Cooler Master's MasterKeys Pro L and Pro S keyboards reviewed


Two of a kind
— 12:04 PM on March 15, 2016

For some time now, Corsair's K70 RGB has been considered among the best RGB LED-equipped mechanical keyboards on the market. Today, Cooler Master is offering up a challenge to Corsair's finest in the form of its MasterKeys Pro L and Pro S keyboards. To begin, let's clarify the difference between the Pro L and the Pro S.

The Pro L uses a traditional 104-key layout with a full number pad. It also has four profile-switching keys in its upper right corner. The Pro L we tested uses Cherry MX Red key switches. Many gamers favor the light feel and quick actuation of MX Reds, but hardcore typists might prefer heavier switches.

The Pro S is the tenkeyless version of the MasterKeys Pro. Its smaller frame makes it easier to reach one's mouse without inducing awkward shoulder or wrist angles. The Pro S we tested came with Cherry MX Browns. These switches combine a tactile bump with the same actuation forces as the MX Reds. These switches feel solid, but they're not so heavy that they become tiring to use. I found them to be quick and responsive while gaming.

We only tested the MX Brown and MX Red versions of the MasterKeys boards, but both versions will be available with MX Browns, Reds, and Blues. If you aren't sure which switch to choose, read this guide. Some manufacturers cheap out on their mechanical boards by using rubber-dome switches under less-frequently-used keys, but Cooler Master uses a Cherry MX switch under every single key on the MasterKeys boards.

Pro L on the left, Pro S on the right

Both keyboards have high-quality braided cables, but the connectors are a bit different. The Pro L has a small chamber on the bottom that conceals its USB port. This chamber features cable-routing channels that can be used to guide the cable out the left, center, or right edges of the board. The Pro S uses an exposed right-angle connector that helps make the keyboard more compact, but that design also leaves the connector more vulnerable to damage.

Pro L on the left, Pro S on the right

With major distinctions out of the way, we'll move on to the MasterKeys' build quality. These keyboards are mostly made of plastic, but it doesn't feel like the cheap-o stuff. The keyboards are fairly heavy, and they feel sturdy and reliable. Both boards provide solid typing services that don't exhibit any bow or flex. Two keyboard stands on the bottom of the boards can be flipped up to give the typing surface more of a slant. Nothing exceptional here. Neither board comes with a wrist rest or flip-up feet on their front edges.

Cooler Master has gone for a no-nonsense look with both of these keyboards. They are pure blocks of black keys with no extra trim. In my opinion, this is how all keyboards should be. The only flourish is the Cooler Master logo on the boards' Windows keys. I can't give the company too much flak for this, because the design of the MasterKeys' frame doesn't leave much room for the logo anywhere else.

The Cherry MX RGB switches in the MasterKeys boards use a clear plastic housing that lets the integrated RGB LED shine through. A white baseplate underneath the switches helps reflect and diffuse the glow of these LEDs (and makes dust visible for easy cleaning). The glow of the RGB LEDs on these boards is fairly bright, and the white underlay makes the backlight appear as if it's evenly glowing in between the keys, rather than spilling out and around as it does on Corsair's RGB boards.

The keys are slightly recessed inside the chassis, but they leave enough room for the LED glow to seep through. An ARM Cortex-M3 processor runs the light show. It seems pretty capable, since the keyboards don't require any extra software to use most of their lighting modes. The Function-F4 combo cycles through four lighting modes: color wave, color cycle, a breathing effect, and a ripple. Cooler Master also includes a mode that allows you to play Snake with the LEDs.

Pressing Function and F1, F2, and F3 changes the red, green, and blue levels of the entire backlight. For those who want to go old-school, all of the LEDs can be turned off by pressing Function and the Escape key. Macro recording is also handled in hardware. Pressing Function and F11 invokes a macro recording mode. In this mode, pressing a key selects it. The user can then record arbitrary macros and set a playback mode (run once, run until the key is pressed again, or run while the key is held). Those modes are set using the Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause keys.

Function plus F5 through F8 control the board's repeat rate, while Function-F9 locks the Windows key for safety during gameplay. Insert, Home, Page Up and Page Down, Delete, and End can also be used as multimedia controls when holding down the Function key. I used these multimedia controls quite often, but they don't control in-browser players like Soundcloud. To be fair, that's a Windows limitation, not a problem with the MasterKeys boards.

These boards don't require extra software to use, but Cooler Master does provide a Windows utility for those who want some degree of point-and-click customization. This utility's interface is clean and easy to use. Four profile tabs at the bottom of the window manage each of the board's stored lighting settings, and a list of lighting modes sits just above that.

Once the profile and mode are selected, the utility presents the available settings for that combination. For example, selecting the breathing light mode brings up a speed slider that can adjust how quickly the mode cycles. The Customize mode allows the user to pick the color of each key with a color picker or red, green, and blue level sliders. By default, this mode uses a variety of colors to highlight the keys used in FPS games, but gamers can tweak it to their hearts' content.

Unlike Corsair's CUE utility, the Cooler Master software doesn't let users manage or create macros in the Windows interface. For users that rely heavily on macros, it might be annoying to rely exclusively on the keyboard's built-in macro recording features. Even so, we don't think this omission spoils the software or the MasterKeys boards themselves.

Conclusions

Cooler Master's MasterKeys Pro L and Pro S combine an old-school vibe with the flair of RGB LEDs. Both keyboards feel durable and dependable, and it's nice to have a choice between a full 104-key layout and a tenkeyless design. The only minor downside of these keyboards is that Cooler Master's Windows software doesn't let users set up macros or remap keys in its current state. We're also a bit concerned about the exposed USB connector on the MasterKeys Pro S. That connector could be damaged if the cable is bumped or stressed. Those are the only flaws in an otherwise excellent pair of keyboards.

Is the MasterKeys Pro L the usurper of the Corsair K70 RGB's throne? I'd say it's a close call. The no-nonsense body and extensive hardware controls of the Pro L are appealing, but the included wrist rest, floating-key design, and aluminum body of the K70 are also nice to have. Both keyboards use Cherry MX switches and carry a $170 suggested price, so I don't think you can go wrong either way.

The Pro S also faces a Corsair challenger in the K65 RGB. Like their bigger brothers, both boards have plenty to recommend them. The Pro S goes for $140, which is $10 cheaper than the K65's asking price. I'd say it's still a tough call, but the Pro S' $10 price difference might be enough to tip the balance.

Personal preferences aside, Cooler Master has delivered a pair of solid mechanical gaming keyboards with the MasterKeys series. These boards' high-quality chassis, clean lines, and Cherry MX RGB switches come at the right prices. That makes it easy to call them TR Recommended.

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Tags: Input devices