One of the best things about this whole hardware reviewer gig is getting to work from home in front of a bank of pretty sweet desktop PCs. Pants are optional, the fridge is maybe 25 feet away, and my dog can crash behind me on an oversized bean bag. Comfort is essential, because one of the worst things about this job is the sheer number of hours it takes to produce quality content. I spend an inordinate amount of time holed up in my lab.
In the past couple years, that time has become noticeably more enjoyable thanks to the mechanical keyboard trend that has swept across the industry—and my workstation. My daily driver is a Das Keyboard with Cherry MX brown switches that are perfect for extended writing sessions. The test rack next to my main PC feeds into a Thermaltake Meka G1, whose heavily weighted MX black switches are a good match for the short but violent bursts of input required for benchmarking. Above the Meka sits a Corsair Vengeance K60 mostly populated with MX reds, which have a light touch that’s particularly appealing for gaming.
Spend enough time at a keyboard, and it becomes easy to notice the superior feel of a quality switch mechanism. There are plenty of mechanical switch flavors to suit different tastes and no shortage of keyboards based on them. The latest one to vie for a spot on my desk is Gigabyte’s Aivia Osmium.
Yes, that Gigabyte.
Don’t mistake this as shameless bandwagon jumping by the motherboard maker, though. Gigabyte got into the mechanical keyboard business way back in 2008 with the K8000. Billed as the world’s first mechanical gaming keyboard, the K8000 set itself apart from the IBM Model M wannabes by adding media functionality, programmable macro keys, and audio jacks. The Osmium is an updated take on that theme, this time with LED backlighting and USB 3.0 thrown into the mix.
Before getting into the Osmium’s features, we should take a moment to establish its mechanical credentials. This puppy has Cherry MX red switches throughout. The reds have a fully linear stroke, which means there’s no “bump” in the travel to provide tactile feedback at the actuation point. This switch type also lacks an audible click at actuation. Touch typists will have to keep an eye on the screen or bottom out each keystroke to ensure it registers.
Blowing through the reds’ four millimeters of travel requires only 60 grams of force, and actuation takes just 45 grams. Those figures are the same as for Cherry’s MX brown switches, which feel a little stiffer due to the resistance put up by their tactile bumps. The table below highlights how the reds compare to the other popular mechanical switches in Cherry’s lineup.
|Red||Linear||No||45 g||60 g|
|Brown||Tactile||No||45 g||60 g|
|Blue||Tactile||Yes||50 g||65 g|
|Black||Linear||No||60 g||80 g|
|Green||Tactile||Yes||80 g||105 g|
Which switch is best very much depends on personal preference. The reds tend to be favored by gamers who don’t want any resistance slowing down their rapid-fire key mashing. However, the lack of tactile feedback isn’t ideal for folks who do a lot of typing. Regardless of what you’re doing, the soft springs won’t tire out your digits during longer sessions.
Typing on the Osmium probably won’t wake your neighbors, either. Mechanical keyboards tend to emit a sharp chatter, but this one is surprisingly muted. Keystrokes sound slightly muffled even when they bottom out. The Osmium isn’t silent, of course, but it does seem to generate a little less noise than any of the other mechanical keyboards I’ve used. The Osmium is certainly quieter than the Vengeance K60, whose identical Cherry switches populate a minimalist frame that lets more sound escape.
Unlike the Vengeance, which uses mushy rubber dome switches for a handful of keys, the Osmium has MX red switches throughout. The key feel is consistent across the entire board, including larger keys like enter, backspace, and the spacebar. Those larger keys do produce slightly different audible notes, but that’s true for all the mechanical keyboards I’ve used.
The keys themselves feel quite nice. They have a smooth, matte finish that almost feels like the soft-touch coating used on some mobile devices. The surrounding frame maintains the blacked-out theme but adds a slightly rougher texture. Mercifully, there’s not a glossy surface to be found.
The Osmium’s standard layout puts all the usual keys in all the right places. Five programmable macro keys live above the function row in the upper left corner. More on those in a moment. First, we need to talk about those scroll wheels to the right of the macro row.
Using mouse-style wheels to control the backlight brightness and system volume makes perfect sense; those functions are well suited to scrolling. I even like the grippy texture of the pseudo tires on each wheel. However, the wheels shift from side to side on their axles and don’t feel nearly as solid as the rest of the keyboard. It’s as if they’ve been pulled from the parts bin for a budget mouse, which is a letdown given the premium feel of the mechanical key switches.
Each notch in the backlight wheel corresponds to a distinct brightness level. I lost count trying to tally them all, but there’s plenty of range between barely glowing and far too bright. Each key is lit by its own blue LED, and the wheels have lights of their own. If you don’t want the light show, the backlight can be disabled by pressing down on the brightness wheel as if middle-clicking a mouse.
Unfortunately, turning off the backlight doesn’t affect the illuminated Aivia logo in the upper right corner of the keyboard. You can change the logo’s color from blue to green, red, pink, or turquoise. You can also toggle whether the logo stays lit or pulses slowly. There’s no way to make it go completely dark, though.
The LEDs behind the logo are also unaffected by the backlight brightness setting, and so are the LEDs under the num, caps, and scroll lock indicators. They all seem to be set to 100% brightness, which can be problematic if you prefer a subtler glow. To see what I mean, check out the shot below, which has the backlight brightness turned down.
Those lens flares aren’t Instagram effects. You can actually see the individual LEDs through the lettering, which is nearly transparent compared to the more opaque treatment used on the key caps. Even at full brightness, the keys don’t shine with the same intensity.
The over-bright spots are most noticeable when viewed directly from above, so they’re not always visible in regular use. However, in my normal typing position, I can clearly see the piercing glow of the num-lock light out of the corner of my eye. There’s no reason for these extra LEDs to ignore the user’s backlight brightness preference.
As it turns out, there is a reason the backlit Aivia logo can’t be turned off. The color of its glow corresponds to the active macro profile. Pressing down on the logo clicks through the five profiles, effectively putting 25 individual macros at your fingertips.
The Osmium’s programmable macros are stored in the keyboard’s internal memory, so you only need the accompanying software to program the thing. Some elements of the software UI are a little oversized for my tastes, as if sections of the app were designed for touch input rather than a precise mouse pointer. Having to scroll through long lists of portly icons is a little frustrating.
Of course, it’s difficult to complain too much about having long lists of macro options. There are loads of basic shortcuts for things like mouse buttons, browser functions, media playback, and application launching.
The real power lies in the programming screen, which is capable of managing complex sequences of keyboard and mouse input.
The macro engine is pretty powerful, and recording is easy. First, decide whether to track the keyboard, mouse, or both. Then, choose whether to preserve the original timing, reset any delays to a fixed time, or delete the gaps entirely. Once input is recorded, individual actions can be rearranged at will. You can also control whether the macro is executed once or continuously when activated.
The mousing element is particularly robust, with the ability to record clicks at specific coordinates in addition to tracking wheel flicks and auxiliary thumb buttons. Gamers are usually the target market for programmable macros, but mouse support gives the Osmium’s implementation some real productivity potential, as well.
Even though only 25 macros can be accessed via the five keys and profiles, the software has save slots for 100 macros in total. Transferring macros to the keyboard takes a few seconds, and once they’re there, you can move the Osmium to another machine without losing them.
USB 3.0 onboard
The Osmium’s Cherry MX switches, programmable macro keys, and LED backlighting are staples of high-end mechanical keyboards. So are the gold-plated audio pass-through connectors and the integrated USB 2.0 port. However, Gigabyte has gone one step further than its rivals by adding USB 3.0 connectivity.
The Osmium doesn’t actually connect via SuperSpeed USB, so don’t get your hopes up about the interface’s higher bandwidth somehow improving key response. Instead, a pass-through cable routes one of your system’s USB 3.0 ports to the right side of the keyboard.
Awesome, at least in theory.
USB 3.0 is pretty slick all on its own. The interface standard delivers a palpable performance increase for plenty of external storage devices, and there’s no shortage of high-end SSDs that can really exploit the link’s copious bandwidth. Most SuperSpeed-compatible systems have at least a couple of ports, so it only makes sense to move one of them to mission control.
I first tested the Osmium’s USB 3.0 pass-through on a MSI Z77IA-E53 motherboard with ports driven by Intel’s Z77 Express chipset. My device of choice: Thermaltake’s BlacX 5G docking station paired with Samsung’s 830 Series SSD, the very same tag team used for benchmarking in our motherboard reviews. That combo had worked flawlessly on other systems, but it didn’t register when connected to the MSI board through the Osmium. The drive popped up when attached directly to the motherboard, but when piped through the keyboard, it failed to maintain a connection to the PC. I actually watched the drive flickering in and out of the Windows 8 Disk Manager. The associated drive letter never popped up in the File Explorer, though.
Perplexed, I then plugged the keyboard and dock into one of our storage test rigs, which has an older USB 3.0 controller made by NEC. No problems. A quick series of tests with RoboBench, our multithreaded file copy benchmark, confirmed that connecting external storage via the keyboard offered comparable performance to running off one of the motherboard ports directly.
Next, I tried Asus’ P8Z77-I Deluxe, which has separate SuperSpeed ports powered the Z77 platform and an auxiliary ASMedia chip. Again, the BlacX dock and Samsung SSD were unable to connect to the Intel USB 3.0 ports through the Osmium. They were quickly detected when attached via the ASMedia-powered USB ports, though. As with the NEC controller, the keyboard didn’t affect file transfer speeds.
Gigabyte suggested I try one of its own motherboards, which can pump extra amperage over USB. The Thermaltake dock already gets auxiliary power from a wall socket, so it probably doesn’t need extra juice, but I fired up Gigabyte’s Z77N-WiFi anyway. Again, there were problems. The dock was detected, but not consistently, and it usually disappeared after rebooting the system. Even when a connection was established, performance was sluggish. The flaky connection ruled out testing with RoboBench, which reboots automatically after each run, but even copying our file sets to the drive manually revealed transfer rates around 35MB/s—USB 2.0 territory.
I don’t have a lot of different USB 3.0 devices in my lab, but I can confirm that my SuperSpeed-compatible Western Digital Passport drive had no problems connecting to any of the systems via the Osmium’s pass-through port. The issues encountered with the combination of the Thermaltake dock and Intel controller clearly don’t affect all devices. Gigabyte is looking into the problem, but it’s troubling that there are issues at all. Compatibility should be a given with USB gear.
Multiple motherboard makers have complained about problems with sub-par USB 3.0 cables affecting performance, which makes me wonder if the Osmium’s six-foot cord might subtly degrade signal quality in some way. The cable is pretty chunky, and the branch that attaches to the USB 3.0 port is considerably thicker than the one that connects to old-school USB 2.0 ports, so it doesn’t look like Gigabyte has cheaped out in this department.
More quirks and extras
While we’re on the topic of USB, I should point out that the Osmium’s integrated ports are upside-down from the orientation found on most motherboards, including Gigabyte’s own. The orientation also differs from the ports on other keyboards in my lab and from those on my notebook. This deviation from the norm is more of an annoyance than a serious flaw, but it leaves me scratching my head about what Gigabyte could have been thinking.
Another head-scratcher is the arrangement of the characters on the key caps. Usually, the primary symbol sits below the secondary one. On the Osmium, the two are side by side, with the primary character on the left. Even after weeks with the Osmium, this layout still makes me pause on occasion, as my mind tries to process what look like smilies on some of the keys. I can’t fathom why Gigabyte decided to be different in this regard, either.
Speaking of different, the Osmium comes with a set of custom caps for the macro keys. The graphics seem best suited to RPGs and MMOs, and I’m a little surprised there isn’t a fifth one to fill out the macro row. At least the included key puller makes swapping caps a breeze. The puller should also come in handy if you ever want to rid the keyboard’s body of accumulated crumbs, dust, and other particulate.
A custom fit is arguably more important than a custom look, so it’s good to see riser tabs at both the front and back of the Osmium’s underbelly.
The extra tabs provide additional tilt options, and flipping up just the ones on the front creates a perfectly horizontal plane for folks who don’t want their wrists at an angle. A palm rest is also included if you want to elevate the area south of the keyboard’s front edge.
Admittedly, the angle of the picture above makes the palm rest look bigger than it actually is. The removable piece covers a decent chunk of the bottom of the keyboard, creating a streamlined look that extends the frame by about 2.5″.
While I’m tidying up loose ends, I should mention a couple of other things. Gamers, take note. The Osmium supports 64 simultaneous keystrokes anywhere on the keyboard. Good luck hitting more than that many keys with just two hands.
Gamers will also appreciate the win-lock key, which disables the Windows key to prevent inadvertent trips to the desktop or Win8 Start screen. This toggle switch sits to the right of the spacebar and next to the fn key, which activates secondary media controls for the first cluster in the function row.
There are some who would write off the Aivia Osmium based solely on its use of Cherry MX red switches, and that’s fair enough. Mechanical keyboard aficionados tend to have a favorite switch type or two. Fortunately, Gigabyte is prepping a twin that combines tactile MX brown switches with white backlighting. That variant is due in April, and it’ll sell for the same $130 asking price as the MX red model. Fans of tactile feedback, rejoice!
The Osmium’s price tag puts the keyboard at the high end of the mechanical spectrum, which seems entirely fair. After all, this thing is loaded with premium features like adjustable backlighting, programmable macro keys, and extra connectivity. It’s also the only keyboard around with a built-in USB 3.0 port.
That SuperSpeed port is what really sets the Osmium apart from the competition, so it’s a shame there appears to be a compatibility issue with Intel-based USB 3.0 ports and the Thermaltake BlacX 5G docking station. Those are pretty common components, and they should just work. At least the USB pass-through exhibited no issues with other controllers and devices, including external drives from Western Digital, Kingston, and Super Talent.
Still, the finicky USB 3.0 connectivity makes me a little gun-shy about recommending the Osmium. This is an award-worthy candidate otherwise, but I worry that other device combinations won’t be detected properly. Were it not for that issue, the upcoming version with MX brown switches would have a good shot at replacing the Das Keyboard on my primary desktop.