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Product : Zboard
Company : Ideazon
Author : Mark 'Ratchet' Thorne
Date : August 10th, 2003

Introduction

Many companies have attempted in the past to recreate a better, easier to use computer keyboard. We've seen everything from roll-up keyboards to "ergonomic" keyboards to no keyboard at all. Ideazon, rather than trying to create an unorthodox device, has taken the old concept of keyboard templates and adapted it to create the Zboard, a keyboard base with various customized interfaces that can be created to suit any specific application or game.

Zboard Base
Zboard Base

The base, which is available in an all black model (the model I am reviewing) and a black model with silver accents, connects to your computers PS/2 port, the same as most other keyboards.

Folded ZBoard Interface
Folded ZBoard Interface

The interfaces, which are basically mini-keyboards themselves, then fold into the base and lock down with a lever on the right side. There are no cables or switches to mess with, and the Zboard automatically sets up the interface without the need to reboot or reconfigure any software settings. Tucked away, but not hard to find, along the top edge of the base are multimedia buttons to control your favorite media player (the buttons currently only control Windows Media Player. Ideazon stated in their documentation that other compatibility add-ons will be available for download from their website) and an array of customizable Hot Keys to quickly access applications and utilities. The base itself is about the same size as a standard keyboard and the interfaces, when folded up, are about the same dimensions as four stacked CD cases.

Application Use

Photoshop Interface KeyPad
Photoshop Interface KeyPad
The application interfaces are pretty much standard until you enable the "Bar Lock" and/or "Pad Lock" features. When enabled the F1-F12 bar and the numeric keypad act as a sort of macro area, allowing quick, one keystroke, access to common application specific tasks. The Photoshop interface, for example, when in Bar Lock uses the F1-F12 keys to modify and work with the image. When Pad Lock is enabled, the numeric keypad is used to work with the images layers and views. Both Bar Lock and Pad Lock automatically disable when the application the interface was designed for does not have focus. This prevents any disasters if you are quickly switching between applications while working. Giving focus back to the application returns "Bar Lock" and "Pad Lock" to their previous state. Switching interfaces on the fly doesn't cause any problems for the Zboard either: going from the Photoshop interface to the Flash MX for example, with both applications open at the same time, is handled properly with the Zboard retaining the state of the Bar Lock and Pad Lock buttons between interface changes.

KeyTips in action
KeyTips in action
Sitting between the Bar Lock and Pad Lock keys (at least on the interfaces I have) is the "KeyTips" key. Hitting that pops up an awesome "help" utility specific to the interface installed. When KeyTips is active, pressing a key or key-combo displays not only what the key does in the application, but gives you a brief description of what the function is used for, as well as "links" to the other key combos for that key. In my opinion, the KeyTips feature alone would justify the Zboard to many users new to an application.

If you're already very familiar with an application however, then you probably won't get much benefit from the Zboard. Most users already fairly experienced with an application like Photoshop or Flash MX usually have set ways which he or she goes about various tasks. For me, even though I wanted to make use of the Pad Lock and Bar Lock features when using Photoshop, I often found myself subconsciously going about a particular task the way I always have - a lot of times I even finished the series of key presses or mouse clicks before I remembered that there's now a key that can do it in one simple stroke. That's not to say a user can't grow accustomed to the Zboard's shortcuts of course, but there would be a learning curve initially.

Medal of Honor Interface
Medal of Honor Interface
The Medal of Honor interface is clearly the most unique of the bunch. The WASD and QE keys have been oversized and adjusted for comfort, and the other common keys have been repositioned so they are easier to hit. The character keys were moved to the right and spaced out a lot more than you'd see on a regular keyboard. The extra space on the interface is available because Ideazon removed the numeric keypad and the "Page Up/Page Down" key array.

Medal of Honor Interface
Medal of Honor Interface
I'm an arrow key gamer (that is, I use the arrow keys, not the WASD keys a lot of people use for gaming), but even for me it did not take long at all to get accustomed to the new layout. The labeling on the interface for a lot of the in-game options, were, because I'm not a big MOH:AA gamer, particularly helpful. The only negative thing I have to say about the setup is that some of the keys are a bit too slippery and a little too far apart. Whether it'll make you a better Medal of Honor gamer or improve your whole Medal of Honor experience is debatable, but it certainly doesn't hurt anything. All you have to do is ask yourself whether the added cost is worth it.

Frankly, on that idea, Ideazon might not have thought the entire interface thing through for gamers. Let's face it, adding another $20 per interface to the cost of a $50 game is not something many gamers are willing to do. What I think Ideazon should do, rather than designing interfaces for all games, is to design interfaces for game genres. Because of the nature of PC gaming in general and First Person Shooters in particular, I had initially hoped that the Medal of Honor interface would work with other games in the same genre, or at least other games using the same Quake3 game engine. Unfortunatly, the way the Zboard works in detecting game launches, it only allow basic access to the interface and not the use of the cutomized buttons, which is a very unfortunate limitation.

Conclusion

For what it was designed to do, it works perfectly. Ideazon seems to have taken everything a user might do to it into account and made sure that the Zboard behaves properly. It's as easy to install and setup as any other keyboard and interface changes are quick and easy. Even without taking the interfaces into account, it offers as many or more features in a small footprint package as many other much larger keyboards.

Honestly though, the Zboard is a bit gimmicky. Only a novice or intermediate application user would appreciate its time saving features, and the only gamers that would find buying a separate interface for each game acceptable are those gamers that either only play one particular game, or those gamers that aren't already familiar with PC gaming in the first place.

Dad seems to like it though, so it can't be all bad.


Verdict

Overall Score
3.5 out of 5
3.5 out of 5
Pros
  • Very unique, lots of "geek factor" points
  • Relativly small footprint
  • Unobtrusive Multimedia and Hotkey shortcuts
  • Awesome KeyTips feature
  • Impresses Dads everywhere (it really does!)
Cons
  • Hard to justify buying an interface for only one game
  • Very stiff keys
  • Don't count on getting an interface for anything but top-tier games




About Ideazon

Ideazon, Inc. is an innovator in the design and development of next generation keyboard systems. The company was founded in May 2000 by gaming enthusiasts who saw the need for a keyboard system that would allow consumers to very quickly learn and master complex games and business applications.

Through its tireless dedication and commitment to innovation, Ideazon developed the versatile Zboard, the world’s first keyboard system with an interchangeable interface. Working closely with strategic partners in the publishing industry, Ideazon is bringing to market keyboard interfaces for some of the world’s most recognized games and business applications.

Headquartered in Toronto, the company is guided by an esteemed management team comprised of executives who bring a wealth of experience from some of the world’s leading technology and distribution companies. Their vision and passion for this market continue to fuel the fires of innovation at Ideazon.

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