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Belkin Nostromo SpeedPad n52

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I don't remember where I first saw this product mentioned.  I think I actually saw the n50 described, first.  But I really liked the idea of this device.  It's just the sort of device I was hoping to see when USB became popular on PCs.  It's not laid out precisely as I would have done it, but it's pretty close.  I read a couple of reviews and then splurged to get one with my current gaming rig.  I've used it with three games so far, Far Cry, Half-Life 2 and Call of Duty 2.

The physical layout of the device is fairly good.  The keys have a nice smooth feel with enough travel for good feedback.  But not so much travel that they'll slow a user down.  Nor risk not travelling enough to trigger a keypress.  My Baby Brother tried one and said the keys are too stiff for his taste.  The keyboard he's been using lately apparently has a very light touch.  Or, possibly his N52 has stiffer keys.  Mine exhibits maybe a bit of resistance, but I don't notice while I'm playing.  I'm probably more ham-fisted than he is.

There are two rows of five keys, plus one row of four keys.  That back row is at a bit of an angle, rocked forward maybe ten degrees.  That's to handle your fingers curling back to get at those keys.  Unlike the couple of "ergonomic keyboards" I've used in the past, the position of these keys feels very natural.  I think that's because they're not lifted up in an attempt to make make a smooth bowl shape.  That makes the look of the device not quite as aesthetically pleasing, but it appears to be more comfortable and functional.

In addition to these very keyboard-like keys, they have several other controls.   Where the fifth key of the bottom row should be they have a clickable scroll wheel.  And your thumb has several controls to work.  One is a eight-way D-pad.  Above the D-pad is an orange button with a very stiff action.  And below, nearly parallel to the desktop, is an oversized key with a very soft action, that defaults to the spacebar.

Dominating the back of the device is a palm rest.  It's reasonably comfortable, and the bulge doesn't get in the way of my fingers at all.  I have fairly long fingers, so the palm rest might be just a bit short for my taste.  An inch more length would probably help me.  Also, it might be nice if the surface was something like neoprene or some similar soft material.  There's just enough pressure where my palm/wrist hits the edge of the rest that a softer material might be more comfortable during long gaming sessions.

The unit has a good heft, and the feet stick well to my somewhat-slick desktop.  (The feet are not actually sticky.  Just rubber feet.)  I've never noticed a tendancy for the thing to slide around.  Except when I'm pushing the stiff orange button.  The angle on that is just wrong to put a lot of side force on the unit while enticing the palm to lift off the rest.  So I've programmed that button to take screenshots.  That way I'm not trying to use it in the middle of a firefight.

Tthe device supports four sets of key mappings.  Three LEDs, red green and blue and all-off indicate which set is active.  Now, few people can remember that many complete sets of keys.  So at first glance that seems like wretched excess.  But with the number of keys available on this device it's really useful to add a few functions that won't fit in just one mapping.  For example, at the moment I have ESC and Tab assigned in the red mapping.  I don't need those keys while I'm actively moving and shooting.  But it's convenient to be able to get to them on this device, rather than reaching for the keyboard I have in my lap.  Also, when I used to play in a Quake Clan we had several keys bound to spit out team chat phrases.  Having those on a secondary mode would be useful.  The main movement keys would be identical for all modes.

It's been a while, but I don't remember any issues installing the software.  I simply downloaded the latest from the Belkin site and installed it.

I'm not particularly happy with the key editing software.  It's not horrible, but their nomenclature is a bit unclear to me.  I mean, after a little study it's fairly obvious how the two pieces of software are supposed work together.  But it still feels very clumsy for some reason.

I guess a big part of that feeling is that several times I have accidentally had the wrong profile (key recordings) loaded.  There were several times I thought I was working on an existing profile and when I went to save it told me that the filename was unknown.  In each of those cases I'd need to load the correct profile and then repeat all of the key assignments I'd made.

Similarly, the Loadout Manager (associates profiles to games) just comes across as awkward.  The first time I saw it I was pretty confused, because the UI doesn't do a good job of explaining what you're looking at.  And the help file is decidedly unhelpful.   Far too terse.

Maybe they need an optional wizard interface, to explain each step to the user as he's going through it.  "Select game/application."  "Select profile/key mappings for device #1. etc"  "Edit profile/key mappings."   Something along those lines.

I guess my biggest problem is that the Loadout Manager screen feels backwards.  To me, the game/application is the primary key.  Next is the list of devices (I only have the one, of course) and the key mapping file it should load for that game.   Having the "Associated Game" dialog on the right sure made it feel like the key mapping was primary and that the game was attached to the profile, and not the other way around.

Another minor quibble with the Loadout Manager is that the combobox (drop-down box) for the associated game won't let you scroll left and right to see the entire name of the app.   Considering that 99.9% of users are going to let their games get installed into C:\Program Files\Company\Game\ApplicationName.exe that's a bit annoying.  In order to double-check the name of the app I was looking at I had to copy it to the clipboard and paste it into Notepad.

And there's a small oversight with the Profile Editor.  When the mouse hovers over the key assignments, the appropriate key on the graphic of the N52 highlights.   That's good.  But, it doesn't work the other way.  Most of the time I'd like to hover the mouse over the key I want to change.  In fact, it would be even better if I could click on the graphic of the key and have the menu of choices show up right there.  Popping the menu up next to the appropriate key assignment field would work for me, too.  As it stands now, I have accidentally changed the wrong key more than once.  And of course, once I start doing that I keep on doing it over and over, and wonder why the change isn't showing up in the game.

And finally, I don't think they should have split those functions into two programs.   They could squish the layout of the Loadout Manager down quite a lot.  That could be the top of the screen for the Profile Editor.  Hmm.  I just switched to 800x600 and the height of the Profile Editor is designed for that screen size.  Maybe line everything up on the left side of the Profile Editor.  And then, anytime you highlight a controller on the left it'll automagically pop up the current Profile on the right.

Once all that is figured out, though, it works fairly nicely.  I had to remember to associate both the single- and multi-player apps of Call of Duty 2 to the correct profile.   But having done that, the correct profile is automagically loaded when I fire up the game.   Very nice.

In use, the device is completely transparent.  I almost never think about it.   The keys are lined up, not offset like a keyboard.  And in fact, I found that alignment removed some occasional confusion.  With a keyboard, especially when reaching down to the x c v b keys, I have sometimes gotten confused about which I was reaching for.

The one time I do have to think about the device is when I'm using the thumb controls.   So far, the things I usually put on the D-way pad are binoculars, flashlight, thermovision goggles, etc.  Items that I don't normally swap in and out during a firefight.

I'm also still not comfortable using my thumb to jump in FPS games.  I've long done jumping with my the shift key under my pinkie.  But I seem to be the only person in the world who does that.  So I've been slowly trying to ween myself to jumping with the spacebar/thumb.

One huge advantage of using my thumb to jump with the N52 is that the action of this button is so much lighter than a real spacebar.  And that's mostly because this thumb key is so much shorter than a real spacebar.

But, the position of that button isn't ideal for me.  When I have my fingers on the main keys my thumb naturally wants to ride up onto the D-pad.  It feels like a bit of a stretch to get down to the space/jump button.  Not much.  It doesn't twist my hand or anything like that.  But it does pull my thumb out of its natural curl.  It feels like I'm attempting to push down on the right side of the palm rest.  I'd like to see the thumb button raised 1/2 cm and maybe tilted ten degrees.

There are a few competitive devices that look mildly interesting.  According to some user comments at a couple of online stores, some people much prefer the Flexiglow layout.  But they say the software sucks.  The Wolf Claw has a plethora of keys.   But their rigid adherence to visual aesthetics resulted in some oddly sized and shaped keys.  I think I'd find that annoying.  The DX1 Input System looks very interesting.  But it's awfully expensive.

Pros:
Great concept
Well executed
Well built
Adequate number buttons/controls
Adequate size
Adequate software
Cons:
I'd like to see another row and another column of buttons
I'd like to see it a little bigger
Keys might be slightly stiff for some people
Thumb "key" a bit of a reach
Software was clumsy

I need to come up with a hardware value scale.  In the meantime, I'll give it an 90% rating.

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Last modified: May 13, 2006
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