The Zboard, by ideazon, is a keyboard which takes interchangeable key layouts for different applications. The review sample I received* is a base keyboard with a Windows/IE interface. The ideazon rep also sent key layouts for Photoshop, Medal of Honor, and Age of Mythology.
“What the heck am I talking about?” you ask. Basically, the Zboard is just like a regular keyboard with a few exceptions:
- It features some special keys above the F-keys; one launches media player, another IE, there’s mute and other audio controls, etc. This feature appears on some other keyboards from Logitech and the like.
- There’s nice labels on some of the keys to let you know what those keys do in combination with the control or windows key. For example, the “W” key also has “Close” silk-screened on it letting you know that if you Control-W you’ll close the current window or document. Handy feature.
- The biggest feature, the keys can be removed and replaced with another set of keys featuring different hot-keys or key combinations for use with specific applications. The Photoshop interface, for example, features tons of keyboard short-cuts for many of the image manipulation tools you can use. Furthermore, each interface does not have to follow the traditional QWERTY layout. This is most evident with the Medal of Honor interface where the whole left side has been replaced with movement keys and the QWERTY alphabet has been shifted over to the right. Pretty neat.
So, how does it work?
Basically, each interface has a chip in it which tells the base which layout has been installed and what each key does. Additionally, some software which came with it on a CD lets you program the special keys at the top and I’m guessing hooks each layout with a specific application like Medal of Honor.
And how *well* does it work?
I’m typing up this review with the basic Windows/IE interface. The keys are harder to push than the ones on my old keyboard which is making my hands tire out faster. This also makes it harder for me to capitalize as sometimes I’m not pressing the shift key down far enough apparently. Still, the handyness of knowing what all the hot-keys are and the usefulness of the top row of special keys is a very nice feature.
When I first saw the Zboard at the Game Developer’s Conference last March, I saw the Medal of Honor layout and assumed one could use that interface with any FPS by just reprogramming the FPS using the game’s in-game settings. Currently, I’m playing Splinter Cell and so tried it out. Unfortunately, it seems, the MoH layout will only work with MoH! I’ll try it with some other FPS games in the future so might amend this statement later, but, if this is the case, it’s not exactly useful for me since I stopped playing MoH months ago. I haven’t tried the Age of Mythology interface with one of the RTS games I have, but I don’t have AoM, so if it only works with that game, I won’t even be able to try it out! IMO, this greatly diminishes the attractiveness of the Zboard since most of the hard-core gamers I know go through like a game a month. To expect them to pay for a new interface for each game I think is asking for too much.
Since I couldn’t get the MoH interface to work with Splinter Cell, I switched back to the standard IE interface and played with that. That’s when I encountered something buggy. It seems that you can’t hold down one button and then hold down another and have the first button continue to register reliably. This, of course, happens all the time with an FPS–hold down W to move forward, then hold down D to sidestep while continuing to move forward, then let go of D but not W. Sometimes I would stop moving forward. Sometimes, even worse, I would continue to move sideways like the key was stuck. When I noticed this I thought it odd. When an enemy saw me because I stepped out of the shadows, I switched back to my old $7 keyboard! Not a good recommendation!
The Zboard as a training tool for the working world, however, might be where this product has the most promise. Photoshop has new features every time a new version comes out, but the standard functions will always be there. And when I say standard, I mean like oh… a hundred or so commands. To have a handy way of accessing those commands without having to wade through the drop down menus is of great benefit. If you’re even just a casual Photoshop user, getting the Zboard and the Photoshop interface might be money well spent. I have not yet had time to check out this set-up and will post an update as soon as I do!
*on behalf of OMSI who are currently revamping the tech hall and are trying out different human-computer interfaces to demo on the floor. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear keyboards are a good interface to demo unsupervised since they allow visitors to do pretty much whatever they want with the computer…