How many keystrokes do you log in a given day? Thousands? Tens of thousands? If you spend all day at a computer or use one for both work and pleasure, the total might be even higher. PC users spend a lot of hands-on time with their keyboards, so it’s worth investing in a good one—especially one that offers a solid, satisfying feel and leaves your fingers eager to dance across the keys.
The quest for a better keystroke has led to a resurgence of mechanical keyboards. Gamers prize the performance of mechanical key switches in the heat of battle. Writers and coders covet their feel for marathon typing sessions. Heck, I can even see the appeal for data-entry drones looking to bring a little joy to an otherwise mundane task.
Thermaltake has entered the mechanized realm with several models, two of which have been floating between test systems in the Benchmarking Sweatshop for the past few months. The Meka G1 and G-Unit are lined with Cherry MX switches and equipped with built-in USB and audio connectivity. For a little more cheddar, the G-Unit offers LED backlighting, programmable macros, and more. Let’s see if either is worth your hard-earned cash.
Once you go black…
Cherry’s MX models aren’t the only mechanical switches in the keyboard arena, but they’re by far the most popular among modern designs. There are four primary versions, each identified by a color, a few key (groan) characteristics, and followers religiously devoted to their feel. One point of differentiation is whether the switch’s feedback is completely linear or includes a tactile “bump” just before the actuation point. Then there’s how much physical force is required to actuate the switch and whether the key responds with an audible click.
Taken together, these three characteristics largely define the overall feel of a mechanical keyboard. Thermaltake has chosen Cherry MX black switches for both Meka models, opting for linear feedback with a 60-gram actuation force—no click included. Here’s how those stats stack up against the other primary colors in the Cherry MX rainbow:
|Switch type||Actuation force||Bottom-out force||Feedback||Clicky?||Target market|
|MX blue||50 g||65 g||Tactile||Yes||Typing|
|MX brown||45 g||60 g||Tactile||No||Gaming/typing hybrid|
|MX black||60 g||80 g||Linear||No||Gaming|
|MX red||45 g||60 g||Linear||No||Gaming|
Typists typically prefer the tactile bump provided by the blue and brown MX switches. Gamers supposedly like linear feedback. Truth is, it really comes down to personal preference, which is why you should try before you buy. The difference in feel between the switch types is quite apparent even if you punch them just a few times.
I’ve played with all the switch types listed above. Although my time with the blue ones has been limited, I’m writing this on a Das Keyboard Professional Silent with MX browns, my personal favorite, while a Corsair M60 with red switches sits attached to the test system next to me. Going back and forth rapidly between those three switch types really highlights the differences between them.
The linear stroke of the black switch feels quite unlike the tactile bump of the brown. Without an actuation cue, you have to bottom out each stroke or trust that your finger will push at least halfway through the four-millimeter travel. The Cherry MX black switches require noticeably more force to actuate and bottom out than the others, in particular the similarly linear reds. There’s enough resistance that a little muscle needs to be put behind each keystroke, which suits my tendency to stab at keys with a mix of urgency and aggression.
While they lack the audible click of Cherry’s MX blue flavor, the black switches are far from silent. The keys bottom out with a dull thunk that sounds more muffled than the clickety-clack commonly associated with mechanical switches. At speed, multiple keystrokes combine to produce a lower rumble than the chatter generated by the red and brown switches. Part of that comes down to the design of the keyboard, which we’ll get into in a moment.
As a writer, it’s hard to get over the lack of tactile feedback in the black MX switches. I can see the appeal of a linear stroke for gaming, though. The linear switches feel more consistent when hammering the same key in quick succession. The black switches are a better compromise for all-around use than the reds, at least for my typing style. When banging out complete sentences, the lightness of the MX red switches feels a little too delicate, as if I’m blowing through the travel too quickly with each stroke. (The red switches have the same 45-gram actuation force as the brown ones, but the latter require an addition 10 grams of force to get over the tactile bump before actuation.)
Despite some slight acoustic variance—the Meka G-Unit sounds slightly louder and higher-pitched than the G1—the key feel is pretty much identical between the two Thermaltake keyboards and across all their keys. That gives the Mekas the same overall character, but they’re quite different otherwise, as we’ll now explore.
Make mine a Meka G1
Let’s start with the Meka G1, which is the cheaper and simpler of the two. Newegg sells the keyboard for $122 right now, compared to $140 for the G-Unit. Although it may not have quite as much street cred as its Fitty Cent-inspired relative, the G1 still comes with more frills than basic mechanical keyboards.
Thermaltake sticks with an understated aesthetic dominated by a matte-plastic body and matching keys. The keys are a slightly different shade, but they’re just as impervious to fingerprints and smudges as the other surfaces. Naturally, Thermaltake makes a “combat white” version of the G1 to match its arctic-themed cases. That model retains the black key caps, so it’s not a complete white-out.
The contours on the G1’s key caps are slightly deeper than those of the G-Unit, but the keys appear otherwise identical. Despite using the same black switches as the G-Unit, the G1 sounds a little more muffled when typing at speed. It’s not any quieter, but the sound of each keystroke hits with a duller cha-chunk.
With only one exception, the Meka G1 follows the standard US keyboard layout. Thermaltake has replaced the left Windows key with a function key used to access the Meka’s media controls. As someone who uses the Windows key daily and has grown accustomed to its position on the left, I found the move fairly frustrating. Sure, it eliminates the possibility of accidentally bringing up the Start menu while gaming, but that issue can be addressed without messing with the layout.
The Meka comes with a detachable palm rest, pictured above, and a couple of flip-down feet to provide 10 mm of lift at the back of the keyboard. Finding a comfortable typing position shouldn’t be a problem unless you have a penchant for ergonomic designs. Thermaltake lines the bottom of the keyboard with rubber pads to ensure it won’t slip around once you have things dialed-in.
Although the Meka G1 is pretty subdued overall, the red LEDs denoting the Caps, Scroll, and Num-Lock status are surprisingly bright. While they fall well short of blinding (in part because red LEDs are less dazzling than blue ones), the glow can be a little distracting while gaming in the dark.
Just below those LEDs, along the rear edge of the keyboard, sits a collection of tightly packed expansion ports. There are two USB 2.0 ports in addition to headphone and microphone connectors. In such close quarters, larger thumb drives may obstruct access to the other ports. Combining the audio jacks with 1/4″ plug adapters will be a squeeze, as well.
The audio ports are just pass-through connectors linked to 3.5-mm jacks at the tail end of the Meka’s beefy, braided cable housing. They’re joined by a pair of USB plugs: one for the keyboard and the other for the USB hub inside.
Thermaltake throws in a USB-to-PS/2 adapter for luddites and hard-core gamers. Those two camps don’t share a lot of hardware, but the Meka G1 only offers n-key rollover when it’s attached to a PS/2 port. When running off a standard USB connection, the G1 can only register six simultaneous key presses.
With eyes closed and foam earplugs dampening the slight difference in sound, it’s difficult to distinguish between the feel of the two Mekas. The G-Unit is very much a different keyboard outside of the tactile characteristics of the MX black switches, though. To start, it has a bigger footprint, measuring 71 mm wider and 7 mm deeper. The G-unit rides 6 mm lower, and its lift kit is 1 mm shorter. Alas, there’s no button activating hydraulics that bounce the keyboard at stop lights—or while you wait for the next Battlefield level to load.
The G-Unit needs to be wider to accommodate a cluster of macro keys, but there’s also some wasted space here. Along with slightly wider gaps between each of the main key groups, the left and right borders are several times thicker than on the G1. There are four keyboards on my desk right now, so I prefer them to take up as little room as necessary.
Like the G1, the G-Unit’s otherwise traditional layout is marred by a single, annoying flaw. This time, it’s the double-height Enter key, which forces the backslash to be relocated to the lower right-hand corner. To make room, the right Shift key is shortened. These two changes really throw off my mojo, since I use both backslash and right Shift with great frequency over the average day. Also, double-height Enter keys are just wrong.
The G-Unit’s angular lines stand out next to the G1’s more old-school body shape. Since this is the Meka Pimp My Ride Edition, there are fancy LED lighting effects, too.
First, there’s the red Thermaltake logo, which fades in and out and is surprisingly unobtrusive. A fade option exists for the back-lit keys, as well, plus three constant brightness settings and the ability to turn everything off completely. Even at their dimmest, the glowing white letters are easy to pick out of the darkness.
Rather than blanketing the entire keyboard in LEDs—there are individual ones for each lit switch, which gets expensive—Thermaltake highlights a few key areas. The problem is, they’re mostly all the same area. Each of the “Lock” keys gets its own backlight, as do the spacebar and the left Shift and Ctrl keys. The rest of the LEDs are spread across what amount to three sets of directional keys: the holy WASD triangle, the inverted-T arrow keys, and whatever that diamond in the numpad is called. Odds are you’re only going to use one, which means the rest have much more limited utility. The LEDs shine brightly enough to illuminate the surrounding area, but I still found myself hunting for unlit keys while gaming in the dark.
The G-Unit could really use some more LEDs to highlight its macro keys, which are at least arranged in groups of four for easy identification by feel. More on macros in a moment, but first, behold the cheesy red racing stripe. Also, check out the buttons in the top left in the picture above. There are buttons for three macro profiles and a “game mode” that remaps the Windows key to a duplicate left Ctrl.
Over to the right, a line of media keys uses the same low-profile buttons. The volume, mute, and LED brightness keys get mechanical switches, just like the rest of the keyboard. And, yes, there’s a palm rest included in the box.
Flipping the G-Unit reveals an interesting approach to cabling. The keyboard’s detachable cable plugs into a Mini USB connector, and you’re supposed to route it through a groove in the base for extra security. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer an easily detached MagSafe-style connector if I thought anyone was going to trip over the cable.
Although the number of expansion ports is the same as on the G1, the G-Unit offers a lot more space around each one. The audio implementation is completely different, too. There’s actually a USB audio device inside the keyboard; it shows up as “Holtek USB Phone” in the Windows device manager, and the sound quality is predictably poor. Even worse if the fact that Windows wants to make it the default audio device. I can see using the built-in audio for quick Skype sessions but nothing more. The distortion is palpable when listening to music, and you won’t want it muddling in-game audio.
Everything in the G-Unit shares a single USB connection to the host system, but I didn’t detect any lag during a file transfer to a thumb drive connected to one of the keyboard’s USB ports. Perhaps because it would render several built-in functions useless, there’s no PS/2 adapter—and no accompanying n-key rollover, either. However, Thermaltake claims the G-Unit can track up to 46 simultaneous key presses without skipping a beat.
Maybe I’m not hard-core enough, but I don’t imagine ever reaching the limits of the macro support built into the G-Unit. Along with the 12 fixed macro keys on the left, eight of the standard keys can be tied to macros. With three profiles, that adds up to 60 macros in total. There’s even a way to combine different profiles, effectively allowing one profile to invoke macros stored in another without manually switching between the two.
Thermaltake’s software takes care of macro programming, and the interface is reasonably intuitive. Key combinations can be tuned with more precise timing than one would ever think necessary. Users have control over whether macros execute once, a set number of times, while the key is held, or continuously until the key is pressed again. Any of the macro keys can also be configured to launch a specific application, although this functionality requires the Meka software to be running in the background. The rest of the macros can run entirely from the keyboard’s 64KB of memory.
We’d be remiss not to point out that the G-Unit comes in its own bag, but it’s nothing to write home about. The pocket for the USB cable is too shallow, there’s no handle, and the whole thing exudes cheapness. Thermaltake would have been better off leaving it out of the box.
Mechanical keyboards come down to two things: whether you like the feel of the switches and then all the other stuff. The Mekas both feature Cherry MX black switches, whose linear stroke and heavy actuation force favors aggressive gamers over typists or anyone with a light touch. There isn’t much clicking associated with the keystroke, but under spirited typing, the low thunder of each key bottoming out is a resonant reminder of the underlying mechanical switches and sturdy overall build quality. The switches are rated for 50 million keystrokes, so you’ll get to enjoy them—or be stuck with them—for a long time.
Keyboards are best thought of as long-term investments, since peripherals tend to have long upgrade cycles. Amortizing the cost of the Mekas over their useful life makes the steep asking prices a little easier to stomach. The G1 can be nabbed for $122 right now, while the G-Unit costs $140. Barebones mechanical keyboards like Rosewill’s RK-9000 series boast the same switches for $100, but each Meka offers more.
The G1’s audio pass-through and integrated USB hub are certainly nice conveniences. The USB ports would be much more appealing if they supported USB 3.0 transfer rates, though. With selective backlighting and highly programmable macro keys, the G-Unit offers considerably more flavor, albeit at a higher price and with questionable integrated audio quality. I wish all the keys were lit like Razer’s similarly priced BlackWidow Ultimate, which has Cherry MX blue switches and should be easier to use in the dark.
For me, all this is largely beside the point because of two layout quirks: the G1’s wrong-side Windows key and the G-Unit’s backslash relocation, which wreak havoc on my everyday routine. Adapting to those deviations might be difficult if the rest of the keyboards in your life are free of similar irregularities. My notebook and tablet keyboards would undo whatever muscle memory I might develop with the Mekas.
Don’t get me wrong; the G1 and G-Unit are both fine keyboards if you want extra perks with your Cherry MX black switches. However, like the characteristics of their mechanical key switches, their layout and lighting quirks are acquired tastes.