Keyboards are rarely the world's sexiest PC parts, but you'd have to be odd not to appreciate a certain je ne sais quoi about the Microsoft SideWinder X4. It's by no means a subtle design. Its keys are stuck closer together than your average finger tapper, it sits high off your desk - higher still if you flip out the two legs on the underside - it's very shiny and it's as black as black can get, and that's a great part of the appeal - it's sleek, dark and almost sinister. Essentially, as keyboards go, it looks good on your desk.
It's relatively portable for a gaming peripheral. It's not unnecessarily heavy and there's no extraneous lumps and bumps ruining what is a very well tailored line. In fact, if it weren't for the media keys at the top and the bank of macros on the left, you could easily over-look this typing deck as a perfectly ordinary office item. Only those recognising the Bond villain-esque Sidewinder logo would have a clue as to its real intentions.
The SideWinder X4 is no work of art though, and the very thing that makes it hard on the eye is perhaps the biggest bugbear of using it as well. The world seems to have moved to isolated chiclet style keyboards over the last 3 years, but Microsoft seems to have ignored that fashion here. The company's defence might be that they have produced what gamers wanted - and perhaps this is what many gamers are indeed after - but, in our tests, the body of keys is not only far too packed, but also raised incredibly high; meaning that there's a lot of time lost in travel between your finger hitting the top of the pad and when the block actually hits plate at the bottom. Naturally, you get used to just about any keyboard over time but it's all too easy to mis-type on the X4 and mash a collection of nearby alternatives instead.
Oddly, that brings us onto our next point. One of the big features of this model is the introduction of advanced anti-ghosting technology; meaning that you can press up to 26 keys at once and have them all function simultaneously without any one overriding the other. On the one hand, that's an excellent feature particularly in strategy games when you might be holding down a series of shortcut keys at the same time. On the other, it gives you mixed effects when you accidentally mash together a few of the keys placed too close to one another for comfort.
While the main keys are not ideal, the macro and media buttons are everything that the rest of the deck should have been - large, flat, low lying and well spaced. They're also nicely in finger reach without having to move your entire hand like a pianist stretching for the low notes. There are six macros down the side which form a single bank of actions and you can toggle between three different banks at the touch of a button. What this means is that you can program 18 different macros per profile and you can program as many profiles as you like, which you can even set for your computer to detect automatically.
In other words, you can set your machine to recognise that you've just booted up World of Warcraft and the keyboard will automatically call up your WoW settings with the 18 macros you've got pre-programmed. When you've had enough of the quests and dungeons a double click on, say, your Crysis icon and a different set of 18 macros automatically loads up too. All very seamless and very useful. It's worth noting, though, that it doesn't record mouse movements, only key presses. So, your automatic control combinations can only be keyboard-based.
Recording the macros themselves can either be done very simply and easily in-game or slightly less tangibly with the IntelliKey desktop software as well. The most effective overall method is to record them while playing first and then trim them down with the software, which allows you to edit the times between key presses as well as length for which the keys themselves are held down. Once fine-tuned they become a incredibly valuable tool for any game. The macros are probably the most important feature of the SideWinder X4 and the part that's also been the best designed.
As well as recording, the IntelliKey software allows you to reassign any of the media keys to any one of 47 different functions including disabling them altogether - an option worth taking for the Windows key in case you accidentally bring up the Start menu mid-deathmatch. The only problem here is that many of these functions allow you to launch certain apps like the Windows Media Player or Calculator, but will not let you close them again by pressing the same button. That's something you'll need to do manually.
The Sidewinder X4 is topped off with some reddy-orange back-lighting and you can set to three different brightness levels as well as off, with the final small ergonomic disappointment being that the wrist wrest is perhaps not quite large enough and made of a hard plastic mould rather than the comfortable material that it appears to be in the pictures.
The SideWinder X4 does so much right that it's a shame to have to warn people about its one real flaw. The problem is that it's such a major flaw for a keyboard to have awkward keys that it needs to be said. If you have highly trained fine motor typing skills, then you won't have an issue but, for us, the main keys are just wrong - too cramped, to high set and the surfaces too easy to miss. Doubtless, you will get used to the kind of accuracy needed but why should you have to?
That aside, Microsoft has come up with a very good peripheral. It's not too garish, in the way that gaming accessories tend to be, but still offers a great level of functionality with perhaps just one or two built-in USB slots an absent touch. It's an okay price for such a specialised piece of kit, but you might be after something a little better for the money. On the plus side, the desktop software is flexible, easy to use and, mercifully, nice and light too.