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The only layout change to buttons is with the [SYSTEM OFF] key, located at the top-left of the remote, which has become round to match the opposing [POWER] button.
In an insert included with one of the sample remotes, Universal informs the purchaser that the new GemStone finish also helps brighten the keys - and in subjective tests this is confirmed. The color of the backlighting is the same, but the new finish does appear to let more light through. I've found battery strength to play a much stronger role in how bright the backlight appears, with the backlight almost disappearing before the "Low Battery" notification appears.
Another significant change created by the GemStone finish is in the overall tactile response. The GemStone plastic is stiffer and harder than the original, resulting in a more "solid" feel to the buttons - and of course requiring slightly more pressure to depress. In the end I feel both the softer and firmer tactile variations are acceptable in their own right. If I had to pick, I'd choose the original matte finish with the original embossed toggle keys, combined with the new improvements around the thumbpad bezel, plus a softer GemStone version similar to the one that appeared for a short time on the MX-1000. That may not be possible, but both finishes have their advantages.
Thinking of thumbpads.
Until now I believed that there were three versions of the MX-500's thumbpad: the original (with matte buttons), plus two variations with GemStone buttons. However, now that I have a variety of MX-500's to look at side-by-side, I see that there are actually four versions.
The MX-500's four thumbpad variations.
Click to enlarge. (166kb)
First is the original version with matte buttons (MB1). This version's thumbpad works off of a single 5-way multi-switch. It has a soft and pleasing feel and has proven quite reliable. The pad is raised above the bezel, so your thumb never hits it. Pressing "Enter" is easy and consistent; you don't need to pay attention to the exact angle. The design on the pad is a small domed circle in the middle with soft raised diagonal lines radiating outwards.
The next thumbpad is a previously unmentioned version, which came with the last matte button remotes (MB2). This one features the same pleasing feel as the original, but for some reason the pad has been lowered down into the bezel, meaning that whenever you press one of the four outer directions your thumb uncomfortably hits the bezel. Whoops! The design on the center of this pad is again a raised circle, but slightly larger than the original. In addition, the outer diagonal lines are more prominent and can be felt easier with your fingers.
The third revision is the first thumbpad design that came with the GemStone finished buttons (GS1). Instead of using a 5-way multi-switch, Universal changed to five separate microswitches, in an effort to make the thumbpad more durable (although I had not heard of serious problems with the original design). The problem with this version is that the pad is now very firm and requires a lot of effort to press. The center "Enter" command is difficult to press with any reliability (though reports are that some GS1 remotes are fine). The pad is raised above the bezel, as was the original, but now features a flat bottomed pattern.