Do you really need a gaming keyboard?

23 Apr

April 23, 2012

By Geoff Meeker

Last Christmas, my son was in need of a new keyboard for his computer. He spends a lot of his online time playing videogames, so I surprised him with a new gaming keyboard – the BlackWidow, by Razer ($150).

Yes, $150 is a lot to spend on a keyboard. But it was easy to justify splurging on a Christmas gift. And he was quite pleased to receive it.

He was less excited this week, when I asked his opinion of the keyboard. It was “okay” and “pretty good,” but there was nothing in particular that stood out; no advantage that distinguished it from a regular $20 keyboard, save for the backlit keys.

According to the promotional material on the box and at the web site (razerzone.com), the BlackWidow “takes you full speed into combat with a full-fledged mechanical key infrastructure delivering crisp, tactile feedback with every actuation. Bringing an entirely different feel and faster keystroke actuation to the table, this revolutionary fully backlit gaming keyboard is rounded off by its additional macro keys and unlimited on-the-fly macro recording.”

The literature brags about a keyboard with “a distinctive tactile feedback in form of a light pronounced tap to your fingers giving you an entirely new feel.”

I tried keyboard tapping on the BlackWidow and a couple of low-priced keyboards. The cheap ones had a doughy, imprecise feel, while the BlackWidow did indeed have a more responsive touch. You can feel the key pushing back firmly against the fingertip, for whatever that is worth. It is a sensation I had to look for – my son didn’t notice until I drew his attention to it.

Macro recording refers to programming a series of keystrokes, enabling a sequence of moves with the press of a single key. The BlackWidow has unlimited macro recording, which can be programmed “in game,” which is convenient if you actually use it. However, my son is not interested in this feature and never uses it. Nor is he interested in its ability to switch between 10 different software profiles, probably because he tends to focus on one game at a time.

So, is the BlackWidow worth it? I put this question via email to Charlene Jackson, a technical writer and avid gamer who is currently enrolled in the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Western Ontario.

“Plenty of people who can’t afford a special keyboard do have alternatives,” said Jackson, who is from Heart’s Delight. “Most reasonably priced wireless keyboards work just fine for gaming, provided the sensitivity level is desirable and the keyboard itself is comfortable for the user. Most games use letter keys W, A, S, and D as the central control pad area, with F1-12 keys serving as function buttons, inventory shortcuts, etc. So in the end, from my experience, an expensive gaming keyboard isn’t entirely necessary.”

Jackson owns an Alienware M11x gaming laptop, with a bunch of built-in features that make it ideal for game play. (Google it. This device looks like a Lilliputian space ship.)

The Alienware M11x gaming laptop.

“One of the reasons for my buying my Alienware was the keyboard. However, I didn’t buy it just for that – I was also happy about the illuminated keyboard, and keys which are dually marked for everyday use and gaming use. Personally, I’ve never had an issue with keyboard sensitivity, so I’ve seen no need for an expensive gaming keyboard. That being said, I do love the specialized keys and extra features such keyboards offer and would jump at the chance to use one if I could afford it.”

Hi-tech keyboards like the BlackWidow are okay for serious gamers who can afford to drop the cash, Jackson said, but there are cheaper alternatives.

“When I can afford a better PC gaming setup, with an external wide screen monitor and specialized keyboard, I can always get something a little more advanced that suits my needs for under $50,” she said. “Some people prefer ergonomic keyboards to specialized gaming ones. I’ve never gotten fully used to them myself, but I know people who love the things. Microsoft models can run as low as $50, which is great considering the hefty price of some gaming models.”

Finally, there are PC controllers, shaped much like the hand-held controllers for Xbox or PS3.

“I have a Microsoft Xbox 360 Common Controller for the PC ($60), though I’ll admit I don’t use it much anymore. However, if someone wants more control but doesn’t see the need for the extra keys on a special keyboard, then a controller might be the way to go.”

As I compose this column, and recall how those keystrokes felt on the BlackWidow, I can’t help but think how nice it would be for writing – never mind gaming. I wonder if my son would notice if I switched my keyboard for his?

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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