The venerable keyboard hasn't changed much since the Qwerty key arrangement was first patented back in 1868, and apart from a few rebellious upstarts, no one has really seen fit to mess with that formula.
However, computer games have put a great deal of focus on the keyboard, due to it being the primary interface with the computer. Every single FPS fan will know what the keys A, S, W and D signify, for example, and it's this field that the $79 Wolfclaw II gaming keyboard is focusing on.
Normally, a gamer playing an FPS such as Half-life 2 would have the fingers of their left hand resting on the A, S, W and D keys, for left, back, forward and right motion in the game. Other ancillary actions would be mapped to the keys directly around this inverted T area, creating a small area that allowed the gamer quick access to important commands. Other, less important commands are relegated to keys that are out of finger-reach from that inverted T.
Normally that 'instant access' area is a little uncomfortable, because the keyboard is designed to be used with two hands, rather than one hand on the left side of the keyboard and one hand on the mouse. Whilst the average keyboard is usable like this, it's hardly ergonomic, especially when twisting your wrist around to reach that crouch key while trying to move around in the game.
To help the gamer increase their kill efficiency or some other equally weird statistic, the Wolfclaw II keyboard features a large round 'gaming pad' area on the left of the keyboard. To the right, there is an abbreviated standard qwerty keyboard. It's nothing special, but the key action is ok - light, but with enough resistance to let you know you've made contact.
The gaming pad itself features a rearrangement of the most commonly used keys in FPS games - the spacebar has been moved to the right of the WASD keys and sits straight under the thumb, the numerical keys are arranged in a semi-circle at the top, ensuring an even reach to any key, and other 'important' keys are arranged in a similar, 'even-reach' manner. There's even a keylock key sitting in the bottom left, as some games use this for push-to-talk communications.
The arrangement does take some getting used to, but is fairly useable once you're in the zone with it. I've played Call of Duty 1 & 2 with it, and while it didn't make me a superhuman killing machine, it did make things a little faster.
However, there are some issues.
Firstly, the gaming pad has a slight convex (curved over) feel to it, so it feels like you're stretching a little to get the numerical keys at the top of the pad. A slight concave shape would give less discomfort in the fingers, and make the keys even quicker to hit. It's a little hard to see in the photo, but trust me, you definitely feel it.
Speaking of hitting keys, the action is very, very soft; much softer than the qwerty keys, and it's quite easy to depress a key accidentally. I could be standing behind some cover, thinking about what route to take next, and my thumb rests a little too hard on the space bar/jump button and suddenly I'm bouncing up from behind cover like a heavily armed jack-in-the-box.
The only other grief I have is that the Z, X and C keys are directly below A, S and D on the gaming pad, which, for some reason, make it more difficult to move your hand down fair enough to press the lower keys accurately. Maybe it's just me, or the onset of FPS arthritis finally appearing, but it makes it a little uncomfortable, and a little slower than normal to hit those particular keys.
However, that's pretty much it for problems with the Wolfclaw II. It's roughly the same size as most keyboards, although it's much, much thinner. This does give it some stability problems, but rubber feet on the bottom give it grip when the bullets start flying.
The board isn't particularly light or heavy, and while the keys feel well made and durable, the keyboard casing feels a little cheap, which isn't helped by it being a fairly thin keyboard. These things are nothing really horrible, but the casing isn't what you'd expect for $79aud.
The other thing to mention that this isn't a PS/2 keyboard, it's pure USB, baby, including 2 USB ports on the back of the keyboard itself. These give it a touch more functionality, but in this day and age, most PC's have at least 4 USB ports, not to mention USB hubs in monitors, but still... it's nice to have them on the Wolfclaw II anyway. It certainly makes using a USB flash drive more convenient.
The Wolfclaw II gaming keyboard does have a competitor in the Z-board, which is finally available in Australia, with its myriad of game-specific 'key trays', so when I can get my hands on one of them, we'll be able to give you a comparison of the two.
But back to the Wolfclaw II: it does have it's flaws, but they're mostly annoying niggles, rather than glaring problems that render it useless. It's quite useable in games, and when you have to actually type properly, the main qwerty section is pretty good.
That said, I'm not convinced that a gaming pad or specialised keyboard makes my ability to shoot digital people any sharper, but then I wasn't that great to begin with.
If you play FPS games a lot, give the Wolfclaw II a shot - it may be something that you just can't live without.
Thanks to PC Case Gear for providing the review sample. They currently list it at $79.00 AUD.