By September 21, 2011 0 Comments

Lenovo N5902 Backlit Wireless HTPC Remote Control Review

About a year and a half ago I wrote about my experience with Lenovo’s wireless multimedia keyboard. Basically it allows you to control your home theater personal computer (HTPC) from your couch, or easy chair, or bed.

The Lenovo was very close to what I wanted in an ideal remote. However, there was one massive problem with the device: it lacked any sort of back light. Using the remote on the bedroom PC was almost impossible without tilting the remote — and my body — towards the TV as a light source. I woke up Sedagive? more than once trying to figure out where the hell the M key was.

There were other issues, too, like the trackball became a little loose over time. If the controller had any tilt at all, say from being propped up on the comforter, the on-screen cursor would sliiiiiiiiiiiiiide down.

Lenovo recently released the N5902, an updated version of the wireless multimedia remote. It seemed to address all of my problems with the original remote, and even a few things that I didn’t realize I wanted.

Changes between the old model and the new N5902 remote

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The N5902 is on the left. I am glad that Lenovo redesigned the remote enough that it was easily distinguishable from the original unit. There is chrome-toned plastic around the edge, the grip is slightly more rounded and easier to hold, and the remote is gray in color instead of black.

One unexpected change was replacing the trackball in favor of a multi-touch interface. Lenovo calls this the “Optical Finger Navigation (OFN).” It’s a lot like a tiny, tiny, touch multi-function key one might find on a mobile device. Pressing down on the multi-function button is equivalent to a left mouse click, which is nice. There is also a scroll strip, which was not present on the original design. I thought this was great at first, but the controller has problems when my fingers are damp or after I’ve put hand lotion on. A better solution would be to make a better trackball.

The mouse buttons have also moved. They used to be above the trackball and to the left and right. It was sometimes hard to actuate the mouse buttons without shifting the old remote in my hand. The new remote places the mouse buttons much higher, right underneath the keyboard. This is an improvement.

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The new mouse buttons, touch pad, and scroll strip.

The keyboard now has a dedicated key for your default Web browser. The icon is Internet Explorer, but hey, whatever. There is also a key for “change / close page.” This basically acts as ALT-Tab on my Windows 7 HTPCs. I have yet to figure out why I would want to do this on an HTPC, or why Lenovo dedicated a key to it. I have no idea how these keys will operate on other operating systems, and there does not appear to be any software that allows you to customize these keys.

From a performance perspective, the keyboard seems responsive, and less “click-clacky” than the original. Keystroke seems to be a little shorter, and requires a little less force. Like the predecessor, the N5902 keys are too small to reliably touch type, especially in darker conditions. The keys are almost completely uniform, and I frequently mis-select important keys like shift or control.

One weird thing about the N5902 is that the USB dongle that connects to your computer is blue. This is a reserved color for USB 3.0, but the N5902 is USB 2.0. An odd design choice, especially since blue is not used anywhere on the remote.

Backlighting

That’s all icing on the cake, of course. The important part is the backlighting. The power switch on the back now has three positions instead of two. There’s the obvious OFF position, and an ON position, but now there’s a middle BACKLIGHT ON position. If you want to conserve battery life and/or have no need for the backlight functionality, slide the selector all the way to the right. Most HTPC users will want to leave the selector switch right in the middle.

Once the backlight switch is on, the remote lights up any time you press a key. The Lenovo N5902 has a backlight button in case you don’t want to send a keystroke command to your computer.

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Unfortunately, the backlight doesn’t activate as I’d hoped. First of all, the keypad has to be “awake” in order to register ANY keypresses. This is done to save battery life, but it sucks to have to move the hardware switch on the back of the remote from BACKLIGHT ON to OFF and then back again. It’s particularly frustrating now that there are three switch positions; the travel between the conditions is very short. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if I set the switch back to BACKLIGHT ON or if I didn’t move it enough, or too much.

The next thing that has to happen is that the keyboard has to fully wake up and establish a connection with your computer. There is a green LED at the top center of the keyboard. This sometimes comes on to let you know that the keyboard has synced up. Sometimes it doesn’t light up. You sort of have to guess, which sucks.

After THAT happens, there’s a bit of lag until the remote apparently recognizes keypresses. My tendency, even after figuring this out, is to press the backlight key about three or four times before it actually comes on. That’s frustrating.

However, once the backlight DOES come on, it’s pretty bad ass:

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The exposure on this photo is a little long, and the backlight is a little brighter than in “real life,” but you get the idea. This is a MASSIVE improvement over the original design.

Conclusion

The Lenovo N5902 is a good incremental upgrade to the original HTPC remote control keyboard. There are still some improvements to be made, but if you use your remote in a dark environment you should definitely consider it.

The N5902 retails for about $80, which is absolutely absurd. I bought mine on sale for $40 before shipping, and I feel like it’s an okay price. If the product life cycle of the previous 5901 is any indication, Lenovo will run many sales in the future. So wait if you can.

The performance of the backlight and the optical navigation widget leave something to be desired. I do not intend to purchase another N5902 for use in my downstairs HTPC; the original is good enough and the new version is not a significant enough improvement to consider upgrading both remotes.

Be careful about ordering the new backlit remote from anywhere but Lenovo. For example, Amazon lists the N5902 as the “N6901A” and erroneously labels it as a Bluetooth mouse. The write-up on that page as well as the actual product clearly specifies it is not Bluetooth, and it runs over 2.4GHz. Perhaps Lenovo will release a Bluetooth capable version in the future, but for now, be careful about ordering. Here’s the official Lenovo product page.

Recommended.

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