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Hardware Review - 'Zboard MERC Keyboard'

by Inexhist on July 14, 2006 @ 1:59 a.m. PDT

Zboard MERC Keyboard is a hybrid keyboard that features an integrated game pad powered by Zengine technology. MERC's innovative form and key profiles were engineered with the gamer in mind.

Platform: PC
Manufacturer: Zboard

The Zboard system started out by providing interchangeable sets of keys for a "keyboard tray." These key sets would allow users to plug in a customized interface for whichever game they were playing. Sets of keys would be released per game and offer the users intuitive interfaces regardless of which game they were playing. All in all, this was a brilliant concept as it attempted to adapt the outdated interface with the increasingly complex games. This is also where the product lost my interest; the key sets were released on a game-by-game basis and frankly did not cover nearly the number of games I play. Beyond that, there was something about the folding key sets that never looked professional, and while this is purely an aesthetic complaint, it did bother me.

The upcoming release from Zboard, called the MERC, attempts to solve everything I had found questionable about the original Zboard in one fell swoop. The keyboard is no longer a modular entity; instead it is a slightly more compact version of a standard keyboard with an added "claw" section to the left of the keys. Within the keyboard itself is contained a memory unit which mimics the effects of the key sets, depending on which game it detects is running.

The installation was a breeze. I was able to plug-and-play the keyboard itself (it uses a USB port), and after a very quick and easy installation, I had the Zboard software up and running. The software that the MERC uses to perform its near-mystical feats is very unobtrusive, taking up very little in the way of system resources and generally being readily ignored. Aside from a general lack of customization (currently, the user cannot create his own scripted keys or remap the keys), the MERC delivers, so hopefully, future releases of the software will add in this customization. Despite being unable to create custom interfaces, the ones provided seem to be well thought-out. I only wanted to change perhaps one or two keys per game, and in most cases, I was able to fix the problem within the game itself.

It took me a little while to get used to the slightly curved placement. At the outset, occasionally hit the map function when trying to target nearby enemies, which is not a big deal, unless you're in the middle of fighting a raid boss in World of Warcraft … which I was. Sorry, guys. By the end of the first run, however, I was back up at full capacity and began to shift around some of my key bindings for optimal usage. After shifting things around a bit and growing used to it, I began to wonder how I had ever played games using a normal keyboard in the past. The device cradled my hand and provided unsurpassed access to more buttons than anything that preceded it. Being able to reach every key you might need without taking your fingers off of the movement keys is a blessing indeed.

World of Warcraft wasn't the only place I put it to its paces (it just happened to get the most usage there). I also re-installed Quake with the Urban Terror mod for some fun urban terrorizing. Much to my pleasure, I had already grown accustomed to the "gaming center" of the keyboard from my time with World of Warcraft, making it relatively easy to readjust to using it for an FPS. After a few minutes spent re-mapping keys within the game (hopefully they release the new software soon), I was ready to go. In the more fast-paced world of FPS games, I noticed a bit of an issue with the size of the number keys, which are roughly 30% smaller than the ones on a normal keyboard. I would occasionally try and switch to my shotgun and accidentally toss a flash grenade instead … oops. Most assuredly, I adapted over time and was able to "wtfpwnbbq" people like nothing.

Of course, the keyboard itself has a full complement of media buttons, as well as a couple of "custom" buttons that can be pointed towards various programs and or websites. I immediately mapped one out to the World of Warcraft forums, one to my guild's DKP site, and the final to a program I use to assist with assigning buff duties and things of that nature. It was very easy to point each key towards a different program, and they can be assigned to do different things, depending on which game you might be playing. Another boon is that all of the keys are extremely responsive, making this board a pleasure to type on.

The 10-key portion the keyboard took the most getting used to, as arrows, page up/down and everything else in that section was combined with the nine-key number pad. The end result is a block of buttons that are usually separated. I don't think I will ever really be used to it, and it kills my 10-key speed. Even taking into account the space savings gained by combining those areas together, the keyboard is still a good deal wider than your average one.

The claw section – what this keyboard is all about – features a centralized (fat finger-proof) set of keys which makes the keypad movement much smoother and easier. The number keys 1-11 (11 is essentially your "–" key) have been condensed and placed above the movement keys in two rows. Beyond that, they mapped a few miscellaneous keys around the sides and beneath the movement keys. In World of Warcraft, these included the map, target, character info, quest log, jump, sit, shift and a few others. Fortunately, the player can change them by remapping inside the game; who needs instant access to their character screen, let alone sitting down? Eventually, a player should be able to remap them within the software itself – just not yet.

In summary, the Zboard MERC is a more professional-looking and -feeling version of the Zboard, and it won't require you to buy new "expansions" for every game that comes out. The MERC is all about offering the same functionality to core gamers wanting to use a more advanced interface, and it is definitely worth looking into, even for a casual gamer who wants to expand his ability. The best part is that it does everything it was meant to, without looking like something that came out of a cereal box.

Score: 8.0/10

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