The Nostromo SpeedPad n52 is a customizable 21-button controller from Belkin specifically designed for gamers who enjoy first-person shooters. Its grey-and-black plastic body is typical of most PC game controllers: unattractive and bulky, if slightly more so than most. Still, its capabilities as a complementary gaming peripheral are impressive, especially if (like me) you find using a standard keyboard for gaming an awkward but necessary evil if you want to play some of the better FPS shooters (and have some semblance of a chance at not getting yourself instantly blown to smithereens.) Best of all, it is available for both PC and Mac, the latter of which being what I use. Having traditionally had a lot less to choose from in the way of games and gaming peripherals, I was glad to see that Belkin, an historically Mac-friendly company, had offered the n52 to Mac users as well. Still, the paw-shaped keypad has its ups and downs.

First, the positive. The Nostromo Array program does a good job mapping the keys to the game controls and saving presets as needed. The biggest problem I had was my own laziness at getting them all in there per the games’ controls. The n52 has 14 keys to which you can map any buttons from a standard keypad, including combinations of keystrokes, and a thumb key with which you can switch “gears” three times to effectually map 42 different commands (LEDs indicate which “gear” you are currently in.) A cross-style D-pad is positioned under the thumb, to which I typically map the forward, backward, left and right movement controls, and it’s fairly responsive, and above that a bright orange button that looks like something special…but actually isn’t in a great position for doing anything too important. (I’d used it as a “save” button.) The last feature is a scroll wheel, which also has a button-clicking ability, to which you could most effectively map your weapons selection. The entire controller sits flat on your desk, and has a (supposedly) non-slip orange rubber pad on the underside, although it’s not particularly non-slip on my slick wooden desk surface. In fact, I can slide it around like an optical mouse. Perhaps Belkin could have done well to include that feature on the underside, and therefore removed the need for a mouse altogether. But this is the “positive” section, so I’ll leave that alone. Your palm sits comfortably over a smooth, curved plastic saddle, keeping it in an ergonomic position for using the keys. Belkin is apparently concerned about my metacarpal health.

Which brings me to the negative points about the n52.

This controller is clearly built for the more ham-handed gamer. Its deep-profile keys and layout almost dwarf my hand, and although I don’t have the largest paws in town they’re not abnormally small either. The curve of the palm saddle make it just uncomfortable enough to reach the top row of keys if I sit my hand squarely in place, and forget reaching the top-left key with my little finger with my palm lying flat. And yet the bottom row of keys are still awkward to get to, forcing me to curve my fingers into some ninja-claw configuration. Perhaps the large key size is to blame…working the keypad makes one look somewhat like a one-handed stenographer. I am wondering if smaller-profile keys wouldn’t have been a better design. Also, I am not sure what benefit coloring the button above the D-pad orange provides….it’s not in a position to offer much tactical use, not to warrant such a high-visibility “Push Me If You Dare” coloration. As I stated above, I used it mostly as a quick-save button.

I know Belkin would like to tout this item as having 52 programmable keys, but that’s only if you count the 3-gear switching option. That’s a bit of a stretch if you ask me….I doubt that many users will be mapping three commands to each key, and switching through all the gears to use them. It’s just not convenient or feasible to do so, especially not while doing any kind of high-speed gaming. It sounds impressive on paper but has little real-world application. N20 would have been just fine, if less alliterative.

I should also mention, as did webbnet1@…, that this pad is undeniably left-handed, for use by right-handed mousers. If you use your left to work the mouse, you’re out of luck. This cannot be flipped for right-handed use. You could theoretically use some of the keys, and your right hand would rest on it somewhat comfortably, but the D-pad, scroll wheel and orange button would be totally out of reasonable reach, not to mention the shift button. Bottom line….left-handers, forget this item unless Belkin has an alternate version for you.

For around $35, the Nostromo SpeedPad n52 is a handy device for certain gamers, if overbilled on useful button configuration capabilities. It could have used a better gripping material for the base, and a slightly smaller profile – but that’s of course very subjective. Still, it’s more comfortable than a standard keyboard for game controls, and in the very least allows you to put your arms in different positions on your desk. Also, I should mention that the keys can be mapped to any program, and so can also be used in other applications besides games. You could also use the n52 to perform commands in Photoshop, for instance. And if you’re a competitive Photoshopper, that might be just the edge you need.

Geek Gift Score (out of 5)

Fun Factor: 3

Geek Factor: 4

Value: 3.5

Overall: 4

View a Cracking Open gallery of the Nostromo SpeedPad n52.