By Nelson Schneider - 09/30/12 at 02:38 PM CT
Previously, I discussed Valve’s beta test of Big Picture Mode for the Steam gaming platform. While Big Picture Mode goes a long way to homogenize the PC/console gaming interface, much like the 7th Generation has homogenized PC/console gaming libraries, there’s still a gulf. Sure, I may be able to start a game using a controller in Big Picture Mode, but if it’s a game that doesn’t support controller inputs, I’ll have to switch back to keyboard & mouse to play it. While it’s always possible that Valve may be hiding some awesome Big Picture Mode features that include keymapping and input emulation, that doesn’t help someone who wants to play now.
The current solution for this dilemma is to use a third-party keymapping program. While this type of program has been around for a long, long time, they have been historically feature-incomplete or just generally dodgy. And while I usually would never advocate paying for something when there is a free equivalent, the $10 price-tag attached to a copy of Xpadder (with free updates) is low for the quality bump it has over its competitors.
Developed by Jonathan Firth, Xpadder is a Windows-only program that behaves exactly how Windows programs should. It doesn’t actually install anything, it doesn’t modify the Registry, and it has no DRM. It’s simply a little executable that can be started or stopped at will and, while running, sits in the Windows System Tray using a minimal amount of resources. It has no issues with 32-bit or 64-bit systems and, in my experience, is one of the most stable pieces of code I’ve ever used.
So, what makes Xpadder better than the free alternatives? I have used both Joy2Key and Joy2Mouse. Both of those competitors have user interfaces that are as pleasant to use as rubbing broken glass into your eyes. Joy2Key has problems with analog sticks (which are really important now that every controller worth a damn has two of them) and is frustrating to acquire, as it is an open-source program created by Linux geeks who expect everyone to compile the source themselves. Joy2Mouse is better, as it supports analog sticks and can be downloaded from the developer’s site as an executable, but it is lacking in options and wants to install itself and become entangled in Windows instead of just doing its thing as a stand-alone executable.
Xpadder, in addition to the previously mentioned good Windows program behavior, has a very nice graphical user interface that is both easy to use and fully customizable (there is actually a variety of subforums at the Xpadder site dedicated to the creation of GUI elements). It provides full access to every keyboard key and key combination, full mouse emulation with a variety of speed and situational tweaks (like an interesting “Spring” mouse type that makes the cursor bounce back to the center of the screen when no mouse movement is detected), and a great “profile” system that makes it easy to setup, save, and switch between different control layouts for different games.
While using Xpadder can’t compete with PC games that feature native controller support, for PC games whose developers are either behind the times or stubbornly refusing to adapt out of some misplaced loyalty to the PC Gaming Master Race, it is the missing link that can make ANY PC game playable from the couch. Xpadder is an essential piece of software for anyone thinking of building a Home Theater PC that will be used for any kind of gaming.