Ah the humble keyboard.
The marketplace is full of keyboards and they're split into quite a few types. You have your basic "it's got keys" models, laptop style low pressure ones, mechanical keyboards that will survive a direct missile hit, and ones that have a unique selling point.
Today we're looking at the latter of those, a keyboard with a unique selling point, and quite a unique point it is.
Welcome to the SteelSeries Shift.
To all intents and purposes this is a keyboard the same as most others with a hybrid feel that sits nicely between the elephantine travel and pressure needed to activate a mechanical keyboard and the gentle breeze needed by a laptop style one.
The part that really separates it is the ease in which you can switch out the standard key layout for one tuned to a specific title. Before you all leap off your chairs and say "But the zBoard did that, it's hardly unique" then pipe-down a moment. The concept of the Shift is exactly that of the zBoard, but rather than the ability to switch out keysets coming at the expense of pretty much everything else as the zBoard was, this is very much a comprehensive upgrade.
So it's the idea of the zBoard, but with greatly enhanced parts to hopefully bring it up to par with the rest of the SteelSeries range.
Of course how useful this ability is to you is dependant upon how much of a slave you are to a certain title. But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves.
Let's grab a look at the Shift.
The Shift is definitely a full-size keyboard coming in a sturdy box that has all the SteelSeries hallmarks of black and grey, with a burnt-orange hue for the model title. It's as instantly recognisable as a Coke.
On the rear SteelSeries have done a great job in getting across the major elements of the Shift. After all the ability to just pull your keyboard off isn't something the average person will be used to, and it does open a world of possibility.
Inside we have the standard SteelSeries guide and driver disk alongside a sticker for those who wear their hardware affiliations with pride.
The Shift itself is definitely a big boy, with a plethora of configurable keys. Thankfully for the vanilla keyset SteelSeries have kept a standard layout so it will stand up perfectly well as just a keyboard, should the current choice of keysets not tickle your fancy.
The media keys are on the left which is very handy. Most of the keyboards have dual-purpose media keys which involve holding a modifier and pressing an F-key but the Shift has a dedicated set within easy reach. Above the F-Keys are a bunch of keys you can set to anything you desire without having to take away assignments from other keys. A nice touch.
I'm sure you've noticed by now the split in the space bar. This will become clear on the next page.
Hey There Mr Fancy-Pants
So that split in the spacebar. What's that about? Well a quick flick of a release latch on the right hand end and the entire keyset will be freed to fold up like an accordion. Obviously if you split your keyboard into thirds you'll have a break in your spacebar. The only other alternative would be to just fold it in half but then it would be prohibitively large.
With the current keyset folded out of the way the underneath is revealed to us in all its glory. The first thing that comes to mind is how useful this is to keep everything clean. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's dropped something between the keys and fought with a paperclip to remove it.
On the top right hand corner is the connector that recognises new keysets when they are inserted so that the SteelSeries Engine software can assign everything properly. A great bit of design here ensures that even the most ham-fisted person shouldn't have an issue in the long-term as there is nothing to get bent.
Finally back to the world of a fairly standard keyboard there is a large wrist rest supplied which attaches to the front with a couple of push on tabs. On the rear we have two USB ports and a headphone/microphone combo which enhances the usability of the Shift in LAN settings.
SteelSeries supplied a StarCraft II Keyset with the Shift, so let's grab a look at what we have there.
StarCraft II Keyset
There are a few different Keysets available for the Shift. Current zBoard ones are compatible and hopefully the range will be expanded now the underlying keyboard is of a higher quality than the zBoard was.
Because of the folding nature of the keyboard the packaging for extra keysets is nice and compact. Heavy on StarCraft II branding as it should be it's thankfully not packed in one of those blisters that needs an angle-grinder and a blood donor on standby to enter.
Once freed from its plastic prison you can see how comprehensive the changes to the keyset are. The keys themselves are labelled with their function. The versatility of the Shift platform is highlighted by the rearrangement of the keys in the numpad cluster with additional keys in places you don't normally find them.
There is also the functionality to highlight which of the races you're playing. The artwork is of a very high standard and not at all flimsy. The extra keyset is not built down to a price and once in place feels exactly as if it was always designed to be this way.
Testing and Conclusion
So how is the Shift in action?
As someone who isn't the most amazing StarCraft II player ever I found it heightened my game tremendously. The labelling of each key and colour-coding, alongside the extra keys on the right hand side made everything very easy to find and within reach. No longer are you limited to either the lengthy mouse-based solution or pausing and checking the manual. Something which obviously doesn't work in Multiplayer.
You aren't limited to whatever SteelSeries have defaulted the keys too either with the SteelSeries Engine software giving limitless possibilities for assigning keys, macros, combination presses and just about any trick you can think of.
This is equally true of the keyboard in its standard dress. With the additional SteelSeries logo'd key giving yet further customisation for each key the possibilities are near infinite. Everything from a simple program launch to a multi-level macro with delays are possible.
It would be a pain if the switching out of keysets was a long-winded affair but it is a literal 10 second switch. Unclip the keyboard, fold it up, place the new one in, unfold it, clip it back in and you're good to go. Even on my first go it only took 20 seconds and by the end of the review it was actually quicker to install a new board than it was to switch to a game specific profile.
There are a couple of little niggles. SteelSeries make a big point of the keyboard weighting with the keys you use often taking less pressure to activate than those less common ones. This seems both pointless, (why would you want less common keys to be harder to press?) and annoying.
As a touch-typer the shift (actual shift, rather than the name of this keyboard) keys fall under my little-fingers. I lost count of the amount of times I typed a / instead of ? or had a lowercase letter because the shift keys require more pressure than the standard letters. The other little issue comes with the split spacebar. That break is exactly where my right thumb hits.
However, if you are looking at the Shift as a pure keyboard then you're missing the point somewhat. There are plenty of keyboards available if all you plan on doing is typing, not least the awesome 7G from SteelSeries themselves. It just does take a little of the gloss off the multi-purpose nature if pure speed typing is greatly slowed because of an unavoidable design element, the spacebar split, and a curious design decision, the different weighted keys.
As a product it will live and die by the support that the developers and SteelSeries give it. If Medal Of Honor, StarCraft II or World of Warcraft are the only sets available and you don't play those games then it becomes a harder initial purchase, and certainly if no new keysets are on the horizon you might be better to hold off a little. Personally speaking a forthcoming game like The Witcher II or Duke Nukem would be an ideal use of the potential we have here and we can't wait to see what appears.
But they are both little issues that are completely overwhelmed by the many great elements that the Shift has to offer. Unlike the previous zBoard it's almost bomb-proof. It's very easy to clean. The keysets are fantastic, as is the SteelSeries Engine software. Swapping between them takes way less time than we thought possible and doesn't compromise the build quality of the Shift at all.
All in all if you play the games that have keysets currently available then you should take a good long look at the Shift as it will improve your gaming experience whatever level you reside at and we're happy to award it our OC3D Silver Award.
Thanks to SteelSeries for providing the Shift for today's review. Discuss in our forums.