NOTE: Only read if you are interested, otherwise don't waste your time.
This is from GameSpy regarding gaming peripherals. See the full report at: GameSpy
It's the beginning of August, which (sadly) means summer is half over and school is just a few weeks away for many of you. To ease your pain, we're kicking off a series of hardware articles looking at PC gaming gear to help get you through the upcoming year. In future articles, we'll be looking at setting up your own network, picking the perfect sound setup, and even building your own PC without breaking the bank.
To kick things off, however, we're going to start with the basics. Any PC gamer worth their salt needs a solid keyboard, mouse and gamepad, so that's what we'll be looking at all this week.
Picking the Right Keyboard
Think all keyboards are created equal? Guess again. While many of them look similar, there are a ton of little features that separate them. To start, here are some things you'll want to check out when deciding which keyboard is perfect for you.
Key Layout: For a while, most keyboards had the same layout, but things have changed drastically. Many new keyboards, for instance, reorient the Insert/Home/Delete grouping, which can take some getting used to. (The A4Tech keyboard, right, uses oddly shaped keys in addition to a non-standard layout.) Other keyboards lay out the function keys in groups of three instead of four.
The most drastic example, however, is the "natural" keyboard, which splits the keys into two groups, and a lot of people swear by. Whatever keyboard you end up with, make sure it's something you'll be comfortable gaming with over the long haul.
Key Travel: Some gamers -- like me -- can be pretty finicky when it comes to key travel. It's the difference between using a chicklet-style keyboard (like you'd find on a laptop), or one of the old-time IBM keyboards where you'd hammer on the keys and make all sorts of noise while typing. If you tend to chat a lot in games, key travel can be just as important as the key layout.
Extra Multimedia Keys: A lot of current keyboards, like Creative's Desktop Wireless 8000 (right) have extra function keys for web browsing, music playback, volume, email and other useful shortcuts. I'm partial to my old Microsoft Internet Pro keyboard (which, sadly, isn't made any more), but there are plenty of keyboards around that have these extra function keys if you need them.
USB ports: Some USB keyboards contain extra USB ports, which can be extremely handy if you want to plug in a new mouse, gamepad or a USB thumbdrive without having to dig behind your system. However, keyboard USB ports can sometimes be a little underpowered, so it's the kind of thing you should look at as a small bonus than a key element of your setup.
Cut the Cord? Walk into any computer store and it might seem like wireless mouse/keyboard combos are all anyone makes any more. But while it's nice to remove some clutter, I've yet to find a wireless setup I'm completely happy with for gaming (including quite a few from Microsoft and Logitech), so you won't find any wireless keyboards in this guide. If, however, you're dead set on going wireless, you may want to keep your eye on a combo with a rechargable mouse that won't chew through batteries.
USB or PS/2?: It may sound silly, but you should check to see if the keyboard in question connects via USB or a PS/2 port. You'll feel ten shades of silly if you pick up a USB keyboard and find out you don't have any more USB ports available to hook it up to.
Next: The boards!
So where do you start when looking for a good gaming keyboard? While the following list isn't exhaustive by any means, it's a pretty good selection of everything from the most basic to hardcore gaming-oriented keyboards. While all these keyboards won't appeal to everyone, odds are you'll find something below that you should be comfortable with for even the longest gaming sessions.
Microsoft Internet Keyboard
MSRP: $20 (white); $25 (black)
This is about as bare-bones as you can get without resorting to one of those no-name $10 keyboards you see stacked in your local computer store (which I've bought a few of, and often end up in the trash). It's the standard layout, with just a few extra hotkeys for things like web browsing and email.
Sluggo's Take: Simple, but gets the job done. I've had a bunch of similar Microsoft keyboards for years, and none of them have broken yet. My current choice for a budget keyboard.
Logitech Media Keyboard
This isn't Logitech's entry-level keyboard (that's the Logitech Access, $15), but a step up without getting too expensive. The function keys are replaced with round buttons, and, like many newer keyboards, has an oversized Delete key.
Sluggo's Take: I'm a fan of Logitech's products, but not their current line of keyboards. For my personal taste, they're too flat, the key travel is too low, and I don't like the newer key layout. It's a solid basic keyboard, but one that might take a little getting used to.
Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite
A few years ago, Microsoft started producing these radically-designed keyboards, meant to be more ergonomic and comfortable. They certainly haven't overtaken the more common key layout, but a lot of people swear by the design, and while a few other companies offer similar split-layout designs, Microsoft's is still the most popular going.
Sluggo's Take: I don't type "properly," so I could never get comfortable with these keyboards. Forcing me to work with one of these was like saying "hey, we don't want you to get anything done today." But I know a number of people who won't use anything else, so if you're a really good typist, you might want to check one of these out.
While there aren't many companies outside of Microsoft making split-design keyboards, Belkin offers one in the form of the ErgoBoard. Like the Natural Elite, it isn't cluttered with extra multimedia keys, but uses full-size buttons, unlike Microsoft's keyboard, which uses smaller buttons for the cursor and function keys.
Sluggo's Take: As with Microsoft's Natural Elite, I have a hard time getting comfy with this style of keyboard, and it's pretty huge to boot. However, it's a decent alterative to Microsoft's offerings ... especially if you really want something in black.
Saitek recently released two sleek USB keyboards of similar design, including the Eclipse, whose name is derived from the backlighting technology that produces a soft blue glow behind the keys. As a result, it's a keyboard well-suited to often-underlit environments ... like a dorm room or a LAN party.
Sluggo's Take: I'm currently using the Eclipse on one of my rigs, although I wish the key travel was a little higher and the function keys weren't so small (both a matter of personal preference). Still, it's a slick-looking keyboard that's perfect to take to late-night LAN parties where lighting is minimal.
Saitek Gamers' Keyboard
For the same price as the Eclipse, you can pick up Saitek's Gamers' Keyboard, which is essentially the same thing except: (a) it's silver; (b) it comes with a seperate programmable keypad; (c) the backlighting isn't quite as well-done as the Eclipse.
Sluggo's Take: In theory, the keypad seems like a great idea for gamers, but in practice, where do you put it? In most games, players "feel" their way around the keyboard; using the extra keypad means jumping back and forth between the two, which can be hard to get used to. In the end, I stuck with the Eclipse, because (a) the backlighting is done better, and (b) I just liked the black. If you really want the extra keypad, just get the Eclipse and consider adding the Nostromo n52 SpeedPad, which we'll cover later this week.
Zboard (by Ideazon)
MSRP: $50 for basic system
$20 for additional keysets
Targeted directly at gamers, the Zboard system was designed to be the Better Gaming Keyboard by offering swappable keysets with specially designed keys for different games. FPS keysets would provide (in theory) properly-aligned direction buttons instead of the offset W/A/S/D configuration, and then place the rest of the buttons in a more optimal manner for each game. In addition to a generic FPS board, keysets have been released for several games, including DOOM 3, EverQuest 2, World of Warcraft, and, most recently, Battlefield 2.
Sluggo's Take: I've tried several of the Zboards in the past few years, and while they're getting better, the system doesn't seem quite there yet. The early boards had little round buttons for the A-Z keys, which were a pain to use. I tried again with the DOOM 3 board last year, but gave up after about an hour -- the direction keys didn't quite feel right, and forget about any of the FPS boards if you plan on chatting with teammates; the A-Z keys are laid out so awkwardly (see the BF2 board above?) that you'll have to hunt and peck for every message.
Ironically, the Zboards I've liked the most are the ones for EverQuest II and World of Warcraft, which ditch the special keys and simply build in a ton of shortcuts to key commands. On top of that, I actually like the basic board -- it has two USB ports and a nice selection of extra hotkeys. If it weren't for the odd split in the space bar, I might consider it for normal use. Maybe the Zboard guys should think about making a "regular" keyboard?
Next: Picking the Perfect Gaming Mouse
Day 2: Gaming Mice
There's arguably nothing hardcore PC gamers are more sensitive about than which mouse they use. With the right mouse, you feel connected to the action; the wrong mouse can be like bringing a big fluffy pillow to a gunfight. It's not as simple as picking one with a color and shape you like, however. Like keyboards, the newer mice have a ton of different features to consider, so before we get to the mice, here are some of the things you may want to keep in mind when looking for your perfect gaming mouse.
Optical or Ball?
Just about gone are the days where you'd have to clean your mouse out regularly due to lint and other grime getting in the ball area. The optical mouse, which uses an optical sensor to track your movement, has all but replaced the old ball mouse. I was a pretty early adopter of the optical mouse and can't imagine ever going back, but there are still some professional players who insist on the ball mouse, hard as they are to find these days. As long as you have the right surface or a good mouse pad (more on that shortly), optical is probably where you want to be.
At first, there were the left and right mouse buttons. Then came the clickable scroll wheel. Now, many mice place extra buttons ... well, everywhere, sometimes above and below the scroll wheel, other times on the side of the mouse. This arguably gets to be overkill at times, but having an extra button or two by your thumb can come in pretty handy in some games.
It may sound obvious, but size plays a huge role in getting comfortable with a mouse. Some players like huge mice, like Logitech's ginormous 1000MX, but I like smaller, lighter mice, like Logitech's older MX300 and the new Razer Diamondback.
It's nearly impossible to find a new mouse that doesn't have a scroll wheel, but not all are created equal. On many scroll wheels, you can feel the wheel "click" into place as you scroll with it, but some of Microsoft's latest mice have smoother, non-clicking scroll wheels. Some wheels are bigger than others and require varying levels of pressure to click. And some of the more advanced mice add functionality to push the scroll wheel left and right.
On the more advanced "gaming" mice, you'll often see "DPI" listed as a major feature, a measurement of the pixel tracking on any given mouse. You won't see this listed for more basic mice, but you will for more advanced models, like Logitech's MX518, and Razer's Diamondback.
As with keyboards, I'm not a big fan of cordless mice when it comes to gaming performance, so you won't see them mentioned much here. However, if you're dead set on getting a wireless mouse, get something with a rechargeable station, like Logitech's MX1000, so you don't have to worry about weak or dead batteries.
It's impossible to decide which mouse will be most comfortable for you just by reading this guide. Armed with this info, check out any local store that has mice out on display. Once you've figured out what you're looking for, getting a feel for each mouse should help you decide which one's right for you.
Next: On To The Mice!
Because we're covering quite a few mice in this guide, we've broken them up into two categories: "regular" mice, and those targeted directly at gamers. Although the gaming mice have some pretty cool features, they're not mandatory, as there are plenty of solid mice that won't break your budget.
Logitech Optical Mouse
This is about as basic as you can get for an optical mouse: three buttons, a scroll wheel, and a cloud of dust. It's probably the smallest of all of Logitech's mice, which may make it even more attractive if that's something you're looking for.
Sluggo's Take: It doesn't have any of the bells and whistles of the more advanced mice, but I love the small size. For a while, no one was making optical mice this small, and it's worth having one around as a backup should, say, you spill your caffeinated beverage of choice on your main mouse.
Microsoft Basic Optical Mouse
This is Microsoft's basic optical mouse, which, like Logitech's, has three buttons, a scroll wheel, and comes in white or black. You were expecting it to make toast, maybe?
Sluggo's Take: All things being equal, I'm more partial to the basic Logitech mouse, which is a little smaller, and their current drivers just seem better for games at the moment. If you're absolutely set on an MS mouse, I'd recommend the Intellimouse Optical 1.1 (below).
Logitech MX310 Optical Mouse
This is the entry-level mouse in Logitech's MX series, which boasts a resolution of 800 DPI and has six buttons: left, right, scroll wheel, a fourth under the scroll wheel, and one more button each on the left and right sides.
Sluggo's Take: I was a HUGE fan of the MX300, which was of smaller size than the medium-sized MX310, but only had four buttons. The thumb button on the MX310 is nice, but if you're going for a mouse of this size and price, you're probably better off spending a few extra bucks on one of the gaming mice on the next page.
Microsoft IntelliMouse Optical 1.1
The next step up in Microsoft's line, the IntelliMouse Optical 1.1 throws in a few bells and whistles, namely an extra button on the left and right, making for five buttons total. It's been around a while, but it's still a solid mouse.
Sluggo's Take: I've had one of these for years, and for a while was my main gaming mouse. For me, it was a nicer alternative to Microsoft's bigger optical mice, and the thumb button is one I used in several games. For reasons we'll get into shortly, it's really the only Microsoft mouse I'd recommend from this list.
Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer
Microsoft's Intellimouse Explorer is larger that its lower-priced offerings, and the latest models offer a "tilt-wheel" -- a scroll-wheel that can be pushed left or right as well as scrolled up and down. With an eye for the fashion conscious, the mice also come in a few different designs, so you're not stuck with simple white or black.
Sluggo's Take: This, sadly, is pretty much where I abandon Microsoft's mice for gaming. While most scroll wheels "click" as you scroll, the latest IntelliMouse's wheel -- as is the case for many of Microsoft's newer, higher-end mice -- is perfectly smooth. In fact, too smooth. In an FPS, those graduations are important when switching weapons: one click = next weapon. Trying to switch weapons with Microsoft's latest mice adds an unnecessary learning curve and a level of uncertainty to the equation. Your mileage may vary, but it's a dealbreaker for me when it comes to gaming.
Next up: "Gaming" Mice and Accessories
Gaming Mice and Accessories
In addition to the all-purpose mice we've just covered, a number of manufacturers are making mice aimed squarely at the gaming market. Some are actually worth looking into; others, not so much. It's rumored that Creative will soon be entering this genre with a gamer-focused mouse, but for now, it's mostly a two-horse race between Logitech and Razer.
Logitech MX510 Performance Optical Mouse
This was arguably Logitech's first foray at creating a "cool" gaming mouse, and the results weren't too bad. Just a hair bigger than MX310, the MX510 offers a resolution of 800 DPI, a whopping 8 buttons, and can be had in either a red or blue marble design. Unlike some mice, which place buttons on both sides, the 510 leaves the right side bare while placing two buttons in reach of a right-hander's thumb.
Sluggo's Take: I'm of two minds when it comes to the 510. I like the design, I like all the buttons, and I like the performance. On the other hand, it's a little large for my personal taste, and (I know this is really nitpicky) the scroll wheel requires a little more pressure to click than other mice. If you're like me and use the scroll button to activate a game's sniper zoom feature, having to push too hard can cause you to inadvertently scroll and switch weapons. If these things don't bother you, it's a pretty solid gaming mouse.
Logitech MX518 Gaming-Grade Optical Mouse
Logitech didn't leave any room for ambiguity with the MX518: they put "gaming" right in the name. Physically, it's the same body construction as the MX510, except with a different silver-ish finish. Technically, however, the mouse offers a resolution of up to 1600 DPI, special customization software, and the ability to change your sensitivity on the fly.
Sluggo's Take: I've played around with the MX518, but even with the better DPI, my reservations with it are similar to that of the MX510 -- its size and the scroll wheel. (And, personally, I think it's just plain ugly.) The extra features are pretty nice, however -- the sensitivity adjustment is pretty cool if you need one setting for normal play and a second setting, say, for sniping. If you've got a buddy who has one, it's worth checking out for a few days to see if it suits you.
Razer Diamondback /
Diamondback Plasma LE
For years, Razer was best known for the Boomslang, an oddly-shaped gaming mouse loved by a handful but mocked by most. In 2004, the company introduced a line of more conventionally-styled mice targeted at gamers, the Viper (1000 DPI) and the $60 Diamondback (1600 DPI). While we've yet to get our hands on the $30 Viper, we've played with two variants of the Diamondback: the red-tinted "Chameleon," and the blue-glow "Plasma LE." Both offer a total of seven buttons: left, right, scrollwheel, and two buttons along each side, giving both right-handers and southpaws equal opportunity to enjoy it.
Sluggo's Take: I'll admit: for years, I had a massive grudge against Razer. In 1999, they came by our offices with the old Boomslang and wanted to be the official mouse of GameSpy. They gave us a few mice to play with, and not only did we hate the design, but their initial drivers totally fried the USB ports on a few of our machines. We strung our prototypes up in the office (I still have mine), and the cry "BOOOOOMslang!" became a running gag.
A few years later, with new management and a new design, Razer appears to be turning it around. I've been using the Diamondback for a few months now, and it's just about everything I want out of a gaming mouse: it's the right size, the wheel feels right, it's got extra buttons, it looks cool, and it performs well. In fact, you can argue it's TOO sensitive, but there's a special Razer control panel you can use to tweak the settings. At $60, it's not cheap, but as far as I'm concerned, it's the best gaming mouse out today.
Logitech MX1000 Laser Cordless Mouse
Although I've largely ignored cordless mice in this guide, I'm making one exception for Logitech's MX1000 Laser Mouse, which dumps the traditional optical technology in favor of a laser-based system that, in theory, would be far more precise than optical mice and work on just about any surface. The mouse comes with a recharging stand, an on/off button, a battery indicator, a tilt-wheel, and extra thumb-button controls. If nothing else, it's a slick-looking package.
Sluggo's Take: When I first got the MX1000, I was pretty excited to check it out. It was a little too big for my taste (it's easily the biggest mouse in this guide), but I figured if I was going to give wireless another shot for gaming, this would be the time.
Unfortunately, no matter how many times I tried it, the MX1000 kept driving me away. Not only was it huge, but it felt like the signal would constantly drop for a split-second; it felt like I was constantly fighting for control. I have a number of friends who have the MX1000 and swear up and down by it, but for $80, it's hard for me to recommend as a gaming mouse.
As mice got more and more sophisticated, gamers realized that the right mouse pad could mean as much as the right mouse. 3M's Precision Mousing Surface quickly became a must-have for gamers, and since then, several companies like EverGlide have started making special mousepads designed especially for gaming. There are two that I'm partial to at the moment:
fUnc Industries sUrface 1030
After a few years of using the 3M mousepads, fUnc sent us a few of their sUrface 1030s a few years back, and it seems just about every one of them is still in use here at GameSpy HQ. Bigger than the old 3M pads, the 1030 comes with a heavy rubber base so it doesn't move around, and the actual surface can be flipped, with one surface a little rougher than the other. There's even a little metal clip to hold your mouse cable in place.
Sluggo's Take: Until recently, these were pretty much the only mouse pads I used for several years (I own three now). It's a good size, the surfaces are excellent, and while it's heavy enough that it won't move around, it's not that bulky, either. $20 might seem like a lot for a mouse pad, but it's one you'll probably hang on to for a few years.
MSRP: $35 (+eXactRest)
To go along with its new line of mice, Razer recently released the eXactMat (what's with mouse pads and weird caps?), which , at 10.4" x 13," is one of the largest mousepads going today. Like the fUnc pad, you can flip it over, but it's made out of a denser, stiffer material. The bundle version also includes the eXactRest, which is a really fancy name for a base with a wrist pad that keeps the mousepad from sliding around.
Sluggo's Take: I fell in love with the eXactMat the minute I set it up. I'm always looking for a larger mousepad, so the extra real estate was a bonus, and the surface feels really good with just about every optical mouse I've used so far. The only problem, as you might guess, is that it's $35, which makes it more expensive than a lot of mice. If you can find one on sale, and you have the desk space for it, it's worth checking out.
That's it for part two of our look at PC gaming peripherals -- now it's on to gamepads and other PC gaming accessories.[color=blue][/color]