhile, the center press required a lot more pressure than the side or angle presses.
In any case, the D-pad will not be the best mattress topper choice for everyone.
The Microsoft Adaptive Mouse
The adaptive mouse (which connects directly to your computer rather than through the adaptive hub) is about the same size and shape as the adaptive button, except it has rounded corners and edges (suitable for the mouse ) and is slightly shorter. It has two clickable buttons and a clickable scroll wheel. The buttons and clickable scroll wheel can be configured for action/function shortcuts for short and long presses, similar to the adaptive button.
In a world where middle button/scroll wheel clicks and right-clicks aren’t as indispensable as they were 20 years ago, this extra feature adds exciting new layers of utility to what would be otherwise a standard mouse. For example, I set the middle button to short press to open Notepad and long press to open Calculator – two apps I use a plot; it’s not like I’m using middle clicks for anything else, after all.
But what the Adaptive Mouse adds in terms of productivity and functionality, it subtracts in terms of physically accessible design. Like the Adaptive Button, its size and shape make it particularly convenient for travel, but those same factors make it particularly uncomfortable for standard use as a mouse. It’s way too small for a palm-down grip. And it’s too small and slick for a comfortably durable claw grip; as soon as you start clicking a button, you might lose your grip on it.
All that was needed in the design, perhaps, would have been a few small bumps to the texture of the mouse buttons to keep it from slipping. Hopefully Microsoft offers this in a Microsoft Adaptive Mouse 2.0. Until then, you can stick something on it yourself (maybe a furniture slider) to keep it from slipping out of your hand. Otherwise, you’ll need a 3D printed solution (either homemade or from Shapeways) if for some reason you want your mouse to sit comfortably in your hand while you’re using it.
Microsoft Adaptive Mouse tail and thumb support
But wait, there is another solution. You can purchase the Adaptive Mouse Tail and Thumb Support add-on for the adaptive mouse. It attaches to the back of the mouse (once you remove part of the case), turning the adaptive mouse into something resembling the Microsoft Arc Mouse in shape and allowing you to use it as a mouse more traditional.
The Thumb Support accessory, which comes with it, can thankfully attach and reattach on either side, making this accessory just as useful for left-handers as it is for right-handers. (Or you can leave it off if you prefer an alternate outlet.)
On the other hand, the otherwise very responsive buttons of the adaptive mouse are not designed or well oriented for this type of use. A standard mouse usually allows you to press anywhere on the button without too much force differentiation to register the click. Here, when using the adaptive mouse tail with the adaptive mouse, I had to make a more conscious effort to position my fingers towards the ends of the buttons or press harder. It doesn’t make the adaptive mouse with mouse tail unusable, but it does take some getting used to.
My conclusion ? In my opinion, all of these accessories represent a commendable continuation of Microsoft’s entry into the adaptive accessory market. They have some really useful features in the form of portability, multiple profiles, and shortcuts to save clicks and reach. They can also be adjusted to your needs with Shapeways 3D printed designs. But they come with some UX trade-offs (unattractive texture, slipperiness, poor ergonomics, poor haptic design) – things that need improvement for optimal accessibility.
Photography by Joe Stanganelli for The edge.
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