disliked the necessity of memorizing hotkeys for various pieces of software,
especially games. Wouldn't it be great if you could just have the keys
marked in some way, so all you'd have to do is look at them to know what
key performs the special function you want for a particular piece of software?
In the past I have seen various solutions to this problem; none of them
very effective: Plastic overlays that didn't fit well and moved around
as you typed, templates that fit around the few gaps on the keyboard that
can only mark certain sets of keys and don't stay put (I can remember
making these myself out of paper), even including new keys with additional
markings on them that replace certain ones on the keyboard. The latter
was the best solution, but it was really only effective for a single software
product, since nobody wants to keep pulling off and replacing many keys
every time they switch programs.
Now Ideazon has come up with what I feel is the perfect solution in their Zboard line of products. The Zboard custom keyboard system is comprised of two parts: a universal base that connects to your computer's keyboard port just like any keyboard, and individually purchasable custom keysets for various games or applications.
The base looks like a regular keyboard with the area where the keys are dug out so that all that's left are the switches underneath. The base also provides several very useful permanent keys. There are 7 keys that control Windows Media Player (volume up and down, mute, rewind, stop, play/pause and fast-forward). There are 9 programmable (via the included software) keys that default to activating the following: 1) Windows Media Player, 2) My Computer, 3) Calculator, 4) Wordpad, 5) Windows Messenger, 6) Outlook Express, 7) Google Web Search, 8) Your Web Homepage and 9) Ideazon's Web Page. There is one more non-programmable key that brings up the Zboard configuration software.
The keysets are individually designed and labelled for use with a particular software product, such as the Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer keyset that came with the base I was given, and the Neverwinter Nights keyset I was given for this review. Each keyset is the same size as a regular full-size keyboard, that when removed, folds up in two places into a compact 6.5 inch wide X 5.25 inch high X 1.875 inch tall package. As a consequence of this folding ability, the spacebar is actually configured as two keys right next to each other instead of the regular one key.
The Neverwinter Nights keyset I reviewed is lavishly decorated with Neverwinter Nights artwork all over the face, with artwork around the keys indicating their NWN functionality. That brings me to my only complaint with the NWN keyset: Most of the keys on the interface are the size and shape of small round gamepad buttons with the labelling not on the keys themselves, but in the spaces between them. Now this isn't a major consideration when playing a module in single-player mode, but when you play online, and use the chat interface frequently, the small keys make for an awkward typing experience.
Now back to the good stuff about this keyset. All the keys in the main keyboard area that have a special function in NWN are marked with a special decorative surrounding: a gold ring around the key indicates normal game functionality, such as "I" for bringing up the inventory screen or "Tab" for quick inspect, a purplish glow around the key indicates the key is used with the quick chat menus, whitish spikes around the keys indicate they are used for the quickbar slots, and red spikes around the key indicate functionality only available in the DM client.
Each of the keys with a gold ring or red spikes around it also has a label indicating exactly what the key will do in NWN, including bringing up the console, taking a screen capture, bringing up the spell interface, quick save, bringing up the DM chooser interface, and bringing up the DM creator interface. The right third of the NWN keyset (the arrow keys and numeric keypad on a normal keyboard) is set up and labelled for the camera control functionality (arrow keys etc.) and the radial menu interface (numeric keypad). In the camera control area, there are two extra keys: one for toggling the camera mode, and one is an additional quick inspect (Tab).
The really great thing about this Zboard NWN keyset is that all the keys are fully labelled. I had to rummage around all over in the NWN instruction manual and the quick-reference card to find all the information present on the interface at your fingertips. I hadn't even known that the numeric keypad was a radial menu interface until I saw it labelled. I then checked the NWN instruction manual and found that it was actually documented there, and I just hadn't noticed.
The coolest feature of the Zboard NWN keyset is that you can set it up to automatically run Neverwinter Nights when you insert the interface into the base! So when I'm ready to play some NWN, all I do is pop out the Windows/IE keyset I'm using and pop in the NWN keyset. The Zboard software recognizes that the NWN keyset is present and automatically starts the game for me. Fantastic! If that isn't something you personally want, you can disable that functionality easily through the Zboard settings software (actually it's disabled by default, so you have to enable it).
Installation and set-up was a breeze. Insert the CD that came with the keyboard base and it installs the software. Shut down the computer and install the Zboard base in place of your current keyboard and turn your computer back on. Simple as that.
Documentation provided with the base and the keysets is clear and concise. They show exactly how to remove and insert the keysets into the base, and each keyset comes with a quick reference card that explains all the keys and special commands (not that you'd need it since the keysets themselves are clearly labelled).
I can't recommend this Zboard system highly enough (the Windows/IE keyset is also fantastic, but that wasn't what I was reviewing here). It completely relieves you from having to rummage through the software documentation to find out what the hotkeys are; everything you need to know is right at your fingertips. The only hesitation you should have for purchasing the Ideazon Zboard Neverwinter Nights keyset is if you plan to use the chat interface heavily, and you'd find the small keys too difficult to type with.
You can buy the reviewed items here:
More images of the keyboard: