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Microsoft Designer Compact Keyboard - Review 2021


The $69.99 Microsoft Designer Compact Keyboard is the quintessential office peripheral’s natural evolution. It’s incredibly compact and thin, exuding that sleek minimalist vibe coveted in professional spaces. The keyboard tweaks convention to make things easier for casual users, but not in any way that confuses or hampers traditionalists. In fact, its typing feel mirrors what you’d get from a laptop, which has become the default experience for most people. The Microsoft Designer Compact keyboard is an outstanding version of that very conventional office keyboard, with its lightweight build and long battery life. Unfortunately, it also requires four CR2032 batteries.

Microsoft Designer Compact keyboard thin profile

Slim Fit Keys

The Designer Compact is the epitome of a slim-fit keyboard, taking inspiration from the beautiful, stylish Apple Magic Keyboard. In fact, you may mistake the two keyboards due to their color schemes and slim profiles. Measuring 0.38 by 11.16 by 4.34 inches (HWD), it’s incredibly small, even by tenkeyless (TKL) keyboard standards. The keyboard’s height is its most striking aspect. Its wafer-thin profile is about as thin as a keyboard can be. Even when you pair it with the matching number pad ($29.99, sold separately), the Designer Compact’s desk foot print is smaller than many TKLs. Plus, it only weighs 10.1 ounces, so you can easily tote the small, rounded, white rectangle.

The Designer Compact has 79 keys, slightly less than the 87 found on a standard TKL, and a gently modified layout. To condense the keyboard into a single block of keys, Microsoft crams the system functions keys you normally have between the alphanumeric keys and the number pad—the arrow keys, Page Up/Down, Screen Lock, Print Screen, etc.—into a few extra keys on the right side of the board. Menu and right control have been replaced by a scrunched set of arrow keys in the bottom-right corner—the Up and Down keys are half-sized, sharing a single chiclet square. Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down share F9-F12. Screen Lock and Delete get new keys to their right. The Function key has been moved to the left side of the Space bar, between Control and the Windows key. It seems like having all these keys moving around the periphery should force a learning curve, but I only fumbled for an old key once or twice.

Microsoft Designer Compact keyboard with number pad

Replacing the function key between right-alt and the arrows, you’ll find the Designer Compact’s most exciting feature, a dedicated emoji key. Pushing the Expressive Input key, as Microsoft calls it, opens the Windows emoji menu. It’s a small system menu with rows and rows of symbols that you click to add to any text box, as you would with the emoji menu on your phone’s virtual keyboard. Technically, the menu is neither new nor exclusive: You can access this menu on Windows with any keyboard by pressing the Windows key and either period or semicolon. Even so, making it more prominent ensures that everyone knows about it, and puts it at their fingertips.

I imagine that visibility is an issue, because the menu is quite useful when you integrate into everyday typing. It features a wide range of emoji and kaomoji, or emoji made text characters like the “shruggie”—¯(ツ)/¯. The symbols are loosely sorted into categories like “smiley faces,” “people,” “food and plants,” and “transportation and places,” but you can also can also press the key and type the name of an emoji to find it. Of course, to search properly you need to know Microsoft’s names for the emoji, which didn’t line up with the names in my head.

Microsoft Designer Compact keyboard emoji key

The Expressive Input key also has a utilitarian function: There’s a Symbols menu that gives you quick access to the full range of English punctuation marks, including ones that normally require long shortcuts like the coveted em dash. I know professional writers who copy-paste em dashes into their drafts because pressing Alt+0151 is a pain, so this may actually be a pretty big deal for the right person.

In addition to the physically moved keys, the Designer Compact keyboard follows the Apple model for function keys, reversing the F1-F12 keys and their alternate functions, so you get tools like Mute, Page Up/Down, Volume Up/Down, Search, and Screenshot by default. You can still access F1-F12 using the function key. You can also switch back to the Windows standard using Microsoft’s keyboard config app.

Microsoft Designer Compact keyboard function keys

Typing on the Designer Compact is both a high- and low-point. The scissor-switch powered chiclet keys offer a surprising amount of travel, considering they’re set in a thin sliver of plastic. The small, but substantial action in each press is smooth, without a millisecond of squishy feedback. It immediately sets the Designer Compact apart from cheap budget keyboards you’ll find on Amazon, which look very similar to it and cost less, but are also uncomfortable and frail.

That comfort, while impressive, is still relative: Using a keyboard this flat takes its toll on the fingers. Pressing the keys hard feels like trying to push your fingers through a wall. If you do it for long enough, it can start to hurt. To be clear, these are issues you’d experience with any thin, laptop-style keyboard to some degree. And, unlike many keyboards, the Design Compact can be quite comfortable as long as you have a light touch. As someone who prefers mechanical keys, I notice the issues more acutely than someone who only uses this kind of keyboard.

Like many premium productivity keyboards, the Designer Compact features a multi-channel Bluetooth wireless connection. You can connect the keyboard to up to three devices, such as PCs, phones, and tablets, and switch among them on the fly pressing the Bluetooth button (normally F1). Switching from device to device is relatively quick and easy, though you may need to re-pair in some cases, which limits its usefulness.

Lastly, we come to battery life, where the Designer Compact also achieves heady highs and basement lows. On the plus side, the keyboard reportedly gets up to “36 months”—three years—on a single charge, according to Microsoft. On the other hand, the keyboard requires four coin-shaped CR2032 batteries, which no one ever keeps around. 

Microsoft Designer Compact keyboard batteries

It’s the most extreme replaceable battery dilemma. The battery life is so good, you’ll probably only need to replace it 2-4 times in the keyboard’s lifespan, but you’re generating e-waste and you’ll almost certainly have a moment where you cannot use the keyboard because the battery’s dead and you don’t have a replacement. As a matter of principle, I’m not a fan, but you won’t ever have to monitor battery life and that’s significant to some people.

The Microsoft Mouse and Keyboard Center

Though it isn’t mentioned in the manual, Microsoft offers a configuration app for the Design Compact Keyboard—and most of Microsoft’s peripherals—that lets you remap keys and configure wireless settings. This Microsoft Mouse and Keyboard Center lets you reconfigure many of the function row keys, as well as the Expressive Input key. You can also toggle Function lock, prioritizing the F-functions over the media controls and shortcuts. The app enables app-specific configurations and specialized shortcuts, but they’re limited to four keys—F5-F8. It’s a very limited configuration utility. That said, that’s par for the course with productivity keyboards.

Microsoft Designer Compact keyboard software

It’s All Smiles

There’s a ceiling on the level of comfort and overall typing experience you can get out of a scissor-switch keyboard, the same ceiling you’ll find in most laptops and thin keyboards. Still, the Microsoft Designer Compact keyboard is up there with the best of them, namely the Logitech MX Keys. In fact, its tiny desk footprint and cheaper price— $69.99 versus the Keys’ $99.99—is a better value.

Moreover, the Microsoft Designer Compact keyboard makes a lot of smart, usability changes that I’d love to see adopted by manufacturers across the board. The keyboard’s layout tweaks, combined with a minimalist design and good low-profile typing, make casual, day-to-day computing easier. That’s enough for most of us to do our best keyboarding.

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