United Keys OLED Display Keyboard review
The idea of a keyboard with dynamic key-tops has long been a fascinating one, and OLED technology is now cheap enough to make it feasible in a consumer product. Ignoring Art Lebedev’s luxurious $1,500 OLED offerings, this keyboard from United Keys is the first serious attempt we’ve seen.
It’s a normal keyboard for the most part, but at its left end sits an extra nine-key panel with OLED screens in the faces. When you first connect it via USB and install the software from its built-in storage, these keys light up with a set of nine generic example labels, none of which actually does anything. The idea is that you choose your own commands to assign to the keys as you see fit.
This set of nine keys is known as a “layer”, and there’s no limit to the number of layers that can be created. As well as this so-called Global layer, Process layers appear when their assigned application is opened, while Dialog layers appear when a specific dialog window comes onscreen. This ensures the OLED panel always has commands relevant to the current task in hand.
Each command can be assigned its own 64 x 64-pixel label, which will appear on a key’s monochrome yellow-on-black OLED panel. It comes with a wide selection of labels for Microsoft Office applications, Photoshop and Firebox among others, but any JPEG or BMP can be automatically converted to a key label.
The problem, at least out of the box, is that none of these pre-created labels do anything. Assign the “Underline” label to a key, for example, and you still have to manually start up the macro recorder and enter the Microsoft Word keyboard commands for it to assign that action to the key – no actual macro routines come stored on the device.
This is a huge issue, exacerbated by the clunky software needed to program the keyboard. It took us a good hour to get a workable set of nine basic Excel shortcuts assigned to the OLED panel even with the supplied labels, and by that point we were hardly in the mood to move on to something more complex such as Photoshop. You’ll be an expert at formatting your own text labels in Microsoft Paint by the end of it all.
There are plans in the pipeline for a website that will offer downloadable layers for many popular applications – including, thankfully, both the labels and the macro configurations – within “the next few months”, and it can’t come soon enough. Left to a manual process, the initial appeal of the device is swamped by frustration almost immediately.
Assuming this does make things easier, we can see the early promise in the OLED approach taken by United Keys. The price is identical whether you choose this full keyboard or opt for a USB nine-key OLED keypad on its own – and given that the typing experience is akin to that of the rattly, cheap tat that usually comes free with a budget PC, we’d recommend the latter.
The whole thing has the feel of a first attempt, where future refinements will hopefully iron out niggles to create a genuinely desirable product. But even now, if your daily workflow includes repeatable routines, particularly in scientific applications where the complexity exceeds simple key combinations and shortcuts, the OLED Display Keyboard will save time and arguably earn back its asking price.
The United Keys OLED Display Keyboard and Keypad are available in the UK from APC-Contech.
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