Enermax’s Aurora Premium keyboard

What’s this? A laptop-style keyboard on the desk of a TR editor, a heavy-duty typist and ostensible keyboard purist? Surely there must be some mistake.

I have to admit, I was initially quite skeptical when I saw the Enermax Aurora Premium. Looks like somebody grafted some laptop keyboard parts into a desktop enclosure, after all, and that can’t really be a good idea. Can it? Fortunately, the folks from Enermax forced the issue by shipping us a box full of their different keyboard models, including the Aurora.

I was bound to tinker.

And I must say that I was at least intrigued by the possibility of a well-executed laptop-style keyboard on the desktop for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that the scissor-type key switch mechanisms on the best laptop keyboards provide a good amount of tacticle feedback on each keypress, a virtue I’ve come to appreciate in both my full-sized laptop and my netbook. Also, going with a laptop-style keyboard like the Aurora might help ease the constant transitions between mobile and desktop computing, I figured. Why not give it a shot?

The concept was intriguing, but I’m especially pleased to report that Enermax’s execution of the concept is very solid. And “solid” is definitely the right word for it. The Aurora’s metal base has a pleasant, ample heft and stays planted firmly on its rubber feet, almost as if it were glued to the desk. I can pound away as violently as I wish on it, typing up a storm of overanalysis for the latest video card review, and the thing doesn’t flex, rattle, or vibrate in the least. This charasteristic makes it seem almost unfair to call the Aurora a laptop-style keyboard. Save for perhaps the very best ThinkPads, no laptop I’ve used comes close to the Aurora’s granite-like solidity.

Within this steadfast enclosure, Enermax has placed a keyboard comprised of high-quality (or so it feels) scissor-style switches. The keys themselves are nearly flat, and key travel is short—maybe two or three millimeters. Yet every key press involves the same, reassuring tactile experience of pushing through a distinct threshold of resistance until it gives, at which point a keypress is registered, as clear as a bell. The Aurora’s operation is vastly quieter than that of a mechanical-switch device like an old IBM Model M or a Das Keyboard, but to me, the tactile feedback that comes with each keypress is just as unmistakable, which renders any more obvious audible feedback unnecessary.

Of course, the Aurora’s keys are short, and the entire keyboard surface isn’t shaped or sculpted in the least—it’s flatter than central Texas. Somehow, that doesn’t bother me. Heck, the Aurora’s so flat, the desk itself can act as a wrist wrest for the keyboard without being an ergonomic abomination.

Believe it or not, what I’m telling you is that the Aurora Premium is a really, really good input device. In fact, before we reviewed it, the Das Keyboard made a stopover in my office, and of course, I unboxed it and gave it a try. As predisposed as I am to prefer mechanical switches, I have to say that I unquestionably like the Aurora better than the Das Keyboard—despite the fact that it’s “only” about 68 bucks online, or 48 after rebate, well below the hundred bucks or so you’d pay for the Das.

It doesn’t hurt that the Aurora Premium is a handsome little devil—a bit of jewelry for your desktop. The jet-black, brushed aluminum finish looks (and feels) highbrow. Around the key areas and across the top, the Aurora is lined with polished metal accents that gleam brightly in the right light, just enough bling to make the case without overstating it. And the blue LED indicators for the lock keys are, thank goodness, subdued enough not to be distracting. The overall effect is a triumph of industrial design among a sea of PC components which are, lets face it, not always the finest examples of the art. What’s more, the Aurora fits in perfectly with my dual black Dell monitors, black speakers, black Logitech wireless mouse, black headphones, and shiny black Antec Sonata case. That makes it a sight for sores eyes, I must admit, after spending the last ten years watching my bright beige Microsoft Natural Keyboard become increasingly out of step with PC fashion trends.

That’s not to say the Aurora Premium is without quirks. One of my least favorite facets of its design is the area at the top right of the main key cluster, where the Enter and Backspace keys are located. For some reason, this is one of those keyboards with an “enter” key the size of Montana and a “backspace” key the size of a Chiclet. This I do not understand. Did somebody really important have trouble hitting enter and yet never make a typo requiring the use of backspace to correct? DOS mavens will also note that the land-grab by the enter key has pushed the backslash completely out of its usual spot and up between backspace and the plus/equal key. I know keyboard layouts of this type aren’t entirely uncommon, epsecially internationally, but they’re odd enough that, for me, using the Aurora has required an adjustment peroid\\\iod.

Whoops.

Another layout quirk is the presence of an Alt Gr key to the right of the space bar, in place of the usual Alt key. Wikipedia has a nice entry on the Alt Gr key, which tells me it’s not useless. Feels that way, though, and probably requires the installation of a custom keyboard layout for full effectiveness, but Enermax’s single page of documentation provides no guidance on that front.

In keyboards, less continues to be more

The Aurora’s final quirk is a feature of sorts: an integrated USB audio controller, complete with headphone and mic jacks in the side of the unit. Enermax has blessedly resisted the feature creep that has turned a whole host of today’s keyboards into ridiculous farces with twice as many buttons as necessary, so I shouldn’t complain. But I have absolutely no use for this feature myself, and its main function so far has been to take over as the default audio input and output devices upon installation. In fact, Enermax’s documentation is solely dedicated to warning against this problem. That apparently wasn’t enough for me. I changed the default audio output back to my sound card, but I managed to “record” an entire hour of silent input from the Aurora Premium during our last podcast recording session, while gabbing away into an unselected mic, scuttling the entire episode. So much for “value add” features.

The Aurora Premium does have a couple other features worth mentioning. The first is a pair of legs on the back of the keyboard that can modify the inclination of the typing surface, like so:



Given how completely flat this thing is by default, the adjustability may be welcome for many folks. Like the rest of the enclosure, these legs are stiff and firm, with no hint of flex.

The Aurora’s final perk is an internal USB 2.0 hub that feeds a pair of ports around the back of the unit. Although these aren’t really necessary, I’ll begrudgingly admit that this one extra feature could prove useful to a lot of folks.

Conclusions

I’ve been using the Aurora Premium for a couple of weeks now. I really didn’t expect this, but I may wind up making it the permanent keyboard on my main PC. As I said, I’m coming off of a split/ergo MS Natural Keyboard, so this is a major transition for me. The main problem I’ve encountered with the Aurora has to do with its very low profile and flat key caps, along with my own familiarity with split keyboards: when casually switching away from the keyboard to the mouse or my coffee mug and then coming back to it, I find it hard to line up my fingers with the proper keys. The wrong alignment results in a touch-typing train wreck, obviously, which makes for some entertaining IM conversations. Yes, the Aurora has small, raised bumps on the F and J keys to help with finger placement, but coming from a sculpted and split keyboard, I’ve never learned to rely on such subtle cues. I’m adapting, but it takes time. As with so many things of this nature, your own mileage my vary.

The bottom line is that the Aurora Premium is a very capable implementation of a surprisingly compelling concept. In spite of my initial expectations, I consider it among the best PC keyboards around, easily better than the dome-switch junk Microsoft and Logitech are foisting on consumers at Best Buy, which seems to go downhill in quality with time—and in the same league as more expensive contenders like the Das Keyboard. If you’ve ever had the experience of typing on a ThinkPad or some other really good laptop keyboard and come away impressed, you might want to try an Aurora Premium for yourself. You may be shocked to find that your big, ol’ desktop PC can learn a trick or two from a teeny little laptop—while improving upon it, of course.

Comments closed
    • sigher
    • 11 years ago

    I like extra function keys, ones that you can assign yourself, and preferably a few on the left of the keyboard.
    But that’s just me.

    • plonk420
    • 11 years ago

    i prefer the Ultra-X also … i have 3 or 4 of them (if i have 4, i’ve lost one X). they even have a few buttons, which can be taken over in Winamp and probably other apps, too… my only wish was that it had a native volume button… :-/

    • link626
    • 11 years ago

    retarded expensive.

    the Logitech Ultra-X laptop style keyboard does the same shiet for under $20.

    • designerfx
    • 11 years ago

    I have an Enermax Caesar (TY techreport). I have to say, it’s by far not the perfect keyboard. It’s nice and sturdy and durable, but I don’t really like enermax’s keyboard layout.

    Not to mention some serious audio conflicts on Vista X64 with using the plug-in audio connection.

    I would rather suggest to people a Saitek, honestly.

    • Jambe
    • 11 years ago

    That’s sexy, and the review was humorous and concise! Well done.

    If only Enermax offered a non-borked Enter key arrangement (curse my inbred key-arrangement bigotry!). Further examination reveals all their keyboards are of European convention… bah!

    It just so happens that I’m in the market for a new keyboard due to a lovely spill. I think I’ll get the Logitech UltraX that Tamale recommended. Although I’m thinking I might benefit from one of those rubber-coated roll-up keyboards given my desire to have large, awkward containers of liquid in close proximity to my workspace.

      • Tamale
      • 11 years ago

      FWIW, I spilled coke all over my ultraX. A quick shower, a good 2-day dryout, and it was good to go again 🙂

        • Jambe
        • 11 years ago

        Really? Did you pop the keys or anything, or just hose it down?

        I’m getting awfully tired of this ancient Compaq stand-in.

        *mash mash mash*

    • IntelMole
    • 11 years ago

    /[

    • green
    • 11 years ago

    i don’t understand the complaints over small vs large enter
    i’ve used both and it doesn’t take long to adjust
    but it’s probably coz i’m not a ‘pure’ touch-typer
    either way i’ve never accidently pressed the large enter

    real keyboard annoyances are the adjusted layouts of the insert-to-pgdn keys
    or the extra row of keys above/underneath those six… one of them being power/reset
    or changing the arrows keys away from the upside-down-T layout

    there’s also the grouping of F keys in 3’s instead of 4’s
    it’s not too bad but it feels better when it’s in groups of 4

    back to the enermax though, i don’t mind it if it’s planted as solid as scott says
    i also wouldn’t mind the headphone plug built in to the side

      • BenBasson
      • 11 years ago

      Another annoyance is moving the backslash key from between Z and left shift to somewhere else.

        • Tamale
        • 11 years ago

        That’s the forward slash, and I definitely agree.. I hate when that key’s moved since I use linux so regularly.

    • herothezero
    • 11 years ago

    Why the outrage over not popping off a key or two? Are you planning on overclocking the thing?

    Only keyboard that’s really designed for that kind of abuse is the Model M and derivatives, and even then, I’ve never found it necessary.

    Typed on a Unicomp Model M.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      Every soft-dome keyboard I’ve ever seen has easily removable keys with low likelihood of damage. It’s nice to be able to clean off the keys, the surround, and the area under the keys.

    • blubje
    • 11 years ago

    I’ll buy it when the windows key is a linux key (penguin icon)

    • d0g_p00p
    • 11 years ago

    Sounds like a great keyboard except for the audio issue. Is it one USB plug or several? i.e. One for the keyboard, one for audio and one for USB hub? Is there a option to disable the audio on the keyboard?

      • Damage
      • 11 years ago

      One plug. I’ve disabled the audio device on mine, though, in the device manager. The integrated USB hub still works.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 11 years ago

    That really *is* a dead-sexy keyboard. Are the key caps removable?

    • Damage
    • 11 years ago

    Pachyuromys has been banned for being a jerk, but also for being variously known as rogue, riadbsc, and gratuitous–and earning our scorn under each name. What a winner.

    Dude, quit coming back.

    Mods: His IP info will be posted in the moderator forums. Let’s watch this among new sign-ups who exhibit… signs. 🙂

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      /[

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      “Pachyuromys” was “gratuitous”? Well, that clarifies a few things

      Though now he’ll probably change ISPs to get a new IP….

        • ssidbroadcast
        • 11 years ago

        lol, and he woulda gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those pesky mods!

          • Meadows
          • 11 years ago

          +1 for Scooby Doo reference.

    • Crayon Shin Chan
    • 11 years ago

    A large enter key is always a deal maker for me.

      • Taddeusz
      • 11 years ago

      I hate having the backslash key located there. I’d rather have the smaller enter key.

    • Thresher
    • 11 years ago

    I just bought the Logitech Illuminated keyboard. It has the same sort of “laptop feel” mechanism and flatter keys.

    I find that this is HORRIBLE for gaming. On my old Logitech keyboard, the keys were indented nicely and it made it very easy to find the homerow whether or not I was looking at the keyboard or not. For some reason, with the flatter keys, I find it much more difficult to find homerow if I take my hands off the keyboard for any reason. This has gotten me killed quite frequently when gaming. I find I have the same issue with my Mac wireless keyboard. Flat keys are no good for gaming and can be a bother for regular typing as well.

    I am debating selling it and getting a more traditional keyboard.

      • KikassAssassin
      • 11 years ago

      If I have to move my hand off the keyboard, I just run a finger across it and feel for the bump on the F key to get my positioning back. It’s what I’ve always done on normal keyboards, and it works just as well on my laptop-style Logitech keyboard. I don’t have any issues finding my positioning on this, or on a regular keyboard.

        • jodiuh
        • 11 years ago

        Sorry notebook style keys aren’t for you. I love my Logitech Illuminated Keyboard. Best key action aside from typing on an Thinkpad. No issues finding the home row.

    • Chrispy_
    • 11 years ago

    I’ve been a split keyboard user for a while now but I find it odd that nobody makes a black, well-made, ergonomic keyboard that doesn’t have a dozen or more extra keys for thinks like MSN, shopping, and links to documents and music folders.

    I’m on the MSNEK4000 at the moment and it’s okay but nothing like the Natural Elite I used to have (which was so good to type on I could almost overlook the gimped arrowkey configuration).

      • nexxcat
      • 11 years ago

      The gimpy arrows were ok, but it’s the stupid 3-tall, 2-wide delete/insert/pgup/pgdown keys that I could never get used to. Fortunately, as you’ve mentioned, I have alternatives.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    I do have a question regarding the USB and audio. Does using the USB hub automatically make the keyborad a USB audio device as well, or are the two USB functions separate?

    • BenBasson
    • 11 years ago

    Well, I have the older version (non-premium) and I agree entirely that it is a joy to use, far better than any of those clunky, loud keyboards that other geeks seem to love.

    The older version doesn’t include an integrated audio controller, acting instead as a giant extension cord for microphone and audio jacks. This is a feature I’ve used for my Skype headphone/mic (plugging into motherboard onboard audio) and has worked well. Given my general dislike of USB audio, I’m disappointed to see the switch, but I’m not wholly surprised.

    USB2.0 hubs are always nice (older version had 1.0), but I personally have no need for it, what with several being available on my monitor and two on the front of my case.

    All in all, sounds like a mild improvement from the older model, but I have no reason to upgrade given that these keyboards appear as if they’ll last forever. If and when better layouts arise, I thoroughly recommend this keyboard. It seems expensive, but you won’t be disappointed.

    • floodo1
    • 11 years ago

    I like my apple keyboard 🙂

      • Thresher
      • 11 years ago

      Hate hate hate hate the damn thing. As I mentioned in my other post, I find it impossible to type on.

    • Meadows
    • 11 years ago

    Alt Gr is useful for me, I use keyboards/layouts on which keys can have a third function assigned, Alt Gr invoking them. Much less clunky than using the substitute, Ctrl+Alt. Helps with things like the degree or multiplication signs (among others), as in 46 *[<°<]*C or 1680*[<×<]*1050. Personally I like "2.5 key" sized Enter keys (the lower half is shorter than the top half - the reviewed Enter key is indeed ginormous), and I can't type on US keyboards without making an accidental Enter keypress every 3 to 7 seconds because I'm used to my old ways too much. Now if it were a character mistake, I'd say "oh well, I'll learn it eventually", but Enter mistakes are serious business so I've given up with US keyboards.

      • Corrado
      • 11 years ago

      I have 3 of these. Everyone tries to buy them… but they’re mine! ALL MINE! You will not get them from me while there is still air in my lungs.

        • Turd-Monkey
        • 11 years ago

        Give me a little more info:

        Do you like the feel or layout of the keyboard?
        Do you alternate between it and the built in keyboard of a ThinkPad often?
        Do you like using the UltraNav point?
        Do you like using the TrackPad?
        Do you like not swapping your hand back and forth between keyboard and mouse?

          • Corrado
          • 11 years ago

          I really can’t explain it. Having the touchpad is nice, but I don’t use it much. I honestly don’t even like trackpoint at all. I just LOVE the keyboard portion of it. I’ve only ever owned 1 thinkpad in my life so I can’t even attribute it to ThinkPad fanboyism. I was working at a place that was replacing all their old IBM stuff with new Dell stuff and there was about 50 of these on the junk pile. I grabbed about 10 of them, gave some to friends and kept 3. I wish I had gotten more now.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 11 years ago

            If it came in a version without the trackpad I’d consider it. With the trackpad it’s freakin huge.

            • SonicSilicon
            • 11 years ago

            Lookup the IBM SpaceSaver II. It’s quite old and uses P/S2 plugs.
            I’d love to see an updated version; USB connection, USB 2.0 port on the left and right ends, and the navigation keys on the right either chopped off or replaced with a standard numeric pad shoving the Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause / Break keys up. The middle button working as the middle mouse one would be good (I’m not sure if it’s the software altering it or not.)

            • MadManOriginal
            • 11 years ago

            No Numpad = fail. I guess that’s why it’s a spacesaver, so maybe they need to come out with a spacehogger version 😀

    • Fighterpilot
    • 11 years ago

    Thanks a lot Tamale.

    • Mentawl
    • 11 years ago

    Hrm, I’ve got an Aurora on my desktop, and it has a normal sized enter key and a double-width backspace key. Might be cos mine is UK layout I guess. The only problem I’ve had with mine is that the number 3 key on my keypad doesn’t so much click as crunch, and I can’t figure out why – there’s nothing stuck underneath it, nor is it broken in any way that I can identify. Oh well, minor issue really 🙂

    • Vasilyfav
    • 11 years ago

    *[

      • Creamsteak
      • 11 years ago

      Not a fan of the giant enter key personally. Of course, I’m typing on a $10 keyboard right now.

        • 5150
        • 11 years ago

        Huge Enter Key = Deal Breaker for me

        I was very intrigued until I saw that.

      • reactorfuel
      • 11 years ago

      Well, why /[

    • Pachyuromys
    • 11 years ago

    What? No benchmarks (like typing a letter on this vs your old Model M)? No disassembly slash geek-satisfying internal parts shots? No overclocking?? I liked TR better when it was all about take it apart and see how it works than the virtual store once removed it’s become lately.

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