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SteelSeries Shift Gaming Keyboard Review

Date: November 7, 2011
Author(s): Jamie Fletcher

If you’re the type gamer who spends more than the normal amount of time tweaking your peripherals, then the Shift keyboard from SteelSeries deserves your consideration. Not only does it allow you to configure every single key, it also enables you to record macros on-the-fly and even switch out the entire keyset for another.



Introduction

SteelSeries is a familiar company within the gaming peripheral market, specializing in premium products that emphasize high quality, programmability and flexibility. Quite a few years ago, the company made a splash when it introduced its Zboard series of keyboard; fully replaceable keysets with highly programmable configuration and macros. Today, we bring you the Zboard’s successor, the Shift.

On the face of things, the Shift is near-identical the Zboard, but much of the work is hidden away in hardware tweaks and a new software layer. Silicone rubber domes for longer life, key weight balance, live macro recording, media keys and I/O extensions for audio and USB.

A lot of effort went into the software, too, allowing for easy configuration of profiles and macros. Zboard key sets can even be carried over to the Shift so you won’t need to splash out for more key sets if you decide to upgrade.

For those who are new to the Zboard and Shift system, it’s very hard to overstate the significance of the programmability and flexibility. Nearly every key on the keyboard can be reprogrammed to any other, or be used for an application launch, system function or macro. Caps lock and Win keys keep getting in the way? Disable them. Don’t use the numpad for anything? Set it up as an application launcher or as a bunch of macros for common tasks. The options are bewildering, but rather simple to execute (once you know where everything is).

Before we get down and dirty with the software, let’s go over the hardware, complete with an accumulation of pretty pictures and specifications. (This review was made with UK keysets.)

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

The keyboard is a rather large, heavy and intimidating setup. With the adjoining palm rest, it can take up a fair bit of desk estate. While not a wide keyboard, it is tall, with the top protruding from the desk a good 2 inches. This extra height does make the inclusion of the palm rest more of a necessity than an optional extra.

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

A couple of things will strike you as odd; the first being the split space bar. Due to the collapsible nature of the keysets and the traditional length of the space bar, it had to be split to accommodate for the fold. This brings us on to the second quirk; the two vertical slits that allow the keyboard to be folded away into thirds for storage.

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

The real party trick of the keyboard is its ability to replace the keysets to match the game you are playing; providing quick access to common in-game functions at the touch of a button. With a change in artwork, each key set changes the numpad area of the keyboard, replacing it with pre-programmed macro functions, depending on the nature of the game.

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

Key sets are held down with a large clip on the right and three hooks on the left. You flip the clip, pull up and fold the keys to the left, pull out and insert new keys. This is an intuitive process and very quick, taking no more than 10 seconds to replace the entire keyset. Complete with the software, the keyboard profile will switch with it too.

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

With the keys removed though, you get to see the array of silicone domed rods protruding from the actual keyboard. The keys will still function without the keyset in place, so some care will be required else you type some profanity while changing keysets

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

Along the back of the keyboard are 2 USB connectors, a mic and speaker/headphone pass-through jacks. One of the USB connectors is a dedicated and powered connector, useful for high bandwidth gaming mice or external storage. The resulting cable that comes out of the Shift is suitably thick and over 6 feet long, splitting into each component connector at the end.

Around the edge are a set of permanent keys. These are the standard media control keys down the left, such as volume control, pause/play, skip, etc, and along the top row are a set of 8 application keys which normally default to standard launch keys for things such as Web browser and email client. All of these keys are again programmable. The last 4 keys across the top right are for profile switching and to enable the live macro recorder.

Continue on as we look at the software.

Software

With the Shift and ZBoard, the hardware was certainly unique, but it was the software that really drove home the point about the sheer flexibility of these keyboards. The ability to redefine the function of every single key would have many scratching their heads – who needs that kind of functionality? Well there are certainly people out there and the most common reasons comes down to multiplayer and strategy gaming.

While within a single player first person shooter environment, your left hand stays firmly attached to the WASD keys with your index flicking between F, R, E, G and the odd number… nothing particularly complex is going on. Step things up into a multiplayer game and you have different commands you can enable, chat windows, team command shortcuts and so forth, and you suddenly find yourself spending more time organizing than actually playing. Enter macros.

While many may see macros as cheating, providing people an unfair advantage, they will not play a game for you. Instead, they are designed to make repetitive tasks faster and easier. Keep flicking between /raid and /guild chat? Make them a macro. People not using a voice client and you need to put up event warnings? Save it to a macro.

Companies such as SteelSeries cater to the gaming masses, but the hardware can be used for more than just gaming. 3D and graphic design can both benefit from the flexibility, since the drivers can be setup to be application-sensitive (only use certain macro layouts for certain games/applications). So peripherals such as this can be used to help you work and play.

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

As is more common these days, there is no driver CD for you to install from; you must head on over to SteelSeries’ website to download them. While an inconvenience, it ensures that the latest version is used – often a second nature practice amongst gamers. Once installed and loaded, you are presented with a large interface to configure the keyboard.

While initially overwhelming, the interface is rather simple and intuitive to use. The keyboard is laid out in front of you, and selecting a key on screen will pull up the macro edit window below where you can redefine it. Each has one of three major functions; macro (default), application launcher, or disabled. There are also 4 layers for each key, controlled via the Bar and Pad modifier keys; found where the print/scroll/pause keys are normally placed. With these modifiers in place, it’s possible to configure the keyboard with over 400 macros… per profile. Yes, I’m completely bewildered by that number too.

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

More complex macros can be made or edited via the advanced editor panel, allowing for the insertion of delays, mouse actions and non-standard key functions. With the profile saved, you can then assign it an application trigger in the properties panel if desired. Multiple application triggers can be used if required. Each key can also be color and font-coded, to make it easier to see important keys.

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

If you purchase one of the additional game specific keysets available, switching it out will result in the editor interface changing too, matching the game selected. The numpad is replaced with an array of new game-specific functions. In addition, certain standard keys will have new Bar and Pad modifier options; such as extended emote functions along the F keys.

Built into the editor is a key press analyzer, which is a glorified ‘Actions Per Minute’ counter. It’s also useful for spotting certain keys that are used frequently, allowing them to be remapped to more easily accessible locations.

Final Thoughts

To call this review long-term would be somewhat of an understatement as the keyboard has been in use for several months, providing ample opportunity to test its features and to become accustomed to its layout.

The standard keyset has some alterations to accommodate the extra buttons and to take gamer preferences into consideration. The Win key on the left side is on the small side, minimizing accidental pressing in-game (although the key can be disabled via software). While the space bar may be split, it rarely interferes with typing.

With the inclusion of three new keys; Bar, Pad and SteelSeries (opens the software editor), the Print Screen, Scroll Lock and Pause keys have been pushed down and are part of the Insert, Home and Page-up block. This does push the keys down against the Arrow keys, but shouldn’t interfere with normal use.

Key spacing is a little bit wide, providing a better feel for key placement, but due to the fact that the keys themselves are not actually attached to the keyboard, they do wobble a fair bit on the rubber domes below. This results in a sort of ‘squishy’ and spongy feeling to the keys. Key travel is still normal for a full height key, but with the usual rubber bounce for feedback.

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

When the keyset is replaced with one of the game-specific ones, the numpad and arrow keys are completely replaced with a different style and shape. Most of the keys become circular and the arrow keys are larger with rounded edges. The rounded edges actually proved to be quite a problem for me as it became extremely difficult to determine which key I was pressing due to the tight spacing and no sharp edges to feel for.

With new keys placed around the arrows too, blind navigation became extremely problematic since my hand rested on a whole bunch of keys with no easy way to distinguish which was which. Depending on the game set in use, key placement can also be all over the place too. Print Screen is often used by games to take screenshots (although some will use other keys), but with the 3 different key sets reviewed (Standard, MoH and WoW Cataclysm), the print screen key is in 3 different places. This makes switching from one keyset set to another a little more challenging due to a lack of consistency.

While all keys can be re-programmed, the different game sets make use of a different number of keys, so it would be best to stick with a single layout – if you can manage without the numpad of course.

Though much of the layout issues will be subjective, a number of issues did crop up as a result of the software – the make or break element of any gaming peripheral. While extremely flexible with regard to programmability, two separate keys proved to be consistently problematic, even through multiple updates. The Left Shift key and the B key.

For some unknown reason, the Left Shift key didn’t always act as a shift key, it was either completely ignored or performed as Volume Up. This was not just a problem with the software, but the hardware, as the key was completely ignored under multiple Linux OS distros and behaved inconsistently under Windows 7 and XP on different PCs. Majority of testing was done through Windows 7.

SteelSeries Shift Keyboard

The B key simply failed to capitalise correctly when typing quickly, resulting in ‘Gb’ or Tb’ instead of ‘GB’ or ‘TB’ (important distinctions for us geeks). When recorded through the macro software, the issue became a little clearer. When typing slowly, ‘GB’ would be recorded [Shift+g+b]; when typed quickly, it would be recorded as [Shift+g b+Shift] – meaning that the B key was interrupting the shift somehow.

What proved more interesting was that the 5 key followed by B would result in a lowercase B, so the whole column of 5, T, and G would result in a lower case B (%b, Tb, Gb). Any other keys would result in a properly capitalised B (MB, LB). Further still, Typing B + 5, T or G would result in the second key being lower case (Bt, Bg, B5).

These two issues did become somewhat infuriating after a while, with the only solution being to change typing habits (using the right shift key and slowing down when typing a B).

When the keyboard was initially received, the drivers at the time suffered from some serious memory issues. Swapping key sets would continuously increase memory usage with each swap, resulting in memory consumption going from 80MB to over 300MB. This has since been corrected, but now replaced with a different issue – BSOD. After multiple key set swaps, the PC would lockup with a blue screen indicating that a device was trying to write to a read only section of memory. So, SteelSeries still has some memory issues to address with the software, especially since the engine.exe can sit in the background consuming 130MB of RAM.

These issues certainly tarnish an otherwise very useful and extremely flexible product. The problem is that the Shift has been for sale for quite some time and driver updates come out every few months, so it would have been nice to see these issues corrected already.

While the issues mentioned are annoying, they can be fixed – given enough time. The problem remains that nearly every peripheral has some kind of software issue. It is unfortunate that the Shift follows suit. It can not detract from the fact that the engine is extremely easy to use, which is quite refreshing, and does extended the functionality of the keyboard substantially. The keysets themselves are a bit of a gimmick, but are not outrageously expensive either. It is the software that makes the keysets useful.

The SteelSeries Shift is definitely a keyboard to take note of if you are heavily into customizing and macros. The keysets are a nice touch but are only part of what makes the keyboard great. If the software can be polished up, then we would have quite the piece of equipment. As it stands though, there are issues that still need addressing.

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