Continuing the touchy-feely, customer-focused theme of the Windows 7 marketing push, Microsoft says the design nuances of the SideWinder X4 gaming keyboard are the result of listening to the customer - specifically the gamers who bought the X4's higher-end predecessor, the Microsoft SideWinder X6. [Updated 23 February 2010.]
The biggest concern, Microsoft says, was that multiple keystrokes were periodically failing to register, a particular issue for players of real-time strategy games with their notoriously numerous and complex hotkey shortcuts.
To combat this, the SideWinder X4 features design enhancements to minimise 'ghosting' by incorporating resistive multitouch technology - the same technology used in the company's Surface computing venture - under the grid of keys. In theory, up to 26 keys can be pressed at once without causing problems.
And the SideWinder X4's anti-ghosting capabilities stood up well in testing. You're unlikely to need to press 26 keys at once, of course, but the keyboard happily registers five or six without any confusion. But forget such calculations: what this means in reality is smoother, less stressful gameplay with fewer fumbled commands.
The SideWinder's other big selling point is its programmable keys. Six of these, labelled S1-6, are positioned down the lefthand side of the keyboard; above these sits a 'bank' button, which toggles between three user-customisable banks - standard, gaming 1 and gaming 2, for instance. Each bank has its own set of six key functions, giving you in effect 18 programmable keys within easy reach.
The SideWinder X4 also features in-game macro recording - an interesting inclusion, but one that seems likely to appeal to a relatively small cross-section of users - and a repetitive macro key.
The X4's typing action seems good once you get used to the relatively heavy feel to the keys, which is presumably a conscious concession to the physical demands of long gaming sessions. The keys are nicely spaced, and typing rapidly gets up to a decent speed.
But we did have some concerns. For one thing, the keys have a slightly cheap look and feel. They're smooth and glossy, in an era when many of us prefer our higher-end keyboards to have a pleasantly textured matt finish - at least until it's worn off by repeated use.
Furthermore, we have misgivings about the placement of the S keys. It's distracting to have the fundamental geography of the keyboard broken up in this way and, while this problem is sure to diminish with long-term use - and those who already use a keyboard with extra keys on the left will be unaffected - we were still having problems with Shift and Caps Lock after several hours. Your instincts and muscle memory will have to be subtly retuned.
Physically, this is an impressive product. We love the SideWinder X4's solidity - the keyboard barely moves around on the desk at all. This is a hefty piece of kit, with a nicely robust feel. It's also comfortable to type on - unlike the keys themselves, the pleasant-feeling wrist guard has a nice textured finish.
There's adjustable backlighting under the keys, but we were slightly disappointed to find that none of the settings are truly eye-catching - the soft red glow cycles between gentle, dim, barely discernible and off at the touch of a button.
The Microsoft SideWinder X4 gaming keyboard is due to launch in the UK on 17 March, with an estimated retail price of £49.99.
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