Mechanical keyboards were, for a while, an exotic talisman for the hardest of hardcore gamers and typists. These days, though, we're awash in them. It's hard to tell one from another. Sometimes they stand out with unique styling, while others offer endless customization through software. Multicolored LEDs hidden beneath keys was once a novel feature, as well. How does another mechanical keyboard set itself apart these days?
For PC component and peripheral manufacturer Zalman, it's about going back to basics. The RGB LED-backlit ZM-K900M offers many of the essential features we see on so many modern mechanical keyboards, but its designers resisted the urge to gird it with anything more than raw keyboarding muscle. Where other keyboards offer complex software suites to light up their devices—often of questionable functionality—Zalman's latest offering puts all those controls on the keyboard itself. Where a secondary Windows key rests on many keyboard, the K900M has an unassuming Fn button that unlocks a whole arsenal of lighting options and secondary functions.
Without a software interface to explore, I wondered going into this review whether learning the functions of this keyboard would be straightforward, or whether it would feel more like I was learning to pilot an airplane. Before we get to those special features, though, let's stop and talk about the build quality of the ZM-K900M for a moment.
Zalman chose a pretty simple look and feel for this particular plank. Instead of slapping lots of extra plastic on the sides to make it look like a sci-fi prop, the company gives us a simple and sturdy rectangle with exactly 104 keys on it. Until you plug it in, the K900M looks exactly like the keyboard you imagine when someone says the word. The board feels sturdy and weighs about as much as other similarly-styled mechanical keyboards in my stable. The board can be plugged in through USB or with an included PS/2 adapter, and a cable routing guide on the bottom lets you choose where the 5.6' (1.7m) cable exits for extra-clean setups.
While most other boards these days use Cherry MX mechanical switches under their keycaps, Zalman has chosen to go with Kailh switches. Kailhs use the same color-coding scheme as Cherry MX clickers, and the board Zalman sent uses Kailh Blue switches. These switches offer a similar sound and feel to Cherry MX Blues. I don't have an MX Blue keyboard available to compare directly, but some users report that Kailh switches require an extra 10-15 grams of force to register.
Whether or not that difference matters to you is entirely up to personal preference, but the Kailh switches felt fine under my fingers and didn't hinder my typing or gaming abilities. I only needed a short adjustment period as I switched from Logitech's Romer-G switches to some Cherry MX Red switches and then to the K900M's Kailh Blue switches.
Some users of Kailh switches have expressed concerns over their durability, but that's hard to evaluate over a couple weeks of use. For what it's worth, Editor-in-Chief Jeff Kampman says the Kailh Blue switches in the Rosewill RGB80 he reviewed a while back are still going strong after over two years of daily use. That's reassuring news.
From what we've seen of the ZM-K900M so far, you're probably thinking it's a standard mechanical keyboard. It's when we start to customize this beast that things get interesting. Alongside the expected numbers and letters that dot a normal set of keycaps, many of the keys on the K900M have another label, like "K-MASK" and "EQ," that hint at a secondary function for the key. Because there's no software interface accompanying the K900M, there is an undeniable learning curve associated with wrangling its many tweakable options, but it's not one that's terribly difficult to overcome. A few of Zalman's official Youtube videos and the small manual included in the box had me feeling confident with the board before too long. Mostly. Let's explore Zalman's special sauce inside the ZM-K900M now.