MMO controllers seemed like they could be the next big growth market in PC peripherals.
Those hopes were high in 2009 when Logitech released the first G13s to retail, alongside the old Razer Nostromo, which was from a different company that Razer either bought or bought the rights to, I believe. There were then MMO gaming mice – the Razer Naga and the Logitech G600, both of which I tried, and I owned two G600’s at one point in 2012/2013.
The problem ended up being that a lot of these devices came out at the apex of the WoW craze, in mid-to-late Wrath of the Lich King, and they were a growth market…for about two years. Sure, I imagine there are more overall MMO players spread thinner across more games now, but the market for MMO peripherals has never really bounced back.
Logitech made the G13 for nearly 11 years, and from sometime near its 2009 launch until two weeks ago, it was my MMO accessory of choice. Moreso than any other PC control investment I’ve made – using Xbox controllers wirelessly, mechanical keyboards, gaming mice – the G13 was my favorite, most-recommended piece of hardware. I’ve owned 4 of them over the years, most recently buying one in summer 2018 when I built the foundation of my current PC. Friends have received most of my old ones, as they all still work albeit with small issues – sticking joysticks (later production runs seem to have a bit of extra friction on a side of the joystick) have been pretty common and even with full disassembly and maintenance, they always eventually start sticking again.
Why do I like the MMO gamepad concept so much? Well, simply put, it’s this – I have all the telltale symptoms of carpal tunnel onset in my left wrist, such that using a keyboard for gaming in the claw-shape that takes often isn’t something I can do for the amount of time I enjoy playing MMO’s for. Any good MMO gamepad puts 1-2 hotbars worth of buttons in easy reach, makes strafing easier, and enables me to simply settle in, rest my arm, and enjoy my MMOs for as long as I’d like. The G13 was the winner in 2009 for me because it has 24 main buttons in a simple arrangement, neatly complimenting two full action bars worth of hotkeys in most MMO UIs. The Nostromo from Razer had less, and both the Naga and the G600 had buttons too small for someone with my thumb size – I could use them well enough (the G600 better than the Naga due to the ridges on the buttons making them easily distinguishable without looking) but they meant either committing to full mouse movement and a weird mouse grip that doesn’t work for me (I tend to be a mouse-palmer) or using my keyboard for some movement in an uncomfortable long-term formation.
The G13 itself is a device stuck in its time of 2009, with nary an update over its 11 year production run save for packaging branding from Logitech. This is mostly a negative – the G13 has squishy membrane keys that don’t produce satisfying tactical feedback, large gaps and seams in the body that can attract dust and food particles if they’re around, a tiny thumbstick with a thin rubber coating that wears off relatively fast (and the later-run sticking problem I mentioned above) and it has the LCD display that Logitech was convinced would take off starting around 2005. To be fair, I thought the LCD screen would take off too – I preordered the very first Logitech G15 keyboard with the full 18-set of G keys on the left and the giant monochrome LCD at center, then I later upgraded to the color LCD G19 keyboard, and I convinced myself for a time to use the LCD on all of them for something (usually media playback when that worked well, then a POP3 monitor when I was convinced I needed email notifications on my gaming PC in real time, and then later for RSS feed reading and seeing tiny news headlines on it).
So when I settled on upgrading my PC at the tail end of this year and early part of next year, I decided that I would retire my current G13 to my wife (who can make use of it professionally for macros for day job work and design!) and would find myself a new model.
Razer has what appear to be decent keypads on their hands now with the Tartarus, which has optical mechanical switches that can register two different functions based on press depth – which is pretty cool as an idea, but it doesn’t neatly fit my 24-key desires and reviews sort of panned the optical switches. There’s the Hori Tactical Assault Commander FFXIV edition, which claims 24 keys (although a joystick press appears to be one, which I am very meh on for comfort), but it is difficult to buy in the US, has a color scheme I don’t really like, and while the 14 key being the FFXIV-stylized roman numeral is a nice touch, nothing else about it screams “collectible” enough to justify jumping through hoops to get it.
The mechanical keyboard community has started to work on custom build kits for small keypads which can be customized, and that’s cool, but that also tends to involve a high degree of investment from the end user and a lot of building with a limited selection of PCB components or casings available for such a thing. Cool idea, and maybe one day that would be an option, but not today. I even thought about using an Elgato Stream Deck or something similar, not that it would be ergonomically sound, but I could customize an XL version enough to get close!
Then I found the Azeron Classic gamepad, and my first reaction was…what fresh hell is this thing?
After my shock subsided, I figured out how many buttons it had, and took a look around to see if people had hands on experience with one. A lot of YouTube results popped up – a lot. It seems to be incredibly popular, to my surprise, for Fortnite, mapping the analog joystick to get finer movement while being able to map all the keys necessary to the buttons on the device. That’s great – and enough of the videos and text reviews I found recommended it highly and spoke well of it, so I decided to try it out.
The first thing most people will notice is that the shape is absolutely bizarre, by design. It looks like a robot is going to try to really aggressively hold hands with you, and that feeling is hard to shake. The second thing astute readers might then notice is that with a close look at the surface finishes and textures of the materials involved, is that this device is largely (although not entirely!) 3D printed, because…it is.
Despite this, I took the plunge on an all black design to fit with my new build theme (they do have a black and gold design, but I liked the plain black aesthetic more for my desktop). I downloaded their utilitarian software package and setup my profile, and off I went.
My Logitech G13 was setup simply, with the number row of 12 keys mapped to G1-G12 and the same row with a shift-modifier mapped to the remaining numbered keys, with WQES mapped to the joystick for movement with strafing, since I mouse turn but like to use strafe occasionally for maneuvering.
The Azeron would require a new layout, one that is completely inverted and reversed, and then starts to completely go mental after Shift+6, with 7 back near the bottom, 8 by my thumb, and the rest mapped to the directions on the hat switch.
Mapping it was intuitive enough, but learning to use it to play and conditioning myself to use it correctly has been a more interesting experience, so I want to do a pseudo-review here and break down the pros and cons, then describe my in-game experience with my bindings in more depth.
High Customizability: The G13, Razer Orbweaver and Tartarus, and the Hori TAC all feature a single layout and spacing with minimal or no custom-fitting – the Hori TAC has its joystick on a slide rail that can move in and out a bit for spacing customization, but that is it. The Azeron is made to be ergonomic as fuck, and so each piece can be customized to an almost-uncomfortable degree. Underneath the device, each finger “tower” is held in place with 1-3 screws on sliding mounts. You can (and should!) get it into your hand and find the distance at which you can hit each button without strain, and then tighten it into a final use position. In addition to being able to slide the main finger towers in or out, you can also pivot them to a spacing that better suits you, and you can angle the joystick section to a large range of different positions, then rotating the thumb-flickable button on the outside to suit your ergonomic preference. This led to a few challenges (the first couple of days I had this, I didn’t adjust it enough and it made my wrist HURT after an hour or two of play, and also, the tiny screwdriver they give you with it sucks ass for this task) but once you get it set, it makes a huge difference. My recommendation is to play with it loose for a few days, make it so that you can slide the components in and out and side-to-side as you play and find the groove that fits most comfortably, and then tighten it after it passes a few days worth of rigorous evaluation. Also, since that included screwdriver sucks, at least it uses a standard-ish tiny hex head that was easily found in my iFixit Mako kit (not an ad, I just really like it). You can also swap the joystick head to one of two designs (an Xbox One style concave head or a PS4 convex one) and each head comes in 3 lengths so you can get a longer stem or shorter stem if it suits your play better.
Color Matching and Most of the Build: The Azeron, despite using a mix of prefabbed parts like joystick assembly, wrist-rest, and metal base plate, and a 3D printed…everything else, has excellent color cohesion and design continuity. The 3D printed parts, while not exactly premium feeling, don’t really detract from the device in any real substantial way, and they use 3D print settings and filament that inspires more confidence than my own low-infill percentage jobs I’ve made! They feel sturdy and strong, and in the all-black colorway, look nice and show few signs visually of their origin.
Software – Simple and Not Needed Past Setup: The Logitech Gaming Software for the G13 always annoyed me, in that later versions made it harder to tell if a profile was stored to the G13 or just in software, it always was a bit of a hog, and as Logitech rolled out the G Hub, they did not integrate G13 support, meaning that I spent a lot of the last year since getting a Lightspeed mouse with two different Logitech software packages for peripheral control running at all times on my PC. Yikes! Azeron, by contrast, is simple and efficient. The software is barebones, requires no resources to run and has just what it needs to be helpful, like joystick calibration and deadzone setting, profile customization for the two on-device profiles you can use, and the ability to set software profiles along with minimal other customizations like the brightness of the fixed-color LED that ties to the device colorway. If, like me, you use it for two games that you’ve built to use identical core gameplay buttons and those games are the majority of your playtime, then you never have to open the software again after setting that first profile. The device can store and run the profile with ease, no need to run the software on startup or anything.
Comfort: When properly adjusted to your hand shape and size, this is the best gaming device for long-session comfort I’ve ever used. The G13 was great because it is lazy, a slightly inclined board with a simple layout that you adapt to, but the Azeron is great because you force it to comply with your hand shape and size, and the adjustment parameters available work with a massive range of hands. It has left-handed and right-handed versions of the hardware available, different hand size base models when ordered directly from Azeron’s website, and the range of available adjustments coupled with the size and placement of the buttons mean they can accommodate just about anyone. It will take some work on your part to get it perfectly adjusted and aligned, but in a way, I like that – it falls to me to find the most comfortable option, but I can also change that as time goes on and if my hand responds worse to certain setups or positioning. Even the weird top-mount buttons on the index and middle finger towers become second nature after long enough use, and with proper adjustment, a small flick is all you need to activate them.
Switches: The Logitech G13 fell down in favor for me after getting a mechanical keyboard because the switches in the G13 are mushy, awful membrane switches with layers of rubber gaskets laid onto a PCB. They work well enough, but offer no tactile feedback or noise response, just the feeling of pressing into a foam mat. The Azeron uses mouse-style microswitches, so while they aren’t the larger boxier switches of a mechanical keyboard enthusiast’s dreams, they are clicky and responsive, and you can feel and hear them when you press. They also don’t require as much force to activate as the membrane G13 did. While I think Logitech could have won me over with a mechanical version of the G13 that dropped the LCD in exchange for linear switches, per-key RGB lighting, and a better joystick, there just isn’t enough of a market for that, and this is as close as I can get to that dream.
It’s 3D Printed: 3D printing isn’t inherently bad, and I want to stress that first. With proper print settings, a quality base file sliced appropriately for printing, and high-quality filament in use, a 3D printed thing can exist in fantastic shape for years. With that being said, the Azeron mostly meets the requirements I had for its print quality, with a few exceptions. The hat switch is 3D printed and feels a bit odd for it – it has a rough surface which is nice for tactility but also feels unfinished. Likewise, all of the main buttons are 3D printed and you can feel the layers if you run your finger over the surface, and while they feel solid enough, they also feel like the most likely candidates for breakage, especially considering that they are thin and held down with a screwed-in hinge on the switch side alone, meaning that you can hook them on the non-switch side and could potentially force one off. They have some resistance when you try pulling at them, so it isn’t the worst thing, but I still worry about that. Lastly, the palm-rest base is 3D printed with an Azeron logo embedded, and is the single point of the device that feels most like a hobbyist 3D print and not a finished product. The Azeron logo has visible infill and looks pretty bad, and the filament layers are the largest in this component, which makes the surface texture rough and the most prone to loose bits of filament or variations in the surface. They say they 3D print to be able to tweak the design from run to run for improvements, but without knowing how many revisions they’ve made or having the option to get a later revision print, that doesn’t do much for me. I’d almost rather they leaned all the way in on the 3D printed project idea and publish files that you could use to retrofit your existing one or otherwise tweak it. If you’re confident in your own design capabilities, you can do that now anyways – but it’d be nice to have a sense of the ergonomic adjustments being made.
It Can Be Unbalanced: Adjustability brings one problem to the floor that the fixed design competition don’t have – you can adjust it out of being a nice, flat-laying piece of hardware. With the thumb button out to the side, mine can lean to the left such that if I am placing too much pressure on the left side, the right side will come off of my desk. For normal use, this isn’t a huge concern, but it is something to be aware of and test for in your model post-adjustment.
The Microswitches are Mega-Sensitive: The design is great and I am finding it more and more great except for one thing – the main button trench at the bottom of the unit makes it exceptionally easy to press a button unintentionally, because each finger has millimeter-adjustment access to 3-4 buttons. If the switches were resistant to light presses, this would be fine, but they aren’t, so be prepared to adjust your hand and casually flick a button unintentionally a handful of times. A few days of using the device will train you out of it for the most part, but it can definitely be a bummer if you map big DPS cooldowns to the buttons assigned down there. You can set a button throttle preference in the software if you want to avoid double-pressing, with a throttle timer in milliseconds, but that will only help for double-presses, and my biggest issue was settling into the trench and accidentally tapping a floor button, or pulling my hand back and having my fingertip activate one of the further out buttons.
Material Choices Could Use Some Improvements: The wrist rest is a hard, injection-molded bit of plastic. It feels fine and contours well to my hand, but it has a major oversight in my opinion – it does not handle sweat well at all. The G13 I’ve used for 11 years has a wrist rest covered in a diamond-patterned rubber that allows sweat to fall into the gaps and wick away. The Azeron, on the other hand, can accumulate sweat and get to a point where it feels sort of uncomfortable to use. I really wish it had a rubber-coating option, or that I could find an easy sticker of cooling gel to apply to it. I could probably disassemble it and rubber coat the wrist rest myself, but that feels like something that should be at least an option for purchase.
Buying it is Kind of Tricky: The Azeron certainly isn’t a dark-web exclusive item that you have to buy carefully, mind you, but my experience was like this. I went to their website to buy 100% directly from them, no middleman. Their cart and experience were great, until the shipping page linked to a FedEx warning about COVID-19 impacts that seemed to tell me that shipments from Latvia (where Azeron is) to the United States wouldn’t be happening. Coupled with an ominous warning about being responsible for import duty (which, I mean, I know, but any information on how much that could potentially be would be immensely helpful!) and the transaction being done in Euros and thus triggering a percentage-based international transaction fee pushed me to their official Amazon store, which still orders the device directly from them in Latvia and has it shipped internationally, but charges the order in USD. The Amazon store does not seem to have all of the color options, which is part of the reason I ended up going all-black despite the other reasons I listed above. It also doesn’t have clear listings for the smaller palm rest or bigger palm rest option, so I bought the stock listing for the Classic and hoped it would fit well (it does, thankfully, but I was also right on the cusp that their official site lists for moving between the two available wrist rest sizing choices). This is a minor con – I got it fine, paid a fair price (actually better since it was a flat number EUR to USD conversion instead of an exchange rated affair, so EUR180 to 180 USD), and got one that fits me well and looks nice. But I would have preferred to give them a higher percentage of the total cost paid, to be able to customize a bit further, and to have had confidence it would ship to me and the help with wrapping my head around the duty portion of things.
The Included Screwdriver for Adjustments Will Fuck You Up Because It Sucks: The screws on the Azeron are small, so a small screwdriver makes sense, as does a hex-head versus a Phillips head or flathead. That’s fine, but the screwdriver they include is almost offensive. The handle is cheap hard plastic and only about an inch long, and makes it impossible (on my unit – literally impossible) to get the pre-set screws out of their threading enough to be able to adjust any of the adjustment points on the device. Look, I know they’re a startup out of eastern Europe, and I don’t fault them for not having a giveaway screwdriver budget that is larger, but my ASRock Taichi motherboard used silly Torx screws for the M.2 slots, and the freebie screwdriver for that is still small, but it’s about 4-5 inches in total length, with a magnetized tip and a free-pivoting end so you can push down to keep pressure on the screw while twisting with one hand with ease (am I still describing using a screwdriver?). If I didn’t have the Mako kit, I would not have been able to adjust it at all, which sucks, because the adjustments I made over the first week or two of use made the difference from being disappointed in wasting the money to elated at how comfortable and easy to use the Azeron was.
It’s Spendy: The Logitech G13 retailed for between $60-$80, until it went out of production. The Razer devices and the Hori TAC come in around $100-$130. The Azeron Classic, a 3D printed, Arduino-based device that you could, in theory, make yourself, costs $180. Here’s the rub – once properly adjusted, I think it is worth that, even with the discrepancies of printed, independent production over a set, mass-market manufactured device. I also get that the economies of scale a Razer, Logitech, or Hori have over a small eastern European company started by a single person with a passion for customized game pads. I happily spent the $180 and my impressions are quite good – I’m certainly going to keep it and it will become my new G13 replacement (hopefully with fewer purchases needed over the years to keep a functional, fresh one at my side!) but it makes a tough sell to a lot of people when that price range is the most competitive for a myriad of PC upgrades (the largest DIY sales of CPUs and graphics cards happen at this price range!).
For me, the comfort of a gamepad is something I can’t give up anymore. Once I got my first Logitech G13, it was like opening a Pandora’s Box of peripherals for my gaming, and the Azeron is more comfortable in my opinion, although it definitely takes some training and acclimation. For it to be as successful as I think it could be, it ultimately needs to make some small adjustments to fit and finish and to be more visible to potential customers. A part of the problem a company like Azeron faces is that a 3D printed product is never going to be viable for some people, because 3D printed products have a perception of cheap knockoff hacking rather than being a real, viable design. That being said, for as much as I have come to enjoy using it even just in two weeks, I think that if you’re on the market for a control device to make your MMO experience that much better, the Azeron is one of, if not the best, option on the market.