by Harry Guinness on
If you’ve any interest in writing nicely then a $1 ballpoint won’t cut it, you need to look at a fountain pen.
Back around 2010 I bought the Logitech G13 so I could play World of Warcraft’s newest expansion Cataclysm more efficiently. With Battle for Azeroth out now, it’s still my go-to accessory.
Retro Reviews are a new series where we take a look back at products that have a special place in our hearts, history, or both, and reflect on how they’ve stood up over time.
The Logitech G13 is one in a small, weird subcategory of gaming peripherals called keypads—or gamepads, if you prefer, though try searching for that and you’ll end up with regular controllers more often than not. Gaming keypads are designed to be used with a single hand (usually your left hand) and feature an array of buttons more ergonomically optimized for the kind of complex finger gestures you’ll need while playing games. They also usually come with a high degree of customization so you can make your buttons do exactly what you want, instead of trying to adopt your gaming habits to a QWERTY keyboard that was designed first and foremost for text input.
That’s what drew me to the G13 back when I first got into World of Warcraft. I wanted to have more control over minute, otherwise unimportant details than a regular keyboard (or even a gaming keyboard) could provide. I settled on the G13 which, unfortunately, isn’t for sale anymore, though you can still find alternatives like the Razer Orbweaver Chroma. Still, there’s a reason the G13 became my favorite.
You’re used to the 101-or-so button keyboard that you type with everyday. For almost any game you can play, that’s more than enough. When it comes to an MMO like World of Warcraft, however, the normal WASD just don’t cut it. Every single class has a dizzying array of roughly seventeen million spells, abilities, and items to use. Once you hit the level cap, you have two main ways of improving in the game: acquiring better gear and improving your rapid-fire rotation of spells and abilities. The only way to do the former is to grind away at dungeons and raids like it’s your second job, but a solid keypad can help with the latter.
The Logitech G13 is a programmable keypad with 22 regular buttons, a four-directional control stick, and two programmable modifier buttons. The included Logitech software—which the company also uses across its array of gaming peripherals like keyboards, mice, and headsets—lets you program every single one of these buttons. You can make a button correspond with a single key on your keyboard, a multi-key shortcut (like, say, Ctrl-Tab or Alt-F4), or even a sequence of multiple commands executed in a row. We’ll come back to that bit in the next section.
It also features three layout buttons and a macro recording button. The layout buttons let you switch between multiple preset button configurations. So, for example, in World of Warcraft, you can quickly switch between multiple class specializations. With the G13, you could also switch the button layout you’re using without tweaking any settings or opening the Logitech app. This gives you flexibility to create layouts that are exactly what you need for different parts of the game and access them with a single button.
Finally, the G13 has a simple LCD display. You can choose to set this display to show the time and date, the game profile you’re using, a countdown timer, or perhaps most usefully, a live meter of your CPU and RAM usage. This last bit is useful even when you’re not in a game. If your computer starts to slog, you can see at a glance what part of your machine is being overworked.
Overall, it’s a robust piece of hardware. The ergonomic curve gives your wrist just enough support and the keys are gently sloped so that your fingers naturally find exactly the button you want to press, rather than performing complicated finger gymnastics to reach the keys you want. My one minor complaint is that the thumbstick seems like it should be useful for analog movement, but it can only point in one of four directions. You can assign each of the four directions to a button or function, but it’s not as useful as a proper analog stick would be.
The hardware on the G13 is comfortable and precisely designed for long-term gaming sessions, but it’s the software that makes it magic. On a basic level, you can assign any button or combination of buttons to any key on the keypad. In my setup, I assign the two gray buttons next to the control stick to the Alt and Ctrl keys. Many of the regular keys are assigned to a number so, for example, I can press the G12 key (directly under my index finger in the resting position) which corresponds to the number 7. The Alt key is directly under my thumb, so without repositioning my fingers at all, I can press Alt-7 with my index finger. With all four of my fingers and my thumb at complete rest, I have at least eight spells available. That might not sound like a big deal, but when you have to make potentially hundreds or even thousands of moves per fight, minimizing your finger movement matters.
Logitech doesn’t stop with simple keymapping, though. You can assign each button a single keystroke, a key combination, a macro that executes in sequence—you can either manually build these in Logitech’s editor, or simply record yourself pressing the buttons in the order you want—or even paste whole blocks of text with a single button. Have a regular message you need to send to your whole guild? Program it into a button. Need an emergency get-the-hell-out-of-here button that runs through all your escape spells at once? Record a macro. The game has its own built-in macro system, but for certain tasks, I’ve found the G13 to be way easier.
The most powerful feature of Logitech’s software, though, is also its quietest. The app can detect what game you’re playing and automatically load the custom profile you’ve built for each application. I say “application” instead of game because it’s not limited to games. I have a custom profile for every game I use the G13 with, but I also have one for Chrome, Photoshop, Premiere, OneNote, and more. While my colleagues may prefer AutoHotKey to create their own productivity-boosting shortcuts, I’ve been using Logitech’s software for years for the same purpose.
The same app that powers the G13 also works with Logitech’s line of gaming mice and keyboards, so I can use the exact same game profile I use with the G13 to also add spell buttons to my gaming mouse. I’ve got combat spells on my left hand, and movement abilities like my mount or jump buttons on the mouse, which makes more intuitive sense.
Some game designers invest a lot of energy in making controls feel as natural as possible, but no matter how cleverly designed they are, there’s always an element of adapting yourself to the way the game works. Sometimes that’s easy, like using a mouse to point where you want to look, which generally feels pretty natural. Other times it’s awkward, like trying to keep up with Han Solo’s sweet dance moves.
In a game like World of Warcraft—or any MMO for that matter—that friction between what your brain wants to do and what your controls let you do can mean the difference between winning and wiping your entire group. While most games and controls force you to play on their terms, the G13 adapts to yours. It places buttons right where it makes sense for your fingers to reach, instead of picking a few keys off your regular keyboard and hoping they’re in the right spot. It lets you program every single button to do exactly what you need, exactly when you need it.
Not every game demands the power of the G13, but when it comes to MMOs—as well as the occasional specialized task like photo or video editing—I’ve found it to be an indispensable tool.
Unfortunately, the G13 is old enough now that you can’t get one for its past, normal price. You can still buy refurbished options from third-party resellers on Amazon, but if you like the idea, you can also check out other, newer gamepads like the Razer Orbweaver Chroma for $125. Razer offers its own comparable software, but I’ll stick with my trusty Logitech.
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