Wow, it’s been a long time since I sat down to review a mechanical keyboard. Just over three years, in fact. The last clicky keyboard I looked at was the ABS M1, which was a fantastic bargain… right before it mysteriously disappeared from e-tail listings in late 2009.
Things took a turn after that. Enthralled by the snappy chiclet keys on my MacBook, I grabbed one of Apple’s full-sized aluminum desktop keyboards. My interest in mechanical key switches promptly plummeted. Somehow, the Apple contraption took some of the things I loved about mechanical designs—crisp tactile feedback and a sturdy, no-nonsense layout—and combined them with a very short actuation distance and quiet operation. I was hooked. Still am.
While I was caressing those milky white Apple keys, mechanical keyboards grew in popularity among geeks and gamers. Most enthusiast-focused PC hardware vendors worth their salt started to offer products along these lines, typically with Cherry MX switches and price tags upward of $100. If you’d predicted that outcome to my IBM Model M-toting self five or six years ago, he wouldn’t have believed you. The pleasures of mechanical keyboards were known only to a select few back then. But today, the release of a non-mechanical keyboard from an enthusiast hardware vendor has become noteworthy in itself.
This new breed of mechanical keyboard is pretty much the antithesis of the Model M, though. Where IBM’s buckling springs trumpet each actuation with tactile and acoustic feedback, most of the gamer-friendly mechanical keyboards out there have non-tactile, non-clicky Cherry MX black switches, which seem prized largely for their rapid actuation in games. Typing comfort, it seems, has taken a back seat. As a writer, I’m not all that thrilled with this development.
There is a silver lining of hope for those who type more than they game, though: another type of key-switch, forged from the same non-tactile non-clickiness as the Cherry MX blacks, but with much less springy springs that beckon typists rather than repel them. This key-switch design has substantially reduced actuation force, which in turn reduces muscle fatigue, yet it retains the linear response curve so loved (or so I’m told) by gamers.
I’m talking, of course, about Cherry’s MX red switches.
Today, we’re going to be looking at a pair of keyboards from the fine folks at Corsair. Both of those keyboards feature MX red switches, and both of them do it in style, hoisting the reds on brushed aluminum bases and accompanying them with macro keys, custom palm rests, audio volume wheels, and more.
Before we study the keyboards themselves, I feel compelled to ramble on for a little while about key-switch designs and their various pros and cons. So, what is it that makes Cherry MX red switches different from their siblings?
|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|
In the table above, “tactile” feedback refers to the presence of a bump in the feedback curve. In layman’s terms, that means as you push down, your finger is going to feel resistance increase, and then the key will suddenly give way. You’ll feel a sort of jolt, and that jolt will tell you the key-switch has been actuated. The jolt is sometimes accompanied by a click (as with MX blue and IBM buckling spring designs) and sometimes isn’t (as with MX brown switches).
True to their descriptor, linear switches like the red and black Cherry MX have linear feedback curves. There’s no bump, and there’s no click, either. Your finger just meets increased resistance the further down you go, and the key-switch actuates somewhere along the way. The only feedback is when something happens on the screen. The following response graphs from Cherry illustrate the difference very well:
MX red switches should have the same feedback curve as in the left graph, but lower along the Y axis, since they require only 45 grams of force to actuate. In a nutshell, MX red switches don’t give you the same satisfying tactile and acoustic feedback as old-school clicky keyboards—or even more modern ones. The only click you hear is from the keys bottoming out. Nevertheless, the reds require no more force to actuate than MX brown switches, which are notoriously soft, so typing should feel fairly effortless.
The old-school IBM Model M’s buckling spring switches, in case you’re wondering, should require around 65 g of force to actuate. They’re both tactile and clicky.
Now, there’s a lot more to keyboards than their switches alone, of course. The sturdiness of the frame, the key layout, and the quality of add-ons like media keys can make or break a keyboard just as much as its key-switches can. Still, with both of Corsair’s Vengeance keyboards, the Cherry MX reds are going to be central to the experience, and we’re curious to find out whether they really blend typing comfort and gaming responsiveness.
Corsair’s Vengeance K60
The K60 is the cheaper of Corsair’s two Vengeance keyboards. You can nab it at Newegg for $109.99, although it seems to collect discounts and rebates on a regular basis. Right now, for example, Newegg offers a 20%-off promo code and a $20 mail-in rebate. Even if you account for the $8.50 shipping fee, you may be in for a substantial discount. Those lucky enough to take advantage of both offers before they expire may only end up shelling out $76.49 for the device.
That’s a steal considering the K60’s rather impressive build quality. All of its key-switches hover over a thick, brushed-aluminum frame, with gaps of about 6 mm between the frame and the bottom of each key cap. The appeal of that design should be obvious. Cleaning dust bunnies, hair, and crumbs out of a regular keyboard usually involves popping off the key caps one by one, but with the K60, a few well-placed jets of compressed should do the trick. Heck, you might be able to get away with just tilting the keyboard on its side and letting debris slide free.
Wrapped around the metal frame is a plastic base, which has little flaps at the front and back for height adjustment. You’ll find a USB port at the rear, too. Part of me wishes Corsair had put the port on the side to make it easier to reach. However, the company had the wisdom to put the port on an embossed piece of plastic that’s very easy to locate by touch alone. No need to turn the keyboard around to find it.
A few inches to the side is the K60’s thick, braided USB cord, which is hard-wired into the base and splits off at the end into two plugs: one for the keyboard itself and one for the extra port. The cable is about 6.5 feet long—kind of a lot, especially considering how rigid the cord is. When it comes to keyboards, though, too much cable length is undoubtedly better than too little.
Surprisingly, not all of the K60’s key-switches are MX reds. Well, almost all of them are, but the top row (from Esc to Pause/Break) and the paging block all have the same kind of rubber-dome switches found on el-cheapo Dell keyboards and the like. You might not notice when gaming or typing, but it can be unsettling in some situations, like when you’re writing a message and happen to hit the Del key. Your finger expects precise mechanical feedback but encounters mushy rubberiness instead. Yuck.
Speaking of mechanical feedback, how does typing on the K60’s Cherry MX reds feel?
I think “satisfying” is the most accurate adjective. The red switches feel great, with a very light touch and great accuracy. I still believe the lack of tactile and acoustic feedback is unfortunate—compared to the venerable Model M, the linear response gives keys a sort of bouncy feel, since the actuation point is hidden somewhere in the feedback curve instead of being clearly delineated by a click and a tactile jolt. Still, the Cherry MX reds feel less bouncy than the tactile, non-clicky Alps replica switches on the ABS M1, so they’re not the worst in that respect.
Corsair’s decision to lay the key-switches bare on an aluminum base has some merits, too, because it seems to reduce noise and resonance. The click-clacking of keys is much sharper and less hollow than on other mechanical designs I’ve played with, and I can detect none of the faint ringing that follows rapid rattling sessions on both the ABS M1 and (to a much greater extent) the Das Keyboard. Compared to those offerings, typing on the K60 has an almost surgical feel. The metal base also makes the keyboard seem and harder to shift accidentally, even though the device is technically lighter than the ABS M1 by a few ounces.
I tried the K60 in games, as well, and the Cherry MX reds definitely have some merit there. I’m not the twitchiest kind of gamer in first-person shooters, but in TrackMania 2, a racing game designed to be played with the arrow keys, the difference is palpable. It’s just much easier to make minute corrections, since there’s no increase in resistance or very much travel in the way of each actuation. The K60 feels even more precise in that game than my Apple aluminum keyboard, which has a shorter key travel distance.
Unlike some of the more bare-bones mechanical keyboards out there, like the Model M and Filco-derived offerings, the Vengeance K60 provides the comfort of media buttons. Corsair has gone the extra mile there, offering not only the usual assortment of stop, back, play/pause, and forward buttons, but also a mute button and a completely awesome little volume scroll wheel. The wheel is made of textured aluminum and feels very precise, a bit like the volume knob on an expensive stereo.
For someone like me who games with headphones plugged right into a sound card, the volume control wheel is a godsend. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to Alt-Tab out of a game to raise or lower the volume. Yes, I know I could probably set up some keyboard shortcut application to take care of that. I could even buy a headphone amp. But having a dedicated control on the keyboard is a lovely, hassle-free alternative.
Another nice addition is that little round button you see above the Scroll Lock key. Pressing it will disable the keyboard’s Windows keys, so you can game away without worrying that an accidental keystroke might toss you back to the Windows desktop. A little blue LED lights up behind the button when the lock feature is enabled.
The K60 has even more goodies in its bag of tricks. Oh, yes. Corsair ships it with a little palm rest that snaps in right under the WASD keys. Inside the palm rest are red key caps with sloped and textured tops designed specifically for gaming. As you can see in the image above, the W key cap is sloped downward, while the A and D key caps slope to the right and to the left, respectively. The 1 and 6 keys are also sloped. Corsair includes a key puller to make key cap substitution relatively painless.
Now, I hate to be a killjoy, but those add-ons just seem unnecessary. The slope of the WASD caps doesn’t really match the way I position my fingers, so the A key feels higher up than the rest, which is a little awkward. To make matters worse, the palm rest isn’t completely steady, so it makes the keyboard feel less precise when gaming. After trying both setups, I found that the standard black keycaps simply felt better and more comfortable in games. Sorry, Corsair. Maybe some users will love the red key caps, but I think they’re just inconvenient—especially when you’re trying to type and they get in the way. The same goes for the mini-palm rest.
Corsair’s Vengeance K90
The K90 is the higher-end of the two Vengeance keyboards. It costs $20 more than the K60 at Newegg (though, right now, it can benefit from similar discounts), and Corsair pegs it as an ideal solution for avid fans of massively multiplayer and real-time strategy games. The main differentiator is the K90’s array of macro keys: 18 of them in total, all placed along the left edge of the keyboard.
Corsair has also swapped out some bells and whistles. There are no red key caps or WASD wrist rest, but the K90 has a cool blue blacklight, and it ships with a palm rest that covers the whole length of the keyboard. On paper, the full-length palm rest seems like something Corsair should have offered with the K60. In practice, though… Well, Corsair made the thing too steep. Palm rests are supposed to prop up your wrists securely so keys are easier to tackle, but this one just doesn’t do that. At all. The angle of attack is more or less the same, but it feels like you’re fighting gravity to keep your wrists from sliding down and away. Good idea, very poor execution.
I like the backlight, though. It looks cool, and Corsair lets you toggle between three brightness levels or switch the thing off entirely, via a button next to the Windows key lock.
Disappointingly, the K90 uses rubber-dome switches in the same places as the K60 (top row, from Esc to Pause/Break, and the paging block) as well as in the macro keys (more on those in a minute). The company has also added little clear rubber dampers or stops to each red Cherry MX keyswitch. I’m not sure why. They make the keyboard quieter, but they also make the bottoming-out of each keyswitch feel less crisp and distinct. It seems like a step in the wrong direction—toward the ugly mushiness of silicone switches, rather than toward the clicky precision of the Model M and its tactile descendants.
I don’t play MMOs or RTS games, so I didn’t have much use for the Vengeance K90’s macro functionality. I can certainly appreciate what Corsair has done here, though.
There are 18 macro keys and four special macro buttons: MR, M1, M2, and M3. The MR button lets you record a macro, even when the keyboard’s control panel software isn’t running. Just press MR, press one of the G macro keys, and enter the keystroke you want repeated. Press MR again, and boom, your macro is saved and usable.
The M1, M2, and M3 buttons effectively triple the number of macros at your disposal. A macro saved on a given G key is tied to the M button selected during recording. Press a different M button, and you can assign a completely different macro to the same G key. I suppose you could say this scheme is like having three virtual pages of macros laid out along one physical set of buttons.
The control panel software takes some getting used to, but it augments the hardware functionality. You can adjust delays, set macros to repeat, and call special commands like launching a given program, saving, or locking your PC. The software also lets you export individual macro configs as XML files, which is no doubt handy if you’re ever going to switch computers or use a different K90. Quite nifty.
Considering the Vengeance K60 and K90 are Corsair’s first keyboards, I think the company deserves a lot of credit. These are fantastic products, and the K60 in particular feels a lot more polished than entry-level mechanical keyboards in the same price range. The only real tradeoff is those rubber-dome switches along the top row and paging block, but frankly, those don’t bother me much. They’re a minor inconvenience, if that. I do wish Corsair did offer a more expensive option with 100% mechanical switches, though.
The K90 is somewhat less impressive than the K60. Those nifty macro keys may justify the higher price tag, but why couldn’t Corsair include the same add-ons as with the K60? Even if I didn’t like those personally, it seems odd to have a flagship offering lacking some of the features of its lower-end sibling. Also, I was disappointed when I found out that the K90 uses rubber-dome switches for not just the top row and paging block, but also for all of its macro keys. Twitch response may come in handy with some macros, and silicone domes are ill-prepared for that task.
Those are but minor nitpicks, though. My only real beef with the Vengeance K60 and K90 has to do with the bundled palm rests. The K60’s WASD palmrest wiggles too much to be of any use, and it’s entirely useless—a hindrance, even—when typing. Meanwhile, the K90’s full-length palm rest is too steep and, for that reason, equally impractical.
I really, really wish both keyboards came bundled with a full-length, ergonomically sound palm rest; it would make typing considerably more comfortable, and what does the WASD palm rest do that a full-length one couldn’t? Typing with one’s wrists straight helps ward off injuries like RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome, and it’s a shame Corsair doesn’t have users’ backs there.
Having said that, I think the K60 is worthy of TR’s Recommended award. It’s one good palm rest (and perhaps some more mechanical switches) away from being Editor’s Choice material, but I’d choose it over competing, Cherry MX black-based designs any day of the week. The relatively low price and the discounts it seems to attract on a regular basis are just icing on the cake.