Z-Board - The Pinnacle of Gaming Keyboards?

Z-Board - The Pinnacle of Gaming Keyboards?

This was originally posted on the Ko-Fi page.

It was my birthday last week, and after some consultation with my good friend Eighty I decided to take the plunge and purchase the luxurious Wooting HE60 keyboard. I have long been a mechanical keyboard lover, and a firm believer that if you find a board that suits your tactile needs, it certainly can at least create the illusion of better performance. Even if I don’t manage to top frag as a result, I feel better about my connection to the game, as silly as that may sound to some of you.

The Wooting 60HE is no ordinary mechanical keyboard though. It utilizes their own specific analog switches which through their software, can mimic the precise movement of a gamepad analog stick. With a normal keyboard, when you press the W key to move forward, the keyboard is either saying that the switch is ON or OFF. There is no real nuance there; you are either walking or not walking. With the Wooting Lekker analog switch, you get a similar experience to a modern controller; the softer you press the button the slower the character will walk, and if you press the button to its deepest actuation point, you will hit a full-speed run. Using these settings on games like Hitman: World of Assassination and Resident Evil 4 has been a bit of a revelation. I have been able to leave my gamepad sitting on the desk, in favor for my preferred keyboard and mouse option, but still have that precise movement accuracy that I have been looking for.

There are many other features of the Wooting HE60 that I love, such as its rapid trigger keys which has seriously increased my performance in VALORANT ten fold. But ultimately it got me to think about gaming peripherals, and specifically controller interfaces as a whole and how stagnant they have become.

Gaming keyboards for instance are largely all the same between brands. The gaming features tend to be ultra-bright RGB lighting, and MAYBE some claim for faster response time. Each company is starting to use their own proprietary switches that in my opinion, all feel largely the same. But overall these keyboards offer a similar user experience, and you are paying for aesthetics alone. The Wooting HE60 is the first gaming-specific keyboard that I have used in over a decade that actually feels like it is bringing something new to the table, a new feature set that actually changes the way that I think about and interface with my games. That made me think about a keyboard that I had back in 2008 that had a similar effect on me.

The Ideazon Z-Board

The Z-Board was a weird and wonderful bit of gaming kit that somehow arrived on the store shelves of my local Harvey Norman (think Best Buy, but far worse) in rural Australia. The idea was actually quite ingenious: a gaming-specific layout backed by software that allowed you to create customized profiles for any game, and map them to the ergonomic layout on the left hand-side, while still having access to a standard keyboard layout for chat. Those red butterfly keys still spark joy in my heart, as I think about the countless hours I spent playing Counter-Strike 1.6,*** F.E.A.R*, and Quake Wars with key layouts that were perhaps the most comfortable I have ever experienced.

But the layout was only a small sliver of the innovation on display. The Z-Board allowed you to take off the entire key layer, and replace it with an entirely new layout. An ingenious clip on the right hand side of the board allowed you to peel off the keys and fold them away as a cube, revealing the black domes underneath that were waiting for you to roll out a new setup. The standard board shipped with its innovative gaming butterfly layout, and a standard QWERTY + num pad set, but the company partnered with a number of popular games of the time to create bespoke layouts for specific games.

The Z-Board featured small rubber domes that the keyboard layouts would slide into, with an interface connector on the top right which made the magic happen.

The DOOM 3 Z-Board package

These layouts were sold in these neat packages, and the games that jumped onboard this train were significant for the time. Layouts existed for World of Warcraft, Starcraft, DOOM 3, Counter-Strike, Aion, Battlefield 2142, and many more, which bolstered the legitimacy of this keyboard as a genuine player in the gaming space rather than a cheap fad.

And for every game that didn’t manage to make a specific keyboard add-on, the software behind the Z-Board did the heavy lifting. By the time I managed to get my very own Z-Board, Ideazon had been acquired by a small company called SteelSeries, who developed an easy-to-use interface that allowed you to program the butterfly layout to fit any game that you desired.

It may not look like much today, but the Z Engine software puts Razer Synapse to shame. No bloatware. No accounts to be made. Just a quick and simple way to make the keyboard work how you wanted, for the games that you wanted.

The Z-Board seemed to die a quiet death, eventually being replaced by the SteelSeries Merc in 2009, which took the butterfly key concept, and bolted it to the side of a regular keyboard. I never owned one of these, but many people swore by this board. In 2010 SteelSeries then went on to release the SteelSeries Shift, which aimed to copy the best parts of the Z-Board, including resurrecting the idea of bespoke swappable keys.

We have gone from something as innovative and focused as entire keyboard sets dedicated to a single game, to the dominance of RGB-spewing TKL boards and ultra smooth linear switches being the differentiation point. I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me a little sad to think what could have been if we kept going down the Z-Board route.

Insane peripherals that simply don’t make sense are pretty common in the golden generation of video game consoles, but when it comes to the PC we have largely been using the same interfaces for decades now. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but playing with the Wooting HE60 and feeling a different way to interact with my games, sent me down memory lane as I reflected on one of the more interesting pieces of kit I have ever owned.

Have you ever owned a weird piece of kit that is strange to think about now, but was awesome at the time? I would love to hear about it!