Cooler Master’s NovaTouch TKL keyboard reviewed

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.

 

Conclusions

I’ve been using the NovaTouch TKL as my daily driver for about two weeks now. I expect to continue after this review goes up.

The Topre switches don’t have the crispness or precision of the Cherry MX browns, which are my favorite pure mechanical switches, but they’re quieter and, in a way, more satisfying to use—both for typing and gaming. Having to live without a numpad is a little weird at first, and I still miss the absent keys, but the ergonomic benefits of moving the mousing area three inches to the left can’t be overstated. Tenkeyless keyboards make right-handed mousing substantially more comfortable.

As a keyboard, then, the NovaTouch TKL is hard to fault. As a $200 product in a pretty crowded market… well, it’s kind of another story.

Die-hard Topre fans may be reluctant to shell out 200 bucks for anything less than Topre’s own Realforce 87U, which is made in Japan with higher-quality PBT key caps and distributed weighting across its alphanumeric keys. Yes, the NovaTouch does have authentic Topre switches, and it does have some features the Realforce lacks, like those handy Fn+F-key shortcuts and support for Cherry key caps. Cooler Master also says it offers superior after-sales support. Still, the “made in China” label and awkward Micro-USB connector may steer some keyboard geeks toward the home-brewed Topre offering.

Others may eschew the NovaTouch for different reasons. They might, for example, come across Cooler Master’s own QuickFire Rapid, which costs $89.99 and has a similar design with Cherry MX switches instead of Topre ones. Those people might ask, “Why would I pay $200 for the NovaTouch? Even with a full set of custom key caps and o-rings, the QuickFire Rapid is way cheaper.”

I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer. The NovaTouch is obviously a fine option for Topre fans who want to use third-party key caps, but outside that niche, it’s difficult to recommend unequivocally.

In the end, all I can say is this: just go out and try one. This keyboard has a very unique key feel that makes it palpably different from both Topre’s own keyboards and cheaper Cherry MX-based solutions. You might hate it and think it’s not worth the money, or you might fall in love and decide you can’t live with anything else. I’m leaning more toward option B myself—but either way, I can’t recommend forking over that $200 unless you’re really, really sure you’re making the right choice.

Comments closed
    • Airmantharp
    • 5 years ago

    So, a full-width board with white per-key backlighting would be ~US$300- I’ll keep my Max Keyboards version with MX Browns and o-rings pre-installed for half that :).

    • ronch
    • 5 years ago

    I’d much rather have the numpad than the keys between the Enter key and numpad, which I never use.

    • FuturePastNow
    • 5 years ago

    I like the design and don’t need the numpad at home (need it at work, though). But… $200 is more than I’m willing to spend on a video card. I bet this thing has the profit margin of a fountain drink.

    • oldog
    • 5 years ago

    For me as a leftie a “tenkeyless” design is a no go zone for gaming.

    • hansmuff
    • 5 years ago

    The “Made in China” may not hold much weight. Leopold’s FC660C/EG (topre switches and PBT caps) is “Made in China” and I can state from my own experience that the build quality is outstanding.

    Also, the review hints at the Topre Type Heaven, which is a full-size but has Topre switches on the cheap-ish side. Last I saw them, they were about $140 in the US when I last saw them listed on EK, but it seems EK has removed them from stock 🙁 I can’t find them on their site anymore.

      • mno
      • 5 years ago

      Supposedly the PCB and switches are produced by Topre in Japan, with Cooler Master handling assembly in China.

    • Waco
    • 5 years ago

    The wife has one of these (for review purposes) and she won’t let me have it. That’s how comfortable it is!

    • HisDivineOrder
    • 5 years ago

    Should have titled this one:

    Revenge of the Rubber Domes.

    • anotherengineer
    • 5 years ago

    Cyril’s keyboard reviews are great.

    Still waiting on pins and needles for him to do one with cherry clears!!
    [url<]http://www.wasdkeyboards.com/index.php/products/code-keyboard/code-87-key-mechanical-keyboard.html[/url<] C'mon Cyril make the request to them for a review sample 🙂

      • Ethyriel
      • 5 years ago

      I just picked one of those up yesterday, should be here tomorrow. It was a tough choice between it and the Type Heaven.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 5 years ago

    Why do mech switch keyboards seem to not be able to work if you put dedicated media keys on them???

    • EndlessWaves
    • 5 years ago

    Cherry keycaps compatible mid-activation rubber dome switches? It’s a nice design and I’m not surprised Cooler Master revived it, the original keyboards that used it was pretty popular too. Perhaps most famously the Gateway Anykey. I have always found these sorts of good rubber dome switches slightly preferably to hard plastic keyswitches.

    Removing keys from the right side of the keyboard is a long overdue change. However, while I can see the attraction of shrinking the keyboard, I wish more models would offer the option to have the keys on the left hand side instead. I have been using such a model (marketed as a left handed keyboard) for the last few years and I find it a much more sensible design. Good ergonomics for right hand mouse users with no loss of functionality at the price of a short period of adjustment. Mine has the arrow keys on the left too, and having tried tenkeyless-sized keyboards I prefer that as well.

    • trackerben
    • 5 years ago

    I’ve been using a QuickFire Rapid (original) for more than a year and the feel and quality has been very satisfying. This Topre version would likely be even better, but whether it would be worth $100+ more is the question.

    • just brew it!
    • 5 years ago

    Interesting concept, and I like the minimalist design. However, I can’t really see shelling out $200 for a keyboard.

    Always nice to see innovation though.

    • Anovoca
    • 5 years ago

    Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or… well, like Brian, for example, has thirty seven pieces of flair, okay. And a terrific smile.

    Look, CoolerMaster, we want you to express yourself, okay? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, okay? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?

    • MarkG509
    • 5 years ago

    Cryil, thanks for another great review.

    But, what I need is a review (or a perhaps a “Dear Abby” article) that tells me how to convince the SO that keyboards are like shoes. I’m gearing up to buy a Topre-based keyboard, and maybe this is the one, but I’ve got 2 Cherry-based keyboards in the closet, while I type this on a [b<]silent[/b<] scissor-based Logitech.

      • morphine
      • 5 years ago

      Keyboards in the closet?

      What you need is to make up your darn mind. Much like most of us tend to tell our SOs when they’re undecided about where to go for dinner 😉

        • MarkG509
        • 5 years ago

        It’s no longer ‘my’ mind.

    • kureshii
    • 5 years ago

    Almost thinking of getting one just for microUSB (instead of the miniUSB that almost all other keyboards use; I’ve been slowly moving over to microUSB and don’t wish to have to get microUSB adapters again). But I’m too used to the media keys and volume wheel on my Corsair K70, I think.

      • CMRajiv
      • 5 years ago

      The beauty of the detachable cord for our products is that you can swap between the NovaTouch and our other keyboards (like the QuickFire Rapid-i which also uses microUSB). The NovaTouch is really for the no-frills keyboard user looking for a better typing experience, but we understand there is a preference for everyone. We’ll keep your comments in mind for future models!

        • kureshii
        • 5 years ago

        I definitely understand the preference for no-frills keyboards; I used to be such a user myself. But these days if I want no-frills keyboards my options are many; I have a Cherry G80 at home, a Das Keyboard at work, of course the K70 for my own desktop, vacillating between a Topre Type Heaven and a NovaTouch at the moment. Apart from the K70, I consider all of these “no-frills” keyboards, even if the Das does have a USB hub in the side.

        The issue is that if I’m looking for mechanical keyboards *with* frills (and I don’t just mean LED backlighting, programmable or otherwise)–actual media keys (and not just Fn-activated function keys), volume wheel, a USB hub, etc–my options are practically countable [Gigabyte Aivia Osmium, Corsair K70/K95, both of which I’ve tried]. Not going to defend my preferences for media keys etc here, that’s another discussion for another thread.

        Why does everyone want to compete in the no-frills segment, but not in the useful-frills segment? I don’t have any market insight into this, but is there such a lack of demand for these features in the mechanical keyboard market that they’re simply not feasible? Sales for the K70 certainly don’t seem to suffer for those extra frills, and they even manage to make it happen at quite a reasonable price. I have no qualms paying more for useful features.

        So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s cool that you’re making yet-another-no-frills-keyboard (for users who are looking for a better typing experience–which is pretty much all users, in my experience–hands up, those of you who *aren’t* looking for a better typing experience), but we already have hundreds of those (perhaps even thousands if you include all the cheap Chinese and Korean knockoffs). Maybe not with Topre capacitive switches, so I suppose there are redeeming qualities. But what would be really nice would be to see more companies trying to go beyond no-frills keyboards–we have plenty enough of those already.

    • floodo1
    • 5 years ago

    nice review 🙂

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