Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Gaming keyboards in general use

It wasn't long ago when a non-wireless, keypadless keyboard was a fairly rare product category. Previously I had used either Apple keyboards or crappy Deltacos.

The Apple keyboard is good but the lack of a pgup/pgdown/home/ins/del cluster made me think of alternatives. I also hoped to try something a bit more physical and "retro".

Now that the market for different varieties of "gaming" keyboards has exploded, I felt I could perhaps find the ultimate keyboard from that category. I've often felt that if computer hardware is good enough for games, it's good enough for pretty much all else, too. Right? Right?

Back: A standard "workplace" keyboard. The difference in footprint can be huge.

I'm steering clear of anything that has a too gimmicky feel, such as angled wings and protrusions and LCD displays. LEDs are ok and almost inevitable anyway in this category. Programmable LEDs can be quite fun too. 

There are a few varieties of layouts even without keypad. Some have the distinct arrow key and PGUP/HOME/INS cluster, as in the PC and Amiga keyboards of old.

Some save further space by joining the arrow and extra keys to the right side of the main keys, laptop-style.

Some keys have no arrow keys at all, a bit too much in my opinion, not to mention a "gaming" keyboard that has no number keys at all!

I have now here two three cheap-ish mechanical gaming keyboards, which of course enables me to say wise words about them in general.

Rather less wisely, I started from low-cost, low-end keyboards. Perhaps eventually I'll grudgingly accept that a proper keyboard costs 150€, after having bought 3-4 cheap brand keyboards.

Exibel wired mechanical keyboard

I don't have that much to say about this low-cost keyboard, as it has little features to begin with.

I really liked the layout of the keyboard, it has everything I could want from keys and nothing extra. The semi-metallic low casing works quite nicely and the keyboard is not too elevated.

The arrow keys are nicely separated, even to the point I might be a bit careful about breaking them if the keyboard happened to fall on an unfortunate angle. But that could happen with any comparable keyboard like the Blackstorm below.

The Exibel keyboard

The features promised partial anti-ghosting, which I naively thought was a good thing. No, it's practically an admission that the keyboard is not that good for games.

Playing, you can safely move around but if you have to move (WASD) and switch weapons (1-4) and use health items (7-0) etc., you'll find out that some keys will interfere with each other.

The second illusion on sale are the keyboard LEDs. Yes the box made it clear the keyboard does not have individually lighted LEDs, but the LED coloring is somewhat silly and you're stuck with the rainbow pattern. Thankfully they can be subdued or turned off by using the FN-arrow key combinations.

The keyboard is quite noisy. This is a somewhat common grievance with these mechanical keyboards.

This keyboard has served me well in typing and programming, and it has been good enough for most games (despite the experiences with but I also felt a better deal could have been made.

Blackstorm RGB 2020 Mech

Here I took a bit of a plunge, as this does not have function keys and the pgup/pgdown cluster is a bit limited. So it doesn't have that much more keys than the Apple keyboard, but at least it does have pause, pageup, pagedown and del. The arrow keys have not been separated either.

You are greeted with an animated rainbow

This was a slightly more expensive keyboard to start with, but it was in a sale so I could get it to a price comparable to the Exibel.

Funnily the keyboard appeared taller compared to the Exibel, and brought back memories of writing on old 8-bit computers like the MSX, Commodore 64 or the Memotech. This is mostly a styling and perceptual issue, as the two keyboards are just as tall.

The two rubber pads are just about enough to keep the keyboard in place when typing, so some added pads can come in handy.

Here the anti-ghosting is 100%, or one could say it doesn't have "anti-ghosting" as such but each keypress is transferred independently, without being distracted by other keypresses.

Edit: Here I'm messing up the terminology. Anti-ghosting means no extra keypresses are produced no matter what keys are held together. Fully independent keys are "N-key rollover".

Trying this on revealed how blissful it is to have 100% non-interfering keys.

Unlike the Exibel, the Blackstorm has individual key light settings, and is not difficult to set up using the keyboard itself.

FN+G takes the keyboard to a "gaming mode", where three different profiles can be chosen and set up. FN+PGUP takes the keyboard further to "edit mode", after which FN+PGDOWN cycles through the available colors. Then, pressing keys will assign that color to that key. Easy! FN+PGUP will exit the editor.

Over-abundance of information... on a gaming keyboard?

There are seven colors and this correspond with the 1-bit RGB ("ZX Spectrum") colors Blue, Red, Magenta, Green, Cyan, Yellow and White. Of course the key can also be Black with no LED on.

In almost any competent keyboard use, you'll probably not really look at the keys, so the purpose of this feature might be somewhat lost. However it is fun to toy around with the custom lighting, to the point it would have been nice to have more than three profiles. 

The customization is fun. I tried a few color mappings:
  • keys. It perhaps gave a tiny bit of perceptual aid when hitting those far-away 9 and 0 keys (for Soda and Pills, respectively).
  • "Protracker lights", i.e. I colored the musical note entry keys white with the flat/sharp keys red. So it's like a synth keyboard? Not bad as you can enter chords without fear of losing any input. 
  • Match functions in ZX Spectrum game Elite. (As in the emulator). Weapons red, defensive/unarm keys green, movement keys white, data keys blue.
  • Talking of ZX Spectrum, for BASIC programming I could colorize the Symbol Shift as red and Caps Shift as green. It helps a bit as Spectrum emulators tend to be a bit confusing to use without knowing how your shifts have been mapped.
I could imagine that it might be helpful to colorize shortcut keys to some program you are learning to use, but I'll have to wait for that particular scenario to arrive to get some real results.

Currently, I'm highlighting I, left ALT and FN keys as they together make the "print screen (window)" function.

There are also preset light animations, some are really garish rainbows or random lights, and some are interactive: keypresses produce explosions or waves of light. These can only be used for annoying people around you.

I think it's a bit silly that the backpanel for the keys is white, which makes the light reflect back from below keys. This is clearly intentional, but it somewhat muddles the key coloring idea, as if they aren't really meant to be used seriously after all (which is probably true).

This keyboard is not noiseless either, but it might be the tone of the noise is just a tiny bit more pleasant, though.

Edit: After about a week of use, the lack of direct function, INS and HOME keys starts to feel a bit wearisome.

4.10.2020 HyperX Alloy Origins Core (addendum)

Well, it had to happen. Again a somewhat more expensive keyboard was on sale and I rushed to get it.

This has the same desirable keyboard layout as the Exibel, but ought to come with all the fancy things as the Blackstorm.

The build is heavier than both, it's the kind of base the Exibel pretends to be. It is just a teeny bit larger than the Exibel, and obviously not as small as the Blackstorm.

As a bonus, it has three stand setups for different angles. The keyboard does not slide on the table. The typeface is not childish and there's less weird graphical clutter than with the Blackstorm keys.

Great keyboard, crappy photo

The keys feel fine, again less noisy than even the Blackstorm was. The travel distance might be a bit more crispy and the keys don't wiggle sideways as much. They are a bit sharp from the edges but I'll get used to that. I'll develop calluses if I have to.

Surprisingly, all is not perfect.

The obvious limitation is the software for editing the lights and macros works only on Windows, so I can't get to these features. 

With the keyboard I can only change between three ugly profiles and switch the light levels. The lowest light level is already too bright. (This is the one thing the Exibel did well, the lights were really subtle on the lowest setting.)

Despite the specs, Blackstorm is able to transmit more keys at once than the HyperX. I could press the whole qwertyuiop line with Blackstorm and all would be sent.

The HyperX has a limitation. It seems six keys can be sent together, and they don't interfere with each other, so it should be fine for all practical purposes. I am still wondering if this could be driver issue, as it does promise the "N-key rollover".

Reading about this a bit it appears to be a Linux issue, and it's unsure if a specific keyboard can be made to work. The 6-key limit is not something you'd experience in practice, though.

Blackstorm also disabled the context menu key, which was nice.

The few niggles aside, pretty much whatever I was hoping from a keyboard seems to be here.

Some afterthoughts (edited 4.10)

Full-travel, typewriter-style keyboards were rather outmoded around 2010. It's fun to see gaming has brought them back in vogue. That's possibly because in PC gaming the reputation never went away.

It always takes some time to get accustomed to a new keyboard. The Blackstorm felt fine initially but the lack of keys was bothering me after a week. Function keys are crucial to software such as Goattracker, and I found out I do need a Home key. 

Blackstorm's feel is not that different to the Exibel, the HyperX feels most "different" of these.

Looking these three together, I'm thinking the Exibel case is in some ways better than the bit plasticky Blackstorm, but despite having less keys the Blackstorm is otherwise more featured, has a smaller footprint and is generally most "fun" of these keyboards. HyperX seems like the perfect combination of the two and more, especially if you have the Windows software to complement it.

What with the N-key rollover problem on HyperX, perhaps the ultimate, ultimate keyboard would have been a Blackstorm keyboard without the numpad. But given all the positive things in the HyperX I'm not even sure about that.

I guess a direct communication between software and the LEDs in a standard and easy way is not really a thing. There might be a theoretical possibility to program the keys live, as there's supposedly a Windows program for editing the profiles, sadly it doesn't seem to exist.

It would be interesting to write programs to make active use of LEDs. For example you first pick a command from the keyboard and it would in turn highlight keys that relate to that command.

Apple keyboard (wireless version).

When it comes to the footprint, Blackstorm uses the least space, although the (detachable) cable is not the most convenient. When looking at width alone, Apple is still the winner here.

Blackstorm 310 x 102 = 316,20 cm2
Apple 281 x 114 = 320,34 cm2
Exibel 361 x 124 =  447,64 cm2
HyperX 360 x 132 = 475,20 cm2

1 comment:

  1. There's a lot of weird stuff on that Blackstorm, like different fonts, odd special characters, the button with two gus running etc. :)