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 shortmaybe 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 leastit’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 Keyboarddespite 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 devila 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.
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.
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 timeand 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 laptopwhile improving upon it, of course.