Things you need to know when shopping for a gaming keyboard or programable keyboard.
Firmware is software that's in the keyboard's memory. It controls the device.
All keyboards have firmware. The basic ones just send standard signals of the key when it is pressed.
Examples of Firmware Capabilities
Programable keyboards have firmware that can be configured or updated.
Here is list of what firmware can do:
- Remap letter keys. For example, set d key to send e. Useful for creating different letter layouts, such as Dvorak Keyboard Layout.
- Remap modifier keys. For example, make CapsLock send Ctrl, or swap Alt and Ctrl.
- Remap any key to any. For example, make Space send Ctrl.
- Create leader key. For example, press leader ' e to insert é. [see Alt Graph Key, Compose Key, Dead Key]
- Create key macro. That is, send a key sequence. For example, make F2 send Ctrl+c (that's “copy” for most apps.) Useful for video games or professional tasks (in image editor, word processor, video editor, etc.).
- Create modifier layer. For example, when Space is held down, right hand home row keys become arrow keys.
- Create toggle layer key. For example, after CapsLock is pressed, right hand's keys become number pad keys. When CapsLock is pressed again, the lock is released.
- Create dual purpose key. For example, when Space is held and c is pressed, it sends Ctrl+c, but if Space is pressed by itself, it sends just space.
Note: not all programable keyboard has all these capabilities.
Advantage of Firmware over Operating System Keymapping
You can remap keys or create key macros via tools for the operating system (MacOS, linux, Microsoft Windows).
But programable keyboard has the following advantages:
- Plug the keyboard in any computer or operating system and it'll work 100% as you configured it. No need to install software.
- Key mapping via firmware is reliable. Because the keyboard sends the desired keycode directly to operating system.
For example, say you want CapsLock to send Ctrl. With firmware, the CapsLock sends Ctrl directly to operating system.
With key remapping software in OS, the keyboard still sends CapsLock signal, the OS receives it, and changes it to Ctrl.
Problems with Key Remap by Operating System
- When you plug in the keyboard on another machine, such as at work, you need to configure that machine first.
- In some app, it may not recognize the key remap by OS. For example, in some PC games, it ignores OS's key-remaps to prevent cheating, or in apps that require privilege such as Microsoft's regedit app. [see Windows: Registry Tutorial]
- When system boots, it doesn't recognize the remap. For example, in Linux bootstrap console or single-user mode. In Microsoft Windows laptop bootscreen, you may need to press a key to go into bios.
OS Level Key Remap Software
Different Firmware Capabilities
Firmware have different levels of power. Here's some differences.
• Most gaming keyboards have pre-set actions and key-remap features. You cannot remap arbitrary keys. For example, you cannot make Space key do Ctrl.
Driverless Programable Keyboard
Some keyboards have driverless programing (aka on-board programing). That is, to program the key, you just press special keys or buttons on the keyboard. No need to launch a “driver” software to program the keys.
This is the best.
Example of such keyboard are:
- Kinesis Freestyle Edge Keyboard
- Kinesis Advantage2 Keyboard
- Mistel Barocco Split Keyboard
- Vortexgear Poker 3 Keyboard
On-Board Memory vs Cloud
Some keyboard makers force you to have internet connection or install their driver software, in order to use the keyboard as you configured it.
Razer Orbweaver Keypad forces you to install their “Razer Synapse”. You need to install it, and also register online, and also have internet connection, to use its key-programing features fully. [see Razer Orbweaver Keypad]
Many models of Corsair's Keyboard require you to have their driver software in order to use the keyboard. In particular, Corsair Gaming STRAFE RGB Keyboard. [see Corsair Keyboards]
Usually that means the keyboard is not usable in Linux. In some cases, the keyboard does not work at all in linux, or send weird handshake characters when plugged in.
Avoid any Razer or Corsair keyboards.
Logitech gaming keyboards are good. You still need to install the Windows software to program the keys. (Mac version is available too) But after that, you can use the keyboard on any machine without their “driver” software.
List of Programable Keyboards with Onboard Memory
Programable Keyboards with Onboard Memory
Programable Keyboard User Interface
Great programable firmware need a way to program it.
Here are different methods.
- Graphical Software. Most gaming keyboards come with a easy-to-use graphical software to program the keys.
- Driverless Programing. By pressing keys on the keyboard to remap keys or create key macros. (example: Mistel Barocco Keyboard• Kinesis Keyboard)
- Updating Firmware. By using a key config website that generates a new version of firmware, then use a firmware updater to update your keyboard. (example: • Truly Ergonomic Keyboard • Ergodox Keyboard)
List of Keyboard with Great Firmware
Many expensive keyboards have powerful firmware.
Gaming keyboards usually focus on key macros, and profiles (which is a set of configurations, that you can switch to on-the-fly.). Gaming keyboard usually does not allow arbitrary key remap, nor creating dead keys, nor modifier key layers.
Gaming keyboard examples:
Programable keyboards usually focus on arbitrary remap of keys and key layers with modifier keys.