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Razer's BlackWidow Ultimate
We first bumped into the BlackWidow Ultimate at CES this past January, and it was a classic case of love at first keystroke. This is a top-of-the-line model that attempts to be everything to everyone by combining mechanical key switches with all the bells and whistles you'd expect to find on a high-end gaming keyboard. Having owned backlit gaming keyboards like the original Saitek Eclipse and Logitech G15, as well as no-nonsense mechanical keyboards like the Dell AT101W and Das Keyboard Professional, the BlackWidow Ultimate seemed like the perfect hybrid solution.

My first impressions of the Ultimate were positive. The box it comes in is colorful and well designed. The keyboard itself is a weighty 3.3 lbs, so it won't go sliding around your desk. Rubberized feet also help to prevent unwanted movement, and another rubberized coating can be found on the keys. The key coating is comparable, albeit not identical, to the soft-touch skin of a ThinkPad. Above all, the keys feel great; keystrokes are extremely consistent, tactile, and pleasing at the same time.

The Ultimate's blue Cherry MX switches have been, ahem, cherry-picked to maintain a consistent 50 grams of required down force, 2 mm of actuation distance, and a full stroke length of 4 mm. These attributes, combined with a 1,000Hz polling rate, purportedly allow you to enter commands in half as much time as n00bs using membrane keyboards. Picky typists will no doubt appreciate having a uniform button depression force across the entire keyboard, too.

Aspiring to create more than just another clicky keyboard, Razer decided to outfit the BlackWidow Ultimate with a few unique accoutrements. Each key is individually backlit by a blue LED, as is the Razer logo etched into the center of the palm rest. There are five lighting settings: off, max, medium, low, and a slow pulsation that fades the lights on and off. The pulse feature might turn heads in a demo capacity, but it's extremely distracting otherwise.

Another feature that distinguishes this keyboard is the column of five dedicated macro buttons stacked along the left-hand side. With the Razer's management software installed, hitting the "Fn + Alt M" (Alt M replaces right Alt) key combination will illuminate a red "M" icon in the upper right-hand corner of the board. Start typing out the macro commands, and when you're finished, press the "Fn + Alt M" combo again. The red "M" icon will begin flashing, which is an indication that the next key you hit will be mapped to the preceding macro. Macros can be mapped to the dedicated buttons or to any of the alphanumeric keys.

Razer provides software to help manage macros, reassign keys, and define different macro profiles for various usage scenarios. Profiles can be used to define different sets of macros for individual games and everyday tasks. On my own PC, for example, I've built a profile that uses the five macro keys to launch frequently used applications like Photoshop, Chrome, Firefox, Pandora|One, and Notepad++. I have another profile for programming, which lets me quickly enter common code blocks at the touch of a button. The macro functionality is very versatile and useful once you get accustomed to the Razer management software.

The column of macro buttons can mess with your head a little, though. Having an extra chunk of keyboard under my left hand was a little unnerving at first, and I found myself hitting the tab and caps-lock keys instead of A and Q. The alphanumeric area doesn't feel any smaller than on a standard keyboard, so this was more a matter of my hand drifting to the left rather than being cramped by appreciably smaller keys. I'm also coming from a Das Professional, which seems to be slightly larger than the average keyboard. It didn't take me long to adjust, but after getting used to the BlackWidow, going back to the Das was equally awkward. The learning curve became a lot shallower after a few trips back and forth.

Another layout anomaly to be aware of is the Fn button, which replaces the right-hand Windows key you'd typically find on a standard keyboard. This isn't a huge issue, but it may bother folks who rock the one-handed "Windows + L" combo to lock their terminals. The final deviation from a standard key layout is the F-key row, which has been shifted slightly to the right for some reason. The function keys are still arranged in groups of four, but the bunches are closer together, throwing the positioning off even more.

In a bid to assert its gaming pedigree, the BlackWidow allows you to disable its Windows key with a quick "Fn + F11" combo. Gamers will no doubt appreciate the option, since nobody likes inadvertently dropping into the Windows desktop during the heat of battle.

The Ultimate's resume is rounded out by a USB 2.0 port, audio pass-through jacks for a headset, and media controls accessed using the Fn key in conjunction with various function buttons. The keyboard's rather beefy cable branches out into a pair of USB connectors plus two 3.5-mm audio plugs, all of which are gold-plated. The cable is braided and designed to take some serious punishment without fraying or pulling out of the board.

Although the Ultimate's tricked-out feature set makes it unique in the world of clicky keyboards, mine developed problems with its backlighting. From day one, the lighting behind the 4 key in the number pad was noticeably dimmer than the others at any setting. The V key decided to put its LED under a bushel, creating a distracting dark spot in the middle of the keyboard. I tried using the board with the lighting turned off, but since the keys are etched to allow light through, the text doesn't show up as clearly in low-light conditions.

Annoyed and under the assumption that a high-end keyboard should still be fully functional after only a few days, I hopped in the car and headed over to Micro Center to make an exchange. Instead of simply swapping out the Ultimate for a replacement, I decided to give the standard model a whirl. Fewer features means less to go wrong, right?