EpicGear’s Defiant modular gaming keyboard reviewed

Reviewing keyboards is tricky business. Every time I sit down to review a keyboard, my first impulse is to write “well, it’s a keyboard,” and call it done. Of course, for the very same reason, keyboard manufacturers work hard to make their products stand out from the crowd. Whether through aggressive styling, unusual form factors, or unique features, every premium keyboard has something that sets it apart.

When EpicGear offered to let me review its Defiant keyboard alongside the Morpha X mouse, I was actually pretty excited by the prospect because the Defiant really does have something pretty unique. Like the Morpha X, EpicGear calls the Defiant “fully modular”. Forget about the swappable key caps that every other keyboard has. The Defiant’s keyswitches themselves are socketed. (Of course, the keycaps are removable, too.)

The company refers to the socketed keyswitch design as MMS, which apparently stands for “Modular Matrix Structure”. The Defiant doesn’t include any extra switches in the box, but EpicGear helpfully sent along a 24-pack of MMS switches for me to play with the feature. EpicGear says the MMS design is proprietary, and while they superficially resemble Cherry MX clickers, the company claims the internal design is pretty different. In any case, I’ll talk a little more about the MMS switches in a bit.

Looking at the Defiant, it has a relatively sedate appearance aside from the bright orange EpicGear accent at the top. It matches the Morpha X mouse‘s understated looks nicely. The base of the keyboard is dark grey plastic, but on top of that rests a metal plate that the MMS keyswitches actually snap into. I think the overall package looks great, but of course there’s no accounting for taste.

The build quality of the keyboard itself seems to be pretty high. However, the key caps could use a better finish. I am, admittedly, pretty hard on a keyboard. Even so, I haven’t even had the Defiant a whole month, yet three keys are already showing the backlight through parts of the keycap that they shouldn’t. In particular, the backquote key was missing some of its coating on the very first day. This is a purely aesthetic issue—I certainly don’t care myself—but it does suggest the keycap finish isn’t as durable as it could be.

The keys themselves are each individually backlit by a single white LED. You can choose from five lighting styles and five intensity levels (including “off”), or you can set up four profiles for per-key lighting. I apologize for not showing you a picture of what the keyboard looks like all lit up, but I don’t have the photo equipment nor facilities to take such a picture. Suffice it to say that the Defiant defies the RGB LED backlighting trend that’s taken the gaming world by storm of late.

Despite the lack of RGB diodes, EpicGear does offer a decidedly old-school way to change the backlighting color: by replacing the translucent plastic lightbar in the casing of each MMS keyswitch. Going that route obviates the need for RGB LEDs and simplifies the design of the keyboard, so it’s not as silly as it sounds. Still, it does preclude users from creating a dynamically-swirling mass of colors on their keyboards. It also is a lot of tedious work swapping out the light bars on each and every key.

Unlike a lot of gerbils, I like RGB LED lighting, but I certainly appreciate that it’s purely a novelty feature. The white LED lighting on the Defiant serves the utilitarian purpose of keyboard backlighting—that is, letting you find the keyboard in the dark—just fine. My one gripe with the key backlighting is that there is one key which will never be lit even when in “fully lit” mode.

Using the Fn key and the PgUp or PgDn keys, you can select whether the Defiant is in six-key rollover mode or n-key rollover mode. Selecting a mode lights the key that represents the active rollover mode, while the other mode key stays dark. This leaves an awkward dark spot on that side of the keyboard. I asked EpicGear about it, and the company replied that the keyboard is working as intended. I suppose for some folks that would be no big deal. For me, it was incredibly distracting every time I looked down at the keyboard. Fortunately, I’ve been touch-typing for upwards of 25 years so I don’t look at the keyboard much.

It’s worth noting at this point that the Defiant will not function in BIOS setup (or non-USB-aware operating systems like DOS) while in n-key rollover mode, even when “USB Legacy Support” is enabled. That could be a peculiarity of my PC, but the keyboard defaulted to n-key rollover mode and it gave me a mysteriously hard time when I tried to use it in my motherboard’s setup utility until I figured out what was going on. That’s why the six-key rollover mode exists, of course.

That said, I never found the six-key rollover mode to be a problem while gaming on the keyboard. I’ve left it in that mode essentially the entire time I’ve been using it and it has given me nary an issue. EpicGear does boast of the keyboard’s extensive anti-ghosting design. I tested using Microsoft’s excellent Keyboard Ghosting Demonstration site and found that even in 6-key rollover mode, I can depress any six keys simultaneously. N-key rollover works as expected, too, for those with superhuman input rates.

 

Programmed to achieve

The Defiant’s software is visually similar to the Morpha X software. I really liked the software for the Morpha X mouse. It’s compact, comprehensive, and lightweight. The Defiant’s configuration app is a little less intuitive and a little less functional, but it’s not bad.

The software has three tabs, and the first is “Key Management.” This is the main page where users can toggle a few settings and assign key functions. Every setting you create on this page is saved per-profile, and you can create up to four profiles that you can then select on the keyboard itself using the Fn key and numbers 1-4.

Selecting any key on the keyboard allows you to assign it one of the functions listed in the top right corner of the app. I have to say that since the keyboard already includes a metal wheel for volume control and predefined media controls, the only functions I can really see assigning are macros.

You set up your macros on the second page of the software. The macro editor is a little more intuitive than the Morpha X’s, but it’s also buggier. For example, frequently when editing a macro delay, I would have to delete and re-insert the delay entirely to get it to be anything other than 0.0 seconds. Also, while delays in macros are displayed in thousandths-of-seconds, you enter the values in milliseconds.

That kind of inconsistency makes using the macro editor a little frustrating at first, but with some persistence you can create fairly complex macros. I would have liked the ability to define mouse buttons in macros, though keyboards that offer that feature are few and far between.

The last page, labeled Support, offers direct links to the software and firmware update pages for the keyboard, as well as to EpicGear’s website and Facebook page. I, again, would have preferred a proper update feature rather than simple links to the website, but it’s still convenient to have the links in one handy place.

Change and adapt

So how about those modular features? Before I get into detail on the MMS keyswitches, let me remark briefly on the accessories that EpicGear offers for the Defiant. There’s an ergonomic wrist-rest, adjustable-height side stands, a 24-key macro panel with associated palm-rest, and a “multi-function rear-mount bumper with Type-C port”.

Let me be frank: I have no idea how any of this stuff connects to the Defiant, or if it even does. There are slots in the plastic base of the keyboard where simple attachments like the side-stands could snap in, but there don’t appear to be any sort of electronic connections anywhere on the keyboard. I don’t have any of these accessories myself, so I can’t say much else about them.

The highlight feature of the keyboard’s modularity is obviously the MMS keyswitch design. The switches come in three varieties, aptly titled Grey, Orange, and Purple. The switches hew very close to the Cherry MX design, and as you can probably imagine, each color corresponds roughly to one of Cherry’s switches. In this case, the Grey switch is most similar to a Cherry MX Red linear switch, the Orange switch is most similar to a Cherry MX Brown tactile switch, and the Purple switch is most similar to a Cherry MX Blue clicky switch.

All three switches require a nominal actuation force of 50g, which is the same as Cherry’s MX Blue keyswitches. The biggest difference between the MX switches and the EG switches is the actuation point. Standard Cherry MX switches operate at 2.2mm of depression, while the EG keyswitches actuate after just 1.5mm of travel. However, they still have the full Cherry travel distance of 4mm, so they won’t be too jarring to heavy-fingered typists who like to bottom out.

 

Clickety-clack

EpicGear sent me a Defiant with EG Purple switches pre-installed under every key. I have to say, while I love mechanical keyboards of every stripe, the MX Blue switches are my least favorite of the MX family. I type very rapidly, and the audible feedback of MX Blue keyswitches creates a torrential downpour of clicking noises.

The EG Purple switches have a very similar tactile feel and click response to the MX Blue keyboards that I’ve used, but (in my completely unscientific opinion) the clicky feedback on the EG switches is even louder. This is true despite the fact that the raised-keycap design of the Defiant dispenses with the loud smack of keycaps-on-baseplate that other keyboards sometimes have when you bottom out the keys.

As I mentioned before, EpicGear sent me an MMS keyswitch sampler with eight of each switch alongside the Defiant. I swapped out my usual gaming movement cluster for the EG Orange switches at first. I then performed the same switcheroo with the EG Grey switches, and spent a couple of days with each. I also installed each switch into the numeric keypad to try them out side-by-side.

While gaming, I found that using mismatched keyswitches felt very strange. Since I didn’t have enough switches to replace all the keys I use while gaming, some of the keys ended up with clicky Purple switches underneath, while others were Orange or Grey.

I’ve run into a similar bit of tactile oddness before on my Corsair Strafe keyboard because of its beveled WASD keys. By comparison, gaming with a mishmash of switch types was even less pleasant. I think the switch sampler is a great product for someone who simply wants to feel what the different keyswitches are like, but mixing and matching the different switches just didn’t work well for me. Others might find more utility in a keyboard with mismatched clickers, but it just didn’t add anything to the gaming experience for my fingers. I’d much rather have a 100% consistent set of switches under the keycaps.

Unsurprisingly, just as Cherry’s MX Red keyswitches are my favorite of that brand’s products, the EG Grey switches were my favorite for the Defiant. The perfectly smooth linear feedback from the keys feels fantastic, and there’s none of the “scratchiness” or gritty feeling that I’ve felt in other keyboards with Cherry MX clones (or sometimes, even real MX switches.) In further unsurprising news, the EG Orange switches feel almost exactly like the EG Purples, the only difference being that they lack the noisy audible feedback. I feel confident saying that regardless of which switch type you prefer, if you like Cherry’s design, you’ll be pleased with EpicGear’s work.

My biggest complaint with the Defiant and the MMS keyswitches is much the same as my biggest complaint with the Morpha X and its swappable microswitches: they’re just too darn hard to remove. EpicGear sent along a tool for removing keycaps and keyswitches from the keyboard, and another one came with the 24-pack of switches. Regardless of which tool I use, it takes a herculean effort to actually pull a keyswitch. To give you a frame of reference, the last time I swapped out switches—replacing the numpad with the purples that came pre-installed—it took me almost 15 minutes just to replace six keyswitches. It really is that hard. My best female friend was completely unable to remove a switch at all.

Like I said in my review of the Morpha X mouse, from a certain perspective it’s good that the keyswitches fit snugly in their sockets. However, for a product built around the idea of customization, the difficulty of actually using the headline feature makes the prospect much less appetizing. I feel like if EpicGear could make a stiffer metal version of the tool that gripped the keyswitches more securely then this problem would go away entirely. The soft plastic of the included switch puller slips out of the notches on the keyswitches far too easily, which is why you have to squeeze so hard.

Conclusions

I’m not intimately familiar with EpicGear’s back catalog of gaming hardware, but looking over the company’s website it seems like the Defiant is a bit of a departure. Rather than focusing on flashy imagery and aggressive design, the Defiant seems to be a product focused on high-end performance and reliability first and foremost. It certainly looks the part.

I’m happy to report it plays the part, too. Even with its unique socketed keyswitches, I never had a single misfire with the Defiant. Most of my complaints about the keyboard are nitpicks, with the sole real mark against it being the scratch-prone finish on the keycaps. That doesn’t affect the performance of the keyboard, but someone who is as concerned with the look of their hardware as the performance might feel otherwise. For a device that’s going to need to survive many thousands of keypresses over its life, we’re worried the Defiant might end up looking a bit ragged with time.

Like the Morpha X, I think this keyboard’s modularity is a bit of a red herring. Like its murine EpicGear cousin, the Defiant is already a high-end product. The ability to snap in new keyswitches, or snap on external accessories, is really just icing on the cake for what is otherwise already a fairly excellent keyboard without that feature.

EG’s proprietary MMS keyswitch design is impressive, too. Put simply, the keyboard feels just as fantastic for typing as any high-quality Cherry MX-based keyboard. For gaming, I think the short throw of the EG keyswitches is even better than the standard MX design, although I haven’t gotten my hands on a keyboard using Cherry’s MX Speed super-shallow switches yet.

Fortunately, the modularity doesn’t seem to drive up the price of the Defiant too much. Newegg has the Defiant with EG Orange tactile switches for just $72 right now, while a model with the linear Grey switches runs $90 and the model I have here with clicky Purple switches is $95. Given the performance and features on offer, even the Purple keyboard is a fair buy, and $72 is a steal for a mechanical keyboard like this. Newegg also has the 24-pack of MMS switches for $9, the Defiant lightbars for $10, and your choice of the side stands or “Tournament” palm-rest for $15 as of this writing.

The Defiant competes with more expensive Cherry MX keyboards on performance and features, and it doesn’t look like something you’d find in a giant robot anime. It also offers customization features you won’t find anywhere else, if that’s your thing. Given those advantages, I’m more than willing to call the Defiant TR Recommended.

Comments closed
    • rds
    • 3 years ago

    So we’ve added over 100 points of failure. This keyboard is guaranteed to be less reliable than one with permanently attached switches. Easier to repair, but you’ll be working on it more often.

    • DragonDaddyBear
    • 3 years ago

    I really need to stop watching so many shows with my kids. Please, tell me I’m not the only one that saw the section “Clickety-clack” and immediately thought of Chuggington.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 3 years ago

      Unfortunately I’m right there with you.

      • Inkling
      • 3 years ago

      Yup. Ditto.

    • just brew it!
    • 3 years ago

    Too bad about the finish issue on the keycaps; while that doesn’t affect functionality, it’ll eventually get annoying if too much of the backlight starts to show through in the wrong places.

    The BIOS problem with NKRO mode is unsurprising. The USB HID standard only provides for 6KRO, so in order to provide more they either need to employ a custom driver, or it needs to appear to the system as multiple USB keyboards.

    I’m a little concerned that the contacts where the switches mate to the sockets are a potential failure point. Hopefully all contact surfaces are gold plated to prevent corrosion issues. And at the end of the day, what’s the point? As the review notes, having different switch types at different positions is going to feel weird; and wouldn’t you just order the keyboard with the kind of switches you want to begin with?

    At least the price isn’t terribly out of line for a backlit mechanical. If they can get the keycap quality/durability issue sorted, this may be worth consideration.

      • RAGEPRO
      • 3 years ago

      The contacts are all gold plated, yeah. Also the switch mechanism inside apparently contains a significant amount of gold plating.

    • Shobai
    • 3 years ago

    It doesn’t seem like there are dams around the key sockets, so how well would this stand up to liquid spills?

      • just brew it!
      • 3 years ago

      Probably not well.

    • Chrispy_
    • 3 years ago

    6-key rollover is enough, right?

    I mean, with one hand on the mouse, you only have five available fingers to push six keys so you can afford to fat-finger something and still never hit the limit….

      • RAGEPRO
      • 3 years ago

      That’s always been kinda my feeling. The problem you run into on cheap keyboards is that even though you technically have 6KRO you really only have 3 or less because the way the keyboard is wired certain key combinations are locked out.

      Fortunately the Defiant has no such problems.

        • Chrispy_
        • 3 years ago

        Heh, if you “technically have 6KRO” and then wiring issues mean that sometimes you only have 3KRO, then it’s in no way a 6KRO keyboard.

        Any gaming keyboard worth its salt should be able to handle 5KRO at all times with any key combination at all. That’s a fairly low bar and so shouldn’t be too expensive to implement.

      • Froz
      • 3 years ago

      I remember games from my childhood played with split-screen where 6-key rollover would not be enough (and indeed I remember having issues due to that). However, I haven’t played a game like that for ages. I’m guessing nowadays such games would be typically played with controllers, not keyboard anyway.

      • abele2017
      • 2 years ago

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