Why left-hand keypads are the weird WASD peripheral every PC gamer needs
I started playing modern PC games in 2008, after building my own desktop for the first time. But after spending pretty much my entire life on consoles, the idea of switching to keyboard and mouse controls was intimidating — moving a character without an analog stick or D-pad? Preposterous! Thankfully, the exploding market for PC gaming accessories was there for me with a little gadget called the Belkin N52te Nostromo.
What’s the point?
It was the latest in a series of gadgets without a proper category name. Half-keyboards? Keypads? Gamepads? Whatever. They’re tiny little keyboards designed for your left hand only, physically separating the controls around the WASD cluster into its own dedicated hardware. They also add some much-needed ergonomics like an intelligently moved space bar, and sometimes extras like a mouse wheel and separated directional controls.
Because they’re separated from your main keyboard, you can position them at roughly the opposite spot of your mouse, allowing you to stay centered without awkwardly moving your main keyboard. And as a bonus, it lets you use different types of keys — keys designed for typing on the main board and keys designed for gaming on the secondary one. This gives you the freedom to choose the best purpose-built tool for working and gaming, without compromise.
An abandoned segment
There have been several attempts at this design. The N52 was Belkin’s third take on it, and Razer would eventually buy the design whole cloth. Logitech’s similar G13 is still prized by devotees years after it’s gone out of production. Saitek made one called the “Commander,” and the “Wolf Claw” was a detached version of a design that also came with a full-sized keyboard next to it.
But about eight years ago, these specialty designs began to die out in favor of more elaborate gaming keyboards. Razer still makes a descendant of the Belkin design called the Tartarus, almost begrudgingly it would seem. Cooler Master has the ControlPad, an ortholinear take with barely any nods to ergonomics. And there are semi-custom gadgets like the Azeron, which is more of a reinvention of finger-based input than a keyboard designed for gaming. And that’s about it for big names in this small space. Every once in a while you hear about a niche addition, like today’s news of the “Shrimp” keyboard from some company called Nordic Game Supply.
Nordic Game Supply
The Shrimp boils down (hehe) the concept to its bare essentials, giving you a curtailed selection of left-handed keys and not much else — they end just one key to the right of the WASD cluster. It does look like a nice package, with a detachable magnetic wrist rest, several color options (including a funky “stickerbomb” look), and premium Gateron Pro mechanical switches, plus two programmable dials. It’s just a shame there’s no price or date for this gadget. Even the manufacturer has no mention of it on its website.
Lots of choices, none of them great
There’s an odd savior for this segment: mobile gaming. A ton of Chinese gadget suppliers have come out with mini-keyboard-and-mouse combos in the last few years, designed explicitly to connect to your phone and give you an (unfair?) advantage in mobile shooting games. These typically include a full-sized USB port for a mouse and a Bluetooth connection to a phone or tablet. But these aren’t great for PC gaming. The Bluetooth connection is less than ideal, and as cheap mobile accessories, they tend to be lacking in quality.
A couple of designs have been made with the aim of bringing keyboard and mouse controls to consoles. I myself use a heavily-modified version of the GameSir VX, one of the only one of these keypads with a 2.4GHz wireless connection. Even so, this console-focused gadget is less than ideal, because it recharges via MicroUSB. It can also only be programmed with a mobile app, and even then, only with console controls. The second version of the design, the V2, suffers from many of the same issues.
Out of this crop of mobile keyboards have come a new supply of designs made specifically for PCs. You can find them all over Amazon, from various fly-by-night brands whose names are as transient as they are unpronounceable. They tend to litter demonstration tables in the less-trafficked halls of CES, too. These designs get the job done, but again, they’re lacking the polish and ergonomic care of something like the old Nostromo or G13.
About the only one I’d recommend — because it comes from a company that at least has pretensions of support — is the Redragon K585. And once again, there are serious flaws in the design, thanks to the odd shape of the space bar, a flat, hard wrist rest, non-standard key lengths for the T and G buttons, and cheap, clicky blue switches. Only seven of the keys can be programmed. You’ll find similar issues with more or less all of the Amazon filler listings.
An earnest plea
I’m writing this article to beg mainstream PC gaming companies to return to this niche market segment in glory. Give us an ergonomic, programmable little left-handed keyboard we can use independently of our ridiculously elaborate primary keyboards. Maybe build in some profiles for all those Twitch streamers so they can write it off on their tax returns, and throw in hot-swappable mechanical switches for the tweakers to customize. And for God’s sake, give us some wireless options — it’s not 2008 anymore.
I know I’m not the only one who loves these little doodads. There are dozens of us! So maybe my earnest plea is going to fall on deaf ears. But dammit, I don’t want to abandon this segment to a bunch of manufacturers who think RGB lighting and blue switches are all you need to make a “gaming keyboard.” My kingdom for a modern, premium Nostromo!