Like many people, I have invisible accessibility needs. I’m not in constant barely bearable pain these days (I used to be!), but certain movements come at a physical cost: sustained reaching, hunching over a laptop — things like that.
The complicating factor is that I hate using computer accessories marketed for “accessibility.” Too many accessibility tools have a user experience tradeoff — either in functionality, comfort, or simplicity.
Too many accessibility tools have a user experience tradeoff in functionality, comfort, or simplicity
Consequently, I’ve become set in my ways when it comes to my work setup. I use a well-placed touchpad (with a wrist rest) in lieu of a mouse, and I keep a keyboard in my lap so I can sit back in my way too pricey ergonomic chair without reaching forward. Still, it’s not the most convenient thing in the world. So if there’s a better way, I’m game.
Recently, I had the opportunity to test four new and long-awaited accessories from Microsoft: the Adaptive Hub ($59.99) the Adaptive D-pad Button ($39.99), the Adaptive Mouse ($44.99), and the Adaptive Mouse Tail and Thumb Support ($14.99).
All of these are compatible with Windows 10 and 11 — good news for the upgrade-phobic among you — and can be configured through the Microsoft Accessory Center app. They can also be used with devices running other OSes, but they require initial configuration on a Windows PC. They also function wirelessly (via Bluetooth) or while hardwired via a USB-C cable (which also charges them).
On the whole, these devices do a good job of providing the opportunity to make a lot of actions and functionalities more accessible via simple long and short button presses without the burden of having to reach forward across a desk (something that’s super important to people like me; see above). In other words, they more or less do what they set out to do. They are also sized for portability — and thus, accessibility. Any of these (short of, perhaps, the Adaptive Mouse Tail) could comfortably fit in your pocket — even the way too small pockets on women’s jeans.
I do have nitpicks, however. I’m not a fan of the materials / texture. All of the Microsoft Adaptive Accessories I tested have a very (and forgive me because this is going to sound weirdly obvious) plasticky feel. They are at once too textured and not textured enough. The casings feel cheap and unpleasantly rough.
That said, let’s delve into those accessibility functions. (Keep in mind that I’ve looked at these in terms of 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 doesn’t so much provide functionality as it enables the devices that provide accessibility. It’s sort of a wireless docking station for your other adaptive devices — and 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 features a profile button allowing you to switch between three separate device profiles. Each profile can be customized so that your adaptive devices function one 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, it means that one person can effectively triple the number of functions their individual adaptive accessories offer.
You can also customize a set of button actions for a specific app 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 aggregate of keys one through nine on my keyboard’s 10-key number pad. The one I received came with a D-pad topper on it out of the box, but the Adaptive Button is customizable. Microsoft 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 toppers and add-ons to fit specific needs. (Changing the topper, by the way, requires some awkward pressing and twisting.)
This review, however, will focus on the D-pad.
The D-pad features a pushable button for eight cardinal directions plus the center for a ninth pushable area. You can use the Microsoft Accessory Center app to customize what each of these does for a short press and a long press; effectively, the D-pad gives you 18 functions or actions (including, if you like, macros) per profile.
The Adaptive Button is small and has rubbery feet so you can hold or situate it however you like — almost. The square shape of the Adaptive Button device is not the most ergonomic design, depending on how you want to use it. I found it to be uncomfortable to hold for extended periods of time (i.e., to control with my thumb); the size and shape are more for portability than anything else.
Additionally, because it is perfectly square, perfectly symmetrical, and entirely black, it is not always easy to tell which side is which — so I sometimes got confused when figuring out which button to press. All you have to go by are the power button and pairing button (both small and the same color as the rest of the device) on the down side and the USB-C charging port on the up side. There are no other indicators. Perhaps it would help to put 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. It did not particularly feel like I’d pressed it when I had. (Some people, I think, prefer these kinds of haptics; I am not among them.) The haptic sensations were also inconsistent across the D-pad. Some sides / corners felt different from 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 is not going to be the best topper choice for everyone.
The Microsoft Adaptive Mouse
The Adaptive Mouse (which connects to your computer directly instead of via the Adaptive Hub) is roughly the same size and shape as the Adaptive Button, except that it has rounded corners and edges (suitable to 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 action / function shortcuts for both short presses and long presses, the same way that the Adaptive Button can.
In a world where middle button / scroll wheel clicks and right-clicks aren’t as indispensable as they were 20 years ago, this added functionality adds new and exciting layers of usefulness to what would otherwise be a standard mouse. For example, I set the middle button short press to open Notepad and the long press to open Calculator — two apps I use a lot; it’s not like I was using middle clicks for anything else, after all.
But what the Adaptive Mouse adds in productivity and functionality, it subtracts in physically accessible design. Like the Adaptive Button, its size and shape make it especially handy for travel — but these same factors make it especially uncomfortable for standard use as a mouse. It is far too small for a palm-down grip. And it is too small and smooth for a comfortably sustainable claw grip; as soon as you begin to click a button, you risk losing your grip on it.
All this needed in the design, perhaps, would have been some tiny bumps for texture on the mouse buttons to keep it from sliding away. We can hope that Microsoft offers this in a Microsoft Adaptive Mouse 2.0. Until then, you can stick something on it yourself (perhaps a furniture slider) to keep it from slipping out of your hand. Otherwise, you’ll need a 3D-printed solution (whether home-brewed or from Shapeways) if, for some reason, you’d like your mouse to comfortably remain in your hand while you use it.
The Microsoft Adaptive Mouse Tail and Thumb Support
But wait — there is another solution. You could purchase the Adaptive Mouse Tail and Thumb Support add-on for the Adaptive Mouse. It attaches to the rear of the mouse (once you slip off part of the casing), turning the Adaptive Mouse into something resembling the Microsoft Arc Mouse in terms of shape and letting you use it as a more traditional mouse.
The Thumb Support attachment, which comes with it, can mercifully attach and reattach on either side, making this add-on just as useful for lefties as for righties. (Or you can leave it off if you prefer an alternative grip.)
On the downside, the otherwise nicely responsive buttons on the Adaptive Mouse aren’t designed or angled well for this sort of use. A standard mouse typically lets you push anywhere on the button without much differentiation in force to register the click. Here, when using the Adaptive Mouse Tail with the Adaptive Mouse, I had to make a more conscious effort to either position my fingers toward the far tips 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 estimation, all of these accessories represent laudable continuations of Microsoft’s entry into the adaptive accessories market. They’ve got some genuinely helpful features in the form of portability, multiple profiles, and click- and reach-saving shortcuts. They can also be adjusted to your needs via Shapeways’ 3D-printed designs. But they come with some UX tradeoffs (unappealing texture, slipperiness, poor ergonomics, subpar haptic design) — things that need to be improved for optimal accessibility.
Photography by Joe Stanganelli for The Verge.