Mechanical keyboards come in all kinds of flavors these days. Just about every PC peripheral maker has one in its arsenal, and most offer multiple variants. Some are loaded with extras, while others offer a more basic approach. There are also numerous switch options, each one with noticeably different characteristics.
Despite this variety, most mechanical keyboards are slight variations on the same theme. The majority of them mirror the standard, 104-key U.S. layout that's been around since the early days of Windows. There's a numpad on the right and lettering on the tops of the keys. That's great, but it's also a little bit boring, which is why the Cooler Master QuickFire Stealth caught my eye. This compact contender ditches the numpad in favor of a tenkeyless design with space-saving and ergonomic benefits. It also trades traditional lettering for a uniquely stealthy approach.
So, yeah, that's different.
Dropping the numpad shaves about 3.5" off the right side of the keyboard. The border surrounding the keys is very thin, as well, shrinking the total footprint to just 14" x 5.3" x 1.4". Fortunately, the remaining keys aren't cramped at all. The size and spacing is the same as on full-sized alternatives.
According to my girlfriend, a registered occupational therapist, the Stealth's tenkeyless layout enables more ergonomic mousing for right-handed users. Deleting the numpad moves the mouse closer to center, reducing the reach required to grab it. That's the gist of it, anyway. She used fancy words like flexion and abduction; the Stealth does more to minimize the latter, which involves reaching laterally to the side. This movement engages muscles in the shoulder, back, and neck, and repetition over long periods of time can lead to soft tissue damage.
Mousing with the Stealth still requires some movement, but there's less of it to repeat, so less damage should result. After using the Stealth on and off for a couple of months, I can confirm that the closer mouse position is more comfortable for gaming and general desktop tasks. I feel less strain in my right shoulder, at least compared to with full-sized keyboards.
At the same time, however, I often find myself pawing at a numpad that isn't there. Numerical data entry is much more frustrating when one is confined to the top row.
Despite its smaller stature, the QuickFire Stealth is very sturdy. The chassis feels solid, in part thanks to the steel plate buried within. The Stealth isn't quite as overbuilt as the QuickFire Ultimate, but at 2.1 lbs, it's still beefy enough to serve as a weapon, albeit a short-range one.
Cooler Master coats the body with a soft-touch finish that should hold up nicely to abuse. The matte exterior doesn't pick up fingerprints and smudges, and neither does the flat plastic finish on the key caps. These slightly different surfaces give the Stealth a faintly two-toned spin on the typical all-black aesthetic.
The Stealth's key mapping is a little difficult to see in the picture above, so I should clarify that it follows the standard formula. The labels are somewhat easier to see from the front:
Cooler Master's "covert" key caps move the lettering from the key top to the front face. These labels are visible from a normal typing position, but the font is a little small, so they're not quite as clear. The subtle markings are a nice compromise between traditional lettering and fully blanked-out caps. They give the keyboard a darker, more sinister look, but there's no need to have all the keys memorized. Even proficient touch typists can require visual cues to hit the right number and symbol keys.
Since I rarely look at the keyboard, the covert caps haven't slowed me down at all with normal typing. Focusing on the smaller lettering takes an extra split second when hunting for the right number or symbol, but that's the only penalty I've noticed—at least with the lights on. The lettering is harder to see in the dark, especially without backlighting to provide illumination.
Adjustable backlighting is one of the many frills absent from the QuickFire Stealth. However, there are some function shortcuts for media controls and disabling the Windows key. The polling rate for PS/2 connections is adjustable, too, if you're into that sort of thing. Most folks will be hooking up the keyboard via USB, though.
Cooler Master sent us the version of the QuickFire Stealth with Cherry MX brown switches. These switches have a lighter response and a tactile "bump" at the actuation point, so they're excellent for typing. They're not the only option, either. Stealth variants are also available with MX red, blue, and green switches.
The MX red option is the only one that lacks a tactile bump. This switch type requires the same actuation force as the MX brown, but its linear stroke offers no tactile feedback. The MX blue and green switches are more heavily weighted, and both offer tactile feedback in addition to an audible click at the actuation point. The green switch is the stiffer of the two.
Cyril's Rosewill RK-9000 round-up covers the characteristics of the main MX switch types, and he also looked at the rarer green switches in a separate article. Both are recommended reading for those unfamiliar with the rainbow of Cherry MX choices.
On the QuickFire Stealth, the keys respond with the precise, mechanical chunkiness I've come to expect from Cherry switches. This key feel is consistent across the board, too. Bottoming out on this board's firm foundation is especially satisfying, in part due to the accompanying soundtrack. Blowing through keystrokes produces a staccato of sharp clacks that are music to my ears. The MX brown switches are largely silent until they hit bottom, so it's still possible to type quietly—or at least quieter.
Flipping the QuickFire reveals a detachable USB cable measuring just under six feet long. Grooves in the underbelly hold the cable tightly and direct it out the top, left, or right side of the frame. The cable attaches to the keyboard via Mini USB, and the jack seems firmly anchored. Wedging the connector into the tight cut-out behind to the port is a little tricky, though. The tough, braided cable is easy to wrap around the keyboard, so there doesn't seem to be much point to removing it.
The only other items of note are a handful of replacement caps and the requisite key puller. I'm not sure why anyone would use the Cooler Master-branded caps, but gamers might want to highlight the WASD triangle in red, which is more visible with the lights off. Coloring and labels aside, the caps are identical to the standard ones.
The key puller is required to replace the caps, and it also comes in handy for cleaning. Removing accumulated dust, crumbs, and pet hair from between the keys is much easier with all the caps pulled off.
Right now, Newegg is selling the MX red and blue versions of the QuickFire Stealth for $90 apiece. The vendor doesn't have the MX brown variant in stock, but it's available at Amazon for $5 more. There's a much higher premium on the MX green unit, which is priced at $116.
Those prices aren't much lower those attached to full-sized keyboards with the same MX switches and similarly spartan features. The QuickFire Stealth seems to be well built, though, and the stealthy caps give it a distinctive look in a world filled with cookie-cutter designs. Kudos to Cooler Master for doing something original. Even if the QuickFire Stealth isn't for everyone, it's a very nice keyboard overall.
The Stealth also has a full-sized brother with a proper numpad attached. Cooler Master's website lists multiple variants of the larger QuickFire XT Stealth, each one with a different MX switch type. However, only the MX green version of the XT seems to be selling stateside, and then only from Cooler Master's online store.
25 comments — Last by derFunkenstein at 4:12 PM on 03/14/14
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