Special gaming keyboards and mice have become more and more popular over the last few years because, let's face it, normal keyboards suck for games. They were made to mimic typewriters, not to help you get head shots or kill mobs. Though gaming keyboards are nice the still need to take into account that most of us have gotten used to our flawed input devices and that sometimes people use their computers for more than just games (gasp!). Logitech's G13 Gameboard aims to improve your gaming experience without making you replace your day to day keyboard.
The Logitech G13 is large weighing in a 650 grams and measuring roughly 9" long, 6.5" wide, and about 2" at its tallest. Luckily it does not slide around much due to its rubber feet. It has an LCD screen, 24 buttons, and a joystick that also acts as a button if pushed down. Except for the joystick, the design is very symmetric and would be great for right or left hand use. It is fairly rugged with the case being made of strong plastic with the area near the LCD being backed in metal. The buttons themselves have a nice feel and a satisfying, but not too loud, click when pressed. Each key's text is backlit so there are very easy to see in low light areas. The three central keys in the center row and the center key on in the top row have a small indentation in them to help figure out where your hand is by touch. Though useful, I found the indentation to not be dramatically different enough from the natural curve of the other keys to be used reliably as a means of hand orientation. The keys are mostly well spaced with almost everything easily accessible to my hand. There are only two slightly awkward parts, but that might be because I have fairly tiny hands. The first is the key under the thumbstick. It is definitely reachable, but I find it to be a little uncomfortable. The second is the top left button, G1, is tough to reach when I am using the thumbstick. I think both situations are rare enough and minor enough to be overwhelmingly outweighed by the things that the G13 goes well. The wrist pad is a nice addition and was clearly designed with performance in mind. It is a firm surface with a mesh on it that makes it unlikely that your hand would ever slip. It is mostly comfortable but I feel like it could have been a little softer.
The G13 tries very hard to be sure to have a key for anything you might want in a game. Each of the programmable keys can simulate single or multiple keys. You can also define macros which are timed sequences of key presses. If the macros do not seem to do what you want, you can also write LUA code that will run when you press assigned keys. With 25 keys, and even the 4 directions of a joystick, being programmable, the G13 has more customizability than I know what to do with. Apparently I am not the person that the G13 is aimed at though. There are 3 special keys on the G13 that let you switch between different key settings. That makes the total number of settable functions 87(25 keys+ 4 from joystick * 3 different setting states). As if that was not enough, each group of 3 settings of keys can be stored in a profile. The software that comes with the Logitech G13 can be used to associate a profile with each program you use, causing the G13 to switch to the correct settings when that program starts up. Just in case you still need more functionality, you can even assign multiple profiles to a single program and cycle between profiles using a key/ set of keys that you choose. So even with this indefinitely large number of possible user setting for the keys, Logitech decided to go one step further. If you find yourself in need of a new macro while stuck in a game, there is a button to do just that. You simply click the button, click the keys you want it to be, click the macro button again and bam you have a new key. Can you imagine having to redo all that customization every time you change computers? Well neither could Logitech, so they added memory to the G13 and made it so you can save your profiles directly to your G13. With them saved on the gamepad, you can take them with you wherever you have your G13. With all of the key configuration possible on the G13, I feel like the Logitech should have stolen Apple's appstore slogan and told gamers "there's a key for that."
As a nice added bonus the G13 comes with a small (160-by-43 pixel) LCD screen. This screen deserves some serious praise, but at the same time is the source of many of the problems that I have with the G13. First I will focus on the cool aspects. The screen can be used for a variety of tasks, more than you would expect. The main use of the LCD is to display stats for games that you are in. For example, in World of Warcraft, the screen might show your current health, strength, etc, while in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, you might see how much ammo you have left and your ping. The list of games supported is available on Logitech's website and is constantly being updated with new games as they come out. The LCD can also be used with a myriad of special programs. The G13 comes with a handful of these programs that run on the LCD such as a cpu/ram performance monitor and an rss reader. What really catches my eye with these programs is that Logitech provides an SDK that can be used to create your own custom programs. These programs can get quite intricate. I found one online that integrates TeamSpeak, iTunes, Fraps, SpeedFan, CoreTemp, and WinAMP functionality and control into your LCD and its controlling buttons. Not only is it useful, the LCD itself is good. The screen has a decently bright backlight, which can be turned on and off by a button on the G13. With the backlight on, the LCD is very readable in normal and low lighting conditions. The screen is also surprisingly customizable, which does seem to be the theme with the G13. The backlight color can be set to anything on the RGB scale, with each of the 3 memory sets in a given profile able to have a different color. Whatever color is chosen for the LCD will also be used as the color of the backlight on each of the keys, which makes the whole thing look fairly awesome. This allows you to quickly figure out what memory set you are in by simply looking at the color of the LCD. In the controlling software that comes with the gamepad, you can invert the image so that the text is dark on a light background instead of the default light text on a dark background. The software also allows you to determine what programs will be running on the LCD at startup. Sadly, the LCD had too much potential for me to really appreciate it the way it is. Though the list of supported games is decently long, and getting longer, there are still plenty of games that leave the LCD blank or with just a little logo showing the title of the game. For the games where there is support, there is little ability to change what stats you see or their organization. The main ability to customize comes from the programs that run on the LCD, but unlike the rest of the features on the G13, programming new apps is not trivial. This is not that fatal of a flaw as there is a decent set of apps already out there, but it just seems out of place with the relative ease of the rest of the G13.
The software that comes along with the G13 makes setting up your G13 a breeze. When it is first opened up a well done flash presentation open with a model of the G13. Each section of it can be clicked on and a little video plays demonstrating how to use the part you selected. The interface for setting each key is very intuitive. It is simply a model of the G13. When you click on one of the programmable keys, it brings up a menu that can be used to set the key's function. On this same screen, each of the 3 different setting state buttons can have their associated color set which will change the color of the screen and buttons as you change them in the program. This is nice since it lets you see how each color looks on the LCD without having to restart or do any other time consuming task. The software has a number of game profiles built into it. These are activated when you scan your computer for supported games. If it does not have a predefined setup, or even if it does, you can create new profiles from scratch. You can also modify an existing one and save it under a new name. The software also lets you move profiles to and from the memory on your G13, which allows rapid setup when you aren't on your home machine.
This is a fine piece of equipment, though its generic design seems to favor MMORPG and RTS fans over FPS fans. For most first person shooters, a single keypress is all that is used at any one time. This makes the large number of macros that the G13 provides a bit of overkill. There are definitely places where they would be useful, such as quickly buying everything you want from the store in Counter-Strike, but I cannot imagine anywhere close to 87 useful macros for any FPS. Another potential issue with the G13 for FPS is the key layout. The G13 is very suited to WASD style movement keys, as opposed to the butterfly layout of some other gamepads. If on the other hand you are an RPG player, I think that you will find the G13 is an invaluable tool. The ability to set up a single key that will quickly cycle through all of the correct spells, with all of the correct timings is a huge advantage. For RTS fans, the macro functions could seriously boost your APM by reducing a lot of multikey hotkey sequences to a single key press. For example in Starcraft, you could build setup a macro that cycles through your barracks and creates several marines in each one. If you are a serious gamer that could really use the massive number of programmable keys, then the G13 is definitely worth the ~$70 cost. If you are a bit more moderate or can not imagine using more than a handful of macros, the G13 would still be a great buy, but you also might want to consider the Logitech G15. It is a full keyboard with only a handful of programmable keys, but still has the other features of the G13. All of its keys are backlit, it has the same LCD screen, and a full keyboard wrist rest. Since both the G13 and G15 are selling new for around 70 USD online, which one you should buy is a matter of your personal wants/needs. I think that my gaming style might be more suited to the G15, but I also have a strong suspicion that as I use the G13 more, I will discover enough "necessary" macros that I could not live without all of my programmable keys . Either one would be a good buy and well worth the $70, so you should definitely look into whichever one you fancy more.
Warning: When you try the G13, you might find it a little awkward. Don't let that influence your choice as that awkwardness goes away quickly. Using it takes a little getting used to as your fingers' muscle memory are still in keyboard mode.