Saitek PC Gaming Keyboard
I've reviewed some fairly mundane things in my time here at Ferrago, but you can't get much more pedestrian than a keyboard. Unless that keyboard is a Saitek PC Gaming Keyboard, about the most boring name for what is a very unusual piece of kit. Not only does it come with a fully programmable command-pad, not only does it have an interesting set of lines but it has one of the coolest features in any peripheral I've encountered so far: the keys are under-lit in a soothing LED blue. Which just looks about as cool as ice, in day or night.
But first let's look at how well the Saitek PCGK performs as your standard everyday input device. The keys are nice and heavy with a solid action to them. They also seem to be spaced apart very well for my size of hands; I found my typing accuracy was slightly improved over using my Logitech keyboard. The overall dimensions of the key-layout are pretty standard lengthways with a slight reduction in the height between the bottom of the space bar and the top of the function keys. Saitek have wisely eschewed the plethora of quick-buttons that seem to infest most keyboards like the pox these days, with a frugal four little silver buttons above the keypad to raise, lower and mute the volume. The final button controls the under-key illumination which has two brightness levels and an off setting. I did notice a weird effect which, I'm sure, is related to the refreshing of my monitor and using the keyboard on my lap, (and hence in the bottom of my peripheral vision). I would often notice the blue under-glow blinking on and off, but could never see it when I stared straight at the keyboard itself. I put this down to some sort of optical illusion, and got on with it. But it is worth bearing in mind if you also use the keyboard in your lap. And I might as well say here that if for some reason you were playing as game in black out conditions, then extensive laboratory tests at Ferrago have conclusively shown the blue under-glow is crap as far as it comes to illuminating the keys. It's purely for show. But it is a fine show.
You may also want to consider the board's compact size and evenly balanced weight. It has just enough mass to stay good and steady on outstretched legs, no matter how desperately you are trying to rack-up a killing spree. This is probably the sturdiest and steadiest keyboard, in terms of lap use, that has shared that space with my ever-dozing cat. This weight transfers well to desktop use as well. The PCGK also has a rather unusual wrist-rest which both extends out from the base of the board and swivels down. This gives it a good range of movement and again suggests that the designers of the board had lap-users in mind when they conjured up the board's layout.
Saitek considers the command pad to be the unique selling point of the PCGK. This unit attaches to the top the keyboard via a normal Ethernet plug. To be charitable, you could call it a snug fit. I also found the cable to be a bit too long, which meant it had a nasty habit of curling and trailing all over the place. The whole attachment of the pad is a bit of a mess really and needs a redesign. I had a few issues with getting the programming software up and running as the drivers must be downloaded from the web, and the driver installation process seems unnecessarily convoluted and lengthy. The proprietary software for configuring the command pad, (common to all programmable Saitek devices) is also damn fugly and functional at best. The command pad has nine programmable keys in a standard keypad layout, with two additional buttons providing two further modes, giving a total of 27 definable buttons. You can assign simple keystrokes, combinations and even set up macros with time delays, making the command pad a potentially very versatile accessory. For example you could assign CTRL 1-9 to the command pad, making army retrieval in an RTS a more compact and hence quicker operation, or you could assign a sequence of spells and potions for an RPG. You could conceivably set up combos for a fighting game, but you best lock the door if you try that, because the men in white coats are probably already on their way round. The possibilities are near limitless.
However, I'm personally so used to standard key board layouts in games that I find it more of a hassle to remember which of the three modes and variety of keys on the command pad I have assigned to a particular function then to aim for the key - or set of keys - that I have grown so accustomed to using. Unless you are a fanatical devotee of the particular genres which could benefit most from the command pad, then its speed and accessibility benefits are unlikely to make up for its clumsy implementation.
Frankly, I think the command pad would be far better off as a standalone USB device. Bundling it with the keyboard may have made sense to the marketing people, but the design chosen by another department is messy and adds to desktop clutter. Both the keyboard and command pad are well made and attractive propositions on their own, but add them together and like steak ice cream you have something which is far less than the sum of its two parts. If the command pad was sold separately I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to the hardcore RTS or RPG fan, especially those who compete on a regular basis and for whom those extra milliseconds could make a big difference. If the super-sexy keyboard could be had on its own I'd instantly recommend it to anyone looking for a flashier and well-made alternative to their standard keyboard. As a combo package it just doesn't work for me, so like Pam and Tommy Lee, these two interesting characters would be better off if they were to stay separate.