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Razer's BlackWidow and BlackWidow Ultimate keyboards


Clicky, or it's not real
— 3:10 AM on July 26, 2011

What's that? Speak up, I can't hear you! Stop typing? Err, alright... Oh, you want me to take out the trash? Click click clack click. Sorry, I still can't quite make out what you're saying.

Clicky keyboards are very much a niche product category. Despite their obvious benefits, most people would rather spend $20 on a budget keyboard than lay down the cash required to drown out their problems in a torrent of clicks and clacks. Not very long ago, this clique of clicky enthusiasts was so small that most manufacturers completely ignored it. Clicky aficionados like myself were forced to purchase used Model Ms on eBay or shell out a couple months worth of coffee rations for a geek-chic Das Keyboard. I opted for the latter.

The good news is that keyboard makers are increasingly dabbling in clicky designs. Those that cater to gamers have discovered that mechanical keyboards have some appeal for their target audience, so we've seen new mechanical models begin to emerge from the likes of SteelSeries, Razer, Thermaltake, and even obscure brands like Qumax and Zowie. Today, we're focusing squarely on what Razer has to offer: standard and Ultimate versions of the BlackWidow keyboard.

I went out and dropped my own hard-earned nickels and dimes for the privilege of tinkering with these boards. Acquiring both models wasn't part of the original plan, however. I first sprang for the Ultimate edition with all of its backlit, USB hub-packing goodness. Issues with the backlight prompted me to swap the Ultimate for the lower-end standard model, which has fewer features and less to go wrong (or so I thought at the time). Consider yourselves lucky that my misfortunes have given rise to not one, but two heaping helpings of clicky keyboard deliciousness.

A crash course in mechanical keyboards
Before we get too far into this review, a quick refresher course on keyboard switches is in order. The vast majority of keyboards sold today use what is called a membrane key switch—an inexpensive and easy-to-manufacture design. Typically made from rubber or silicone, these membranes operate on the same basic principle as the lid of an opened jam jar. When the center of the lid is pressed down, you get a little pop as it drops into its depressed state. When downward force is removed from the lid, it springs back to its default position. The little rubber domes generally have a conductive post in the center. When pressed, the post makes contact with two electrical traces beneath it and completes a circuit.

Common mechanical switches eschew rubber domes in favor of springs and metal clips. The spring provides enough resistance to pop the switch back to its default position when you remove your finger, and the metal contacts provide the friction, circuit completion, and release points necessary to give mechanical keyboards their tactile feel and sound. (Model M fanboys might revolt if we didn't give a shout out to buckling-spring switches. With these mechanical switches, a spring underneath the key buckles under pressure, essentially folding in the center, and springs back into place when your finger lifts off. Buckling-spring switches are rarely seen outside the Model M and newer lookalikes, though.)

Cherry and Alps are the largest manufacturers of mechanical key switches, and Cherry's MX line seems to have found its way into a greater number of consumer boards. Members of the MX family are identified by a color-coding system. Blue switches lurk beneath the keys of both BlackWidow boards, but Cherry also makes black, brown, clear, and red MX switches. The primary differences between the various colors lie with the actuation force required to register a keystroke, the tactile feel, and audible "click" of the switch. In general, blue, brown, and clear switches are considered tactile typing models, while the blacks and reds are non-tactile, linear switches that are supposed to be better for gaming.

Switch Type Actuation Force Key Feel Target Market
MX Blue 50 g Tactile / Clicky Typing
MX Brown 45 g Tactile / Non-Clicky Gaming/Typing Hybrid
MX Clear 55 g Tactile / Non-Clicky Gaming/Typing Hybrid
MX Black 60 g Non-tactile / Non-Clicky Gaming
MX Red 45 g Non-Tactile / Non-Clicky Gaming

Given the chart above, you might be wondering why Razer opted for blue switches rather than alternatives more fashionable among gamers. Your guess is as good as mine, but keep in mind that a switch designed for typing isn't necessarily bad for gaming—or vice versa. Something like key feel really comes down to personal preference. Besides, I enjoy playing games as much as anybody, and I've never encountered a keyboard that slowed down my "WASD + spacebar = death & respawn" routine.

A word of warning: simply knowing the color of a keyboard's underlying switches doesn't tell you enough about how it'll actually feel. Despite the fact that the BlackWidows and my trusty Das Keyboard Professional both employ Cherry MX blue switches, each board has a distinctively different tactile feel and sound. Much of this can be attributed to the design of the key caps, the weight and thickness of the plastic, the small activation force variances between switches, and any coatings applied to the keys.

In-depth write-ups on switch technologies can be found all over the web, but I recommend this one at Overclocking.net to readers seeking more information on the subject.