What’s that? Speak up, I can’t hear you! Stop typing? Err, alright… Oh, you want me to take out the trash? Click click clack click. Sorry, I still can’t quite make out what you’re saying.
Clicky keyboards are very much a niche product category. Despite their obvious benefits, most people would rather spend $20 on a budget keyboard than lay down the cash required to drown out their problems in a torrent of clicks and clacks. Not very long ago, this clique of clicky enthusiasts was so small that most manufacturers completely ignored it. Clicky aficionados like myself were forced to purchase used Model Ms on eBay or shell out a couple months worth of coffee rations for a geek-chic Das Keyboard. I opted for the latter.
The good news is that keyboard makers are increasingly dabbling in clicky designs. Those that cater to gamers have discovered that mechanical keyboards have some appeal for their target audience, so we’ve seen new mechanical models begin to emerge from the likes of SteelSeries, Razer, Thermaltake, and even obscure brands like Qumax and Zowie. Today, we’re focusing squarely on what Razer has to offer: standard and Ultimate versions of the BlackWidow keyboard.
I went out and dropped my own hard-earned nickels and dimes for the privilege of tinkering with these boards. Acquiring both models wasn’t part of the original plan, however. I first sprang for the Ultimate edition with all of its backlit, USB hub-packing goodness. Issues with the backlight prompted me to swap the Ultimate for the lower-end standard model, which has fewer features and less to go wrong (or so I thought at the time). Consider yourselves lucky that my misfortunes have given rise to not one, but two heaping helpings of clicky keyboard deliciousness.
A crash course in mechanical keyboards
Before we get too far into this review, a quick refresher course on keyboard switches is in order. The vast majority of keyboards sold today use what is called a membrane key switch—an inexpensive and easy-to-manufacture design. Typically made from rubber or silicone, these membranes operate on the same basic principle as the lid of an opened jam jar. When the center of the lid is pressed down, you get a little pop as it drops into its depressed state. When downward force is removed from the lid, it springs back to its default position. The little rubber domes generally have a conductive post in the center. When pressed, the post makes contact with two electrical traces beneath it and completes a circuit.
Common mechanical switches eschew rubber domes in favor of springs and metal clips. The spring provides enough resistance to pop the switch back to its default position when you remove your finger, and the metal contacts provide the friction, circuit completion, and release points necessary to give mechanical keyboards their tactile feel and sound. (Model M fanboys might revolt if we didn’t give a shout out to buckling-spring switches. With these mechanical switches, a spring underneath the key buckles under pressure, essentially folding in the center, and springs back into place when your finger lifts off. Buckling-spring switches are rarely seen outside the Model M and newer lookalikes, though.)
Cherry and Alps are the largest manufacturers of mechanical key switches, and Cherry’s MX line seems to have found its way into a greater number of consumer boards. Members of the MX family are identified by a color-coding system. Blue switches lurk beneath the keys of both BlackWidow boards, but Cherry also makes black, brown, clear, and red MX switches. The primary differences between the various colors lie with the actuation force required to register a keystroke, the tactile feel, and audible “click” of the switch. In general, blue, brown, and clear switches are considered tactile typing models, while the blacks and reds are non-tactile, linear switches that are supposed to be better for gaming.
|Switch Type||Actuation Force||Key Feel||Target Market|
|MX Blue||50 g||Tactile / Clicky||Typing|
|MX Brown||45 g||Tactile / Non-Clicky||Gaming/Typing Hybrid|
|MX Clear||55 g||Tactile / Non-Clicky||Gaming/Typing Hybrid|
|MX Black||60 g||Non-tactile / Non-Clicky||Gaming|
|MX Red||45 g||Non-Tactile / Non-Clicky||Gaming|
Given the chart above, you might be wondering why Razer opted for blue switches rather than alternatives more fashionable among gamers. Your guess is as good as mine, but keep in mind that a switch designed for typing isn’t necessarily bad for gaming—or vice versa. Something like key feel really comes down to personal preference. Besides, I enjoy playing games as much as anybody, and I’ve never encountered a keyboard that slowed down my “WASD + spacebar = death & respawn” routine.
A word of warning: simply knowing the color of a keyboard’s underlying switches doesn’t tell you enough about how it’ll actually feel. Despite the fact that the BlackWidows and my trusty Das Keyboard Professional both employ Cherry MX blue switches, each board has a distinctively different tactile feel and sound. Much of this can be attributed to the design of the key caps, the weight and thickness of the plastic, the small activation force variances between switches, and any coatings applied to the keys.
In-depth write-ups on switch technologies can be found all over the web, but I recommend this one at Overclocking.net to readers seeking more information on the subject.
Razer’s BlackWidow Ultimate
We first bumped into the BlackWidow Ultimate at CES this past January, and it was a classic case of love at first keystroke. This is a top-of-the-line model that attempts to be everything to everyone by combining mechanical key switches with all the bells and whistles you’d expect to find on a high-end gaming keyboard. Having owned backlit gaming keyboards like the original Saitek Eclipse and Logitech G15, as well as no-nonsense mechanical keyboards like the Dell AT101W and Das Keyboard Professional, the BlackWidow Ultimate seemed like the perfect hybrid solution.
My first impressions of the Ultimate were positive. The box it comes in is colorful and well designed. The keyboard itself is a weighty 3.3 lbs, so it won’t go sliding around your desk. Rubberized feet also help to prevent unwanted movement, and another rubberized coating can be found on the keys. The key coating is comparable, albeit not identical, to the soft-touch skin of a ThinkPad. Above all, the keys feel great; keystrokes are extremely consistent, tactile, and pleasing at the same time.
The Ultimate’s blue Cherry MX switches have been, ahem, cherry-picked to maintain a consistent 50 grams of required down force, 2 mm of actuation distance, and a full stroke length of 4 mm. These attributes, combined with a 1,000Hz polling rate, purportedly allow you to enter commands in half as much time as n00bs using membrane keyboards. Picky typists will no doubt appreciate having a uniform button depression force across the entire keyboard, too.
Aspiring to create more than just another clicky keyboard, Razer decided to outfit the BlackWidow Ultimate with a few unique accoutrements. Each key is individually backlit by a blue LED, as is the Razer logo etched into the center of the palm rest. There are five lighting settings: off, max, medium, low, and a slow pulsation that fades the lights on and off. The pulse feature might turn heads in a demo capacity, but it’s extremely distracting otherwise.
Another feature that distinguishes this keyboard is the column of five dedicated macro buttons stacked along the left-hand side. With the Razer’s management software installed, hitting the “Fn + Alt M” (Alt M replaces right Alt) key combination will illuminate a red “M” icon in the upper right-hand corner of the board. Start typing out the macro commands, and when you’re finished, press the “Fn + Alt M” combo again. The red “M” icon will begin flashing, which is an indication that the next key you hit will be mapped to the preceding macro. Macros can be mapped to the dedicated buttons or to any of the alphanumeric keys.
Razer provides software to help manage macros, reassign keys, and define different macro profiles for various usage scenarios. Profiles can be used to define different sets of macros for individual games and everyday tasks. On my own PC, for example, I’ve built a profile that uses the five macro keys to launch frequently used applications like Photoshop, Chrome, Firefox, Pandora|One, and Notepad++. I have another profile for programming, which lets me quickly enter common code blocks at the touch of a button. The macro functionality is very versatile and useful once you get accustomed to the Razer management software.
The column of macro buttons can mess with your head a little, though. Having an extra chunk of keyboard under my left hand was a little unnerving at first, and I found myself hitting the tab and caps-lock keys instead of A and Q. The alphanumeric area doesn’t feel any smaller than on a standard keyboard, so this was more a matter of my hand drifting to the left rather than being cramped by appreciably smaller keys. I’m also coming from a Das Professional, which seems to be slightly larger than the average keyboard. It didn’t take me long to adjust, but after getting used to the BlackWidow, going back to the Das was equally awkward. The learning curve became a lot shallower after a few trips back and forth.
Another layout anomaly to be aware of is the Fn button, which replaces the right-hand Windows key you’d typically find on a standard keyboard. This isn’t a huge issue, but it may bother folks who rock the one-handed “Windows + L” combo to lock their terminals. The final deviation from a standard key layout is the F-key row, which has been shifted slightly to the right for some reason. The function keys are still arranged in groups of four, but the bunches are closer together, throwing the positioning off even more.
In a bid to assert its gaming pedigree, the BlackWidow allows you to disable its Windows key with a quick “Fn + F11” combo. Gamers will no doubt appreciate the option, since nobody likes inadvertently dropping into the Windows desktop during the heat of battle.
The Ultimate’s resume is rounded out by a USB 2.0 port, audio pass-through jacks for a headset, and media controls accessed using the Fn key in conjunction with various function buttons. The keyboard’s rather beefy cable branches out into a pair of USB connectors plus two 3.5-mm audio plugs, all of which are gold-plated. The cable is braided and designed to take some serious punishment without fraying or pulling out of the board.
Although the Ultimate’s tricked-out feature set makes it unique in the world of clicky keyboards, mine developed problems with its backlighting. From day one, the lighting behind the 4 key in the number pad was noticeably dimmer than the others at any setting. The V key decided to put its LED under a bushel, creating a distracting dark spot in the middle of the keyboard. I tried using the board with the lighting turned off, but since the keys are etched to allow light through, the text doesn’t show up as clearly in low-light conditions.
Annoyed and under the assumption that a high-end keyboard should still be fully functional after only a few days, I hopped in the car and headed over to Micro Center to make an exchange. Instead of simply swapping out the Ultimate for a replacement, I decided to give the standard model a whirl. Fewer features means less to go wrong, right?
Straight out of the box, the standard BlackWidow keyboard looks about the same as its Ultimate counterpart. It retains the five macro keys and backlit Razer logo in the palm rest, but the other keys aren’t backlit, and you’ll have to live without extra USB and audio connectors. The cable is substantially thinner as a result, but it’s still braided and decked out with a dash of gold bling. The only other apparent difference is the coating of the keys, which have a hard plastic finish rather than the slightly rubberized coating on the Ultimate.
Even though the standard BlackWidow is supposed to use the same MX blue switches as the Ultimate, the key feel is entirely different. If the Ultimate’s keys are cherry-picked for consistency, the standard model must get stuck with the table scraps. The tactile feel and clickety-clack were all over the map at first. Coming from the Ultimate model, the difference in typing feel was so great that I initially considered returning the standard board, as well. Fortunately, after hammering away for a few days, the keys started feeling a little better. The alphanumeric keys were the first to break in, and they feel pretty consistent now. The space bar and backspace keys still feel a little off, as do lesser-used keys like the brackets.
Continued use didn’t resolve a problem with the O key, which tended to stick when pressed in the lower left-hand corner. This issue was solved by removing the key cap and shaving down the inside corner that was catching, but such surgery shouldn’t be necessary with a brand-new keyboard.
In spite of the non-backlit keys, the illuminated logo on the palm rest retains the five LED settings of the Ultimate. The media functions also remain, as does the ability to disable the Windows key.
The standard model will set you back $75 at Newegg, making it quite a bit cheaper than the $115 Ultimate. Folks looking for a no-frills mechanical workhorse should find alternatives in the standard model’s price range, but the BlackWidow’s extra goodies (especially its macro support) add a little extra bang for your buck—if you can make it through the break-in period.
After spending some quality time with standard and Ultimate versions of the Razer BlackWidow, I can’t help but feel that my tried-and-true Das Keyboard Professional is a higher-quality product. While it lacks macro functionality, media keys, and backlighting, the Das hasn’t missed a beat over three years in the trenches. Except for some smoothing on the key caps, it’s every bit as good as the day I bought it.
In comparison, the initial build quality of Razer’s offerings leaves something to be desired. Perhaps it’s just rotten luck that two imperfect boards happened to land in my lap, but after reading other users’ experiences online, I think I’m not alone. Otherwise, the BlackWidow series comes very close to being the Holy Grail: a solid gaming keyboard that can be appreciated by fans of mechanical key switches.
Given the issues I encountered, recommending either model is a little tough. Of the two, the standard unit seems to represent the better value for your keyboard dollar. Losing some of the Ultimate’s extra perks is to be expected given the standard model’s $75 asking price, and the macro support and multimedia keys add a lot of value at that price point, at least versus mechanical rivals. If the out-of-box key feel mirrored that of the Ultimate, I’d recommend the standard unit any day.
The Ultimate’s superior key feel and other perks will cost you $40 more. Whether the audio pass-throughs, USB port, and backlighting are worth the extra scratch really depends on how highly you value them—and whether you’re willing to wade through what appear to be some quality-control issues.
If my Das Keyboard died tomorrow, I would unquestionably buy another one. If the BlackWidow died, I’d replace it with something else. I sincerely hope that the minor quality quirks can be ironed out in future revisions, because it wouldn’t take much to elevate the BlackWidow series from good to great. If anything, we should thank Razer for raising the bar on clicky keyboard features and functionality. For now, though, there are simply better mechanical fish in the sea.