Mechanical keyboards have enjoyed quite the renaissance over the past few years. As someone who logs tens of thousands of keystrokes a day, I'm quite pleased with the trend. The smooth, precise feel of mechanical key switches is far superior to the mushy, lifeless response of the rubber domes typically found in desktop keyboards. Once you've used a high-quality keyboard, it's hard to go back to inferior switches.
Just about every peripheral maker seems to have a few mechanical models in its arsenal. The latest one to pass through our labs is the Cooler Master QuickFire Ultimate, which is sold under the CM Storm brand. This entry combines adjustable backlighting with a range of Cherry MX switch types. It's a relatively straightforward example of the breed and a particularly beastly one at that.
The QuickFire Ultimate doesn't have an imposing footprint, but it tips the scales at a relatively heavy 3 lbs (1.4 kg). Much of the weight comes from a steel plate embedded inside the chassis. This solid slab gives the keyboard excellent rigidity and a particularly solid feel. The frame barely twists in my hands—and I even lift, bro.
A tough plastic body surrounds the keyboard's metal foundation. The exterior surfaces have no give, and their flat black finish resists fingerprints and smudges. I dig the chunky, understated styling.
Perhaps due to its overbuilt body, the QuickFire Ultimate is a little taller than typical mechanical keyboards. The front edge of the bottom row sits at a height of 1.37" (35 mm), which is 0.24" (6 mm) higher than on the Das Keyboard Pro Silent and Cooler Master QuickFire Stealth—two other mechanical keyboards that are floating around the lab right now. The difference is especially noticeable due to the QuickFire Ultimate's lack of an integrated wrist rest. That said, I have no problems typing comfortably with my wrists resting lightly on my desk. I've been using the QuickFire Ultimate as my daily driver for several weeks without any discomfort.
With the rear tilt stands folded flat, the top edge of the back row sits 1.77" (45 mm) tall. The slope of the keyboard is a little steeper than on the Das, whose keys rise only 0.31" (8 mm) between the top and bottom edges. For those who prefer an even steeper angle, the back of the QuickFire can be raised to 2.04" (52 mm).
The full-sized layout puts all the right keys in all the right places. Cooler Master swaps the Windows menu key for a function modifier, but that's the only deviation from the norm. If it ain't broke, well, you know.
Like most mechanical keyboards, the QuickFire has slightly concave key caps that keep one's fingers centered. The caps have the same smooth finish as the body, and the spacing is just right for my meaty digits to hammer away unencumbered. Under my usual heavy-handed typing, each keystroke delivers the crisp ka-chunk I've come to associate with mechanical switches.
The QuickFire Ultimate is available with a range of Cherry MX switches to suit different tastes. The model we tested has Cherry MX brown switches and white backlighting. Cooler Master also offers variants with MX red and blue switches, complete with matching backlight colors. A special, Canadian-only model combines blue switches with red backlighting. Those colors don't really fit the Canadian flag, but they nicely match the Montreal Canadiens logo, which is nearly as iconic north of the border.
The MX brown switches have a tactile "bump" at the actuation point but no accompanying click. The MX blue switches offer both tactile and audible feedback, but the MX red switches have a linear stroke that's devoid of both. There are also differences in actuation and bottom-out force. Stiffer springs give the MX blue switches heavier weighting than the brown and red variants. A detailed comparison of the main MX switch types is available in Cyril's Rosewill RK-9000 round-up. Tactile switches are generally preferred for typing, while linear switches are prized in some gaming circles.
On the QuickFire Ultimate, each key is lit by its own LED. Click the buttons below the image to turn the lights on and off. The model we tested also has a white layer under the keys that glows faintly when the backlighting is enabled. This little touch nicely illuminates the borders between the key caps, as illustrated below.
The LEDs can be configured to shine steadily, pulse slowly, or only highlight the directional and WASD keys. The pulsing mode cycles through a range of brightness levels smoothly, while the other options offer five different brightness levels. Users also have the option of disabling the backlighting completely, of course.
With the brightness turned down, the white backlighting looks very subtle. Unfortunately, it's not entirely even. Some of the key caps glow with a yellowish tinge, and the same tone is visible in the upper right corner, where it permeates the backlit logo and lock indicators. The off-white tint doesn't look too bad, but it does differ from the pristine glow of the alpha keys.
While I'm griping about little details, I should mention that the QuickFire Ultimate has a hint of backlight bleed. Four bright LEDs shine through the gap between the frame and the spacebar. They're only visible when I slouch, which happens a lot toward the end of the day, and they're pretty glaring even with the backlight brightness turned down.
Shortcut keys in the function row cover backlight adjustments and basic media controls. The associated function key can be used as a modifier or toggled into an always-on mode that allows secondary shortcuts to be invoked by pressing a single key.
Additional shortcuts are available to disable the Windows key and tweak a couple of other attributes. The polling rate can be set to one, two, four, or eight milliseconds (which correspond to 1000Hz, 500Hz, 250Hz, and 125Hz, respectively), though I couldn't tell the difference between the various rates. My reflexes have worsened with age, and they were never that twitchy to begin with. Users also have the option of switching between six- and n-key rollover modes. N-key rollover is only supported in Windows.
The QuickFire Ultimate frustratingly fails to indicate which polling rate and rollover mode is active at any given moment. All the keys are illuminated equally, regardless of the setting. The Fn and Windows-lock keys are a little more intelligent. Both go dark when the associated functions are toggled off.
Unlike some higher-end keyboards, the QuickFire Ultimate lacks programmable macro keys and extra USB connectivity. Apart from the backlighting and media shortcuts, the keyboard is relatively short on extras.
Cooler Master includes a removable USB cable, though. The cable attaches securely, and grooves in the base provide additional grip. These tight-fitting channels run the cable out the back or either side of the keyboard. They prevent tugging from straining the connection between the cable and keyboard, which is often a point of weakness on detachable designs.
As long as it's run along the correct route, the cable's 6' length should be sufficient for most system configurations. The neatly braided exterior nicely matches the keyboard's tough-but-understated aesthetic, too.
The only other inclusion of note is a basic key puller. This simple accessory can remove key caps in seconds, making it easy to strip the keyboard and clean the underlying base. Any debris that slips between the keys is especially visible against the white underlay, so obsessive-compulsive types may find themselves itching to clean this keyboard more frequently than other mechanical models.
Quirks aside, I've become quite attached to the QuickFire Ultimate. The overall feel is excellent, and I really enjoy typing on the thing. This may be the sturdiest mechanical keyboard around, at least among the new breed.
Newegg is selling the MX brown and MX blue versions of the QuickFire Ultimate for $110. The MX Red flavor isn't available at Newegg, but Amazon has it for $108, albeit with a two-month lead time. Those prices seem about right, all things considered. The QuickFire Ultimate doesn't have as many features as more exotic models. However, it's built like a tank and offers full backlighting, all of the basics, and quality Cherry MX mechanical switches throughout.
The QuickFire's high profile will likely be a poor fit for folks who prefer low-slung keyboards. For everyone else, this is an excellent mid-range option—and is TR recommended.
70 comments — Last by anotherengineer at 9:17 PM on 02/15/14
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