A technology overview of the Aimpad R5 analog keyboard

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.

 

Highway to the dead zone

Before we take a deep dive into each of the R5’s modes to find out how its analog slickness pans out in actual gameplay, there are a couple items worth reviewing. Probably the most important thing to understand is dead zone compensation, or what Aimpad refers to as its “anti-dead-zone” technology.

For the blissfully ignorant, a dead zone is the area around the center of a joystick or trigger that that produces no input. That zone prevents spurious touches from sending one off the track or into the ground. Nearly all joysticks have dead zones, even the ones on gamepads—even though you may not be consciously aware of them. When I reviewed the Steam Controller, dead zones were something I struggled with, because even though that controller offers extensive settings for them, I found it difficult to physically register where my thumb was resting on the touchpad.

With the Aimpad R5, there’s no mistaking where your fingers are since, well, it’s a keyboard. However, the fact that the R5 presents itself to games as a gamepad creates its own set of issues, since games designed to work with a thumbstick have built-in dead zones to cancel out unintentional movement. Complicating the issue further, there are multiple methods that games can use for implementing a dead zone, too.

The ideal analog control would translate its entire range of motion into input for your game. For example, if only half the travel of a keystroke was picked up by the game, it would be that much harder to precisely control your in-game character or vehicle. With a dead zone, though, you’d have to push the key down past a certain point before anything happened at all. Thankfully, Aimpad is well aware of this issue and has a few methods for solving the problem.

For starters, the Aimpad R5 assumes that games have a default dead zone compensation of 20%. That means it presumes the game will ignore the first 20% of a key’s movement, and it compensates for this by telling the game the key has already moved by that amount, even though it’s still at the top of its stroke. You can see this in action in the animation below, taken from the Game Controllers control panel. The first movement of the crosshair actually jumps out from the center with a light press on the key, but additional pressure generates smooth movement.

Mind the gap.

If it turns out that if 20% compensation isn’t the right value for the particular game you’re playing, the Aimpad R5 allows you to adjust the value in 2% increments using Fn+(PgUp or PgDn). During testing, I didn’t run into any game that I wasn’t able to configure satisfactorily with this method after a little trial-and-error. Since the latest firmware update, the dead zone compensation settings remain saved on the keyboard even if you unplug it. Gamers also have the ability to change which type of deadzone the Aimpad cancels out (radial or axial).

Since there’s no PC software component to manage game profiles for the Aimpad, you’ll have to make adjustments manually as you switch between games—assuming the games you play require tweaking. Personally, I’m just fine with that. I greatly appreciate that all the keyboard’s functions are handled in hardware. Memorizing a couple key combinations and spending a few seconds fine-tuning a game when I start it is a small price to pay for avoiding a clunky piece of peripheral software. If you’re on the other side of the fence, though, you’ve been warned.

Now, let’s see how the Aimpad behaves in each of its three modes.

 

FPS mode

Image courtesy of Aimpad.

Let’s kick things off with the FPS mode, accessible with Fn+F1. To get a feel of how everything mentioned so far actually ends up working in practice, I’m going to start with my perennial favorite, DayZ. As it turns out, this title is a particularly good candidate to reveal both the Aimpad R5’s strengths and weaknesses. The standalone version of DayZ isn’t one of Aimpad’s “certified awesome” games.

Part of what makes DayZ an interesting test for the Aimpad is that it supports three distinct movement speeds: walking, jogging, and sprinting. On a normal keyboard, you jog by default. Holding Ctrl makes your character walk, and Shift makes him sprint. DayZ supports XInput devices, so if you were masochistic enough to play it with an Xbox controller, you could move though all three speeds just by pushing the left thumbstick further.

I feel like Woody Harrelson!

After a bit of dead-zone tweaking, it turns out that the Aimpad has no problem driving your DayZ character around at each of the three speeds when you apply the right amount of pressure. The very top of the keystroke makes the character walk, a half-way press gets him jogging, and sprinting kicks in when the key is more or less bottomed out.

In DayZ, when the key switch fully actuates, instead of just registering the analog signal, the game ignores the “W” input and continues to move your character at a sprinting pace instead of dropping you to jogging like the W would normally do. If this input hierarchy wasn’t in place, you’d need to press Fn+Home to disable the keys’ digital input. It’s nice to be able to leave that feature off so that if you need to quickly Shift+Tab to chat with Steam friends or whatever, your mege on’t look like thi.

There’s an extra note to add here. Even though the dead zone was properly configured to allow for all three movement speeds, the game wasn’t registering diagonal movement at full speed. The fastest I could move while holding down both W and A (or W and D) was a jog. I checked the Game Controllers panel to see what was happening. Sure enough, with the deadzone configured as it was, I couldn’t move the crosshair all the way into any of the corners. To fix this, I had to switch the dead zone compensation type from radial to axial. DayZ was the only FPS I tested that had this problem—all other titles worked fine with the default dead zone compensation percentage and type.

All those words, and I still haven’t articulated that I prefer playing DayZ with the Aimpad R5 rather than a normal mechanical keyboard. Sorry, but there’s a lot of ground to cover when it comes to this particular game (ba-dum-tss!) Anyway, the novelty of playing DayZ on the R5 is that I don’t need to hit an extra key to change my character’s speed.

I find the elimation of those modifier keys valuable for both practical and preferential reasons. The practical side is easy to relate to: no more sprinting around using Shift and forgetting that hitting Tab at the same time will dump me into the Steam overlay instead of opening my inventory. Sure, I could reconfigure those hotkeys, but using Tab for the inventory in DayZ and Shift+Tab for the overlay are two shortcuts so ingrained that I never went ahead and changed them. With the Aimpad, I can sprint and simultaneously open my inventory to reload, and never accidentally come to a dead stop in the middle of a firefight.

The second practical reason is closer to what the Aimpad is actually geared for: letting you dictate movement speed more precisely. DayZ already offered this option, but the analog input makes it your default choice instead of something you have to initiate separately. Peeking around a wall or corner can be a life-or-death event. Exposing less of your character by walking slowly instead of stepping out from cover because you tapped the key for a split-second can make a big difference. If you’re already wired to do that manually, that’s awesome. But if you occasionally get careless or complacent, the Aimpad may just bail you out.

So peaceful.

The intangible reasons for preferring the Aimpad R5 may be specific to me. One of the reasons I’ve stuck with DayZ so long is that I enjoy simply roaming the environment. It’s probably the most atmospheric game I’ve played since Metroid Prime. For whatever reason, playing DayZ with the Aimpad frequently compels me to slow down and walk my way around Chernarus instead of madly rushing around to gear up as fast as possible. DayZ is sometimes the most intense game I’ver ever played—thanks to the zombie apocalypse going around—but other times, it’s downright relaxing. Walking by default, with a panicked sprint just a little bit of key travel away, does something mildly transformative to my experience. Your mileage may vary, though.

So the Aimpad works well in DayZ after a little tweaking. What about other controller-friendly shooters? I checked the R5 out with Halo 5: Forge, by running around in my own empty match (fingers crossed for an update that offers a server browser), and came away impressed. Unlike DayZ, movement in Halo 5 doesn’t have fixed speed tiers. There’s a direct relationship between how hard you’re mashing the keys down and how fast you’re moving. Obviously, your maximum movement speed is clearly defined, but its lower bound is only limited by your dexterity.

I can imagine how useful the analog keys would be if I were a dirty sniper. It’s like having a lower DPI setting for movement on top of aiming. I didn’t feel any weird sense of acceleration, either. Full speed is literally at your fingertips, and that’s how I moved around most of the time. The run-and-gun instinct is ingrained, but it doesn’t take long to adjust and occasionally take advantage of analog-specific movement. That was emphasized for me in Team Fortress 2, the only FPS I’ve spent anywhere near as much time in as I have in DayZ.

If I were a dirty spy, I’m pretty sure the analog movement of the Aimpad would be a welcome addition to my bag of tricks. Good spies are maddeningly frustrating, but one of their “tells” is their constant movement speed, no matter which class they’re disguised as. Maybe that fixed speed has changed since the time I played TF2 regularly, but I suspect that if a good spy were to disguise as a slow Heavy and then use the Aimpad to to match his speed, he could be next to undetectable—all the while retaining all the advantages of using a mouse for aiming. It amuses me to think about other players’ reaction to a Scout creeping slowly around the map but whipping around to aim with the speed and precision of a mouse.

Since I rarely (if ever) play any FPS as a sniper or spy, those thoughts are only theories. In TF2, I typically play as a Pyro (I know, I know) with the Back Burner (I know, I know!) However, the way I play the Pyro, my flare gun is as much or more of a primary weapon than my flamethrower. I can say with confidence that the Aimpad did no harm to my generally-accurate aim. In fact, there were times in my last session where I surprised myself by pulling off a couple of tricky shots while on the move. I can’t say for sure that’s to the Aimpad’s credit though.

Overall, I’d sum up the FPS Mode of the Aimpad R5 like this: it doesn’t appear to have any downsides. More importantly, it has the potential to offer unique advantages to skilled players willing to learn and exploit the analog controls. Personally, I don’t think I’m skilled enough to fully exploit that potential, but I appreciate that in theory I could.

 

Drive mode

Driving games highlighted more of the Aimpad’s compelling qualities. You probably don’t play FPS games on your PC with a controller, but you may feel obligated to switch to one for racing games. I think that the Aimpad largely alleviates that need with its Drive Mode (Fn+F2). If you already prefer a keyboard, adjusting to the Aimpad will be particularly straightforward. As long as your game of choice supports input from gamepads and keyboards at the same time, you won’t have to change your in-game control settings—the only thing to get used to is how analog controls change things.

Initially, I found myself spending a lot of time experimenting with the controls. Were the analog steering and throttle working as expecting? Was there really linear analog control or just “steps” like in DayZ? Those were question that pertained the games more than the Aimpad, since I knew what the keyboard was trying to tell the game to do.

Underwater area? Yes, please.

All five games I tested worked okay with the Aimpad. I do most of my racing with an Xbox controller, though, and the transition to the Aimpad wasn’t without some vexation. I found that the more realistic the driving simulation, the easier it is to switch to the Aimpad’s analog keys. In Dirt 3, Forza Motorsport 6: Apex, and The Crew, I grew to prefer the Aimpad over a gamepad.

However, in the more arcade-like Rocket League and GRIP, I couldn’t overcome my preference for the Xbox controller. Because of all the jumping, weapon firing, and the sheer amount of steering and direction changes those games require, I simply wasn’t competitive without the familiarity of thumbsticks. I think that had more to do with overcoming many hours of muscle memory than anything—the same reason I couldn’t adjust to the Steam Controller for Rocket League. If you’re already a pro at playing those titles with a keyboard, though, your experience may be the opposite of mine.

The single technical hitch I encountered with driving games was that Dirt 3 doesn’t support simultaneous gamepad and keyboard controls when racing. This means that, for example, you can’t assign the V key to the rearview mirror while using the analog keys. The Aimpad works as a normal keyboard for menus and typing, though.

GRIP really is a modern-day Rollcage.

I did some time trial testing in Dirt 3 because it was the best way I could think of to benchmark a controller like the Aimpad. On the Michigan track that I raced on, I was getting three-lap times about six seconds slower with the Aimpad in Drive Mode than with the Aimpad in normal digital keyboard mode. That doesn’t sound like a good thing, but I felt like a better driver in Drive Mode. I stayed on the track more and thought I was driving with more finesse. It could just be a margin-of-error thing, but since it was repeatable, I think the difference comes down to controlling the throttle. I likely didn’t it have mashed down all the way when I could have because I was so focused on staying on the track. The time trial results left me wondering if people with elaborate steering wheel setups race faster with them than with keyboard controls.

Tim Allen would approve.

Using an analog keyboard for driving may take a little getting used to, since keyboard players often use a “tap-tap-tap” method for making turns. That’s no longer necessary with the the Aimpad R5, but it’s a difficult habit to break when compared to how analog movement “just works” in FPS Mode. I think the less frantic, more realistic racing games worked better for me on the Aimpad because I was able to concentrate on the effort it took to maintain the throttle at the level I wanted, while trying to avoid slipping into the habit of tapping to make subtle course corrections. There’s a bit of “pat your head, rub your tummy” nature to it that you have to learn initially.

After you get past that, you still need the physical dexterity to keep one key pressed down the same amount while using another finger to press a different key down a different amount. It’s trickier to do than just worrying about a digital on-or-off response.

I don’t have lot to add about Forza Motorsport 6: Apex and The Crew. They worked as expected. I did have to use Fn+Home in The Crew though because having both analog control and keyboard input registering at the same time made for some funky camera problems when taking sharp turns.

 

Flight mode

Flight Mode is activated with Fn+F3. Although I didn’t spend a lot of time testing flight sims with the Aimpad R5, I went over the basics to see how the analog arrow keys on the keyboard contribute to the experience. We haven’t used those keys until now, since the extra dimension of movement they afford isn’t required by shooters or racing games. Airplanes have more control surfaces, though, and all of them can benefit from analog control. That’s why joysticks exist in the first place, after all.

Behold my simple ugly plane!

I chose Simple Planes as my primary game for testing Flight Mode. I picked it because it only advertises partial controller support and it’s not on Aimpad’s list of supported games. I figured it would be a bit of a worst case scenario. It turned out that the things I thought might trip up the Aimpad ended up working perfectly. Simple Planes lets you build your plane, and the traditional keyboard and mouse controls were clearly the best way to do that. I then switched to the Aimpad’s Flight Mode for the flight tests. That mode allowed for full control of my plane using only the keyboard.

In Simple Planes, the W and S keys control the throttle. Those keys responded well to the analog input. The A and D keys control the plane’s rudder, with proper analog granularity, too. The up and down keys arrow keys took care of the elevators, while the left and right keys move the ailerons. Everything worked with smooth analog precision, provided you had a subtle enough touch.

It was pretty sweet to have flight controls with that degree of precision from “just” the keyboard. Flying without doing the “tap-tap-tap” dance was more intuitive than racing. If Simple Planes works this well with the Aimpad, then I’m confident that more sophisticated flying games or simulators would work as well or better. If you’re a flight-sim junkie, the Aimpad R5 probably won’t make you give up your joystick—but it could satisfy the needs of gamers that don’t have one. It works really well for flying.

I did check out one other “flying” game with the Aimpad. Truth be told though, the controls for Race the Sun are so basic that the game works the same way regardless of what mode the Aimpad’s set to. That said, it was clearly the game I played that most obviously benefitted from the Aimpad R5’s analog input. I started playing Race the Sun with a normal keyboard when the game came out, and it’s a “tap-tap-tap” fest when played that way. Switching to an Xbox controller has a significant positive impact on how the game plays, but gives me a tendency to overcompensate my movement.

Playing Race the Sun with the Aimpad felt like having the best of both worlds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still fairly awful at the game and the leaderboards never let me forget that. However, I was able to consistently progress further with the Aimpad than with the other control methods. I credit that difference to the combination of subtle control borrowed from a gamepad with the benefit of having completely separate keys for each direction.

Mouse mode & MOBA mode

The last two modes on the Aimpad R5 offer mouse control (Fn+F4) and high-sensitivity key activation (Fn+F5). Mouse Mode is a feature that works well but that I didn’t find myself actually needing to use (it does makes for a mean Etch-A-Sketch). This feature ought to be standard feature in all keyboards, since it’s great to have in a pinch. It’s really straightforward, and the diagram below is pretty self-explanatory—there’s one key per mouse direction or button press, including the scroll wheel.

Analog Keyboard Activation mode (also described as “MOBA” Mode or Hair Trigger) is specifically intended to register a keystroke with a minimal amount of key travel, well before the key’s physical switch is activated. The pitch is that the split-second difference between key taps with this mode and a regular keyboard will lead to advantages in RTS-type games. Keys with less travel and faster response switches are a thing, so the Aimpad’s goal doesn’t seem outlandish. Frankly though, I’ve never played a MOBA in my life, so I’m in no position to judge this mode’s merit in that arena.

Unfortunately, we lack the gear to empirically measure the actuation force or distance of travel required to trigger the keys in MOBA Mode. Subjectively, I can say that it is very, very sensitive. The closest thing I can compare it to is a really good resistive touch screen. Barely touching a key won’t activate a press, but it doesn’t take much force to make that happen. If I had to guess, I’d say the analog keys actuate with half the force and half as much travel in MOBA Mode. How much this mode helps pwn noobs in LoL, though, I just don’t know.

Putting it all together

My verdict is that while the Aimpad R5 doesn’t automatically improve every type of gaming experience, it also has few downsides. If you’re willing to learn its intrincacies, there’s lots of potential on tap to improve gameplay. Every genre of game I tested has at least some aspect that can take advantage of the combination between the analog input of a gamepad and the precision of a keyboard-and-mouse setup. That left me wondering if games that combine shooting, driving, and flying would be the best experience the Aimpad could offer. The short answer is: almost definitely.

Grand Theft Auto 5 and Battlefield 4 are high on the list of games that the Aimpad’s creator recommends. Unfortunately, neither of those blockbusters are in my game library. Those recommendations seem logical based on what we’ve evaluated so far. I did have a couple games that featured different types of locomotion, so I fired up Just Cause 3 and Arma III to see how things went.

Good luck finding me here coppers.

Just Cause 3 is nowhere to be found on Aimpad’s supported games list. Technically, it worked okay, but it was obvious that JC3‘S developers had other priorities in mind. As a side-note, I find it interesting that it takes an analog keyboard to realize how a gamepad is really working in any given game. In Just Cause 3, this meant that there are two different speeds when traveling by foot, one speed while driving, and two positions that you could turn and keep vehicle wheels in. I didn’t find a plane during testing but I assume flying would be similarly simplified. The findings were a bit of a bummer—but not entirely unexpected for such an action-oriented game. I did smirk at the constant tool-tip swapping as the game was trying to figure out what to say, given that I was playing with a keyboard, mouse, and gamepad at the same time.

You win again Arma…

In Arma III, the results were better. Aimpad claims full support for this game. Since it’s a more serious simulation, Arma III has more serious control options. Since all Bohemia Interactive games share a lot of code, it was no surprise to me that running around on foot worked the same way as in DayZ with its different speed tiers.

Driving and steering in Arma III worked more like the racing games I’ve describe. I, uh, don’t have my pilot’s license in Arma III yet, so I didn’t get a chance to take to the air in this title. However, I’m confident that based on the “full support” rating, the game’s overall chops as a simulation, and what I’ve read elsewhere, Arma III ought to model analog flight control surfaces at least as well as Simple Planes.

 

Dat firmware

You’ll recall from my introduction that the Aimpad uses RGB LEDs. Unlike some other keyboards’ implementations of this tech, Aimpad’s isn’t a silly cosmetic choice, so there’ll be no mocking here as I might dish out for other peripherals. The Aimpad uses the color options in a utilitarian fashion to communicate real information about its modes, rather than just for pizzazz. As you adjust the dead zone setting, all the keys get brighter or dimmer. They also turn from white to red at either end of the adjustment range. These visual cues aren’t as handy as a small LED display would be, but it’s a nice touch and makes good use of the hardware at hand.

Another example of how the Aimpad’s multi-color capability is put to good use is given by the color-coded operation modes. Each mode is identified by a configurable color, but by default, the normal keyboard mode is red, FPS mode is blue, driving mode is green, flight mode is yellow, mouse mode is white, and “Analog Keyboard Activation Mode” is purple. By the way, the Aimpad-logo key will toggle between the last two modes you used.

The analog keys always stay white.

There are also a few key combinations that allow for further fine-tuning. Hitting Fn+Left Alt in each mode activates an alternate profile. For example, in the FPS and driving modes, it moves the control of the WASD block over to ESDF, for folks that like having more keys near their left hand to assign to in-game actions. In case the analog keys start acting squirrely, Fn+ScrLk allows you to recalibrate them.

I mentioned that the Aimpad doesn’t have a Caps Lock key. In case a certain SSK is worried, Fn+Left Shift does the same thing. There are a couple other handy shortcuts on tap, too. When the Aimpad is in any game mode, Fn+P remaps the Windows key to P, saving you from the occasional accidental trip to the desktop—and giving you access to a bindable key that your left hand couldn’t otherwise reach. If you configure yourself into a corner, Fn+Esc is the “oh crap” key combination that resets the Aimpad to factory defaults.

All of the Aimpad’s modes can be toggled into the Advanced Mode. If you find yourself wanting Xbox-style digital inputs in addition to the analog ones, then hitting Fn+Space will turn on the extra button presses shown above. I’d rather stick to normal keyboard inputs, but I can see how this would be nice in a game like Dirt 3 where it doesn’t accept keyboard and gamepad inputs at the same time.

Finally, there are two features targeted at the most hardcore of users. The first one is specific to the MOBA Mode. It lets a single key act as two by assigning different inputs to two distinct activation points. Push the Q key down a little and it sends a Q, but push it down further and it sends a J. This works for W, E, and R as well, which send K, L, and “;” respectively. That option would be especially nice with a switch type that has a tactile bump.

The last feature gives you control over the analog sensitivity curve that the Aimpad uses. By default, the Aimpad uses a linear scale, which means the harder you press, the bigger a value it registers. Fanatical users can change this so that either the top or bottom of the key stroke is disproportionately more sensitive. The things people do for fun…

 

Other thoughts

You may have noticed that I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the keyboard’s build quality or even taking many photographs of it. That’s because the Aimpad R5 is actually housed in the body of a Cooler Master Storm QuickFire Rapid keyboard. It simply has different key caps and an entirely different PCB inside. I think the Cooler Master board is a fine choice to base a prototype on, since it results in a sample that doesn’t feel like a work-in-progress at all.

Hidden bootloader and reset buttons. Yep, it’s a prototype.

I have a small wish list related to the Aimpad, based on the time I’ve spent with it. It would be nice if there was a key combination for volume adjustment somewhere. A simple LCD display would also come in handy to show you more information about the dead-zone percentage you’re at, instead of relying on just the brightness of the keys. Lastly, I wish the analog dead zones in PC games could be disabled as easily as turning off something like mouse smoothing—but this is something the Aimpad can’t control.

Conclusion

We’ve covered a couple other analog keyboard solutions besides the Aimpad. I asked Lance Madsen what he thought about the other competitors in the analog keyboard space. He was very positive, essentially saying that he just wants to see the technology widely available. I commend that notion because it’s a cool tech, and I believe the small problems the Aimpad has to work around would be pretty easy for game developers to eliminate if they saw the concept gaining traction.

Compared to other alternative input device options, the Aimpad’s biggest advantage may be that it has no significant disadvantage. Wow, that should totally go on the box, right? Hear me out, though. The Aimpad offers unique functionality that works as advertised, and it manages to do so with no compromises to traditional functionality. I can’t say the same about the Steam Controller, the Gear VR, the Tobii EyeX, my buddy’s fancy VR chair, or even my precious robotic vacuums. I think that’s a pretty big deal.

I’d compare the Aimpad R5 experience more to something like gaming on a high-refresh-rate display, upgrading to an SSD, or the jump from a membrane keyboard to a mechanical one. Ok, I may be gushing a bit since it’s not as revolutionary as an SSD, but my point is that it’s fairly awesome. At any rate, I think that if you’re the type of person that appreciates any of those things, then you’ll likely appreciate the Aimpad as well. It feels like the first “big thing” in keyboards since this whole mechanical-key renaissance kicked off.

As we’ve mentioned, the Aimpad R5 is currently a prototype. However, Aimpad is hot to release a retail product, either on its own or by licensing the technology to another brand. There’s no word on when this might happen or what what a retail keyboard would cost, but I’d wager that the bill-of-materials difference between a mechanical keyboard and one fitted with Aimpad’s IR sensor package isn’t huge.

Depending on how that math works out, a board with the Aimpad’s abilities could be no-brainer purchase if you’re shopping for a new keyboard. If you already have a nice mechanical keyboard that you planned on lasting a lifetime, then it’s a little harder to justify the upgrade. But surely you know someone who could really use your old one, right?

Colton Westrate

I post Shortbread, I host BBQs, I tell stories, and I strive to keep folks happy.

Comments closed
    • short_fuze
    • 3 years ago

    Perfect for my partially-paralyzed hands? I’ve been a low-level ‘quad’ (quadraplegic) since 1980, so I’ve never – repeat, never – played a console game. My right thumb can bend at the last joint to tap a space bar, but doesn’t have the lateral functionality, let alone precision, for console controller buttons. And forget about joysticks.

    But I’ve always been very successful with keyboard/mouse. In fact, I use a trackball instead of a mouse, which greatly extends gameplay (due to inherant hand weakness), though at the expense of some speed and accuracy. Which is probably why I prefer PvE mmo’s …

    And I’ve always loved keyboard inputs for movement. Using direction keys to incrementally position a window in a UI, for example. Or precisely place a housing item in EQ2, that sort of thing.

    If this device actually works as advertised, this could open up a whole new world of gaming to me.

      • drfish
      • 3 years ago

      You should explain that to them in [url=https://techreport.com/news/30876/were-giving-away-our-aimpad-r5-review-unit<]their survey[/url<].

        • short_fuze
        • 3 years ago

        You are so right; I had almost forgotten (went back to writing my term paper…). Just filled out their survery; they might like my input for testing. =)

    • RdVi
    • 3 years ago

    Nice review. I actually want one of these now. I just read the article out of curiosity since I remember wondering why such device didn’t exist as a kid trying to play racing games on my first pc.

    • bhtooefr
    • 3 years ago

    I find that on a track sim, it really depends on the car and what I’m doing, for whether I’m faster with a keyboard or a wheel and pedals.

    No matter what it is, I can make the tires last longer with a wheel and pedals, because I’m not alternating between zero and maximum input and shredding my tires.

    However, in certain cars, I can actually be faster with a keyboard, if I have traction control and ABS available. They tend to be cars with slow steering racks (meaning that binary steering input actually helps steer faster), and they tend to be relatively low-powered or have effective traction control (meaning that binary throttle isn’t a problem).

      • drfish
      • 3 years ago

      Thank you for that insight. I was genuinely curious and that is really interesting. You’re talking about levels of detail that I didn’t even think about being modeled.

        • bhtooefr
        • 3 years ago

        Racing sims really are going to insane levels of detail in their simulation engines nowadays – they’ve had accurate simulation of vehicle suspension dynamics for many years, they’re getting passable simulation of tire dynamics (not quite there, but passable – nowadays, it’s really the tire degradation models that aren’t great, though, the actual grip model on fresh tires is quite good – although, I’m not sure how good the tire models are for off-road stuff, which would be relevant to DiRT), etc., etc. Sim developers are even laser-scanning real race tracks nowadays, to make sure that every slight bump in the track is faithfully reproduced – this can be critical, as on some tracks, bumps greatly change the ideal lines or maximum speeds through corners, they can be an additional signal to a driver to say that the braking zone starts here, they affect braking, a lot of things that are important for realism.

        Another advantage with a wheel, mind you, is force feedback – I forgot to mention that. When you’re driving a car that has good steering feel in the real world hard, you can actually feel what the car’s doing through the steering – the steering loads up as you push harder into the turn, then gets light when you’re getting into understeer. Conversely, when you’re oversteering, the suspension geometry on a car like my (2000) Miata actually causes the front wheels to suddenly WANT to turn into the slide, and you feel all this happening through the steering wheel, which encourages the correct reaction to catch that slide.

        Hop into, say, Assetto Corsa’s 2016 Miata, and start thrashing it on the track on a wheel with true force feedback… [i<]you actually feel all of that stuff that I just described happening[/i<]. I was actually impressed how closely the [i<]simulated[/i<] 2016 Miata replicated my physical 2000 Miata's steering feel. (I haven't driven a physical 2016, though.) That? You don't get that with a keyboard, period. And no, vibrator motors (what cheap wheels use for "force feedback" - they're OK for vibration when going over curbing, but that's all) aren't the answer. Now, driving a car without good steering feel? Yeah, the feedback you get from a force feedback wheel is less important, and that's another thing that helps being fast on a keyboard.

    • DarKcyde
    • 3 years ago

    Yep, now I want one.

    You missed a genre that is just perfect for this: 6DOF shooters like Descent (Sublevel Zero for a current game). This would let you play MKB, without any of the disadvantages of digital movement inputs. Keep the mouse for aiming, and have tons of analog axes for all the other stuff.

    Also Oculus CV1 users. Oculus Home only accepts Xinput, which is really annoying when you’re playing MKB or HOTAS. Sure it might change in the future, but this would scratch a particular itch I have right now.

    • JosiahBradley
    • 3 years ago

    I’ve always wanted to aim with the mouse but walk with a joystick. This is the perfect solution for that. I hope future models (and windows) support full 104 axis support so every key can be analog. Throw back in the control(caps) key and it’s 100% perfect.

    • superjawes
    • 3 years ago

    No CapsLock? 0/10. Would not recommend.

    Joking aside, I’ll bet that a full release would either have a dedicated key for this switching, OR they will coopt one of the Windows Keys. Gamers tend to want the WinKey disabled anyway.

    • moose17145
    • 3 years ago

    To me, Star Citizen looks like it would be a perfect candidate for such a keyboard.

      • morphine
      • 3 years ago

      Well yes, but the Aimpad will certainly be released sooner 😉

    • Beltonius
    • 3 years ago

    A few years ago they were at PAX east with a numpad size product with the same concept. I was very impressed with the implementation, it was exceptionally intuitive to use, and they had a few dogs set up.

    They tried to laugh it via some crowd funding campaign that unfortunately failed. I believe they were asking like $100-$120 for it, which was pretty hard to swallow for just a game pad.

    Hopefully there’s more uptake now that it’s built into a keyboard.

    • tanker27
    • 3 years ago

    Props for the SSK shoutout! I LOL’d.

    • MOSFET
    • 3 years ago

    [quote<]Aimpad has done away with the Caps Lock key[/quote<] Clearly this is not intended for SSK

      • EzioAs
      • 3 years ago

      I thought the analogue input also allows for letters of various sizes and caps.

      • drfish
      • 3 years ago

      Hey man, don’t bogart my joke. 😉

      [spoiler<]SSK gets his own sentence on page six.[/spoiler<]

        • Anovoca
        • 3 years ago

        maybe in V.2 they can make font size/case scale to how hard the key was pressed.

          • superjawes
          • 3 years ago

          This would be pretty useful, TBH. “Normal” keystrokes are all lowercase, but “Hard” keystrokes act as if you were holding the shift key.

        • MOSFET
        • 3 years ago

        Sorry doc, I admit I had not read all the way through when posting!

    • synthtel2
    • 3 years ago

    Came expecting gimmicky tech, left thinking “damn, I want one of those.” It sounds like they’ve really got the attention to detail needed for something like this.

      • morphine
      • 3 years ago

      Likewise. When giving the article an editing pass, I was all like “meh, gimmick.” After I was done reading it, I also wanted one.

    • EzioAs
    • 3 years ago

    Great review. This might persuade me try using keyboards again for most games that support controller/analog input. The fact that I have to hold or press a key to toggle between walk and jog is really frustrating. It’s even more annoying when it’s a stealth game.

    • kn00tcn
    • 3 years ago

    one handed serious racing like dirt is wrong, so is WASD

    i figured this out in my single digit years, playing papyrus racing sims with the arrow keys while other kids are on nintendos:

    right hand middle finger or index or both on up arrow, right hand ring or pinky or both on right arrow, right hand thumb on down arrow, left hand index or middle or both on left arrow, slightly adjust as needed or fatigued (in the case of papyrus, keypad 0 for brake as the down arrow is reverse, pgup pgdn for gears if you’re manual)

    speaking of rally (or trackmania), twitch driving seems harder with a controller & especially a wheel, if you’re maxed out on the edge of crashing from any mistake, then your input is also maxed out

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