Big changes are afoot at Corsair. The company just launched its new Corsair Gaming division, which is focused on making peripherals like mice, keyboards, and headsets tailored to the specific needs of elite PC gamers.
To mark the launch of this new division, the firm introduced one of its first Corsair Gaming products, the K70 RGB. With Corsair-exclusive Cherry MX RGB LED key switches and a very sophisticated backlight controller onboard, the K70 RGB is the flashiest keyboard in the arena by far. Is it king of the hill, or just a pretender to the throne? I’m going to get some actions per minute under my fingers to find out.
As its name would suggest, the K70 RGB is based on Corsair’s tried-and-true Vengeance K70. (With the advent of the Corsair Gaming brand, however, the Vengeance moniker is no more.) The bones of these two keyboards are almost identical, aside from their backlights and badging. Geoff reviewed the K70 back in June, so I’m not going to bore you by repeating his work. Geoff found the regular K70 worthy of a TR Editor’s Choice award, and I find no reason to dispute his conclusions. The fit and finish of the K70 RGB is impressive, and I would expect nothing less, given that it’s priced at $169.99.
The K70 RGB I’m testing today is equipped with Cherry MX RGB red switches under every key. These switches are functionally identical to the non-RGB Cherry MX reds. If you’re not familiar with the various Cherry MX flavors, Cyril explained the lineup in his review of the Rosewill RK-9000.
I personally prefer the tactile feedback of the blue and brown switches, but the reds do have some things to recommend them: they’re significantly quieter than other mechanical key switches, and their light weighting makes it easy to deliver rapid-fire repeated keystrokes with ease. Corsair isn’t leaving the tactile faithful out in the cold, though. The K70 RGB will be available with blue and brown MX RGB switches, as well.
Despite the $40 premium over the regular K70, the K70 RGB does away with some of the extras that were included with its more reserved sibling. There’s no longer a USB pass-through on the keyboard itself, and the contoured WASD and arrow keys that came with the regular K70 are nowhere to be found. Corsair still includes a padded wrist rest that can be attached to the front edge of the keyboard, if that’s your thing. I usually leave these wrist rests in the box. I appreciate the risers on the front edge of the K70, though, since they encourage a better wrist position while typing. I’ve never seen these front risers on another gaming keyboard. Kudos, Corsair.
Light ’em up
The headline feature of the K70 RGB is the RGB LED under each key switch. Unlike the Rosewill RGB80 that I reviewed earlier this year, the K70’s LEDs are mounted to the circuit board underneath each switch. Since the switches have clear housings, they double as diffusers.
While this setup might make for a more even backlight in theory, I found that the diffuser didn’t do much for keys with multiple rows of characters. The backlight LEDs are still located near the top of each switch, so there’s still a brightness gradient from top to bottom. The fascia-less upper panel of the K70 RGB allows the clear housings of the switches to show, which looks great, but the design also allows for significant backlight bleed. I didn’t find this bleed objectionable, but it might be annoying for others.
I also need to note one defect with my sample of the K70 RGB. The LED under the Enter key had a flaky red channel, which caused any color that used red as part of its output to display incorrectly from time to time. I was able to fix the problem by removing the keycap and pressing down on the key switch, however, and another K70 RGB sample Cyril received had no such issues. Corsair tells us problems like this one are covered under the K70 RGB’s two-year warranty.
Quibbles aside, the backlight technology in the K70 RGB is the most sophisticated that I’ve ever seen. For a start, each key can display any of 16.8 million colors, and this range of colors isn’t hampered by the included software, unlike with the RGB80. What’s more, Corsair has designed the board around a Panasonic display controller chip. Each key can have its color (though not its brightness) set individually. The display controller also supports sweeping gradient, fade, and ripple effects, which can be combined to create some genuinely jaw-dropping lighting. Other than per-key brightness controls, the only limits to the K70 RGB’s customizability are the number of keys on hand and the owner’s imagination.
Corsair has an exclusive agreement to distribute Cherry MX RGB switches for the moment, so if you want German-made rave lighting under your fingers, the Corsair Gaming K65 RGB, K70 RGB, and K95 RGB are your only ways to get there. The K65 RGB is a Best Buy exclusive in the United States, while the K70 RGB and K95 RGB are more broadly available.
Is any of this backlight technology useful? That’s debatable. Is it really, really cool? Absolutely. Let’s plug in the K70 RGB and see what it can do.
I tend to think of keyboards as plug-and-play, set-and-forget devices, but the K70 RGB requires more care and feeding than the average peripheral.
First off, the Corsair Utility Engine (CUE) software recommended that I update the keyboard’s firmware when I plugged in the K70 RGB for the first time. Updating the firmware, according to CUE, requires the keyboard to be plugged into a pair of USB 2.0 ports. This post on Corsair’s official forums further suggests that the K70 RGB’s two USB plugs should be inserted into USB 2.0 ports in a specific order: the arrow-symbol-emblazoned one first, and the keyboard-emblazoned one second.
I’m hoping the USB 2.0 requirement is just a safety measure and not an essential part of the firmware update process, since the keyboards I own tend to outlive the PCs to which they’re attached. My Asus Z97-A motherboard still has two USB 2.0 ports, but I can’t help but think of the time when USB 2.0 will be phased out entirely.
Thankfully, USB port selection only seems to matter when updating firmware. The forum post above states that the K70 RGB works fine with USB 3.0 in normal operation, and I found that to be the case. When the K70 RGB is plugged into a USB 3.0 port, Corsair says that only the USB plug with the keyboard symbol needs to be used.
Whew. That’s a lot of words about a process that’s usually 100% mindless. Armed with the above information, I dutifully plugged the K70 RGB into the proper ports, downloaded the appropriate firmware update from Corsair’s website, and applied it using CUE. With all of that out of the way, I was hoping to finally have some fun with the world of possibilities that the backlight promised.
Software, configuration, and the blinkenlights
I find that the user experience of a product that’s as configurable as the K70 RGB tends to be inseparable from the quality of the included software. Corsair’s CUE utility manages every aspect of the K70 RGB’s customizable features, from lighting effects to macros (or “actions,” as they’re known in CUE lingo). While I found the CUE utility to be quite powerful once I got my head around it, the learning curve was extremely steep.
From the moment I unboxed the K70 RGB, I wanted to play around with the backlight settings. To my surprise, I couldn’t even manage to change the backlight color, much less enable the fancy built-in lighting effects with any fluency. After downloading the 142-page user manual, I didn’t feel quite so bad about my inability to figure things out.
Yes, you read that right: the manual is 142 pages long.
To untangle the hierarchical structure of foreground lighting, background lighting, built-in dynamic lighting effects, and their interactions, studying this lengthy document is essential. Corsair also has a few configuration guides for RGB LED keyboards on its YouTube channel, which help to make sense of things.
After a while, I was able to customize effects with aplomb—but it was a long road to get there. Buyers of the K70 RGB should plan on investing a good chunk of time to really get a feel for the CUE software.
As might be expected of a 1.0 release, CUE has some rough edges. Simple actions, like clearing lighting assignments from keys, didn’t always work. Sometimes, the software seemed to lose touch with the keyboard, which forced me to restart CUE or reconnect the keyboard several times. Some of my backlight settings had to be applied multiple times before they took. Finally, CUE didn’t seem to realize that I had the most current firmware installed, so it constantly nagged me to perform the update again. Hopefully, Corsair is refining CUE for its next version.
I also expected to find at least a couple of preconfigured lighting profiles to show off the capabilities of the backlight, but no such luck. CUE is largely a blank slate out of the box. The software can import or export profiles, though, and Corsair has set up a dedicated forum for owners of its RGB keyboards to share their profiles. A poster there, SmSumodude20, took great pains to replicate the rainbow wave effect that Corsair used to demonstrate the K70 RGB at CES. Whoever you are, SmSumodude20, thank you for your effort in making this profile. My review wouldn’t be nearly as colorful without it. Here’s a look at the insane settings necessary to produce such an effect:
Unfortunately, because profile import and export is an all-or-nothing affair, I ended up with a confusing mess of other people’s test lighting effects and macros alongside my own. The overall experience felt like having someone else’s garbage dumped on my front porch, and it made finding my own macros and lighting more difficult. A more selective way to import and export profile data would have been nice.
With a couple of community-sourced profiles loaded into CUE, I finally got a taste of what the K70 RGB is capable of. It’s impossible to show off the full glory of this keyboard with photos alone, so here’s a video:
Super cool, huh? I only wish that unleashing the full potential of this thing was a bit easier.
In addition to lighting management, CUE offers comprehensive key macro programming features, which I didn’t dive into too deeply. If you’re a heavy user of macros, CUE should offer all of the tools necessary. In addition to macro programming, CUE can automatically load different profiles upon the launch of specific applications, so it’s practical to set up lighting and macro layouts for each of your favorite games.
If that’s not enough room for customization, each profile can have a number of sub-modes assigned, which Corsair suggests for use with games that have multiple character classes, like League of Legends or Team Fortress 2. There’s no dedicated button for profile or mode switching, though. Instead, to use these features, owners will have to reserve at least one key for mode switching.
All told, CUE is just OK. It’s a very powerful and flexible tool, but I had to spend some time with the very thorough manual to figure it out, and I came across some rough edges in the current release. I really wish Corsair had included some preconfigured profiles, too, both as a reference point and as a kind of easy mode for those who aren’t inclined to spend hours tweaking. Right out of the box, CUE shows off almost none of the K70 RGB’s potential, and that’s a real shame.
There’s been a lot of buzz around the K70 RGB since its unveiling at CES. It might even be the most anticipated keyboard of the year. Was it worth the wait?
It feels weird to write this sentence, but the K70 RGB has the most processing power of any input device I’ve ever used, and it puts that power to good use. With the right lighting profiles, the slickness of this keyboard is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Want to type on a flowing rainbow stream or have each key-press trigger a ripple of color across the entire keyboard? The K70 RGB can do all of that and more. The creative possibilities afforded by the Panasonic display controller and the included software seem almost limitless. Gamers looking to stand out at the next International Dota 2 Championships—or even when fragging n00bs at home—will love the K70 RGB. Even to my jaded tech-reviewer heart, this keyboard is really cool. With all of that creative freedom beckoning, I was eager to make the backlight dance.
The CUE software is a real headache to use, though. What’s worse, Corsair didn’t even include any preconfigured profiles for users who don’t want to spend hours programming the K70 RGB. Given the $170 asking price, these problems are especially hard to overlook. It’s nice that Corsair has a community forum for those who want to share their lighting profiles, but I was expecting much stronger first-party support from the company. I also hope that the flaky LED under the Enter key on my K70 RGB is a fluke and not a broader indicator of quality. Any defects on an ultra-premium keyboard like this really rankle, even if they are covered under warranty.
As a keyboard, the K70 RGB excellent. Geoff found the original K70 worthy of our Editor’s Choice award, and I was similarly impressed with the RGB variant. The chassis is rock-solid, and while I don’t care for the Cherry MX red switches in this particular model, Corsair has MX blue and brown versions of the K70 RGB in the pipeline.
As an integrated hardware-software product, however, the K70 RGB stumbles a bit. For mere mortals like me, wrangling with the CUE software will likely require an evening with the lengthy owner’s manual. That’s a significant investment of time for what is, in the end, a keyboard.
Thankfully, software is malleable. Perhaps Corsair could make CUE smoother and more intuitive with future updates. At the very least, the company could roll some of the best community-made lighting profiles into the application. That way, those without the time or inclination to dive deep into CUE could still sit back, relax, and enjoy the blinking lights.