When you’re buying or upgrading a PC, it’s all to easy to overlook its peripherals. Doing so is a major mistake: with an outdated mouse or clunky keyboard, even the nippiest of new PCs can feel like a nightmare to use. Splashing out on some new peripherals can be a cheap way to breathe new life into a PC, and if you spend any length of time at your workstation then you’ll find a decent keyboard or mouse all-but essential – and for gamers, the right choice of controllers can make or break the gaming experience. IT Reviews talks you through the basics.
It’s easy to recommend buying a particular keyboard or mouse based on the reviews we’ve done here at IT Reviews, but there’s a caveat: personal preference in these matters is as varied as the shape of people’s hands.
What works for us may not work for you, so while our reviews are a great place to compare technical specifications and feature lists, we’d heartily recommend that you visit a bricks-and-mortar shop and get some hands-on time with your shortlisted accessories before plonking down your hard-earned cash.
Likewise, your individual requirements will greatly affect which is the best peripheral for you: a gamer’s keyboard will include a vastly different set of features from one that’s aimed at a professional typist, for example.
Before setting off to buy your new hardware, always note down what you spend the majority of time doing at your PC and buy accordingly. A typist can take some budget away from the mouse to get a better keyboard, for example, while a hardcore gamer might want to adjust things in the other direction.
Along with a mouse, your keyboard is the peripheral that you’ll spend most of your time using. It’s also the peripheral that can cause you the most physical damage: if you spend any amount of your time typing, a good keyboard can be the difference between working in comfort and heading into the painful world of repetitive strain injury and carpal tunnel syndrome.
For gamers, the keyboard is an important tool as well. First-person shooter fans will want to make sure that the layout fits with their gaming style, and that the keyboard includes ‘anti-ghosting’ functionality – designed to prevent multiple simultaneous keypresses from confusing the system and costing the player a kill – or macro-programmable ‘hotkeys’ that enable fast access to skills in a massively multiplayer title.
Try it out
When shopping for a keyboard, always try to get some hands-on time to experience how the system will be in use. The amount of travel in the keys, the technology behind them, and even the amount of ‘bounce’ as a key hits home can all affect the typing experience, and individual users will have individual preferences.
For the professional, ergonomic keyboards are worth investigating. While not to everyone’s taste, the split-and-rotated layout can ease strain on the user’s wrists and make it easier to type for long periods of time without any pain. Other users may find that the angle causes quite the opposite problem, however, so be sure to test one out before deciding.
Some keyboards include integrated features that can really make a difference: back-lit keys can improve the system’s usability in dim lighting conditions; spill-proof technology makes the risk of accidents with a cup of coffee less of an issue; and shortcut keys can make accessing frequently used applications significantly faster. These tend to be available on both cheap and expensive keyboards, however, and shouldn’t be used as an indication of quality.
Wireless keyboards can seem like a good idea, banishing at least some of the cable clutter that plagues a modern person’s desk. In practice, however, they can be more of a problem than a blessing: they need to be kept fed with batteries, and if you have a metal desk you may find signal problems cause keystrokes to be dropped. For users who like to sit back and relax, or those with a living-room PC connected to their TV, however, they’re a real boon.
Next to the keyboard, a mouse is the component of a PC you’ll spend the majority of your time working with. It’s also the part that has enjoyed the biggest technological revolution in recent years, moving from the mechanical ball-based hardware of the past to the modern laser-powered devices that are in common use today.
Which type of mouse?
If you’re still using a ball-based mouse, it’s time to ask yourself why. Optical mice, which use LED or laser light to track the surface of your desk or mouse mat as it moves past a sensor, offer a far greater level of responsiveness and accuracy, and are easier to clean when they inevitably get gunked up. Although mechanical mice are still available, LED-based optical mice are cheap enough that there’s no reason to invest in last-generation technology, no matter what your budget.
The choice between LED and laser is an important one. LED-based mice tend to be cheaper, and are accurate and responsive enough for most tasks. Those who do a lot of gaming or design work – both disciplines where high levels of accuracy are demanded – will want to splash out on a laser-based unit, while most other users can save a bit of cash with an LED-based model.
As with keyboards, wireless mice are available. Although they suffering from the same drawbacks as wireless keyboards, there’s a convincing argument as to the benefit of a wireless mouse: with no cable tethering it to the PC, the mouse is free to move without catching or snagging on anything. Be aware that you’ll need to keep its charge topped up, or keep investing in fresh batteries for non-rechargeable models, however.
Buttons and scrollwheel
Traditionally, mice have featured two or three buttons, and possibly a scroll wheel in the middle. Modern mice are available with eight, ten, or even eighteen buttons, but for most users a three-button mouse with scrollwheel is enough. The exception is for gamers, who will find the ability to add multiple ‘macros’ to different buttons in order to speed in-game commands makes a massive difference to their in-game performance.
Some users may find a trackball – like an inverted version of a ball mouse, only featuring the ball on the top, rather than the bottom, and which is kept stationary while the ball is moved with the fingers or thumb – a more natural control mechanism than a mouse. They’re especially good for cluttered desks, but can take some getting used to if you’ve grown up with a traditional mouse.
As with keyboards, the choice of mouse is a very personal matter. If you can, visit a high-street shop and try out some of the display models. This is especially important for left-handers: most mice are designed with right-hand use in mind, and some of the so-called ‘ambidextrous’ mice are uncomfortable for both.
For most designers and graphic artists, even the accuracy of a laser-based mouse is not enough – and many prefer the more traditional feel of a pen-like stylus to control their doodlings. For them, a graphics tablet is the best solution. Here, the market is dominated by the market leader, Wacom, which offers a range of tablets at different sizes and resolutions. Put simply, the higher the resolution of the tablet, the more precise the level of control – an, almost inevitably, the more expensive it is.
Other features come into play, such as wireless connection – but, given that the tablet itself will rarely move around a user’s desk, is more a nicety than a necessity. Features to look for aside from the physical size fo a tablet are the levels of touch-sensitivity offered – important, when it comes to the finesse of controlling airbrushes and other tools in image editing software.
For those who simply want to try out the world of graphics tablets, though, Wacom’s diminutive entry-level Bamboo Pen model is a surprisingly sophisticated piece of kit, available for under £40.
JOYSTICKS AND GAMEPADS
For a certain breed of gamer, a mouse just isn’t good enough. For those used to console titles, a gamepad makes a much more natural control system, while flight simulator fans wouldn’t dream of taking to the digital skies without a joystick or yoke.
There are devices available for almost any budget, with some of the higher-end flight simulator rigs costing enough to put people off digital flight. Key features to look out for are the number of buttons available, the layout of the control system, and whether the hardware supports ‘force-feedback’ technology – a system of built-in motors that provide tactile feedback in the form of vibrations or resistance to movement – for a more immersive experience.
For console gamers, further options became available with the launch of the motion-sensitive Wii console from Nintendo, which ruse gyroscopic controls to respond the controller being wiggled about by the users. Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing controller, and Sony’s PlayStation Move, take this concept one stage further, employing camera sensors to allow users to control games by waving their hands around in the air. The downside to both of these devices is that they only work with the specific console for which they’re designed – although there are plans for Kinect support to come to Windows PC gaming in the near future.
Older gamers may remember that joysticks and gamepads came with a special ‘joystick port’ connector that plugged into a system’s sound card. They may also have noticed that modern sound cards lack this connector. Thankfully, it’s not a problem: a modern joystick or gamepad will connect to a PC via USB, in the same way as a keyboard or mouse.
As with keyboards and mice, try to get your hands on a joystick or gamepad before buying one. Depending on your particular gaming style and the shape of your hands, what works for a reviewer might not be suitable for you.