Hands-on with Ideazon's Zboard gaming keyboard

If you didn't look closely, you could mistake Ideazon's Zboard for a standard keyboard. It's about the same size and shape as your average keyboard, with 108 keys and a row of hotkeys and multimedia buttons along the upper edge of the keyboard. A glance at the box shows us a left-handed key configuration designed for gaming and a pair of USB ports. So is this a gaming keyboard with a few extras? Hardly! This is only scratching the surface of the Zboard's abilities -- the real magic of a Zboard lies in its customized keysets.

Curious? Keep reading!

What's a keyset, you ask? The keys on the Zboard are completely removable and can be replaced with a keyset specifically designed for gameplay or, even better, specifically designed for your favorite game. The keysets fit into the Zboard's keyboard base and latch into place on the right hand side. (Don't worry -- you won't have to keep up with a handful of individual keys. Each keyset consists of keys mounted on a flat base with two hinges. The hinges allow the keysets to be folded up into a small, neat package for easy storage.) Though it takes a little getting used to how the keyset fits in the base, it's a quick process to swap keysets (which you can do live without any need to reboot or reconfigure software). The Zboard's drivers (sorry, Mac users, they're PC only), detect the installed keyset and automatically handle the messy work of making sure your computer knows what keys you're pressing even though they may be located in a different physical position.

Regardless of the keyset, the Zboard's keys are fully customizable. Each key can be remapped through a simple graphical interface showing a picture of your keyboard and allowing you to drag and drop commands to each key. Zboard's software also allows you to easily create macros that will let you to preform multiple in-game functions at the press of a button. All you have to do is record your actions once and you can map them to a single key for future usage.

As an aside: in the past, there has been some question of keyboards with such macro functionality leading to game bans. I can safely tell you that the use of the Zboard keyboard will not get you banned. However, using the Zboard keyboard to make macros that will allow you to play the game while not at your keyboard would be considered botting by Blizzard, and that's a bannable offence. Forum MVP Palehoof clarifies the situation, "If you're using a device like that to simulate player actions, and you are not present or do not need to be present for those actions to take place, then that's botting and you can be banned for it. If you're using a device like that to automate actions you would be taking anyway, and are at your keys making it happen, that that is not." The macro functionality can make your game life much easier, but don't use it to make the game so easy that you can play Rock Band in the other room while your macros do the tedious work of raising weapon skills for you.

The Zboard package (selling for about $50) comes with a driver disc, a wrist-rest, a Zboard base, a standard keyboard layout keyset, and a generic gaming keyset. The gaming layout features oversized directional keys (forward, backward, left, right, strafe left, and strafe right) with a concave surface and a "butterfly" formation on the left-hand side. Surrounding these are 20 easily reachable keys, either set for standard game functions or programmable for your convenience. This setup is ideal for having your left hand on the keyboard and your right hand on the mouse, with enough hotkeys in reach of your left hand to make all but the most macro-happy of us content. And in case you find yourself needing to type/chat, there's also a standard size keyboard to the right of this setup -- though the spacing between some of the keys is a bit odd, apparently to accomidate the keyset hinges (which allow your keyset to fold up neatly when not in use).

But if you want one of the World of Warcraft-specific keysets, you're going to have to shell out another $20 for each one. Currently, Ideazon offers two choices of keyset: a standard World of Warcraft keyset and a Burning Crusade keyset. (We can only presume that eventually a Wrath of the Lich King keyset will be avialable, but for now, these are your choices.) Both of these have a standard keyboard layout (though, of course, you can make things less standard by binding any key to any macro function) with all of the standard game hotkeys clearly labeled. On the right-hand side of the keyboard there's some game specific art as well as unique game-specific hotkeys -- and though both will work with either version of the game, these hotkeys differ significantly and give each keyset its own purpose. In short, the original keyset is geared towards solo PvE gameplay while the BC keyset is geared towards end-game raiding and PvP.

I imagine some of you are wondering what the point of a Zboard is when World of Warcraft has a huge amount of customized functionality available with addons and macros -- no special software required. Couldn't you just use your existing keyboard? Of course you could, but the Zboard offers some distinct advantages over any do-it-yourself solution:

  1. With a standard keyboard, you wouldn't be able to do as much as a Zboard, because built-in WoW macros have a number of limitations. For example, you cannot string together multiple skills in a single macro if each skill triggers the global cooldown. WoW will cast the first skill and then immediately try to cast the second. The second, of course, will never be cast because the first triggered the global cooldown. Zboard macros can be configured with any necessary delays to allow you to string together complex sequences of skills at the press of a button. (Again -- you can use this for convenience as long as you don't allow the Zboard macros play the game for you.)

  2. If you don't know a lot about WoW's macros (or if you're like me and don't have the patience to figure it out), the Zboard's ability to create macros is as simple as you can get -- just do what you want to do in-game, have your Zboard software record it, and bind it to a key of your choice using a graphical interface.

  3. The Zboard has more customizable hotkeys than you're likely to find on the keyboard that was included with your computer.

  4. The Zboard's ability to use differing keysets shines if you play a lot of different games. You can quickly swap keysets to one designed and configured with your game's hotkeys and macros when you move from one game to another.

  5. For a gaming keyboard, it's reasonably priced at about $45, though with additional keysets the cost starts to add up.

If you're interested in a gaming keyboard but don't care for the Zboard concept, there are other options out there:

  • If you like the Zboard's standard gaming keyset, you may like Ideazon's Merc keyboard, which has the same layout for the left-hand with oversized directional keys surrounded by programmable hotkeys. It's larger than a standard keyboard, with the directional keys to the left of a full-sized keyboard. It also has the same macro functionality as the Zboard. The Merc retails at around $40, or you can get the Merc Stealth, which has the same layout and functionality as the Merc, but with backlighting (in your choice of three colors), USB & audio ports, and a few other features for about $75.

  • Logitech offers the G15 keyboard, a keyboard with a fairly standard key configuration plus several programmable hotkeys. The G15 offers macroing functionality similar to Ideazon's offerings and the keys are backlit. But the best feature of the G15 is the small LCD display (five lines of text) mounted on the keyboard: you can configure the LCD to display different game information, like health, combat stats, or who's talking in Ventrillo. It retails for about $80.

  • Razer offers several gaming keyboards along with their better known line of gaming mice. All keyboards have a standard key configuration with macro ability, support for different gaming profiles, additional media keys & hotkeys, backlighting, and built-in USB ports. The high-end keyboard (the Razer Tarantula) has built-in memory (so your profiles and macros come with you wherever you go) and a "BattleDock" port at the top of the keyboard, which allows you to plug in accessories (though at present, the only accessory available is a light, selling at around $25). These retail from around $80 (Tarantula), $65 (Lycosa), to $55 (Microsoft Reclusa, which uses Razer technology).

  • Creative offers the Fatal1ty and the Spectre (either will run you about $50). Both have a fairly standard key configuration, are compact and low-profile for convenient travel (the Fatal1ty is about the size of a laptop keyboard while the Spectre is closer to a standard keyboard size -- and when considering this remember that most of the other keyboards we're discussing are on the large size), and are backlit (the Fatal1ty has transparent keys).