By Betsy Finn, Cr.Photog., CPP
X-keys Professional, from P.I. Engineering, is a 58-key customizable keyboard; straight out of the box, it might look unassuming. But that's the beauty of it—you can customize X-keys to your heart's content. Imagine how 58 custom keys could help streamline your workflow. I have to admit, once my X-keys unit was set up and operational, it really helped increase my editing efficiency in Photoshop, but I'm getting ahead of myself. First to explain how it works.
The X-keys unit ships with a set of key labels, the software disc, and three double-sized keys that you can install if you choose. I opted to keep all 58 keys, since I knew I would use them! You can download (or order) legend sheets to create customized key labels. I found it most useful to make my own key labels, along with a layout chart of which shortcuts I wanted to associate with certain keys (download templates).
My process began with making a list of all the shortcuts I use most frequently—whether in Photoshop, Bridge, or just general computer actions. Here's a picture of my worksheet—I wrote down the desired label, whether the shortcut would be a global command (or program-specific), and what keystrokes to program.
Then, I created a rough draft of my layout (using my worksheet). As I wrote down where to program each action/keystroke, I also made note of any existing keyboard shortcuts on the worksheet. For example, I created Undo and Redo buttons—which are global keystrokes, but also Photoshop-specific. When Photoshop is open, the Undo/Redo buttons perform the Step Forward/Backward function. For some of my desired buttons, I did not have any keyboard shortcuts assigned in Photoshop. So, rather than programming keystroke by keystroke within the X-keys software, I simply created an action in Photoshop, and then assigned a keyboard shortcut (e.g. Shift+F7) to the action.
Once all my actions (and keyboard shortcuts) were created, I opened the X-keys software to program my keys. Since I'm a Windows user, I'll only discuss how I set up X-Keys for that OS (MacroWorks3); the concepts for setting up X-keys on a Mac (ControllerMate) should be similarly easy. Simply turn the wheel dial on the X-keys unit to enter setup mode (a red dot is displayed on the unit, see below):
To begin programming your keys, you either press a key on the X-keys keyboard, or double-click the appropriate key on the layout view in the software. The middle section of the screenshot below is where you record the desired action. For instance, in this screenshot, you can see I have programmed a Photoshop-specific keystroke action (Shift+F4). The drop-down App menu (in Red), displays additional options: Global, apps with actions already programmed (e.g. Bridge, Photoshop), and any applications currently running (you need to have the application open in order to create an application-specific action).
If you make a mistake, or want to change things up, it's a simple matter of clearing the recorded keystrokes to start from scratch. In addition to programming keystrokes (such as Photoshop shortcuts), you can also type in a block of text (Text), open an application/website (Shortcut), or even perform more advanced actions (Function). You can even combine a variety of keystrokes, text, shortcuts, and functions to achieve the desired action.
I created shortcut buttons to open applications and websites I use frequently, and custom function buttons to perform more complex actions within Photoshop. I even made a Photoshop-specific button that decreased my brush size as I held the button down. To accomplish this, I first programmed the keystroke, and then added the Auto Repeat function. This function has two settings you can customize—delay and repeat rate, which affect how frequently your keystroke (in this case, "[") will be repeated, and how much of a time delay there is between repeat strokes.
Overall, I was very pleased with the flexibility of X-keys Professional—it was easy to program and customize, and has certainly helped to speed up my workflow. Rather than scrolling through my list of actions to find the desired effect in Photoshop, I now have a key that will perform that action for me. While my X-keys typically resides next to my tablet for convenient editing, I have also taken it on the road with me (you can save and export/import MacroWorks3 settings to another computer). Having the ability to create labels for the keys really makes all the difference in the world. I don't know how I'd remember which key did what otherwise!
The X-keys Professional unit is available with either USB port or standard PC (PS/2) connections. The USB version comes with user-friendly software—MacroWorks 3 for Windows, or ControllerMate for Mac. X-keys Professional retails for $189.95 and comes with a 30-day full refund return policy. For more information about X-keys, visit xkeys.com.