Things were desperate for the lowly desktop keyboard just a few years ago. The hated rubber-dome key switch ruled the roost. Keepers of the faith hoarded surplus IBM Model Ms, then the best-known clicky keyboards, out of fear that the mechanical key switch was dead for good.
That grim future didn’t come to pass, of course. Modern mechanical keyboards are abundant. A new crop of enthusiasts can describe their favorite mechanical key switches at length. This is good news for the consumer, but it makes it hard for keyboard manufacturers to stand out. Even backlighting, once an exotic feature on Apple’s pro laptops, is now commonplace.
For Rosewill, the answer to this homogeneity is the RGB LED, which can combine varying levels of red, blue, and green light to produce up to 16.8 million colors. The company has dropped 87 of these LEDs into its latest backlit mechanical-switch gaming keyboard, the RGB80. As far as I can tell, Rosewill is the first company to offer this combination of backlight and switch technology for sale.
I’ve had an RGB80 on my desk for a few days, and I’m ready to deliver my verdict. First, though, have a look:
The RGB80’s style is aggressive, featuring sharp angles, chunky chamfers, and a sloped base. There’s a matte rubber coating on the sturdy plastic frame and a smoother, glossier one on the keys. It reminds me of the F-117 Nighthawk’s stealthy black exterior. The chassis is substantial, too. It feels like there’s a hefty metal base plate in there. Even during my most intense gaming sessions, there was nary a creak or wiggle from the RGB80.
Underneath are some wide rubber feet, a pair of fold-out risers, and a trio of channels for cable routing.
Also in the box is a detachable, braided cable; a set of clear key caps; and a key cap puller. The clear caps are slightly differently textured than their normal counterparts. This distinctive surface helped with locating the critical WASD keys when I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen. Most importantly, the clear caps allow the full glory of the backlight to shine through.
Unlike the Rosewill Apollo that Cyril reviewed recently, the RGB80 is spartan. It has no USB hubs, audio pass-throughs, or other extras to speak of. The only concession to functions other than typing are some media controls on the F1 through F6 keys, activated with the Fn key. True to its gaming mission, the RGB80 even dispenses with the number pad.
I like this form factor a lot. Normal keyboards force my mousing arm into unhealthy angles to get around the numpad. Not having to do so with the RGB80 is a relief. It’s also better for gaming, since I don’t have to move my hand as far to switch between mousing and typing. I don’t see myself purchasing another 104-key board after using the RGB80, just because of the ergonomic benefits of the more compact design.
The RGB80 also features N-key rollover, which prevents dropped input regardless of how many keys are pressed at once. I tested this feature with Microsoft’s ghosting demo and confirmed that the keyboard will happily register far more keys than a human will ever be able to press in normal use. Should the RGB80 fail to work with your EFI or BIOS, Rosewill suggests enabling six-key rollover mode by pressing Fn+Ins. The keyboard can be switched back to N-key mode by pressing Fn+Del.
Just like Rosewill’s RK-9000, the RGB80 features a detachable cable. Because it’s such a new product, I can’t say whether it’ll suffer from the same durability problems that we noted with the RK-9000’s USB port, but I’m optimistic. There doesn’t seem to be any slop in the port itself, and it’s deeply recessed in the base of the keyboard, so it should be hard to bump or torque.
If the worst occurs, Rosewill covers the RGB80 with a one-year warranty. That seems a little short, since the company offers three-year parts and one-year labor coverage on the RK-9000, which is $40-50 cheaper as of this writing. For other mechanical keyboards in this price range, a two-year warranty seems to be typical.
Kailh: not the leafy green kind
While external details are important, this is a mechanical keyboard at its core, and buyers of such keyboards tend to care about one thing more than any other: the key switches. The RGB80 uses Kailh mechanical switches produced by Chinese manufacturer Kaihua Electronics Company. Upon removing the key caps, I instantly realized what inspired these switches—they look almost exactly like Cherry MX Blues. You can read more about Kailh switches on Kaihua’s website here. Have a closer look:
This is the first keyboard with Khail switches that’s passed through my hands. Like MX blues, the Kailh key switches are a tactile design, with a distinct bump on the way down and a gently damped return. They also provide auditory feedback, with a sharp click accompanying each keystroke. If you want to know more, Cyril examined the Cherry MX blues in depth here; his observations largely apply to these switches, as well.
I initially disliked the feel of the blue Khails versus that of the more lightly sprung, non-clicky Cherry MX browns in my Kinesis daily driver. However, I’ve since come to prefer the Khails for gaming. The tactile feedback and audible clicks provide reassurance that the desired inputs are happening under my fingers during tense moments. I wish the action was a bit lighter for comfort during extended typing sessions, but that’s why I have my Kinesis.
Kaihua specifies its mechanical switches for a useful life of 50 million actuations, identical to that of Cherry’s MX switches. I can’t verify either company’s figure, but if you want to try, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is estimated at 9,609,000 characters, according to Wikipedia. Type it into your favorite text editor a few times and tell me how the switches hold up. I’ll be waiting.
All day, all night, I’ve got the lights in my eyes
And now for this keyboard’s headlining feature: the backlight.
In operation, the LEDs are bright and vivid. There are six brightness modes in all: off, low, high, pulsating, WASD and arrow keys only, and WASD plus arrow keys plus modifier keys. Brightness modes can be cycled through by holding down Fn and hitting the up and down arrow keys. I prefer the low setting, since the LEDs are distracting at full power.
Since the LEDs are located in the top half of the key switches, the lighting is uneven for the handful of keys that have multiple lines of characters. Also, as with other backlit keyboards we’ve tested, the light tends to reflect off the baseplate and around the keys. It would be really swank if manufacturers could devise some kind of flocking or anti-reflective coating for keyboard baseplates to mitigate this light bleed.
Rosewill says the LEDs in the RGB80 are capable of displaying 16.8 million colors. Color settings are managed with the included software utility, but the current version only offers 228 color choices. Rosewill promises that a future version will both improve usability and allow access to all of the possible hues. I couldn’t get an ETA for this software update, so you may want to hold off on the RGB80 if access to the full stable of backlight colors is important to you. In use, though, I didn’t find having only 228 colors at hand to be that restrictive.
To set a color, you have to assign it to one of the five available gaming profiles. Those profiles can be selected by holding Fn and hitting the PF1 through PF5 keys. First, though, you have to press Fn+Pause/Break, which toggles between the keyboard’s gaming and PC modes.
It’s here that I ran into my one major beef with the RGB80. I use the Start key a lot to get around in Windows, and that key is only usable when the keyboard is in PC mode. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the backlight color can’t be changed in PC mode. It’s purple or bust. Rosewill says this was a deliberate design decision, though it’s considering my suggestion to enable backlight customization in PC mode for a future software update. It’s a shame this limitation exists, because it makes an otherwise high-end product feel clunky.
Color issues aside, the software allows for macro recording, editing, and assignment. Rosewill says a total of 50 macros can be stored across the five profiles, although I was able to exceed that number in my testing. The software also enables profile import and export if you want to share or back up your configurations. If you’ve stored a lot of customizations and macros, you can also keep track of available internal memory using the utility. The RGB80 has 512KB of storage, so there’s probably enough space available for even the heaviest macro user.
Aside from one annoyance, I’ve liked using the RGB80. At its current price of $120, this keyboard is squarely in premium territory. Is it worth it?
The RGB80’s colorful LEDs are a cool trick. I had fun idly running through all of the available colors in the software. Mechanical keyboard enthusiasts might bemoan the lack of authentic Cherry MX switches, but the Khails feel worthy of the keyboard’s price, and they never posed a problem in use. I also enjoyed the tenkeyless design, which takes up less space on my desk and doesn’t make me awkwardly reach for my mouse like a full 104-key board does.
Ugh, that modal Start key, though. If you’re a heavy user of the Start key like I am, I have to recommend that you pass on the RGB80, since you won’t be able to take full advantage of the backlight’s capabilities. Rosewill might update its driver software to address the problem, but we don’t yet know when that might happen. We’re left waiting for the advertised 16.8 million color backlight range, as well. Another concern is Rosewill’s one-year warranty. Many similarly priced mechanical keyboards offer at least two years of warranty coverage.
If you don’t care about customizable backlighting at all, or you want the finest in German key switch quality, there are plenty of Cherry MX-equipped gaming keyboards around the same price point, including Corsair’s Vengeance K70 (a TR Editor’s Choice) and Rosewill’s own Apollo. Corsair will soon be introducing two keyboards based on Cherry MX RGB switches, too: the K70 RGB and K95 RGB. Both will be costlier than the RGB80, with $170 and $190 MSRPs, respectively. From what I can see, however, Corsair’s software will be slicker, and some crazier lighting effects will be available, which could make the premium worth it.
All told, I’m not sure that the RGB LED party trick is enough to elevate the RGB80 above the rest of the mechanical keyboard pack. If you just can’t live without RGB LEDs in your mechanical keyboard, though, it’s the only way to go for now.