Gamepad: Belkin n52te
Belkin's n52te gamepad is the company’s most recent entry to this market, where it has happily led the field for years. When considering gamepads to include in the roundup, the Belkin Nostromo n52 came highly recommended, and when Belkin offered up its $70 n52te for testing, it seemed to be a good opportunity to get familiar with the flagship. The n52te exudes style, with an ergonomic wrist rest that leads smoothly up to the blue backlit keys, all laid out in a uniform fan-pattern directly under where your fingers would naturally fall. The thumb stick lives exactly where you’d expect, and just under the thumb stick is the profile key that lets you choose between the three programmable profiles at any time.
The wrist rest is adjustable, so if you find it a little too close to the keys by default, you can move it back a bit so there's more space for your fingers to stretch out. The thumb stick is also customizable, and you can remove the stick and use the sensor underneath as a directional pad. All 15 keys are programmable. While the center keys have arrows on them to indicate their primary purpose, there's nothing about them that forces you to use them that way, unlike the raised silver keys on the Saitek Cyborg Command Unit. The keys on the n52te are low-rise and backlit with a bright blue light that shines across the backplane and through the keys.
The n52te is expensive, but if you're a gamepad fan, it could be worth the money. It worked seamlessly in every game I tried, and was especially easy to get used to in World of Warcraft and Guild Wars. The game controls allowed me to map several in-game functions to the programmable buttons. The n52te was also useful in FPS titles and multiplayer action games. After about 10 minutes of configuration, I was off and away, completely forgetting that the keyboard was even on my desk.
In the end, it's clear that you don't need a gamepad to play your favorite games. If you're not used to one and you don't see how one would be useful for you, a gamepad likely won't even improve your gameplay. The Saitek Cyborg Command Unit and the Belkin n52te were both easier to use than I anticipated, and the n52te specifically was comfortable and enough fun that I could see myself using one regularly. I could certainly understand why some gamers swear by them, but you're not going to give a novice a gamepad and instantly turn him or her into a professional gamer. If anything, you're going to confuse a gamer already used to the feel of a keyboard.
With that said, if you're a gamer who already loves to tweak the key bindings in your favorite games, or if you're an avid MMO or FPS player who likes to change your key layout so the most often used spells, weapons, and macros are close to your fingers at all times, a gamepad may give you the level of configuration you want in a small, fun to use package that keeps your hands from constantly flying across a keyboard.