Microsoft’s adaptive accessories are a trade-off

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Like many people, I have invisible accessibility needs. I’m not constantly in barely bearable pain these days (I used to be!), but certain movements come with a physical cost: reaching for extended periods of time, bending over a laptop—that sort of thing.

The complicating factor is that I hate using computer accessories that are marketed for “accessibility.” Too many accessibility tools have a trade-off in user experience – either in functionality, comfort or simplicity.

Too many accessibility tools have a trade-off between functionality, comfort, or simplicity for user experience

Consequently, I have become stuck in my way of working when it comes to my work configuration. I use a well-placed touchpad (with wrist rest) instead of a mouse, and I have a keyboard on my lap so I can lean back in my overpriced ergonomic chair without reaching forward. Still, it’s not the most convenient in the world. So if there’s a better way I’m game.

All of these are compatible with Windows 10 and 11 – good news for the upgrade phobias among you – and can be configured via the Microsoft Accessory Center app. They can also be used with devices running other operating systems, but require initial configuration 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 functionalities more accessible by simply long and short button presses without the burden of having to reach forward across a desk (something that is super important to people like me; see above). In other words, they are more or less doing what they set out to do. They also cater for portability – and therefore accessibility. Any of these (except maybe the Adaptive Mouse Tail) should fit comfortably in your pocket – even the way too small pockets on women’s jeans.

However, I have nitpicking. I’m not a fan of the materials/texture. All of the Microsoft adaptive accessories I’ve tested have a very (and forgive me, this sounds oddly obvious) plastic feeling. They are simultaneously too structured and not structured enough. The casings feel cheap and unpleasantly rough.

That said, let’s take a look at those accessibility features. (Please note that I viewed these in terms of my own needs; for other people, these accessories may work differently or suit them better.)

The Microsoft Adaptive Hub

Microsoft Adaptive hub on a table next to a quarter.

The Adaptive Hub turns on the devices that provide accessibility.

The Adaptive Hub is a small black box device about the size and shape of a portable USB charger. Hub is the keyword here. It doesn’t provide functionality so much as the devices that provide accessibility. It’s like 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 counting the charging port), all configurable, for connecting adaptive buttons and switches. It also has a Bluetooth pairing button.

What I really like about the 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 function in a certain 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 through the Adaptive Hub. Or, if you don’t need to share, it means one person can effectively triple the number of functions their individual customizable accessories offer.

You can also customize a sequence of button actions for a specific app through a fourth profile, Profile 0.

The Microsoft Adaptive D-pad button

Microsoft's D-pad Adaptive button.

The D-pad has a push button for eight cardinal directions plus the center for a ninth press area.

The adaptive button is a small, square device about the size of keys one through nine on my keyboard’s ten-key numeric keypad. The one I received came out of the box with a D-pad topper on it, but the adaptive button is customizable. Microsoft sells at least two other toppers, including a joystick topper and a two-button topper. The company also partners with Shapeways, a 3D printing company that makes other 3D printed toppers and add-ons to meet specific needs. (Replacing the topper requires some fiddly pressing and twisting, by the way.)

However, this review will focus on the D-pad.

The D-pad has a push button for eight cardinal directions plus the center for a ninth press area. You can use the Microsoft Accessory Center app to customize what each of these does for a short press and a long press; in fact, the D-pad gives you 18 functions or actions (including, if you like, macros) per profile.

The adaptive button is small and has rubber feet so you can hold it or position it almost however you want. The square 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 (i.e. operate with my thumb) for extended periods of time; the size and shape are more for portability than anything else.

Plus, being perfectly square, perfectly symmetrical and completely black, it’s not always easy to tell which side is which – so I sometimes got confused trying to figure out which button to press. 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 and the USB-C charging port on the top. There are no other indicators. Maybe putting stickers on the D-pad will help.

My biggest gripe with the D-pad is the lack of satisfying haptics. The bud is mushy and not deep at all. It didn’t really feel like I pressed it when I did. (Some people, I think, prefer this kind of haptics; I’m not one of them.) The haptics were also inconsistent on the D-pad. Some sides/corners felt different than others in terms of clickiness. Meanwhile, the center press required significantly more pressure than the side or corner presses.

In any case, the D-pad will not be the best choice for everyone.

Microsoft’s adaptive mouse

Small square mouse with buttons and scroll wheel.

The Adaptive Mouse has two clickable buttons and a scroll wheel.
Photo by Joe Stanganelli for Acutely

The adaptive mouse (which connects directly to your computer rather than through the adaptive hub) is roughly the same size and shape as the adaptive button, except it has rounded corners and edges (suitable for mouse dom) and is slightly shorter. It features two clickable buttons and a clickable scroll wheel. Both the buttons and the clickable scroll wheel can be configured for both short press and long press action/function shortcuts in the same way as the adaptive button.

In a world where middle button/scroll wheel and right clicks are not as indispensable as they were 20 years ago, this added functionality adds new and exciting layers of usability to what would otherwise be a standard mouse. For example, I short pressed the middle button to open Notepad and long pressed to open Calculator – two apps I use a lot; after all, it’s not like I was using middle clicks for anything else.

But what the Adaptive Mouse adds to productivity and functionality, it takes away from physically accessible design. Like the adaptive button, its size and shape make it particularly useful for travel, but these same factors make it especially uncomfortable for basic use as a mouse. It’s way too small for a palm down. And it’s too small and slippery for a comfortably durable claw grip; once you start clicking a button, you risk losing your grip on it.

All that was needed in the design might have been a few little bumps for texture on the mouse buttons to keep it from slipping. We can hope that 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 (homemade or from Shapeways) if for some reason you want your mouse to stay comfortable in your hand while you’re using it.

The Microsoft Adaptive Mouse Tail and Thumb Support

Close-up of black adaptive mouse with thumb rest.

The thumb rest attaches to the mouse.

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 take off part of the case), making the Adaptive Mouse similar in shape to the Microsoft Arc Mouse and allowing you to use it like a more traditional mouse.

The included thumb rest mount can be graciously attached and reattached to either side, making this add-on just as useful for left-handers as it is for right-handers. (Or you can omit it if you prefer an alternative grip.)

On the downside, the otherwise responsive buttons on the Adaptive Mouse aren’t well designed or placed for this kind of use. With a standard mouse, you can usually press the button anywhere without much differentiation needed to register the click. Here, when using the Adaptive Mouse Tail with the Adaptive Mouse, I had to make a more conscious effort to point my fingers toward the ends of the buttons or press harder. It doesn’t make the Adaptive Mouse with Mouse Tail unusable, but it takes some getting used to.

My conclusion? In my opinion, all of these accessories represent commendable continuations of Microsoft’s entry into the adaptive accessory market. They have some really useful features in the form of portability, multiple profiles, and click and reach-saving shortcuts. They can also be customized to your needs via Shapeways’ 3D printed designs. But they have some UX trade-offs (unappealing texture, slipperiness, poor ergonomics, sub-par haptic design) – things that need to be improved for optimal accessibility.

Photography by Joe Stanganelli for The edge.

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