Gaming keypads are funky little accessories. To the layperson, they're just little partial keyboards for the left hand that sit next to a keyboard that offer all the same controls. For hardcore gamers, however, they're valuable tools. These programmable keypads let gamers completely customize their gaming experience, mapping their favorite keys and macros to the 'pads myriad of buttons, putting all of their moves right under their fingertips. Belkin's latest entry into this controller subgenre is the Nostromo n52te, which spruces up the earlier Nostromo n52 Speedpad by adding improved software support and a cool backlight. It retails for $70.
Just like the original n52 Speedpad, the n52te features 16 numbered keys, plus a scroll wheel, and digital directional pad. Four white arrows highlight the pad's central cluster of directional keys, which are surrounded by ten additional hot keys. The keys are shaped like standard keyboard keys, but they feel slightly flatter and more responsive. The keys' short throws can help in twitch games, such as first-person shooters, though their flatness is a matter of taste. The other two, uniquely shaped buttons sit on opposite sides of the direction pad. The lower button is easy to tap with the thumb, but the upper button sits just too far from the thumb to press easily. The direction pad gets a slight upgrade over its previous incarnation; now the pad comes with a removable thumbstick that pushes up the control about half a centimeter. The scroll wheel rests to the lower right of the main keys, offering convenient scrolling-zoom access by forefinger. Meanwhile, the palm of your left hand rests on the sloped handrest, which can be adjusted into one of two positions.
To drive all of the keys, the n52te--which connects to Windows PCs with a USB cable--uses a software interface built by Razer, a gaming accessory maker. The application lets users program the pad in virtually any way, from simple key mapping to more complex macro programming. Compared with the software used by the Saitek Cyborg Command Unit, the n52te's interface is much easier to use while remaining just as powerful. Even better, the Belkin stores the key maps and macros internally, so the profiles don't have to be booted up each time you want to play a particular game.
The blue backlighting makes the n52te look attractive without being particularly flashy. The lighting stands out behind the pad's black keys, translucent scroll wheel, and "n52te" logo, giving the entire device a soft glow. Besides the backlit keys and logo, the pad also has three colored LED indicators for additional light. The LEDs glow blue, green, and red, indicating which mode the pad is currently using. Each profile can store three different key maps, keyed to three individual shift modes.
While the programmable buttons make the n52te useful for any gaming genre, the pad works best in first-person shooters. The digital control pad, especially with the stick removed, adds a handy boost when turning and strafing; as your fingers work the W, A, S, D keys for standard movement, the lateral directions on the pad offer just a bit more maneuverability for keeping your target in your sights. The pad plays well enough in massive multiplayer games, such as World of Warcraft, and real-time strategy games, such as Supreme Commander, but those games are generally better served by the additional buttons found on the Saitek pad.
As with the Saitek, the same caveats apply to the Belkin: If you already have a good gaming keyboard, or simply feel comfortable gaming with your current keyboard, you might not even need a dedicated keypad. Nevertheless, assuming you're taking the plunge on a keypad, it's a toss-up between the Saitek and the Belkin. Both pads feel comfortable under the hand and can be programmed and customized to fit your play style. The Saitek boasts an analog stick, a more adjustable handrest, and a higher button count, while the Belkin's scroll wheel and especially its Razer programming software give it an edge. The fact that the Belkin's $70 cost is nearly twice that of the street price of the Saitek might drive many gamers to choose the Saitek as a "good enough" alternative.