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.
Putting the Z-Machine to work
Before we dive deep into the ZM-K900M’s tweaking options, it’s worth exploring the board’s baked-in special functions a bit. By default, the F-keys lining the top of the K900M are linked to Windows defaults applications. For example, F1 brings up your default browser, while F4 minimizes all your windows. The F keys also offer audio muting and volume controls. but it seems Zalman couldn’t find room for media playback keys, unfortunately. I didn’t have a chance to use the board with Linux or macOS, but if you’re using one of those operating systems as a daily driver, system-default keys are worth considering when selecting this keyboard. Most of the functions of the board should work fine regardless of your choice of operating system.
Using most of the custom functions on the keyboard came pretty naturally, and many of them are genuinely useful. Fn+Ctrl, for example, locks the entire keyboard. Those of us with cats (or large lizards, or birds, or small children) could probably make daily use of this feature, and it could even deter someone from using your computer so long as they don’t think to plug in a secondary keyboard. Fn+Windows Key disables the Windows key, a feature gamers should appreciate. Some of these features are table stakes these days, but the fact that the K900M includes them bolsters its gaming cred.
As an RGB LED keyboard without software, the ZM-K900M has to wrangle a ton of settings through various key combinations. It’s worth heading over to Zalman’s product page for the board to learn everything it can do. I was able to manipulate the lighting extensively using these controls, creating both static lighting with custom layouts and flashier effects. Using the board’s four profiles, I was able to lock in some different lighting layouts for games I play that I could jump back to at any time. One downside of the K900M’s laser focus on moving as much functionality into its guts as possible is that only a limited range of its theoretical 16.8 million colors are available through its interface, but I think there’s still enough color choices on offer to satisfy anyone’s tastes. All the colors available are quite vivid and pleasing to the eye, as well.
Aside from the usual waves of color and pulsating lighting, the board offers a couple notable lighting effects of its own. The Speed Meter function will light the keyboard up based on your typing speed, so that you know exactly when your power level hits 9000. A minor error that stuck out to me, though: the key that triggers this mode is emblazoned with the words “SPEED MATER.” No, that’s not a typo, and no, it doesn’t expediently pair you with a spouse or have anything to do with Pixar’s Cars.
Again, this is a sturdy, functional keyboard, but little things like this remind you that this keyboard may not have gotten as much QC attention during its conception as other boards might. I noticed the mistake immediately, and it worried me about what I was getting into before I even laid my fingers on the keys. Thankfully, Zalman’s proofing mistake didn’t prove indicative of the overall quality of the board, and the company says it’s corrected the issue on shipping K900Ms. On the off chance you get a board with this issue, Zalman will send you a key cap with the proper label if you contact its customer service department.
Another notable function of the board is the EQ key. Somewhere on the keyboard, there’s apparently a microphone hidden away. Enable EQ mode and set your phone down next to it, and the keyboard will start lighting up in time with the music. It’s a unique feature, and it looks pretty cool. I wish Zalman had paired this feature with quieter switches, though. Enabling EQ mode and typing away will make the board flash in your eyes constantly.
If you’d rather not set up your own custom lighting arrangement, Zalman’s programmers went to the trouble of creating a whole list of pre-defined lighting schemes you can rotate through, designed to match game genres and popular game layouts. Options like MOBA, FPS, Starcraft II, and League of Legends are all available. Even if these options don’t map perfectly to a particular game, they might serve as inspiration for building a custom profile of one’s own.
Like many other gaming keyboards these days, the ZM-K900M boasts an impressive range of macro functions. Zalman lets users assign macros to eight different keys (marked ZM1 through ZM8) next to the Enter and Shift keys on the right side of the board. These keys operate in what Zalman calls “timing mode,” meaning they’ll play back a sequence of key presses exactly as it’s entered while macro recording is active. Holding down Fn plus any of these keys for three seconds starts recording, while pressing Fn again stops recording. Zalman also offers built-in keys for inserting left-click, middle-click, and right-click actions on the Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause keys, respectively, and the speed at which macros play back can be adjusted with the Fn key plus the left and right arrow keys.
On top of these functions, the K900M has a dedicated “Auto” key that will repeat a single key for as long as it’s active. Pressing Fn plus Auto stops the macro. “Loop” acts like another ZMn key, but instead of playing a macro once, it’ll repeat the sequence exactly as entered until the user types Fn plus Loop. If you’re a macro addict, the ZM-K900M can accommodate a lot of presets, but some might find its eight-key limit, well, limiting. Still, the board’s macro functionality should be robust enough for most.
The intital impression I got with the ZM-K900M was that Zalman was trying to offer something unique in the crowded mechanical keyboard market by streamlining the often-complex user experience that accompanies some of these boards. For the most part, it works. There’s a definite learning curve to this board’s all-onboard controls, but the company’s extensive online documentation helps in getting over those hurdles, and folks who take the time to master its tricks will be rewarded with a board that can be set up to please even the most demanding user.
The biggest caveat I’d offer, aside from the unsightly SPEED MATER goof we noted in our overview of the K900M’s programmable functions, is that the extensive set of key labels required to navigate the K900M’s layout all but require that you stick with Zalman’s included caps. If you slap custom keycaps on this thing, it seems like it would be virtually unusable thanks to all the custom settings they control.
Most importantly, though, Zalman started with a solid foundation when it built the incredibly tweakable K900M. Those who don’t delve into this board’s extra functions will still get a solid mechanical keyboard with pleasant lighting and an appealing price tag. Even next to the already-affordable Rosewill RK-900V2 RGB we recently reviewed, the ZM-K900M’s $100 sticker is quite the compelling value for an all-mechanical board bedazzled with RGB LEDs. If you can go without Cherry switches, the K900M seems like a great way to get into the world of multicolored mechanical keyboards for a relatively affordable price tag, and that’s the perfect recipe for us to call it TR Recommended.