id="info"

Developer

SolutionBase: Troubleshooting wireless keyboards and mice

It's getting easier than ever to cut the cords around your computer. Wireless mice and keyboards can help add flexibility to your system, but they come with their own unique problems. Here's how to troubleshoot and resolve common issues.

Walking down the input devices aisle at your local big box computer store can be enlightening these days. No longer do vendors seem to cater very well to the customers that want wired input devices. If you want wireless, though, you're in luck. Most of the shelf space is devoted to this technology of convenience. With this convenience, however, come some unique problems and challenges, which I will outline in this article.

Battery life

Probably the most common complaint about wireless keyboards and mice is their sometimes short battery life. Most devices come bundled with an initial set of batteries from which you'll typically get three to four months of battery life during normal use. Keyboard batteries tend to last a little longer—perhaps five or six months. Some units are starting to ship with rechargeable batteries and a USB cable. With only the power lead connected, your device will only be able to draw power from the PC's USB port using this cable, so it's only good for when you're not using the computer.

Yes, a cord for a wireless mouse does seem counterintuitive, but it's only used for charging and can be easily stashed away between charge sessions. Also, some models come with a cradle instead, which is a little less unsightly.

A few months might not sound too bad, but it can be more than frustrating to have batteries to start losing their juice at 2AM on the night before you have a big project due. Further, if you're a heavy user, or a hard core gamer, you probably won't get the advertised life out of the batteries. Some reports have indicated that heavy users have had to replace batteries every three weeks in some cases.

Many newer devices power down after lack of use, thus preserving battery life. Other units actually include a small power switch so that you can turn off the device before leaving your desk. Another way that some people recommend to conserve mouse battery power is to use it and park it on a white surface.

Just how do you know when your batteries are about to die? First, some devices include battery indicators, either on the hardware itself, or via software installed along with the driver. Second, if you see a lot of dropped characters, or the key you're pressing is not what is appearing on the screen, your batteries could be in trouble. Third, if the device just quits responding altogether, give new batteries a shot.

My recommendation: keep a spare set of batteries around as well as a wired keyboard and mouse, just in case. Further, try to find a wireless keyboard and mouse with drivers that include the ability to notify you if the battery is getting low.

Range

If you have a huge monitor, you might be inclined to sit a ways back to do your work. Bear in mind that wireless keyboards and mice have a limited (but sometimes surprising!) range. Ranges start at four or five feet on the low end for some products and can extend to an impressive thirty feet for other products. You'll know fairly quickly when you start to hit the limit for your device. Your keyboard or mouse won't just quit, but certain keystrokes will be dropped and your mouse movements might be somewhat jerky or lag a bit, resembling a battery problem. If this happens, move your receiver a little closer, or even stick it to the side of your PC near the front with double-stick tape.

Interference

Before I get too much into interference, know the following: wireless keyboards and mice generally use one of two wireless technologies â€" either 27MHz radio frequency technology, or BlueTooth, operating in the 2.45GHz range.

BlueTooth was designed from the ground up to be fairly robust when it comes to interference. Using a frequency-hopping technique, BlueTooth devices can randomly use one of seventy-nine different channels.

However, you might recognize the frequency range identified for BlueTooth above. Your BlueTooth signal could be hampered by things like microwave ovens, cordless phones, and baby monitors, but other wireless devices, such as 802.11B/G wireless devices, are not as likely to create a problem for you.

If you have a BlueTooth keyboard/mouse set, try to keep it away from these other devices and, if you continue to have trouble and you just have to have that microwave sitting next to your keyboard, consider a wireless keyboard based in the 27 MHz spectrum. All that said, even if you do have interference, it's likely that it will only result in a lag, and not a total outage, particularly since BlueTooth hops frequencies.

Wireless keyboards and mice that operate in the 27MHz frequency range used to have more problems with interference than today's newer models. Whereas older units were more susceptible to interference from like devices operating nearby, many new keyboard/mouse combinations can now be used fairly close to one another thanks to the ability for the device to use one of, say, 256 available IDs. Further, most (but, alas, not all) units provide four channels—two for the mouse and two for the keyboard. If you have trouble on one channel, use whatever method is provided by your wireless keyboard/mouse vendor to switch to other channels to attempt to alleviate the interference.

If you continue to have what seems to be major interference problems with either technology, place the receiver as close to possible to the keyboard/mouse as you can. Further, even though this shouldn't be a huge problem, if you're in a group setting, but with less than ten or eleven people, and multiple people are using wireless keyboards and mice, try them one at a time to see if interference really is the problem. If it is, switching channels may help, or switching to the other wireless technology besides the one you're using. BlueTooth suffers less from wireless device interference.

There are a couple of ways to identify potential interference. First, if you're sitting at your wireless keyboard and you're not typing, but words are still appearing on your screen, your receiver might be picking up someone else's keyboard at work. Or, as with range problems, you may end up with dropped characters.

Security

This is a topic on everyone's mind these days and, believe it or not, although not common, your wireless keyboard has the potential to contribute to the problem.

This is an area where BlueTooth beats 27MHz hands down. If you're using a 27MHz device and are worried that someone might be snooping, it's time for an upgrade. Keyboards with BlueTooth wireless generally provide full two-way 128-bit encryption of the data and a variable key size, securing it from prying eyes. Further, many BlueTooth devices virtually tether themselves to the host machine until released, making it difficult for the signal to accidentally stray to someone else's receiver.

While some 27MHz devices provide rudimentary encryption, it's not generally as secure or robust as the encryption offered by BlueTooth. If you need to be able to guarantee the safety of the data from the keyboard, don't use wireless and, if you do use wireless, use BlueTooth. If data security isn't as big a deal, such as in an isolated home setting, 27MHz is fine. If you live in an apartment complex, think twice before using 27MHz and seriously consider BlueTooth.

Finally, if you're worried that your data may not be safe, make sure that you're using the software and drivers that came with your keyboard. This software sometimes includes better encryption than you would get if you don't use it. Further, beyond the standard drivers, the software for many wireless keyboards and mice includes battery life estimates.

Things to remember

When using wireless keyboards or mice, here are some things you should keep in the back of your mind:

  • Use the right technology: If you're in a fairly crowded area and a lot of people are using wireless keyboards and mice, consider BlueTooth over 27MHz.
  • If you're all by yourself, but other devices, such as microwaves or baby monitors are nearby, consider 27MHz, although BlueTooth won't generally break down in these environments.
  • Keep your mouse and keyboard clean. If your mouse is having trouble moving, get rid of the accumulation on the pads.
  • Use the latest, greatest driver for your device for maximum performance and for the best feature set.
  • If your mouse or keyboard stops working, make sure the batteries are fresh (or that the device is charged), make sure you're using the right drivers and that the receiver/transmitter is within range of the keyboard and mouse.
  • If incorrect characters appear on the screen, again, make sure your batteries are fresh, that your device is within range of the receiver and that other devices in the area aren't interfering with yours.
  • If you continue to have trouble with what appears to be interference, try a different communications channel for your device.

Editor's Picks