Reviews

 

Nostromo n50 Speedpad - Page 1

By: jt3
Date: December 3, 2001

Introduction

In the beginning, there was pong.† A quaint little game, addictive as all heck, but missing one important aspect: the ability to take out your frustrations on little animated bits of light, by fragging them into next week.† So, the game-gods invented Wolfenstein-3D.† The people rejoiced, redirecting their negative energies away from more destructive alternatives, wars ceased, peace prospered, and the world was a much better place to live.

Okay, maybe not, but at least it ushered in the era of the FPS (First Person Shooter) type games, which are a heck of a lot more fun than that stupid bouncing dot.

Today, Iím going to look at one of the latest devices, designed to improve the playability of the latest FPS games, the n50 Speedpad, by Belkin.† The speedpad is a part of Belkinís Nostromo line of ďPrecision Gaming ToolsĒ (their words, not mine).† This particular device is, according to Belkin, designed with FPS games in mind.† It consists of a molded handrest, housing ten keys, a throttle control, and an 8-direction gamepad.† In theory, this unit is perfect for the type of game for which it was designed, but how does it react under life and death (well, for my FPS character, anyway) situations?† Read on, campers, read on.

To prepare for the review of this product, one of the first things I did was go to the manufacturerís website (http://www.belkin.com), and check out what they had to say.† I probably donít have to tell anyone whoís been there that Belkin doesnít seem to devote a lot of energy to their website.† What I found was (for the most part) a one page overview of the product, and nothing else; well, almost nothing else.

After some digging I found a ďTestimonialsĒ page where they list short snippets of reviews from other sites.† Unfortunately, no links were provided.† I wonít go into how much it gets on my nerves when they quote an article without giving you the link to the original article.† In fact, the only reason I really bring this up is that the reviews dated back to June of this year!† With this knowledge, I also looked for, and found, the initial press release announcing the product, dated May 14, 2001.† I was a bit shocked, since I like to think Iím up to speed on the latest technology, but somehow this one slipped through my radar.†

Now, those who know me know that Iím a FPS-addict from way back, from Wolfenstein, toÖ wellÖ Wolfenstein (a.k.a. Return to Castle Wolfenstein).† Lately, Iíve transitioned from Unreal to Unreal Tournament, Star Trek Voyager Ė Elite Force, CounterStrike, the aforementioned Wolfenstein, and ultimately Ghost Recon.† The latter two will probably tide me over until Unreal 2 is released.† In other words, I feel qualified to review any item that claims to improve FPS gameplay.† I remember when I was excited about the Microsoft Sidewinder Strategic Commander, which, I thought, would allow me to keep my eye on the reticule, so to speak, instead of† fiddling around with my keyboard.† Unfortunately, the range of movement is so great with that controller that a typical zigzag move (left-right-left), which takes a fraction of a second with a keyboard, took 4 or 5 times longer with the controller.† In FPS lingo, that equals instant death.† My Strategic Commander was demoted to dust-collecting status almost immediately; an expensive little lesson learned.† This is the first controller that has caught my eye since the MSSC fiasco.† Will I be surprised or again disappointed?† Read on, and find out.

The Controller

At first glance, it becomes immediately apparent that this controller is like no other.† There is no joystick, no mouse wheel or optical sensors, just ten keys, a throttle, and a gamepad, which by its location, is obviously designed as a secondary, rather than a primary, input device.

In todayís world where an entire aisle of your local computer store can be dedicated to ďgamingĒ input devices, any new device better have a strong selling point (or six), and snazzy packaging, or its days are seriously numbered. †The n50 Speedpad has both.† To my knowledge, this is the first device designed from the ground up to be used for FPS gaming (Iím sure to get deluged with e-mails over that one, but what the heck!).† If itís not, you wouldnít know it from the packaging, since Belkin goes out of their way to make you think that this feature is unique.† It displays a list of games for which it was designed, that reads like an awards show.† All the biggies are there, including the Quake, Unreal, Half-Life, Duke Nukem, and Doom series, as well as Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Max Payne.

The Front of the box
. . . and the back
 

As for snazzy packaging, Belkin chose to design the package so that a potential customer has only to lay their hands on the skin-tight plastic molding to see how it ďfeels.Ē† This is a nice touch, since many computer stores donít place ALL of their controllers on the display shelf.† Itís annoying to see a great controller packaged in a square box, that tells you nothing of the comfort or usability of the controller.† Iíve passed up many controllers that I couldnít ďget my hands on.Ē† Unfortunately, the packaging doesnít give you a feel for the tactile response of the keys, or the functional placement of the gamepad, but hey, itís still better than a square box.

One thing the plastic does reveal, however, is that as far as FPS controllers are concerned, this one is unique in one aspect.† Most other controllers Iíve seen feel the need to ďimproveĒ the movement controls (forward, back, left and right) by replacing the direction keys with a joystick or gamepad.† This controller is different.† While the keys are cryptically numbered simply 01 through 10, there is something else that sparked my interest.† The middle key on the top has an upward pointing arrow, while the middle three keys on the bottom have arrows pointing left, down, and right respectively.† Sound familiar?† Look down to your keyboard.† No, not thereÖ just to the left of your numeric keys.† Thatís right, these are arrow keys!† Itís obvious that this controller expects you to use four of the ten keys as movement keys.† This is a radical departure from normal controller design, but for FPS gamers, the only logical choice.† So, without even taking the controller out of the package, to me, it has proven that it was designed for FPS games.† Youíve impressed me, Belkin, keep it up.

A closer look at the keys


Opening the package, reveals the software CD, instruction pamphlet, and controller, complete with USB interface.† An important note, here: this is a USB ONLY device.† Donít expect a keyboard passthrough cable, because you wonít get it.† If you donít have USB, then this isnít the controller for you.† Heck, some may even say that this isnít the century for you, but I digress.† While weíre discussing limitations, letís address a big negative for this controller.† A vast majority of FPS gamers play with their left hand on the keyboard and the right one on the mouse.† I said a majority, not all of them.† Belkin seems to have taken the road well traveled, because this controller is specifically for the left hand.† Any of you lefties that play the other way around are left out in the cold on this one.† I can see where the design would make it difficult to make a universal controller, but Iím disappointed that thereís no right-hand model available.† Hey, Iím a righty, but I know enough lefties to see this as a limitation of the controller (and to knock off a few points for design functionality, while Iím at it).

This would probably be a good time to throw out the required system specs:

Pentium 233 or faster with USB Capability

32MB RAM.

Windows 98, Me, or 2000 (odd that it mentions Return to Castle Wolfenstein, a game that has just been released, while it doesnít mention Windows XP which has been out for awhile now, and is widely available)

30MB Free Hard Drive Space

DirectX-compatible Video card

CDROM or DVD drive.

All of that makes sense to me, except for the video card.† I guess their Nostromo Array Programming Software uses DirectX, but it doesnít ever explicitly state that.† As you can see, though, system requirements are virtually nil, which makes sense, since itís pretty much a USB-driven keyboard device. You can drop some of these specs a little more, if you decide you donít need the software.† More on that in a bit.

Installation is a breeze, as one would expect for a USB device.† The manual does warn you of the separate requirements of the operating systems however, where Windows 98/Me prefers that you have the software loaded before plugging in the USB device whereas Windows 2000/XP requires you to plug in the device first.