by Oleg Artamonov
12/04/2006 | 09:45 PM
How can the ordinary computer keyboard be enhanced and perfected? A new key layout? Yes, QWERTY is not optimal when it comes to typing speed, but it is the layout we’re all used to. It is hard to change a lifelong habit, not to mention to get used to switching between different layouts at work, at home, and at public places like Internet cafes, etc. New multimedia buttons? There are already a whole lot of them. Expensive keyboards look like a starship control board with buttons and wheels just for everything. There even exist keyboards with trackballs and touchpads.
But Logitech has got something to amaze the public with. They have released the G15 Gaming Keyboard which is not just a quantitative but in many respects qualitative leap over the competitors.
Today we are going to take a close look at this solution. Let’s get started!
The first thing that strikes you in this device is the large LCD display at the keyboard’s back. Then, there are three blocks of buttons to the left of the keyboard’s mainland that do not look like typical multimedia buttons; they are 18 in total and are numbered from G1 through G18. And finally, the keys begin to glow with a mild blue light on your connecting the keyboard to the PC. A technically advanced user will refuse to be shocked at all that, however, because this could have been seen before. The diNovo keyboard had an LCD display, too, and there are additional buttons on almost each keyboard priced higher than $5. And the highlighting is nothing really new, either. Well, that’s true, but it is in the G15 that all these things are implemented perfectly, that’s why I’m talking about a qualitative difference from the competitors – it is not just an additional dozen of buttons and a useless screen to show the room temperature. I’ll discuss all that below in more detail. Right now let’s take a look at the G15 in general.
The keyboard is large, both in depth (due to the flip-back display and multimedia buttons) and in width (due to the blocks of programmable buttons on the left). The design of the main field is Logitech’s traditional one, with a short left Shift and a vertical Enter. They didn’t experiment with Insert and Delete – you’ll find these buttons in their traditional place. The layout depends on the region the keyboard is intended for, so it may differ between samples of the G15 designed for different countries.
The case of the G15 is made out of black and silver plastic. The black plastic is somewhat rough to the touch. There is a detachable hand-rest (your hands should be lifted up above the desk when you are typing text, and the hand-rest is only intended to give your hands a rest place during pauses in work), but it makes the keyboard bulky.
The tactile feeling from the keyboard is nice. It is easy to type on, although I had to spend a few hours getting used to it after my previous flat-shaped Logitech UltraX. The keys sink down easily, yet with a distinct response. That is, the key resists you pressing on it at first, but then goes down smoothly. This helps your fingers know that the key has indeed been pressed, thus avoiding a lot of typing mistakes that used to occur on some mechanic keyboards that required a constant pressure effort. The keys do not rattle at all. There are no problems with pressing several buttons at a time – the keyboard processes such situations correctly.
The G15 has folding feet, but they are rather small so the keyboard lies almost strictly horizontally.
Num Lock, Caps Lock and Scroll Lock indicators are located in their traditional place and are designed as appropriate symbols highlighted with amber LEDs.
Centered under the keyboard’s LCD screen there is a group of multimedia buttons that control your media player and sound volume (the five small black buttons belong to the LCD display and will be discussed later on): Next, Previous, Stop, Play/Pause, and a volume adjustment wheel. This is a standard selection of multimedia buttons that are usually available on other expensive keyboards as well.
Well, there is also a separate button to mute the sound nearby (the button next to it adjusts the intensity of key highlighting – I’ll talk about it below). Now, that’s indeed all because other additional buttons of the G15 do not have analogs on other multimedia keyboards. I have to dedicate a special section of this article to them because it’s impossible to describe what they can do in just a few words.
The multimedia buttons are quite conveniently designed and are also highlighted – you just can’t hit a wrong button (this is a problem with many keyboards where such buttons are all the same size and placed in a row – you have to watch what button you are pressing).
On the other side from the multimedia buttons there is a switch that can disable the Windows-related buttons on the keyboard (there are three of them here, left and right Windows buttons and a Context Menu button). Why is there a picture of a joystick under it? Well, have you ever pressed the Windows button accidentally in the heat of an online battle? And what did you think or say then? This explains the picture of a gaming device. You can disable the Windows-related buttons for the duration of your play thus avoiding pressing them unintentionally and dropping from the game to the Desktop. When the game is over, you can enable those buttons again, if you want to, by moving the switch. I’ve noticed that people who see the G15 for the first time always single out this feature as highly useful.
Finally, there are two USB ports on the keyboard’s rear panel. These are USB 1.1 ports intended for low-speed devices like mice, joysticks, low-resolution web-cameras, etc. That is, you can plug a flash drive into them, but the data-transfer speed is going to be low.
To make the connection of the mentioned devices more convenient, there are grooves in the bottom of the keyboard that allow to route the cable to the USB port under it and put it out in front or at the right side of the keyboard. That’s not a very handy solution, though. The mouse is usually placed beside the keyboard and its cable should lie behind the latter.
There’s nothing new about the idea of highlighted keys. It lies on the surface and has already been implemented by several keyboard makers. Alas, most of the implementations cannot provoke much enthusiasm.
This is BTC 6300CL, a keyboard of the notebook variety (its low keys have a small movement range) with blue highlighting. The technical solution is simple: the keys are made of translucent plastic and there is a highlight module under them and under the transparent sheets with interconnects.
Alas, this doesn’t look good in practice. First, the highlight area is large so despite the low brightness of highlighting the keyboard acts like a night-lamp illuminating the whole room in darkness. This bright spot becomes rather annoying at work, distracting your eyes from the monitor.
Second, the 6300CL doesn’t serve its primary purpose well, which is to make the keyboard symbols visible even in darkness. The thinner a layer of plastic is, the less resistance to light it provides, making the highlighting look brighter. As a result, it’s not the keys but the spaces between them that are the brightest of all with this keyboard. The edges of the keys are bright, too, whereas the center of each key – where the symbol is painted – is the dimmest spot.
It’s quite different with the G15:
As you see, the keys are black and it’s only the letters that shine with a blue light here. This keyboard doesn’t look like a solid bright field. It doesn’t distract your eyes with its light, but the symbols on the keys are perfectly visible at any lighting, from daylight (they do not look highlighted then, but seem to be painted in blue; but if you disable the highlighting altogether, you can see that the symbols are actually dark silver) to full darkness.
What’s the funniest thing, the implementation of highlighting is actually the same in the G15 and in the BTC 6300CL notwithstanding the opposite impressions from these two keyboards. You might think there is a LED inside each key of the G15, but this is not so. This solution would be too expensive, complex and unreliable – just imagine a good hundred LEDs, each on its own flexible wire!
Removing one of the keys we can see that the highlight module is in fact located under the keyboard, just as it is in the 6300CL, but the case of the G15 is made of opaque plastic, so the spaces between the keys do not shine. Thus, it’s only the hole the stalk of the key is inserted in that is shining.
The photograph above shows one of the keyboard’s keys (by the way, taking a key off is as easy as taking hold of its cap and pushing it a little; this may come in handy when you need to take out a crumble or a paper clip or something that has fallen in between the keys). As you can see, the key is made of translucent plastic covered with an opaque black paint from above. Besides its main function, the stalk of the key performs the one of a light pipe.
This solution has two drawbacks, one actual and one potential. The actual drawback is that not the entire area of a key is highlighted, but only its part that is right above the light-conducting stalk. As a result, only some letters of a caption are highlighted even on the English-language version of the keyboard (e.g. the last letter doesn’t shine in the “Prt Scr” caption). On localized versions of the keyboard it’s only the Latin alphabet that is highlighted as can be seen in the photographs above.
The potential drawback is that the paint cannot last infinitely. Take any keyboard that has been exploited heavily for a few years – its most frequently used buttons are going to be wiped out. No one knows how the keys of the G15 will look after a few years’ use.
By the way, the first batch of keyboards that hit the shops had an unstable paint. The symbols would get wiped out after a few weeks of active use. Logitech acknowledged the defect and replaced the paint with a more durable one. The owners of defective samples could have their keyboard replaced by the warranty. Users report that Logitech sent them new keyboards even without asking to return the defective sample.
I personally haven’t yet noticed the paint getting wiped out on my G15 during the two months of my using it (the photographs above show my sample of the keyboard, so you can check it out by yourself). Of course, two months is not a long time for a keyboard, yet I am sure that the unstable paint was only a defect of the first production batches. This drawback is potential, and may not show up at all in the foreseeable future.
As I wrote above, the keyboard has a special button to adjust the highlight brightness. The button doesn’t depend on the G15 driver and allows switching between three levels: disabled, half brightness and full brightness. I have personally used the full brightness setting for work and half brightness for games and for watching movies.
The LCD screen is one of the most remarkable features of the G15, yet it is not unique. Such screens first appeared on the numeric pad of Logitech’s diNovo keyboards. They used to display the information from the calculator and the thermometer built into the keyboard. Today, the Cordless Desktop MX 5000 Laser is being produced along with the G15 and is equipped with a display, too. It is implemented differently than in the G15, yet the overall concept is the same.
Speaking in technical terms, the G15 keyboard has a monochrome passive-matrix LCD panel with a resolution of 160x43 pixels and dimensions of 89x24mm. The panel has a refresh rate of about 30 frames per second, but it is virtually impossible to display moving objects on it due to its very high response time. The viewing angles are good from below and sides, but when you are looking at the screen from above, the image gets inverted starting from an angle of about 45 degrees. This is not a problem, though, as you can adjust the tilt of the screen in a wide range.
The screen has white backlighting, its brightness is regulated with the same button as the keyboard brightness. The backlighting is uniform, except for a brighter band along the right edge of the screen.
You could use the diNovo’s calculator without even turning the PC on, but this screen is absolutely useless without an installed driver. It can do nothing on its own save for displaying the manufacturer’s name. Fortunately, this lasts only until the G15 driver with appropriate plugins is loaded up. After that, the keyboard offers to choose from six standard plugins:
You interact with the plugins using the four elongated buttons under the screen. The round button on the left of them is for switching between the plugins. The control buttons do not have certain fixed functions. Their function depends on the currently selected plugin and is indicated by icons that appear on the screen above them (as a matter of fact, these buttons are only used with the Countdown Timer among the six standard plugins – to begin and stop the counting of time).
The LCD Manager program is used to manage the plugins. It allows to disable unnecessary plugins and change their settings. You can notice two more plugins besides the standard ones: AMD CPU and System Information LCD Display and Miranda G15. I’ll talk about them below, especially about the latter one.
There are two buttons for each plugin: Configure and Properties. The former opens a window with the plugin’s own settings (for example, you can select the appearance of the clock for the LCD Clock plugin and disable the display of the second hand and of the number of unread letters; some plugins don’t have their own settings at all). The latter shows system settings for the selected plugin. These include the plugin name and the path to its executable file as well as permissions to automatically launch the plugin or switch to it.
The LCD Settings tab contains general system parameters, particularly the method of switching between the plugins. There are two methods available: automatic switching in a cycle or manual switching by pressing the button under the display.
If you are using the button, the screen sequentially shows the names of active plugins. When you stop to press on the button, the selected plugin becomes active. You can also enable the fast switching feature: the name won’t be shown then and each press of the button will switch to the next plugin in the sequence.
The automatic switching feature means that any plugin, if this is not explicitly prohibited in the settings, can become active, irrespective of what plugin has been active before, on an occurrence of a certain event programmed by the developer (for example, a new e-mail letter is received). So, you don’t have to manually switch to the e-mail plugin to see if there are any new letters there. When a letter arrives, the plugin will take the focus on itself automatically. Plugins can also identify their applicability. For example, if none of the players supported by the Media Display plugin is started, you won’t be able to switch to it, even if it is enabled in the settings.
You can also adjust the brightness and contrast of the display in the settings, but the contrast adjustment range is small and the brightness setting is reset on your pressing the appropriate “hardware” button on the keyboard.
If you begin to turn the volume control, the screen will automatically show the current volume level. The photograph above shows the name of the song played in Winamp, i.e. the Media Display plugin, but it has no effect on the display of the volume level bar. If the plugin were disabled, the volume bar would be shown on a blank background.
I’ve been talking much about plugins here and you may be wondering if the display’s capabilities are limited to the mentioned six? Of course, not! Logitech even encourages third-party plugins by supplying not only a driver but also an SDK with documentation and plugin samples along with the keyboard. So, if you have at least medium programming skills, you shouldn’t find it a difficult task to write your own plugin for the G15.
Unfortunately, most of the existing plugins are rather useless. The most popular ones are those that show system status information (CPU temperature and load, memory usage, etc), but I don’t think you want to be constantly monitoring such parameters unless you’ve just installed a new CPU cooler and want to be sure the CPU won’t overheat with it.
Take the official AMD plugin for example. It shows miscellaneous CPU-related info like its type, cache size, voltage, frequency, etc.
It just shows that and nothing more. Well, it’s good to know that Cool & Quiet technology is indeed enabled in my system (the plugin shows the current real parameters of the CPU rather than the nominal ones), but I don’t think I need to learn this information more than once in my life. There are a few somewhat more informative plugins that work with the SpeedFan program and additionally show current temperatures. Yet in my opinion their usefulness is low, too.
As opposed to them, the MirandaG15 plugin that supports the popular Internet messenger Miranda is quite a different thing. Imagine you are playing some game and hear the familiar meowing of your messenger from the speakers. Someone has got something to tell you. You could press Alt-Tab to switch to Windows and check it out, yet you don’t want to pause the game. But what if they are writing something very important to you?
It’s all simple with MirandaG15. You don’t need to leave the game. When a new message arrives, the plugin takes on the focus and shows the message on the keyboard’s screen.
If it’s nothing interesting, you can just go on playing. The plugin will vanish into background after a while (the precise time is specified in the settings) and won’t disturb you until another message arrives. But if you do want to answer to the message, you still don’t have to leave the game! Just press the chat button (as the photograph shows, it is the leftmost button of the LCD screen) and the plugin will take control of the keyboard (the still running game won’t notice anything) and will offer you to type in the answer.
Press the Send button and the message is sent to the recipient.
Now you can move MirandaG15 back into background and get back to the game. But if you want to continue chatting, you can view the previous messages from a sender or write new messages.
Moreover, MirandaG15 offers contact list management options. It is not quite convenient to work with the contact list on such a tiny screen, but anyway.
So, the G15 keyboard’s LCD screen is not just a means of displaying information, but also the means of reacting to this information like answering to instant messages from ICQ or Jabber without leaving the currently running application. This feature is helpful not only in games but also at work. The habit of casting your glance down to the keyboard screen to see who’s writing to you in ICQ is acquired very quickly. People whose work requires attention, but who don’t want to give up ICQ altogether, should appreciate this feature.
Logitech, however, positions the G15 as a games-oriented keyboard whose screen should be used to show crucial in-game information (for example, the health status of your character). So, what about games? Not much, to tell you the truth. Well, they do support the G15 (the recently released Prey supports it originally, World of Warcraft has begun to not long ago, and you can add this support to Unreal Tournament 2004 by installing a patch), but the screen is virtually useless if it shows primary game information. There are two reasons for that: it is too small to show too much information, which means that this information didn’t take too much space on the main monitor. Second, crucial in-game information must be easily accessible, always within your view, and its placement on the keyboard’s screen contradicts this rule.
Let’s take Prey as an example. What does the keyboard’s screen show? The character’s health and spirit bars and a compass that indicates the direction the character is moving to. Does this save you much space on the monitor? Very little. A compass circle in one corner and a couple of numbers in another. Is this handy? Not at all. I just ignored the compass when playing Prey because it required me to lower my eyes from the monitor down to the keyboard and then to raise them back to the monitor. And it can so happen that some enemies from the nearest teleport will jump up at you right at this very moment.
Fortunately, the G15’s screen is not totally useless for games. Logitech just makes a mistake trying to present it as a means to display primary in-game information because there’s actually not much of such information and it must be always within your view, i.e. on the main monitor.
The true purpose of the G15’s screen is to show information of secondary importance that usually just clutters the monitor, but can be of some use at times. This information may even come not from the game itself but from background applications that can’t even put anything out on the monitor which is busy displaying the game contents.
I mean such background programs as voice chats that are often employed in multiplayer games for team coordination. For example, TeamSpeak and Ventrilo both have support for the Logitech G15. The problem is that it’s often hard to understand who’s talking what in chats with unfamiliar people who may also be talking in a language you (or they) don’t know too well. It’s impossible to output this information on the main monitor because the chat program is separate from the game. And even if possible, this would just clutter the monitor. And the keyboard’s screen that you can cast your glance upon anytime comes in handy here.
And not only in games. Voice chats in conference mode (i.e. when there are more than two men talking) can be used outside games and the G15’s screen will play the same role, showing what’s currently going on and allowing you not to keep the chat window active on the main monitor. I suggest that developers of various communication utilities, from ICQ clones to Skype, pay attention to this feature, especially as implementing support for the G15 doesn’t take much trouble.
So, the G15 screen is indeed very useful, but not in the way Logitech meant it to be. It suits ideally for displaying information of minor importance, not only in games but also at ordinary work.
Well, if you don’t need that screen at all, you can simply close it down.
We’ve all got used to have a lot of additional buttons on our keyboards, to launch the Web browser or e-mail client, to control the sound volume, etc. Today, no keyboard comes without them, except for the cheapest models. The G15 is not an exception and I’ve already described the media player controls and the volume adjustment wheel at the beginning of the review. This may seem scanty (some other keyboards offer whole rows of additional buttons), but the G15 boasts one unique feature. It has eighteen programmable G buttons placed in three blocks on the left of the main field. You may wonder what’s so unusual about them if any keyboard’s additional buttons can be programmed to some extent. With the G15, these buttons are meant to be programmed by the user and offer very broad opportunities.
Perhaps you want a certain key to remember a sequence of keystrokes which can be anything from a shortcut used in a game or text processor to a series of HTML tags you have to frequently insert into the Web page you are editing right now.
First, you select a group by pressing on one of the three M buttons. There are three groups and each of the G buttons can store a macro. So, you’ve got a total of 53 “virtual” G buttons and the groups can be switched over with a single press. The currently selected group is highlighted with a yellow LED.
Then you press the big MR button that reacts by lighting up in blue while the LCD screen shows a tip:
So, you are asked to press a G key. Press any of the eighteen available (or press MR again if you’ve changed your mind and don’t want to record a macro). The tip changes into “Enter your keys. Push MR when done” and the MR button starts to blink. You can now press any keys and key combinations that you want the macro to store. These keystrokes are processed and executed as usual, i.e. the result becomes visible in the active program, but they are also being saved by the keyboard driver. After you’ve typed in the necessary sequence, press MR and see the text “Quick macro recorded” on the screen. From now on, the G key you have pressed before recording the macro will reproduce the entire sequence of keystrokes on each press.
So, while you have to use a separate utility to assign functions to buttons on other keyboards, the G15 allows doing it right in the application you will be using the macro in and very easily – you only press two buttons (the application won’t even notice these two presses) and enter any sequence of keystrokes that will be afterwards executed with a press of a single button.
You can change the macro using the G-series Keyboard Profiler included with the keyboard.
This program shows what macros are assigned to what buttons (if you enter a macro directly from the keyboard, it will be labeled as “Quick Macro #”, and it’s in the Profiler that you can replace this name with something more meaningful). The screenshot above shows that the M1 group by default contains four macros: one opens up the Calculator and the other three switch between the virtual desktops. The remaining buttons are yet free from assigned functions.
Click on any button with a macro and enjoy an abundance of options:
This program allows to do the following:
Comparing the G15 with typical multimedia keyboards, the latter usually provide only one option, which is selecting from a list of standard functions. Third-party utilities allow to assign arbitrary macros and scripts to buttons, but you usually have to write the scripts manually, having first learned their format, whereas the G15 allows to do that in just a few clicks of the mouse.
The Macro Manager program is used to manage the created macros. It shows you all the existing macros, also those that are not currently assigned to any buttons (a macro is not deleted if you remove it from a button; it can be assigned back to the same button or to another one with the Assign Macro function). It also shows the contents of the selected macro:
You can do the following here:
The only thing that seems to be missing here is an option of remembering the pointer position for mouse-related events and an option like “write a review automatically and e-mail it to the editor”. Oh, sorry my falling into a dream here.
The management of groups of macros I wrote about when talking about the M buttons is not limited to the M buttons only. Besides the three manually selectable M buttons, you can enable automatic management of profiles that are loaded up depending on what application is launched (this function is mainly intended for games, but can also be used for work, too). To do this, you should select Profile → New in the Profile Manager’s main window:
All you need to do to assign a profile to a certain program is to enter a name and description (any text will do) and select the program’s executable file. The profile will be enabled automatically when the file is started. The last thing can be made manually as well as with the keyboard’s LCD screen – you select the appropriate menu item and see the following text:
Now you start the game up and press OK. That’s all. The profile has now been created and enabled. You can begin to write macros for it. When you launch the game next time, the keyboard’s screen will show a tip, “Profile Activated: Far Cry”.
I’ve been talking about games above, and Logitech intends this feature for games, too, but nothing prevents you from assigning profiles to whatever programs you want. Just like with games, the profile becomes activated as soon as you launch the corresponding program and is disabled when you close the program or remove the system focus from it (this means that if you want to create macros for programs running in the background, you have to write them into the default profile).
I guess there’s only one thing missing here: there are no labels on the G buttons that would help you see which profile is currently selected. UnitedKeys has implemented something like that in their 205PRO keyboard: its functional buttons are equipped with small monochrome LCD displays (yes, there is also the Optimus keyboard from Artemiy Lebedev Studio in which all the buttons have full-color OLED displays, but this is only a paper concept as yet, and I wouldn’t attempt to predict its release date and price).
So, why is it a problem to make such buttons on the G15? I suspect it’s all about the cost of manufacture. The UnitedKeys keyboard is expected to appear in shops in 2007 at $299, which is a considerably higher price than the G15 is selling at, although otherwise the 205PRO doesn’t differ from common office keyboards. It’s understandable: the displays proper are not cheap (and you need a dozen for a 205PRO whereas the G15 would require as many as a score) and their fastening system is hardly simple, so the resulting cost of manufacture grows up quite high. Of course, we’ll eventually see mainstream keyboards with displays in the functional buttons, but I don’t think it’s going to be anytime in near future.
The Logitech G15 is a very exciting device whose actual capabilities even go beyond the scope described in the manufacturer’s official advertising materials, which is a rare thing indeed.
Besides just being a good keyboard, the G15 features superbly designed highlighting of the keys, a multifunctional LCD screen that not only displays some information (and this would already be good enough), but allows to directly interact with the display plugins irrespective of what application is launched at the moment. And finally, the G15 offers programmable buttons that implement almost everything you could ever dream of like recording macros on the fly without taking your hands off the keyboard, broad opportunities of control over the macros (you can even record delays between events), programming any keyboard and even mouse event, assigning a profile (which can contain three groups by 18 macros in each) to the active application, and manual switching between three groups of macros at any moment.
Logitech positions the G15 as a gaming keyboard and its screen as a means of displaying crucial in-game information. This is not exactly so. I have shown in this review that the G15 with its macros and LCD display can have a lot of other applications besides games. As for games, the keyboard’s screen should rather be used to show secondary information or even information from auxiliary utilities. When used this way, the keyboard proves to be very helpful. It frees up some room on the main monitor and allows to quickly get necessary information when you really need it.
The G15, the keyboard itself and its software, leaves an impression of a very thought-through product. With all the abundance of capabilities, there is no excessive sophistication. Everything can be done in just a few steps with this keyboard. Such actions as writing macros may be performed at different levels of complexity, from entering the sequence of keystrokes manually in the Macro Manager to just typing a macro on the keyboard while playing a game.
The keyboard is currently selling at $90 and is not going to get much cheaper in near future. Well, the G15 offers a lot of unique capabilities, so it just doesn’t have any competitors as yet.