In recent years, the mechanical keyboard market has been plagued by the principle of form over function. Quality, usability, and durability have been replaced by flashy RGB LEDs and stealth-fighter angles. Many recent mechanical keyboards have made this unfortunate comprise. Others strike a balance and feature the best of both worlds, but having it all can come with a hefty price tag. SteelSeries' response is the Apex M500: an affordable keyboard that goes for understated quality while still offering a bit of bling.
The Apex M500 is built on a pretty standard black keyboard chassis made of thick, sturdy plastic. The keycaps also have a typical look and build, with no odd fonts or textured tops. Underneath the keycaps rest blue LEDs that together create a vibrant blue glow. Other than the LEDs, there isn't anything visually remarkable about the Apex M500, and even the LEDs aren't too attention-grabbing. It certainly possesses a more refined look than many other keyboards on the market. The look is also backed up by a durable build. I've used the Apex M500 for a number of months now, and it's been incredibly dependable through it all.
The refined, conservative look of the Apex 500 mostly comes from the plastic lip that extends just above the bottom of the keycaps, hiding the switches from view. The other common chassis design, typical of Corsair keyboards, has no lip at all, which makes the keys look like they're floating over the keyboard. The "floating keys" design both looks fancier and is easier to clean, but wouldn't quite fit with the aesthetic of the Apex M500. Going with the norm here is a safe choice on the part of SteelSeries and shouldn't be a deal breaker for most people.
The top of the keyboard offers an additional level of utility. While holding down the Fn key, the F5 through F12 keys act as illumination, media, and audio controls. There are five different levels of true-blue illumination, including the off state. Media and audio controls have become a standard, in one form or another, on mechanical gaming keyboards recently. In fact, I've become so accustomed to using these controls that I'm at a loss if I use a keyboard without them.
With a few keycaps removed, we can inspect the M500's guts. Most Immediately noticeable are the brightly-molded Cherry MX Red switches jutting upward. The Apex M500 is available with either MX Red or MX Blue switches, but surprisingly not MX Browns, a popular choice among gamers who want the bump of Blues without the click. For those unfamiliar with the various Cherry switch types, refer to our switch guide.
Our test sample's MX Red switches aren't my favorite, but that doesn't mean they aren't of high quality. I tested the keyboard with a large number of games, but I've recently put a substantial number of hours into Titanfall 2. It has incredibly fast-paced gameplay and a high-speed movement system that requires large amounts of quick adjustments and actions from the keyboard. Such gameplay is quite demanding for a keyboard, but the Apex M500 kept up wonderfully. My movement and reactions felt crisp and snappy, with no hiccups, friction, or unexpected resistance from the switches or keycaps. My experience while typing was equally as positive, so the Apex M500 gets a big green checkmark in the functionality department.
Besides the switches, the LEDs are also nestled under the keycaps, resting comfortably within the tops of the switch housings. This is a slightly older design for backlit Cherry MX boards. Many keyboards now have clear switch housings with LEDs positioned underneath the housings. While the clear switch housings might be stylish, the black housings and exposed LEDs on the Apex M500 work fine. Just don't expect as even a diffusion of light as more recent Cherry switches.
The final thing under the keycaps worth mentioning is the blue baseplate. It might help display a consistent blue glow across the keyboard, and it stays true to the subtle blue theme, but it's important to note that even with the LEDs off, a slight bit of blue will be visible in the spaces between the keys. This minor blue accent might spoil the old-school look for some, but it's hardly noticeable and isn't overly flashy by a long shot.
The back of the board is riddled with grooves and indents, three of which are for cable management. The cable can be routed through the grooves to come out the back of the keyboard at the most optimal position. This isn't a ground-breaking feature, but it's a nice addition.
At opposite ends of the back of the keyboard sit two flip-up stands with single positions. These feet can be used to prop up the back of the keyboard for a bit of a slant, for those who want it. They aren't super-heavy-duty, but they get the job done.
The last bit of the physical keyboard to cover is the cable. The Apex M500 doesn't have any USB or audio pass-throughs. Such pass-throughs can be nice, but they usually require extra cables that can quickly contribute to a messy desk. The Apex M500 keeps it simple with a lone, rubber cable leading to a plain old USB connector.
Everything seems to have extra software to go with it these days, but thankfully the Apex M500 software is completely optional. Everything works perfectly fine without the software, including the illumination, media, and audio controls. However, for those who want a bit more customizability, the SteelSeries software is straightforward and easy to use. A little tutorial even pops up when the software is first opened to help users along, a welcome touch.
All the LEDs are blue, so there are no crazy lighting settings for the M500: just a choice between static and "breathing" modes. Oddly, though, the illumination setting inside the software only has four illumination levels while the illumination controls on the keyboard have five. The illumination controls on the keyboard itself seem to override those in the software when they're used. That isn't a huge problem in practice, but it's a bit weird. The Key Customization area of the software offers a variety of options to play with, from macros to variable activation settings and timing. Overall, the software is quite solid. It's simple, offers a number of options, and doesn't get in the way.
SteelSeries is targeting a slightly different market with its Apex M500 than many other gaming keyboard manufacturers are right now. Functionality is the main focus of this keyboard, and it hits that mark spot-on. The chassis, keycaps, switches, and lighting all perform almost flawlessly.
Honestly, I don't have many complaints about this keyboard. The only issue it seems to have is the clash between the software and on-board illumination controls, which isn't much of a problem at all. I could criticize it for not quite keeping up with the new trends in gaming keyboards, but that's part of the deal. It may be a bit old fashioned, but it comes with a $100 price tag to make up for it, which is actually fairly cheap for mechanical gaming keyboards. My only real complaint is that the M500 is only available with Cherry MX Red and MX Blue switches. Folks who want the tactile feel of MX Browns will have to look elsewhere.
Everything else about this board is rock-solid. It's durable, simple, and reliable. In a world of $180 RGB keyboards covered with stealth-fighter accents and filled with enough processing power to land on the Moon, the clean-and-simple SteelSeries Apex M500 is a solid choice for gamers and typists alike who want a high-quality, mechanical keyboard without a load of bells and whistles. I'm giving this keyboard a TR Recommended award as a great option for those who prefer Red and Blue switches. Hopefully SteelSeries will release a version with Brown switches at some point in the near future.