Zboard Gaming Keyboard
Ideazon make one product; the Zboard. It’s a gaming keyboard aimed at FPS players looking for the best way to interface their fingers to their PC. Zboard pioneered the remapped keyboard design, but how well does it actually perform?
As PC gamers around the world can attest, the excitement of being the first to get you hands on the latest and most advanced PC game is easily dampened by the cumbersome and lengthy process of learning how best to play the game.
- Print and memorize the manual
- Learn keyboard shortcuts
- Change keyboard layouts
- Do whatever it takes to win
For Oren Kramer, a flight attendant and an avid gamer, the proverbial light came on while learning to master the basic commands of StarCraft, an intense real-time strategy game. Oren wanted to start strategizing immediately, but couldn’t do it without knowing the commands required to play. Even in the middle of play, he’d be to referring back to the manual figuring out how to switch commands or determine which moves would optimize his performance.
So he asked himself, what if there was a simpler way for new users to get into the game? What if gamers could focus more on strategy instead of memorizing key commands? What if a keyboard could allow gamers to execute complex maneuvers requiring a combination of movements with just a single keystroke? From these simple thoughts emerged the promise of the Zboard, a revolutionary interchangeable keyboard for gaming.
A Zboard™ Base has an auto recognition feature for any keyset you insert. There’s no need to install any additional software. It is the brain behind the brawn. Just switch Keysets & Play your favorite games. The Zboard™ Base comes with these standard features:
Your Zboard™ Base is equipped with 2 USB (BUS powered) connectors. This HUB supports low voltage devices (up to 100mA) such as mice, joystick or memory sticks. Now you can plug devices directly to your Zboard™ without the hassle of crawling down to your PC.
A set of nine hot keys launch common functions such as E-Mail, Calculator and My Computer or allow you to instantly return to a pre-selected destination, such as a file, folder, program or web page.
A set of 7 one-touch multimedia control buttons: play/pause, stop, next/previous track, volume up/down and mute.
Additional LED indicators
In addition to the standard 3 LED (Caps, Scroll and Num lock) Zboard™ has additional 3 LEDs to indicate Zboard™ enhanced functionality (Pad Lock, Bar Lock and Enable)
Designed for First/Third Person Shooter and Action games, the Gaming Keyset provides a better gaming experience, advanced layout and built-in technology advantages. It comes loaded with a selection of pre-defined key layouts for today’s hottest games. Show Games
• Most commonly used shooter and action game commands are labelled right on the keys to help you start playing new games faster
• Registers up to 7 simultaneous key-strokes, in comparison to 2-4 on most other keyboards! Jump, move forward, lean left, change weapon and shoot at the same time!!
• Large “butterfly” keys are enlarged and sloped to help keep fingers comfortable through hours of gaming
• Players can easily access more critical commands with the one hand control zone
• Unique domed action keys give gamers the responsive feel that they demand
• QWERTY (Standard) keys for chatting without interrupting the action
• Choose pre-defined key layouts from the list of game titles supported by your Gaming Keyset or create your own key layouts for your favorite games using the Game Binding Utility. The list of available layouts is updated regularly to include the latest title releases.
The Standard Keyset is based on the traditional 108-key layout packed with Zboard™ enhanced features. It is specifically designed to optimize the use of Microsoft Windows®® and Internet Explorer applications.
Control and Windows® labeled commands
The typing zone (QWERTY) has 2 sets of commands common to Windows® applications labeled for your convenience.
• Use the CTRL key to operate top green commands. (eg. Ctrl+c = Copy)
• Use the Windows® key to operate front white commands. (eg. Windows®+d = Show Desktop)
Special Keys (macros)
Zboard™ Special keys are located in the Pad (labeled in blue on the keys of the numeric keypad) and Bar (labeled as icons under the Function Keys F1-F12) areas of the Standard Keyset and feature easy access to advanced functionality inherent to Windows®® and Internet Explorer applications.
Windows® Pad LED
The Windows® PAD includes 16 commands for frequently used Windows®® features such as Minimize/Maximize, My Computer, Show Desktop and more.
Internet Bar LED
The Internet Bar includes 12 commands for frequently used Internet Explorer features such as Home, Backward/Forward, My Favorites and more.
KeyTips™. Zboard™ KeyTips is an interactive help application that allows you to quickly and easily test and verify the different labeled key functions of your Zboard™ Standard Keyset.
A closer look
Ideazon kindly sent me a Zboard to review, and it arrived to my door in a battered cardboard box that is not worthy of a photo.
I quickly stripped the box away and I was left with something that looked pretty awesome. Ideazon have really thought about product packaging and have come up with a very eye-catching design. The companies ‘Z’ logo features heavily in any of their printed publications, and I can only say that that is a good thing.
On the packaging, there are plenty of statistics and marketing blurb to get you to buy this product. I actually think that most people will order off the net and not see this package as its meant to be which is a shame; but its still pretty cool.
The box was superficially damaged, and inside the damage can be seen to lower side of the board. However, it does not get seen and neither does it affect operation at all.
The product comes with a fairly hefty instruction booklet with a CD inside the front cover, the Zboard base unit, the gamer keyset, the usual QWERTY keyset and a wrist rest. The English version of the manual is only a mere 14 pages long, but the information is in-depth and helpful. It’s also laid out exceptionally well providing all the information that you need to know.
The keysets are simply plastic plus a small interface chip that tells the board what keyset you have in the base unit. They simply fold in and out of the base unit with ease, and then you clip it down to make sure that the chip can be read. On a side note, if you are ever in a hurry to change keyset, I managed to do it in 3.5 seconds J. The ability to put in new keysets means that you can use the branded special edition keys from the Zboard website. These are keysets that are laid out in the best possible way for the individual games; for example, the Doom3 keyset. The gamer keyset is fairly generalised for many games.
A closer look (cont.)
Some of the keys, as you can see above, had little polystyrene balls in them. I’m not sure what these are for, but they make no difference when the key is pressed; although the sound is slightly different.
The base unit is a surface covered with loads of rubber lumps. The lumps are part of a black rubber sheet inside the keyboard. Here we can see that the Zboard uses the sheet method to register key presses as opposed to micro switches which give the annoying clicking sound.
Installation consisted of my unplugging my old keyboard and shoving in this one. Or so I thought. Unfortunately when I first plugged it in, the keyboard acted strangely and certain keys didn’t work, even when the supplied software was installed. This is where the manual came in very handy.
I simply had to flick to the trouble-shooting section and saw that I didn’t have native USB keyboard support enabled in my BIOS. A quick restart and the keyboard behaved slightly better.
I then uninstalled the drivers from the CD, and had to download the drivers off the net. Half an hour later (38mb @ 20kb/s L) I could install the updated drivers. They fixed everything.
The keyboard has a line of see-through plastic buttons on the top of it to control Windows Media Player. Unfortunately, I and gamers like me, prefer to use the free to download Winamp software. Winamp doesn’t support these buttons natively. Instead you have to go into the properties menu (Ctrl+P) then enable Global Hotkeys. Now the buttons work with Winamp too. The buttons themselves have a nice tactile feel.
Next to the media buttons, there are a set of 10 buttons. Below the buttons themselves, there are little images as to what they do. There are 9 in total that you can customise, the tenth is locked and always makes the Zboard console appear. To change where the buttons point, simply start the utility you want, and hold the button for 2 seconds. Or of course you can do it the old way and use the settings console…
These buttons work with any keyset installed.
I started the test by using the normal keyset and tried out some of the functions. To make life easier there are several time saving shortcuts built into the keys. For Internet Explorer, there are a number of shortcut keys that can be enabled by the touch of the Bar Lock key. This changes the F buttons that are normally unused on a standard keyboard, into shortcut keys that can be used to go forward/backwards on webpages, bring up the favourites bar, show your history and other time saving functions. I don’t use Internet Explorer as I find Firefox a better alternative, but I did try browsing with IE to see what these functions were like. They make browsing more efficient but to start with they are cumbersome and you find yourself looking at what you are pressing rather than the website that you are on.
To further expand on this selection of shortcuts, the number pad can be changed into a ‘One Touch Macro’ pad… apparently. Simply press the Pad Lock button (which overrides Num Lock if active) and you can do a variety of hard coded macros. For example, you can minimise/maximise windows, open up MSPaint, Control Panel or Display Properties. There are several other well used shortcuts too. I really did find this useful and found myself leaving the number pad on shortcut mode rather than for entering numbers.
The keyset itself is covered with little logos that accelerate the learning curve with keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl + C for copy for example. There is a little logo of the ‘copy’ symbol on the ‘C’ button. There are several others dotted around the board too. If this still doesn’t help you get the most out of your keyboard, you can press the ‘KeyTips’ button that brings up a Zboard made program. You then simply press the key combination that you want to find out about, and it tells you exactly what it does. For example, pressing the ‘Windows’ + ‘D’ key tells you that it will display the desktop. I found that I already knew all of the shortcuts, so its usefulness was lost on me, but others might find it useful every now and again.
The keys themselves are quite nice to type on and I am right now for this review. I find that I can’t type on it as fast as I normally would on my Logiteck Ultra-X which has laptop style keys though. Another small annoyance was the space bar. Because the keyset has to fold in 3 places, the space bar is in two pieces, and the join between the two is exactly where I hit it. Over time this problem faded away.
In use (cont.)
This board is great to touch type on and you get satisfying feedback from each of the keys. The Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause buttons have all been moved down. The normal 2×3 block of buttons containing Delete and Page Down are now touching the top of the Up arrow key; this means that when you go to press Delete, you actually hit Print Screen. You learn not to with use however.
Now, the gaming keyset. After a quick switch around, the gaming keyset can be used, and the Zboard software instantly realises that the keyset has changed and loads up the difference key map information.
The font used to mark the keys of this keyset is more gamerish (is that a word?). In fact, looking at it, it is the Verdana font. This is in a contrast to the normal keyset that uses the standard font you would expect to see on keyboards.
This is the keyset that has all of the FPS optimisations. Running along the top of the board are the F buttons, and next to them, where you
would normally find the Scroll lock bank, the Quick Load, Print Screen and Quick Save buttons live. These are incredibly useful in any game, especially anything like Doom 3 or Half Life 2 where saving is needed a lot. They are simply mapped to Ctrl + L and Ctrl + S respectively. These buttons, like most of the grey buttons on the keyset are small, circular and have a concave shape. This makes pressing them more difficult in a good way. The different shape also helps you differentiate between them and the other keys.
To allow you to type in games (i.e. call others n00bs when you owe them with your Zboard) there is a QWERTY keyboard squeezed into the right side of the keyboard. All the buttons you need are in there, including the direction arrows which I find are of limited use. The keys are the same size as normal, but typing is difficult because to fit the keys to the folding method, they are aligned differently. Not a huge problem but when you are trying to quickly type something before you respawn and you end up messing up 3 or 4 times it becomes an annoyance.
On the left hand side of the board, there are the famous butterfly shaped red keys. These are mapped as WASD and QE. They make controlling direction and strafing (or ‘gangster shooting’ in FEAR) a breeze. Above these keys, there are the number buttons 1 to 6. 1 and 6 are smaller than the 2 to 5 keys. All of the keys are convex in shape and are really nice to play with. They make weapon switching really easy.
Below the two strafe keys (Q and E) there is a 3 key pyramid. On the Left they are mapped to L Shift (Run/Walk), C (Crouch) and Z (1 in a diamond). The right hand group are F (Use), G (2 in a diamond), X (3 in a diamond). The keys have what they do in the game, e.g. Run/Walk printed on them and then in a smaller font the actual key it is mapped to. These buttons are placed in the perfect place to be used by your other fingers/thumb. These are also convex.
The space button is below the right hand pyramid of keys and is about as long as your thumb and is in just the right place to be smacked whenever you need to jump. It is also convex.
In use (cont.)
Down the far left extreme of the gamer keyset, there are 3 small convex buttons that are mapped to `, Tab and Pause (Console, Goals, and Pause). I find that the Tab button is used the most (to check score) and is a little out of the way.
To help you get the most out of your Zboard, they have set up the key maps for you. Simply right-click on the taskbar icon and choose your game from the menu. This automatically remaps the keyboard to the game you choose. Once you start the game, the Zboard detects it and the ‘Enabled’ light turns on to tell you this.
I found that the mapping Ideazon choose is not suitable for my method of play. If this is the case, choose the Gamer Pad option, and then remap the controls in the game options.
Playing with the Zboard was a dream. The first time I used it; I hated it and wanted to smash it to pieces. But I stuck with it and now it enhances my game play a lot. I’m not quite perfect with it yet, but I’m getting used to it.
The keysets themselves when folded up are fairly bulky and need to be kept near where you are using your keyboard so that you can easily change what keyset you are using. This may be of problem to some.
As well as being a top-class keyboard, the Zboard also acts as a low power USB hub, and allows things like mice, and memory sticks to be plugged into the back of the board. Scanners and video cameras apparently don’t like low power ports so you can’t use it for that.
It’s also nice to see that there is a wrist rest. This really makes long gaming sessions less painful and generally more enjoyable. Typing is also more natural.
UPDATE: After using the Zboard for awhile, I discovered that sometimes (1 in 20 times) when changing to the gamer keyset, the Zboard doesn’t detect it properly, and it will mess up. E.g. the alt key will always be held down until you reboot the PC, or the whole thing not working and the software not detecting it. Reinstalling the drivers doesn’t fix the problem. Usually all you have to do is change back to the normal keyset and try again. Not a HUGE problem but gets annoying.
FURTHER UPDATE: The gaming keyset will no longer be detected by the base unit, unless I push down where the contacts meet. Even when it is pushed down, the keyboard will still sometimes not work. The K and V buttons on the normal keyset, and the equivalent button positions on the gamer keyset also don’t work. On taking apart the keyboard, these key positions are on the same track and it’s probably a fault with the keyboard and this track. I emailed IdeaZon but as of yet, I am still without a reply.
This board will enhance your game play greatly. I’m not saying that you will suddenly become the master of every FPS, but human-PC interface seems more natural and thought out. The regular keyset brings in new features that are not usually found on regular keyboards, and this itself sets it apart from the pack. The USB is a nice addition, and overall the board is a well polished product.
|Ease of installation||Learning curve|
|USB hub||Bulky keysets|
|Enhances gaming||Minor installation issues|
|More natural gameplay|