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Cooler Master's NovaTouch TKL keyboard reviewed

Topre switches meet Cherry MX key caps

Topre keyboards are definitely the odd ducks of the mechanical menagerie. Unlike regular mechanical offerings, their switches use a rubber membrane to provide resistance. But unlike cheap rubber-dome keyboards, Topre keyboards hide the rubber under a switch mechanism that's independent of the key cap—and the switches actuate via electrostatic capacitance, so you don't need to push down all the way for a key press to register. The end result is something that feels sturdier and more precise than vanilla rubber domes yet softer and quieter than conventional mechanical clickers.

In practice, Topre switches are surprisingly satisfying to type on. Our first encounter with them was in Topre's Type Heaven, which we wound up gracing with our Editor's Choice award. We won't rehash everything here just now, but you can check our full review for all the dirty details (and a more thorough explanation of the electrostatic capacitive switch design).

Today, we're going to look at an odd duck among odd ducks: a $200 Cooler Master keyboard that features honest-to-goodness Topre switches modified to fit Chery MX key caps. Cherry MX switches are the darlings of the mechanical keyboard world right now, and places like WASD Keyboards sell all kinds of key cap sets for them, including fully customizable ones. Cooler Master's NovaTouch TKL allows users to enjoy Topre goodness without sacrificing that customizability. Is it a good mix? Let's find out.

The first thing to note about the NovaTouch TKL is that it's a tenkeyless design. That means the numeric keypad has been lopped off to make room for the mousing area. I can't say that's a bad compromise. If you're right-handed like I am, mousing next to a full-width keyboard involves holding your arm out at an angle, which requires clenching certain shoulder and back muscles continuously. Do that every day for a decade or two, and those muscles will start to get resentful. I have the physiotherapy bills to prove it.

Using a tenkeyless keyboard does entail some sacrifices, of course. For me, some of those sacrifices were unexpected. I discovered, for example, that I use the numpad's enter, plus, and minus keys quite a lot for everything from zooming in web pages to adding line returns without moving my hand too far from the mouse. I can't do any of that with a tenkeyless keyboard. Similarly, there's no way to enter exotic characters and currency symbols with alt codes. Ah, if only Microsoft had come up with a better alternative to those.

Missing numpad aside, the NovaTouch TKL isn't devoid of bells and whistles. Thanks to a Fn key strategically placed to the right of the space bar, the F keys at the top of the keyboard have secondary functions. F1 through F4 control keystroke repetition: keystrokes can be doubled, quadrupled, or octupled, and the setting sticks until you hit Fn+F1 to disable repetition. F5 through F8 handle media playback, while F9 disables the Windows key, and F10 through F12 control audio volume.

Oddly, Cooler Master doesn't bundle any macro software with this keyboard. When we asked why, the company told us, "Macros are not really needed for the type of user we designed for," before adding, "Even pro gamers specifically cannot use any macros." I've never really bothered with macro software for my own use, and the macro tools bundled with gaming keyboards are often awkward to use, so I don't mind the omission. Other users may feel differently when they notice the NovaTouch's $200 price tag.

This is what those custom Topre switches look like. The cross-shaped "stem" is the part that's borrowed from the Cherry MX switch mechanism. Regular Topre switches, as pictured here, just have a plain gap in the same spot.

One might think Cooler Master used clones or knockoffs of true Topre switches to get the stem in there, but that's not the case. The firm told me Topre was involved in the creation of this custom design, and the NovaTouch's switches are actually made by Topre itself. These switches will be "fairly exclusive" to Cooler Master "for the foreseeable future," too.

Cooler Master unfortunately doesn't throw any alternative key caps in the box. Plenty of cheaper keyboards come with colored caps for the WASD and arrow keys, but not the NovaTouch. That seems a little stingy—again, this is a $200 keyboard we're talking about. For what it's worth, I did try to substitute caps from a couple of other Cherry MX keyboards sitting in my lab. No surprises there: Cherry caps fit neatly and work as expected on the NovaTouch. You'll just have to supply your own.

These Topre switches have the same 45-gram weighting and 4-mm travel distance as the vanilla specimens on Topre's Type Heaven. They respond similarly, with the same satisfying "thock" and subtle tactile feedback. The overall feel is a little different from that of the Type Heaven, however. On the NovaTouch, the key caps are a little taller, the front of the keyboard sits a little higher, and there's less of a height difference between the different key rows. In fact, the NovaTouch TKL resembles Cherry MX-based keyboards like Rosewill's RK-9000 series more closely in its external design. I think I prefer it to the Type Heaven, but that may be because I've logged more time on Cherry MX keyboards over the past few months.

Cooler Master says the NovaTouch has full n-key rollover, and my testing with Microsoft's ghosting demo confirms it. Even while I was mashing as many keys as I could with both hands, no key presses went unregistered.

The NovaTouch's USB cable is just shy of six feet long, and it plugs into a Micro-USB connector at the top right of the keyboard. The plug is L-shaped, which encourages the cable to poke into the mousing area somewhat (though Cooler Master says retail models will have the plug pointing the other way). The L-shaped plug also sits at a slight angle when the cable is curled upward toward the monitor. I'm sure that doesn't put the connector under unnecessary strain, but it doesn't seem like an ideal arrangement. Some of Cooler Master's other keyboards, like the QuickFire Stealth, have a better design: they place the Micro-USB connector on the underside and have various gutters for the cable to run through.

Also included with the NovaTouch TKL are a key cap extractor and a set of so-called "o-rings." The o-rings are simply little rubber grommets designed to dampen the noise the plastic key caps make when bottoming out. They fit inside the caps like so:

On regular Cherry MX keyboards, o-rings have a pretty clear effect on noise and key feel. On the NovaTouch TKL, I had a hard time noticing any difference. That may be because Topre switches already have a slightly rubbery bottom-out feel. (Remember, they use a rubber membrane to provide resistance.) Either way, taking the time to install the o-rings in every single key cap on the keyboard probably isn't worth the trouble for most folks.

Here's a shot of the underside to round things out. The rubber pads are nice and wide, and since the keyboard is fairly heavy, at about 2 lbs, they prevent any sliding under normal conditions. I should mention that the bottoms of the collapsible feet are also rubber-covered, which isn't the case on all keyboards. The NovaTouch TKL should be stable even with its rear end in the air.