If you play PC games, you probably know how important keyboard control is to many of them, especially in the real-time strategy, roleplaying, and shooter genres. But keyboards are designed for two hands, and in most games you’ll always have one hand on the mouse. The Saitek Pro Gamer Command Unit is a USB controller that aims to improve your control of keyboard-driven games with programmable action buttons located directly under your fingertips for quick access, plus a thumb-operated joystick.
The Pro Gamer Command Unit (which I will refer to as the PGCU from now on for the sake of brevity) has a total of twenty-one buttons, an analog stick, and a three-position mode switch. When you rest your hand on it, fourteen of the buttons are under your fingers, with four more on an angled row above. Two more buttons and the analog stick are positioned on an adjustable thumb cradle, and the final button is located on the palm rest under the base of your thumb. The PGCU is designed for use only with the left hand.
The mode switch allows you to select between three profiles (blue, green, and red) and the backlighting of the main keypad changes color to show its position. The keypad isn’t the only part of the PGCU that lights up; a stripe on the hand rest glows blue and a red Saitek logo is projected on the desk below your wrist. (What would a gadget be without a couple of pretty but completely unnecessary lights?)
The heart of the PGCU is its “SST” programming software for Windows 2000 and XP. If you don’t install the software, the PGCU will be recognized as a standard game controller with an analog stick and a lot of buttons. With the software, it becomes a fully programmable keyboard as well. The main programming interface is the profile editor, which lets you define actions for twenty of the buttons (#21, on the palm rest, is hard coded to shift between two sets of programming) and the thumb stick.
The screenshot above (click to see the full size image) shows the main programming view of the editor, which lets you define the unshifted “blue” profile. The “red” and “green” profiles are preloaded with setups for FPS and RTS gaming, so you can get started without having to program everything from scratch. The data view, shown below (click to see the full size image), lets you program actions for all three positions of the mode switch as well as the shifted actions for each.
Programming button actions is very flexible. You can assign any sequence of keystrokes and mouse clicks to a button, with individually adjustable delays between each event. If you program multiple events, you can set them up to fire automatically with a single press or only while you hold the button down. You can also program separate actions for pressing, holding, and releasing a button. Whatever you can think of making a keyboard do, the PGCU software can probably handle it. Finally, if you leave the programming for a key blank, it is passed through to the game as a joystick button. (It’s your choice whether you want to program the PGCU to work with the game’s default controls, or bind the game’s controls to the PGCU.)
The thumbstick is an ordinary 2-axis analog controller, so if your game supports joystick motion you can leave it unprogrammed. But you can also set it — separately for each axis — to send mouse movements or keystrokes. You can even define bands with different actions. For example, if your game has one key for “walk” and another for “run”, you could set the joystick to send the “walk” keystroke when you press it halfway up and the “run” key when you push it all the way.
Once you’ve saved a custom profile, it appears in a system tray menu whenever the PGCU is plugged in. The software does not switch profiles automatically; you have to explicitly load the one you one from the menu when you want to change the PGCU’s programming.
Before I received the PCGU I had used a Nostromo Speedpad N52 for over a year. The N52 is very similar in its overall design but it has a directional pad instead of the thumbstick, a scroll wheel, and five fewer buttons.
I like the PGCU’s layout better for a number of reasons. The analog stick and extra row of keys are, of course, a nice bonus, but in addition to that there are a few design differences I like. One is that the key layout is closer to that of a real keyboard, and in practice is easier to use. The leftmost column, especially, is a big improvement since you can actually reach all three buttons with your pinkie. The staggered main keys are also a bit more natural to use than the N52’s vertical columns.
I also like the PGCU’s shift key better than the equivalent function on the N52. The N52 actually has three shift states, and you can program any key to activate or toggle them. While this seems like it would be more flexible than the PGCU’s single shift and three-way mode switch, in practice I didn’t find it as useful as it might seem. In most games, I couldn’t afford to give up more than one key for shifting. More often than not the only one that made sense was the flat “space bar” under the directional pad, and that made it impossible to move and use a shifted key at the same time.
The PGCU’s programming capabilities are a bit more flexible than those of the N52. I haven’t used the more advanced options of the PGCU (separate press and release actions, for example) yet but it’s nice to know that the option is there. One difference I did notice immediately is that the PGCU’s software allows modifier combinations to be programmed as one key. In the N52’s profiler, if you want to send an Alt, Control, or Shift key combo you have to define a macro which contains the presses and releases of both keys; this has the side effect that there is no way to hold down modified keys programmed on a single button, not to mention being annoying to program for certain games that use a lot of them.
On the other hand, one feature of the N52’s software that I wish the PGCU had is the ability to automatically switch profiles when you start a game. It’s not a huge inconvenience to use the system tray menu to switch profiles, but it would be a nice feature for Saitek to add in the future.
Another feature of the N52 that the PGCU lacks is official Macintosh support; the N52 ships with profiling software for Mac OS X. Mac gamers need not despair, however, since the PGCU (and for that matter, the N52) works with ControllerMate, a $15 shareware application which is far more flexible and powerful than the Saitek or Nostromo profilers. It may also work with other similar software such as GamePad Companion or USB Overdrive, but I haven’t tried those. As such, I don’t consider the lack of Mac drivers for the PGCU to be a significant disadvantage.
I primarily play role-playing games, so I went straight for the profile editor and didn’t bother with the pre-defined FPS and RTS key sets. I am of the opinion that a secondary controller like the PGCU is especially effective for RPGs, because so many of them use the entire top row of the keyboard as an assignable action bar. Using an entire row of keys with one hand is inconvenient at best, especially when you also need to use W, A, S, and D for movement. It’s even worse in some skill-heavy games where it is not uncommon to have multiple action bars using Shift, Control, Alt, and possibly even combinations of those. World of Warcraft is a good example of this; in WoW it isn’t uncommon to have thirty or forty action buttons available, even with assistance from in-game macros and user interface modifications. If you use the PGCU’s thumbstick for movement, you can assign two (or possibly three or four, if you set up the in-game key assignments appropriately) full action bars to the main pad while leaving a few keys free for other things.
The PGCU is useful for RPGs with less-complicated control schemes as well. For example, Guild Wars has only eight action buttons, and it’s possible to define a useful profile for it without even using the shift button. Yet the PGCU still makes it easier to play because everything is right there with minimal finger motion.
I have also been playing EVE Online lately, and it highlights some of the differences between the PGCU and the N52 I used to use. EVE is primarily mouse-driven, and it does not allow assignment of unmodified keys. Other than the function keys (which serve essentially the same purpose as the action bar in more traditional RPGs) every keyboard command in EVE requires a Shift, Alt, or Control combo. This was easier to program on the PGCU, as I described earlier, and there were a couple of keys I couldn’t program at all on the N52 because they must be held down. The PGCU’s analog stick also comes in handy for EVE; I set it to work as a mouse, then defined the buttons next to it as right and left click, so if need be I can poke around the menus one-handed. (I wouldn’t recommend trying this in combat, of course.)
One potential disadvantage of a supplemental controller like PGCU is that you have to take your hand off it to type into a text chat window. But you have to do the same with your mouse hand too, and the overall reduction in movement during normal game play far outweighs this, at least for me and my aching carpal tunnels. Even with only a normal keyboard, text chat can be pretty inconvenient if you’re trying to do other things at the same time.
I quite like the Saitek Pro Gamer Command Unit. I have been using controllers of this type for a couple of years now — first the Microsoft Strategic Commander, then the Belkin Nostromo N52 — so I was already convinced of its general usefulness. I like the PGCU’s design and programming capabilities, even the somewhat oddly-placed shift key. If you’re looking for this type of controller the PGCU is well worth considering, and I think it compares very favorably to the N52.
If you have never used this kind of controller, I would recommend the PGCU with some reservations. It seems to me that this sort of thing is an acquired taste, and may take some getting used to. If you are used to using an ordinary keyboard, the utility of an extra keyboard controller may not be immediately obvious, especially compared to simply replacing your keyboard with one of the gaming-oriented models available now. Still, for an average price of under $40 online, trying the PGCU shouldn’t hurt your wallet too much. If you want to reduce hand motion because of RSI, or if you are sick of how many key combos your favorite game makes you use, I’d recommend giving it a try to see how you like it.
The Saitek Pro Gamer Command Unit is available from many retailers of computer accessories, or direct from Saitek for $39.99.