The Belkin Nostromo N52te, is the older version of the Razer Nostromo N52te. I have been using the Belkin N52te for three years. It has carried me through two years of World of Warcraft raiding and more recently it has been dusted off for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Although no longer in active circulation, there are still some available in the second hand gaming market. Is it worth picking one up or should you shell out for the new and improved Razer model? Let’s find out.
Ideal for those late night gaming sessions
Despite being old tech, the N52te still has everything worthwhile to offer. It is highly customizable with 16 programmable keys and 3 keymap options, it works with any game because your PC views it as a USB keyboard, the back-lit keys makes it ideal for those late night gaming sessions and its ergonomic shape is comfortable for most hands.
Button mapping is a key aspect of physical accessibility and with each button open to map as you please, either to a single key or unlimited macro that you write, button mapping doesn’t get any better than this. There are 14 keys on the key pad, two thumb buttons, a joystick/D-pad and scroll wheel. Each of these can be programmed to 3 different keys or macros as there is a blue, green and red keymap. Inevitably, one of the buttons has to be sacrificed to cycle through the three keymaps, but loosing one to gain more than 30 keys is a worthy sacrifice. Maps can be saved, so when you switch between games, there is no need to reprogram, just load up the map you designed for the game and you are good to go.
The keypad is back-lit. It is not individual key lighting; a blue LED buried underneath the pad shines through the transparent lettering on the keys as well as inbetween the keys. The scroll wheel is also lit, the joystick/D-pad and two thumb keys are not. The three map states have corresponding lights at the bottom right of the keypad; blue, red then green. It is individual lights rather than one light changing colour. There is an on/off switch on the bottom of the keypad to turn the keypad light on or off if you find them too bright or distracting, but the switch state lights cannot be turned off.
Works for any game
It’s a USB device that’s seen by any PC or laptop as a keyboard and as such, works with any game. There are no special requirements, the hardware is plug and play and once the correct drivers are installed, the accompanying software is easy to use for key mapping. There’s no need for a GlovePIE script (unless you want to map the mouse cursor which isn’t a built-in option) or any complicated setup (unless you have the older Belkin model) and there shouldn’t be any issues with getting the device to work.
It’s not the perfect keypad.
The Belkin N52te is the near perfect keypad for the right gamer, but for a few annoyances. The USB cable could be longer (it’s not ridiculously short, but it’s clearly made for a standard computer workstation and does not lend itself to be used much further than a metre or so from your PC), it sports a rigid inflexible physical design and the keys could be more ergonomic.
Driver Issues: Belkin vs Razer Models
There are two models of the N52te, the Belkin Nostromo N52te or the Razer Nostromo (N52te). One is the original Belkin model and the second is the Razer model. The hardware is near identical, however the Belkin drivers do not work on the Razer and the Razer drivers do not work on the Belkin. If you own the older Belkin N52te, there are no Windows 7 drivers. You can use the Vista drivers, but only if you do not upgrade the firmware to the latest version. In summary, the Belkin N52te requires the Vista drivers with the last generation firmware to work.
The Nostromo N52te is designed for ergonomic gameplay for the average gamer. If your hands are not average, it will not be a good fit; what makes it so comfortable for the average hand, i.e. the shape of the base and position of the keys, is also what makes it inaccessible for the non-average. The base of the pad is suppose to be adjustable, but it isn’t on the Belkin model. There are obviously tracks for movement, but unless you start unscrewing the cover, there is no way to reposition the hand rest, you are stuck with the shape it comes in. The keys require as much pressure as a standard keyboard and are clicky and a little clunky and the bottom row can be difficult to access.
The joystick is could be better. It sits on top of a D-pad and clamps on. If removed, a D-pad is revealed, but the D-pad keys are stiff and difficult to access without having to shift my hand off the base support pad. A decent analog stick would have been a perfect fit; movement via a WASD mapped D-pad is less than ideal. These multiple small flaws reduce the comfort factor, but it is still a very ergonomic design that works well, if not perfectly, for most hands.
Complicated and time consuming set up
There are no pre-loaded keymaps and its not possible to share yours with anybody else. You have to map up to 16-keys over three keymaps for each individual game. There is the option to save layout; so you only have to program once for each game, but its still a lot of mapping. There is also an option to swap between layouts when loading a particular program, but I have not been able to use this function with great reliability and when you are playing Steam based games, Steam is the application detected on launch, vastly reducing the usefulness of this feature. The Belkin driver issue make it complicated to set up. It is not just plug and play, its plug, then-go-find-the-right-driver-and-less-than-up-to-date-firmware, install those then play; but at least the drivers are available.
A great fit for those with any visual impairment
The keypad is back-lit brightly with a single blue LED light shining through. There is a on/off switch on the bottom of the keypad to turn the keypad light on or off if you find them too bright or distracting. The three lights for the three keymaps cannot be turned off and is also rather bright. If they are too bright for you, due to their position at the bottom, it is very easy to put a piece of tape across the keymap lights to dim them or make them disappear altogether. There is no flashing lights.
The software used to map keys have quite small text that is fixed and the software tab is positioned in the middle of the screen and fills only a third to half of the screen, so the text and illustrations have to be quite small. There is no option to enlarge the size. The lettering on the device itself is white text on black keys and when illuminated the text glows blue. The text size is standard, but as your fingers are resting over the keypad and the layout is simplistic and logical, there is no need to repeatedly look at the keys to know what they are. The only glance you ever really spare the N52te is to check which keymap you are in by looking at the very obviously coloured lights.
Audio options for the visually impaired
There is no audio attached to the device, but you do not need any. The keys are similar to a standard keyboard and with the amount of force required to press the key, you will know when you have pressed it. The installation software is 100% visual and assistance would be required for setup and button mapping for anyone with significant sight problems. You can most definitely use the first keymap without any issues if you are blind, it also helps that the keys do make a distinctive click and the thumb keys have very unique sounds.
You could use other keymaps without being able to see the keymap lights; either by mapping keymap states as a shift state rather than a cycle through. For example, you could hit thumb button 1 plus a keypad key for keymap red and thumb button 2 plus keypad key for keymap blue.
The three states have corresponding lights at the bottom right of the keypad; blue, red then green. It is individual lights rather than one light changing colour, so for those with colour blindness, you can still detect which state by determining which of the three are lit.
Quiet, seamless operation with zero audio cues
Subtitles and closed captioning
There is no requirement for text options as the device does not make use of any audio cues during installation or when used.
Reliance on auditory cues
There are no reliance on auditory cues whatsoever.
Physical Accessibility Features
A perfect fit for the right gamer or a definitive no play for the rest
There are no timers attached to the N52te. You can take as long as you like to hit keys, however, if you hold down a key it will keep repeating that key the same as a standard keyboard. As key mapping is completely set by the user, you can choose the layout that works for you. If you do have issues pressing multiple keys in quick succession, the N52te macros can help you out. You can map a number of keys to one button, there is no limit, which can be useful in some scenarios, such as having a button to open both character pane and inventory with one button. However, due to the cooldowns on most spells and abilities ingame, it doesn’t really help with combat situations where good reaction time is usually needed most.
The keys are standard keyboard sized keys and have a similar structure and feel to them. If you can rest your hand on a keyboard in a stationary position and are able to press three rows of keys with 5 keys in each row without any issues, the N52te will be extremely useful. The keys are normal keys, so a certain amount of physical force is required. Again, if you can press the keys on a standard keyboard, you can press these. The keys themselves are keyboard keys; just in a more ergonomic position.
The keypad is made for bigger hands, if you have smaller hands like me or wear splints, like me, the base becomes very uncomfortable very quickly and you cannot keep your hand rested on it or use it continuously for extensive periods. If you have any difficulty resting your hand in a neutral position whilst using all your fingers to hit the keys, it would be extraordinarily hard to make use of this keypad. However, if you have repetitive strain or wrist issues, the base does support your hand in a neutral position very well and the layout of the buttons are meant to be right at your fingertips; making the N52te one of the most ergonomic keyboard replacements on the market today.
The N52te is made to be a one-handed device that can, with a little bit of work, replace both mouse and keyboard. Due to its design to fit your hand, it is left hand use only. If you are a left hand dominant player, this is not the device for you. I switched to a right handed mouse so that I can use the N52te with my left (I’m left-handed), which works out fine for me as I am not a mouse heavy player and use the joystick on the keypad for movement rather than the mouse. If you are a one-handed player, there is no way that you can make it work for your right hand, it is without question, designed for left hand use only.
All buttons are mapped by the user. There is no built-in mapping for moving the mouse cursor, but there is no reason why this functionality could not be added in using a GlovePIE script. The base of the pad is suppose to be adjustable, but it isn’t on the older Belkin model. There are obviously tracks for movement, but unless you start unscrewing the cover, there is no way to reposition the handrest, you are stuck with the shape it comes in.
Set-up can be confusing, but everyday use is user defined
Reading, language and vocabulary
The language used for installation, setup and button mapping are standard English. It is not particularly complicated and because the button mapping panel is graphics heavy, there is no need to understand any complicated terminology. Sourcing up to date drivers can be a little complicated, but that is only needed at installation and occasionally later on when drivers are updated. The naming of things can be a little confusing: keymaps, mapping keys, shifts states etc, but none of the terms are a requirement.
Installation and key mapping require some reading of text-based instructions. The layout of the software is graphics heavy and static text. It should not be difficult to map your buttons without ever reading more than a word or two at a time. There are no audio options for text, but there is very little text. You can effectively ignore the mapping system that it comes with, so the only text you really need to understand is your own input. Setup does require that you program single keys at minimum and if you want to bind macros (i.e. multiple keys) to one button, you do need to be able to follow a slightly more complicated layout.
There are 16 buttons plus D-pad and each have 3 options and you do need to remember which keys you mapped. The software used for mapping is easy to read and if you were to either print out a copy or display your map on a screen for reference, you should be fine. There is no reason why you could not have a cheat sheet next to you. Also, there is no requirement to map all buttons. Map as many or as few as you find comfortable.
The N52te boasts one big advantage over using a keyboard, buttons can be mapped to functions rather than keys. If you use the thumb D-pad for running, you can use the thumb D-pad whether running in a game is mapped to the arrow keys, WASD keys or mouse. If you use Button 1 to attack, you can use Button 1 on the keypad to attack regardless of which button the game uses (left mouse click, E, spacebar etc). It can largely negate the need to relearn buttons every time you play a new game, making gaming that much more accessible.
Focus, Organization & Planning
The level of planning and organization required depends on how extensive you choose to map the keys as well as how complicated the keys used within a particular game is, not the keypad. The more keys the game you want to play uses, the more complicated the setup will be. Once button mapping is complete (and if this is too complicated, this part can be done by someone else), the N52te is as easy to use as any keyboard bar once exception: the keys will obviously not display which buttons they are mapped to, so the customized map would either have to be memorized or displayed.
Setting up the N52te is as complicated as the game you are setting it up for. A significant amount of focus and concentration is required to program 50+keys to match the keys used within a game and for each game, mapping has to be done from scratch. However, some games only use a few single keys and mapping is done within five minutes. Oonce button mapping and setup is complete, using it requires only a bit more concentration at the start to remember which keys are where and if you’re mapping functions to keys (i.e. attack to button 1 regardless of which keyboard key the game uses for attack), it can require even less concentration than when using a standard keyboard with a new game.
Math and computations
There are no reliance on math or calculations of any kind. Macro setup can include timing, i.e. which can make setting up complicated macro’s a little math dependent. However, there is no requirement for setting up complicated macros and the N52te works perfectly fine without them.
There is no need for any speech at all, everything is setup via key-based input devices and text.
The near perfect accessory for the right gamer
The N52te is an amazing gaming aid. Its sleek ergonomic design, built-in wrist support and compact packaging makes it a must have for gamers looking for a keyboard-like alternative. The driver issue can be a problem, but once you are aware of it, there is a simple work around available. The fixed shape and lack of adjustability can make it difficult to use with some physical disabilities, but at first glance it is possible to tell whether it would be suitable or not, making this a non-issue.
No product is universally suitable and accessible and the N52te comes with the advantage that suitability is obvious. If an ergonomic keypad is what you need, the Belkin N52te still works extremely well. The Razer model has received some small but significant upgrades, making it a superior choice, but if you own the Belkin, I would not upgrade until it breaks or starts to squeak annoyingly. It offers great value for money and is currently still one of the best keypads on the market.
This review is based on the Belkin Nostromo N52te version
[stars rating=”5″ type=”Game”]