This gamepad boasts mechanical keys and a solid new design. We put it to the test.
By Bane Williams on February 28, 2013 at 10:22 am
The Belkin N50 ‘Nostromo’ Speedpad was a solid piece of innovation and technical engineering. It featured 2 custom rows of gaming keys, a mouse wheel, a directional pad, and a black/silver/orange colour scheme which was striking, if incredibly garish even for the world of 2002. Refine the design and development of the N50 over 10 years and you have Razer’s Orbweaver, a serious piece of tech for gaming enthusiasts that still pays respect to a decade-long lineage. But does it live up to its past, or was it better left as a relic of times gone?
Razer might not have had anything to say in the design of the Nostromo N50, or even its successor the N52, but in 2007 Belkin brought Razer on board to help design a more professional version of the N52 speedpad, the N52te (Tournament Edition). This device — while initially shunned for minor technical differences between its predecessor — had a higher build quality, easier to use buttons, and the iconic ‘black and blue’ colour set still in use by Razer today. It was the N52te that helped solidify Razer as a high-end producer of all things professional gaming, and the repercussions of that dominance are still felt today.
While Razer eventually gained the rights to the Nostromo entirely and developed their own branded version it was launched to compete with the Logitech G13, a similar style of gamepad that suited larger hand sizes better than that released by Razer. It was important to note that since Razer didn’t significantly change the design of the Nostromo from the N52te, gamers in general believed it to lack solid macro support, a design oversight problematic to the N52te.
Not to be deterred, Razer eventually decided they needed a new gamepad to compete with offerings made by several of its competitors. Enter the Orbweaver, a gamepad produced with Razers newer design principles in mind. While not ambidextrous, it offers several improvements in the areas of customisation and comfort, having an alterable hand, thumb and palm rest. The handrest’s angle can be changed for different grips (or left loose to swivel), and the thumb and palm rests can be extended or retracted for different hand sizes and shapes.
The Orbweaver feature set includes 20 programmable keys, a significant improvement over the 14 originally offered by its predecessor. It also does away with the difficult to use scrollwheel, creating a more unified design that is easier to adapt to. Your thumb has access to a space button, a ‘hyperresponse’ thumb button, and a 8-way thumbpad which while easier and more intuitive to use than previous designs, is very easy to knock during frantic gameplay moments.
By far the easiest to notice improvement has to be the addition of mechanical keys. These feel like the same Cherry Blue switches found in Razer’s mechanical keyboards, which is hardly a surprise. They provide excellent response, and while many prefer Cherry Black’s or Brown’s for a keyboard switch preference, the Cherry Blue’s match the sensitivity of the other buttons and thumpad perfectly.
As far as comfort goes, testing the Orbweaver with a small group of friends showed that no matter the hand type people could adjust the device to a natural comfort level, although small fingered friends had difficulty reaching the top left and right keys. Most preferred to leave the handrest in a loose swivel state, allowing it to dynamically change depending on needs, although its general flexibility leads me to worry about long term wear and tear.
The device is designed for heavy duty use, with rubber used prominently for the various rests and keys. This of course means that blemishes from finger oil happens pretty much instantly, and makes the Orbweaver near impossible to clean. Despite the extremely high build quality, Razer chose to leave out the braided cable used by pretty much all of their high end devices, which seems like a step away from their design principles. Perhaps the inside of the cable is non-standard, but there is no obvious external difference.
Of course, the real test is how it feels in game. The mechanical keys make an almost imperceptible difference until you attempt to switch back to any other gamepad, at which point everything else seems sluggish by comparison. The unlimited macro functionality and 8 different keymaps allow for some great build order combinations in StarCraft II and easy skill swapping in Guild Wars 2. CS:GO purchases were quick and simple, and binding item and ability switching in Skyrim was a breeze. With professional gamers in particular, I can see this becoming a regular choice, especially when the cumulative addup of keystroke delays can mean the difference between a victory or defeat.
Razer have a real winner here, but in the world of console controllers being used on PC with unnerving frequency, is it still relevant? The answer is perhaps an unsurprising yes. With the ability to use a mouse alongside, the enhanced response time, and 22 separate keys (58 if you bind two mouse buttons to alt and shift, but keep dedicated movement keys), it is easy to see how such a device could be a hardcore gaming staple for years to come.
- Customisable for most hand shapes and sizes
- Mechanical keys with a satisfying click
- Solid improvement over past designs
- Versatile macro management
- Price just shy of a full mechanical keyboard
- Cable and Handrest could pose long term problems
- Easy to accidentally hit thumb buttons
The Razer Orbweaver retails for around $120 at many stockists. Product for this review was supplied by Razer.