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If you remember my article Does a Poor Workman Blame His Tools? you might remember that I ended it wondering if a new keyboard would improve my games skills even further, considering a new, gaming-orientated mouse seemed to have such an influence. Well, to test my hypothesis I got my hands on the new Microsoft Sidewinder X6 keyboard.
When I got this keyboard, I'll be completely honest and say I absolutely hated it. I'd become incredibly familiar with my clunky, loud, but reliable (er, apart from the wonky spacebar) basic keyboard, and so a new keyboard was probably going to take me a while to become comfortable with. However, I'd argue that the X6 takes a little longer to get used to than many keyboards, as there are some quirks of the design which, while intended to improve gameplay, are a bit of a detriment to comfortable typing if you've fallen into a few habits.
For example the keyboard features a line of six programmable macro keys to the left of the main keyboard space. What that means, in general usage, is that if you've become used to just swinging your hand to the edge of your keyboard (unthinkingly) you're going to end with your fingers pretty far from your home keys and end up typing nonsense.
Then there's an even bigger sin. The keyboard doesn't come with feet on the back to raise it if you don't like a flat keyboard. I've heard a variety of reasons that Microsoft haven't included feet--from cost issues to the claim that a flat keyboard is more ergonomic--but frankly I've just become used enough to a raised keyboard that I just couldn't (didn't?) want to learn otherwise. As a result I've had to resort to placing piles of business cards under the back end of the keyboard to make it comfortable (though I'm sure I'll find a better solution sooner or later.)
So my initial experience with this keyboard was poor. I kept mistyping and was displeased with my inability to raise the back without resorting to a cheap fix, and to be honest if I hadn't forced myself to persevere then maybe I'd have given up.
But in retrospect, I think I'd have regretted it. Once you get used to its quirks, the X6 is a pretty great keyboard for typing on. It's got really nice, springy but low-register keys that have improved my typing speed above what it was with my previous keyboard, and while the various bells and whistles the keyboard includes aren't all to my taste, they're interesting to have. The most useful gimmicks are the various media and special-use keys (pretty standard to most keyboards now, though) and the macro keys.
Macro keys are something that is particularly useful to one kind of gamer--The MMO gamer. In MMOs you're so often required to perform a variety of moves in a specifically optimum fashion that it makes more sense to bind them all to a key. So instead of hitting a key to "buff" your weapon, "debuff" your enemy and then attack, you can do it with one quick key press.
It's a bit less useful for other gamers, but in the right kind of situations FPS and RTS gamers might find it invaluable. But I'll be honest and say it hasn't added very much to my personal gaming experience--certainly not any more than just having a better keyboard.
Less useful are the other gimmicks, such as the backlighting (I don't tend to play in the dark) and volume knob (who plays games without a volume control in reach to begin with?) and most of all the movable keypad, which is arguably the keyboard's prestige feature.
You see, what you can do is detach the keypad and move it to the right, so if you're a WASD gamer there are 30+ macro keys in "easy reach". The problem is that it doesn't really work out that way (in my experience.) the distance between your hand and the newly placed keypad is still pretty far, so it's not as intuitive as they seemed to have assumed.
And when it comes down to it, I don't use the WASD keys, I play using the cursor keys because I'm left handed. The only thing the detachable keypad does for me is make the keyboard a nice size without it to be used as a USB keyboard in front of the TV, which sounds like a pretty great idea to be honest.
The weird thing is that despite these many quibbles, I like this keyboard a lot; once my hands are in the right position it types nice and is a better gaming keyboard than my last--though I admit I didn't notice any particular great jump in my skills in Team Fortress 2 this time.
The stumbling block is ultimately it's price. At $89.99 you have to be pretty sure you're going to make the most of those macro keys to pick this above other, more reasonably priced keyboards, but if you've got the money this is a keyboard that's reasonably good for gaming and resonably good for typing; which feels like I'm damning it with faint praise, but for a combination gaming/work PC that's a fair deal.