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A technology overview of the Aimpad R5 analog keyboard

Dead zones? We don't need no stinkin' dead zones!
— 2:09 PM on October 26, 2016

When I reviewed the Steam Controller—a device that purports to fulfill the role of keyboard and mouse in gamepad form—I was left unconvinced. Ultimately, it just didn't offer me anything better than the combination of input devices I already used for HTPC gaming. I had no problem using a keyboard and mouse for FPS and real-time strategy games or reaching for an Xbox 360 controller for driving and flying titles. After all, it's not like I can't leave everything plugged into my HTPC box at once.

The Aimpad R5 analog keyboard—that we're reviewing in prototype form—makes for an interesting juxtaposition to the Steam Controller. Not that they're direct competitors per se, but because they're both devices that seek to combine the best of both keyboards and gamepads. However, their methods couldn't be more different and—spoiler alert—I prefer the Aimpad's approach. Here's why

What lies beneath
The Aimpad may look like an ordinary keyboard, but two significant differences separate the R5 keyboard from its contemporaries. The marquee feature is that twelve of its keys offer analog input—unlike regular keys that register a binary on or off, they detect different levels of pressure. The Aimpad's WASD block, its Q, E, R, and F keys, and its arrow keys all include analog sensors. Under each of those keys, there's an IR LED and sensor baked into the keyboard's PCB. Those devices work together to measure the amount of light reflected off the bottom of the key. From that information, the keyboard can precisely determine how far each key is pressed.

The Aimpad comes with standard Cherry MX Red switches with RGB LEDs underneath. Lance Madsen, the developer behind the Aimpad, says the analog input technology should work with most switch types out there, even non-Cherry models. Madsen told me that the only switches that don't work well with this technique are Cherry MX Black and Brown switches, because they absorb too much of the IR light. Aimpad has an interesting video on its Youtube channel explaining how different switches interact with its technology.

Aimpad's modified version of the classic switch animation.

The second distinguishing characteristic of the Aimpad R5 is its versatile onboard firmware. The Aimpad doesn't require the user to install any software to get full access to all its features. Instead, all of the R5's options are exposed through key shortcuts.

The most important item in the firmware's bag of tricks is that it simultaneously presents itself to Windows as both an XInput device and a keyboard. The XInput portion lets the Aimpad pretend it's a gamepad or joystick with multiple analog axes. With the default settings, the analog keys send joystick-like information to the PC, but if a key is depressed beyond its actuation point, the computer registers an actual keystroke like a letter.

Aimpad has done away with the Caps Lock key, in favor of using it as an additional mode toggle. Each mode remaps the analog keys differently so they're usable across multiple genres of games. One of the modes even allows for controlling the mouse cursor, similar to a TrackPoint nub on a ThinkPad laptop.

First impressions
The switches in full-sized keyboards tend to have generous travel and resistance, so it's easy to see how they can be used for analog input. The first thing I tried with the Aimpad was opening the classic Game Controllers window in Windows' Control Panel to see exactly how well the Aimpad R5 could drive the various axes around. The Aimpad offers three primary modes with analog input: FPS Mode, Driving Mode, and Flight Mode. The screenshot below was taken in Flight Mode because it enables all the analog axes. In this shot I am partially holding down the W and A keys, along with the Up and Right arrows. The W and A keys are moving the X and Y axis off-center, while the arrow keys are handling X and Y rotation.

While we've got this handy screenshot nearby, let's talk about the other two modes. In FPS Mode, the WASD block drives the X and Y axes, and all other keys on the keyboard remain unchanged. In Drive Mode the WASD block behaves a little differently. The W and S keys function like the left and right triggers on an Xbox controller, which is the standard way of accelerating and braking in a driving game. The A and D keys are, of course, for steering left and right.

Pressing the analog keys really makes things move around smoothly. Straight out of the box, the Aimpad R5 proves it's capable of delivering on its claims. The video below demostrates Flight Mode further.

The net result is that in any gaming mode, your hands are right where you'd expect them to be if you were playing with a keyboard and a mouse. It just happens that your primary movement keys have full analog control, instead of the on-or-off input provided by a normal keyboard. The whole thing is pretty slick, since it doesn't require control remapping. One caveat is that the Aimpad R5 works best with games that support using a keyboard and a gamepad in tandem. Most recent titles do, and Aimpad has a handy list of which ones it's tested here.