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Corsair's Vengeance K60 and K90 mechanical keyboards

Red cherries and brushed aluminum
— 2:49 PM on April 4, 2012

Wow, it's been a long time since I sat down to review a mechanical keyboard. Just over three years, in fact. The last clicky keyboard I looked at was the ABS M1, which was a fantastic bargain... right before it mysteriously disappeared from e-tail listings in late 2009.

Things took a turn after that. Enthralled by the snappy chiclet keys on my MacBook, I grabbed one of Apple's full-sized aluminum desktop keyboards. My interest in mechanical key switches promptly plummeted. Somehow, the Apple contraption took some of the things I loved about mechanical designs—crisp tactile feedback and a sturdy, no-nonsense layout—and combined them with a very short actuation distance and quiet operation. I was hooked. Still am.

While I was caressing those milky white Apple keys, mechanical keyboards grew in popularity among geeks and gamers. Most enthusiast-focused PC hardware vendors worth their salt started to offer products along these lines, typically with Cherry MX switches and price tags upward of $100. If you'd predicted that outcome to my IBM Model M-toting self five or six years ago, he wouldn't have believed you. The pleasures of mechanical keyboards were known only to a select few back then. But today, the release of a non-mechanical keyboard from an enthusiast hardware vendor has become noteworthy in itself.

This new breed of mechanical keyboard is pretty much the antithesis of the Model M, though. Where IBM's buckling springs trumpet each actuation with tactile and acoustic feedback, most of the gamer-friendly mechanical keyboards out there have non-tactile, non-clicky Cherry MX black switches, which seem prized largely for their rapid actuation in games. Typing comfort, it seems, has taken a back seat. As a writer, I'm not all that thrilled with this development.

There is a silver lining of hope for those who type more than they game, though: another type of key-switch, forged from the same non-tactile non-clickiness as the Cherry MX blacks, but with much less springy springs that beckon typists rather than repel them. This key-switch design has substantially reduced actuation force, which in turn reduces muscle fatigue, yet it retains the linear response curve so loved (or so I'm told) by gamers.

I'm talking, of course, about Cherry's MX red switches.

Today, we're going to be looking at a pair of keyboards from the fine folks at Corsair. Both of those keyboards feature MX red switches, and both of them do it in style, hoisting the reds on brushed aluminum bases and accompanying them with macro keys, custom palm rests, audio volume wheels, and more.

The switches
Before we study the keyboards themselves, I feel compelled to ramble on for a little while about key-switch designs and their various pros and cons. So, what is it that makes Cherry MX red switches different from their siblings?

Switch type Actuation
Feedback Clicky Target market
MX blue 50 g 65 g Tactile Yes Typing
MX brown 45 g 60 g Tactile No Gaming/typing hybrid
MX black 60 g 80 g Linear No Gaming
MX red 45 g 60 g Linear No Gaming

In the table above, "tactile" feedback refers to the presence of a bump in the feedback curve. In layman's terms, that means as you push down, your finger is going to feel resistance increase, and then the key will suddenly give way. You'll feel a sort of jolt, and that jolt will tell you the key-switch has been actuated. The jolt is sometimes accompanied by a click (as with MX blue and IBM buckling spring designs) and sometimes isn't (as with MX brown switches).

True to their descriptor, linear switches like the red and black Cherry MX have linear feedback curves. There's no bump, and there's no click, either. Your finger just meets increased resistance the further down you go, and the key-switch actuates somewhere along the way. The only feedback is when something happens on the screen. The following response graphs from Cherry illustrate the difference very well:

Response curves for MX black and brown switches, respectively. Source: Cherry.

MX red switches should have the same feedback curve as in the left graph, but lower along the Y axis, since they require only 45 grams of force to actuate. In a nutshell, MX red switches don't give you the same satisfying tactile and acoustic feedback as old-school clicky keyboards—or even more modern ones. The only click you hear is from the keys bottoming out. Nevertheless, the reds require no more force to actuate than MX brown switches, which are notoriously soft, so typing should feel fairly effortless.

The old-school IBM Model M's buckling spring switches, in case you're wondering, should require around 65 g of force to actuate. They're both tactile and clicky.

Now, there's a lot more to keyboards than their switches alone, of course. The sturdiness of the frame, the key layout, and the quality of add-ons like media keys can make or break a keyboard just as much as its key-switches can. Still, with both of Corsair's Vengeance keyboards, the Cherry MX reds are going to be central to the experience, and we're curious to find out whether they really blend typing comfort and gaming responsiveness.