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Hardware Review - 'Zboard Fang Gaming Pad'

by Reldan on June 11, 2006 @ 5:34 a.m. PDT

Fang is a PC gamepad engineered to enhance and enrich game command action for both novice and extreme gamers. Fang's strategically positioned keys and ergonomic contour combine to maximize performance and comfort for today's hottest FPS games.

Platform: PC
Manufacturer: Zboard

The "Fang" is the latest gaming peripheral offering from Zboard, the company that brought the world, well, the original Zboard gaming keyboard. The "Fang" essentially is the gaming panel from the Zboard, only as a standalone USB device that can be used alongside your normal keyboard. Here are the specs:

  • 41 Keys
  • Butterfly Layout for the "WASD" keys
  • Seven simultaneous keystrokes
  • Compact Size
  • Advanced Key Mapping

What this narrows down to is this:

With 41 keys, the Fang has enough different buttons to handle just about any FPS without the need to resort to a full keyboard for anything other than typing text. The keys are, for the most part, placed intelligently enough to be reachable without removing your hand from prime "WASD" position. Four of the keys are on left and right sides of the device, which make them either easy to hit or a hindrance, depending on where you like to keep your thumb. The keys are symmetric, making the Fang equally usable for both left- and right-handed gamers.

The butterfly layout makes the "WASD" easier to work with, when compared to a standard keyboard. The buttons are spaced slightly more than usual and feel very natural. They also are slightly angled inward, making it very difficult to make mistakes.

The ability to use seven simultaneous keystrokes at once seems a bit over-the-top; the last time I checked, I can only hit five buttons at once with my hand, and I can't recall a game that's ever needed that to happen. I guess the feature is there if you need it.

The size of the unit makes it ideal for portable gaming on a laptop. The "Fang" is as wide as a normal keyboard but is only a fraction of the height, while still offering everything needed to play most FPS games. Usually it's difficult to play FPS games on laptop keyboards, where space is limited and everything feels cramped, but it's equally difficult to lug around a full keyboard with you. This is a best-of-both-worlds solution for gamers who need to take it with them.

The advanced key-mapping capability was not present in the version of the Fang I've been testing. It's due out as a software upgrade sometime in Q3 of this year. Basically, it should allow all 41 keys on the Fang to be remapped to act as any keys you'd like them to be. This is something that you can usually get around by remapping actions within each game, but being able to do so outside of games and loading up presets would simplify things greatly and leave the key mappings the same if you had other gamers using your system.

I've kept a running log of my experiences with the Fang from the day I first started using it to see how my opinions have changed with time. I figure this would be the most useful estimation I can give as to what your experiences with the Fang might be like.

First Impressions: After a night spent going frag-happy on some DoD: Source, I can safely say that while I'm not 100% sold on the whole "Fang" concept, I am more than willing to continue using it. The first thing I noticed is that the large butterfly "qweasd" laid out in the middle of the gamepad is quite nice and very responsive. Although years of PC FPS gaming have conditioned my hands to hit keys quickly and true, having the primary gaming keys be oversized, slightly lowered, and tilted inwards doesn't hurt. The buttons at the bottom of the Fang and on the sides are positioned just far enough away to make them hard to reach without a bit of a stretch, and certainly are not in a spot where you would want to rest your thumb or pinky for a majority of the night. I found it interesting that the bottom right side thumb-button would be the "jump/space" key, especially given that the "C" key is where the space would be in relation to the "WASD" on a normal keyboard, and also where a relaxed hand keeps it thumb when set in optimal "WASD" position, at least for me.

The Fang is set up symmetrically to be used by either a righty or a lefty, which isn't too much of an issue, except that the thumb buttons are not really positioned in a way that makes them easy to hit with a pinky on either side. This isn't a huge issue, but I had some difficulty going between the left Shift, left Ctrl, and "Z" keys with my pinky finger.

The numbers are a mixed bag for me as well. On one hand, it's very nice to have essentially the entire number line of a keyboard readily available, all without moving out of the optimal "WASD" zone. On the other hand, to accommodate this, the number keys are slightly smaller than they would be on a normal keyboard and are positioned more closely together. This had the impact of putting the "5" where my hand would normally reach for the "4," which created a lot of weapon-switching difficulties while I was getting used to the new controls.

I also had some slippage problems with the Fang when using it on my wood and glass table. The bottom of the Fang has two rubber feet and two plastic fold-down legs. The plastic legs offer essentially no tread, and the rubber feet provide precious little due to the lightness of the unit (my mouse is heavier, for comparison's sake). I solved this by putting the Fang on top of a mousepad, although I admit feeling a little silly at doing so.

The software for the Fang was not particularly impressive, but it is a beta unit, and future updates are expected to greatly expand the power over key mappings. There is no way to remap the keys on the Zboard – you either use the default keys or choose a predefined setup. While I saw that, the company graciously has provided predefined setups for many games, Day of Defeat: Source was not one of them. And even still, there is a good chance that I may not entirely agree with the way Zboards decided to map all of the keys. This is a fairly minor gripe, since I essentially get the same effect by using the default keys and remapping the button presses in the game itself. Once key-mapping functionality is added, this problem will become moot.

I feel like a lot of these problems may be solved once my hand adapts to using the Fang. Even during the course of the night, I found myself doing better and better as I adapted to the new feel and positions. I don't see this board as being worse to use than a keyboard – if anything, it is at least as good, if not better, so I'm hoping that I'll fully adapt to it within the next few days.

After a few days of use: I'm definitely getting a much better feel for using the Fang. I've remapped jump keys in-game to "C," which is about where space bar normally would be, and that single-handedly has made the device far more usable and comfortable to play with. The side buttons just don't work for me, but the Fang has more than enough keys to go around. Also, the issue with the number keys is almost totally gone – I accidentally started playing yesterday on my normal keyboard and found myself having the opposite problem – my fingers had gotten conditioned to the new number positions on the Fang, and I was hitting the wrong ones on my standard Logitech keyboard. I still haven't figured out a use for all of the buttons, but I definitely have more than enough keys to map everything I need to do in DoD.

After more than a week: I'm still using the Fang, and I will continue to use it for playing FPSes. I'm looking forward to an update to the software for expanded key-mapping capabilities, but remapping things in-game is working fine in the interim. My only remaining gripe is specifically targeted at the position of the "3" key, which is just above and slightly to the left of the "W." It's awkward for me to hit, although I have no problems with "1", "2", or "4." I would imagine a left-handed person would run into a similar problem with the "4," since their hand would be laid over the Fang from the other direction. Other than this very minor issue, I'm finding the Fang to be a very useful FPS "gamepad."

To wrap things up, the Fang is good for FPS games. It isn't trying to reinvent the wheel as a gaming controller, and it isn't just some ridiculously shallow gimmick device – it's a solid device that's especially designed for controlling FPS games in the way we're used to (mouse/keyboard), only enhanced by applying ergonomics and logic to the equation. It isn't going to make you a better player, but it may make the act of playing more enjoyable and definitely more comfortable. For some, that'll be worth the $35 right there. For everyone else, I'd say give it a shot – you might be surprised with how much you like it.

Score: 8.8/10

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