Gaming keyboards outfitted with mechanical switches tend to command high prices, but there are a great many gamers who aren’t onboard with blowing a big hole in their wallets just for a keyboard. However, many of those folks would also prefer not to use a super-cheap membrane keyboard. This juxtaposition has created a market for what are often referred to as mem-chanical keyboards.
Mem-chanical keyboards add some kind of mechanism or extension above the membrane switches to give them a more mechanical or tactile feel. These keyboards are offered as lower-priced alternatives to full-on mechanical models. I’ve used mem-chanical keyboards in the past and haven’t been all that impressed, but Razer’s Ornata Chroma takes the mem-chanical concept to the next level with membrane modifications that I’ve never seen before. There’s just one wrench in the machinery, though: this keyboard sells for $100, or about the same as actual mechanical-switch boards. Let’s see how Razer justifies the Ornata Chroma’s price tag.
The Ornata Chroma doesn’t have any visual cues that would give away the fact that it isn’t a mechanical keyboard; it looks like a pretty standard gaming deck. The chassis is made of black plastic, and the keycaps are lit by per-key RGB LED backlighting. It doesn’t have the “floating keys” effect that is often associated with more premium keyboards, but I personally like the way the RGB light seems to flow through the gaps between the keys on keyboards with shielded base plates.
The top row features a layer of alternative actions that can be accessed by holding the Ornata Chroma’s function key. Media controls are a pretty standard feature for gaming keyboards, but in this board’s case, they are quite a ways away from the function key. Media controls are ideally close to that key so that you can comfortably press the function key and media controls with one hand.
The Ornata Chroma also has built-in LED brightness controls with 20 brightness levels, including an off mode. However, the onboard brightness controls are strangely limited to only 15 brightness levels and unable to fully turn off the LEDs when you’re signed into Razer’s Synapse software. More on that later, though.
The media and brightness controls are separated by two additional alternate action keys. One of these keys allows you to create macros without ever needing to install any software on your computer. The other key activates gaming mode, which can be customized in software to disable the Windows key, Alt + Tab, and Alt +F4. Disabling the Windows key, in particular, is a handy feature for avoiding accidentally pulling up the start menu while in an intense gaming session.
A slick Apple-esque LED indicator is positioned above the numpad to indicate whether the lock keys, macro mode, and gaming mode are active.
The Ornata Chroma comes with a cushy leatherette-topped wrist rest that magnetically snaps onto the bottom side of the keyboard. The magnets are sufficiently strong to hold the wrist rest up against the keyboard, but also make it much easier to remove than units that rely on plastic clips. The wrist rest is also held in place by six rubber feet on its underside. A Razer logo is embossed into the leatherette, but it’s shallow enough that you can’t feel it while resting your wrist on it.
The underside of the board is home to four rubber feet, two flip-up stands, and some cable channels. The rubber feet do a good job holding the keyboard in place, though the flip-up stands lack similar pads, which isn’t ideal. Even so, the stands snap confidently into place and prop up the keyboard without a problem. The cable channels give you the option of routing the cable out the back or sides of the keyboard—a nice touch for cable management.
The Ornata Chroma’s cable ends in a single USB connector that powers the whole operation.
The Ornata Chroma’s keycaps are made of ABS plastic. ABS is the standard material for gaming keyboard caps, but it’s not the most durable. ABS keycaps usually have a somewhat slimy feel to the touch, but Razer has given these keycaps a matte coating that feels better than the standard semi-glossy finish. However, the matte finish doesn’t help hide skin oils and sweat.
Where things start to get interesting is the shape of the keycaps. The keycaps are low-profile, yet the top of the keycaps retain the curved shape of Cherry and OEM profile keycaps. Low-profile keycaps tend to have flat or close-to-flat tops that don’t keep fingers centered on them. I think it’s a good move on Razer’s part to stick with curved tops.
What Razer doesn’t stick with on the Ornata Chroma are the standard Cherry stems. Unfortunately, this deviation from the usual means you can’t put on your own keycap set, at least not without a whole lot of effort. However, there is a good reason as to why Razer went with different stems on the Ornata Chroma. See that little nub on the right side of the stem in the picture above? That nub is one of two components that form the mechanism Razer has added to standard rubber dome switches to make them mem-chanical.
The rubber domes themselves are actually entirely submerged underneath the base plate. The stems go through the holes in the base plate and sit atop the rubber domes. When you push down on the keycaps, they don’t immediately activate the rubber domes. The nubs on the keycap stems are met with resistance by small metal leaf springs sticking out of the holes in the base plates.
The nubs have to push past the leaf springs on the way down and up, so pressing and releasing the switches produces clicking noises similar to those created by Kailh click bars. The click mechanisms also give the switches tactile resistance. If I handed the Ornata Chroma to someone familiar with mechanical keyboards and told them it had a new type of mechanical switch in it, I don’t think they’d be able to determine that I wasn’t being quite so truthful without taking off the keycaps.
The Ornata Chroma’s Mecha-Membrane switches honestly deliver a great typing experience. They are delightfully clicky and tactile. I’d pick them over Cherry MX Blues in a heartbeat thanks to the click mechanisms that click on the way up and down, unlike the click jackets in Blues. However, like Cherry MX Blues, Razer Mecha-Membranes aren’t the greatest switches for gaming.
Mechanical switches activate part-way through their travel, whereas rubber domes activate when bottomed out. People tend to bottom out when initially activating keys, especially on tactile switches that require additional force to push past the tactile bump. Given those demands, mechanical switches and rubber domes act similarly when initially activated. However, the behavior of the two switch types can diverge as you continue to hold them down. Rubber domes must remain almost entirely bottomed out in order to stay active, while the mid-point activation of mechanical switches gives you some room to let off the keys before deactivating them.
If all you ever used keyboards for was typing, you probably wouldn’t ever notice this distinction because you usually immediately let off keys after activating them. Gaming can be another story I first noticed the lift-off behavior I’m describing while I was casually playing Warframe. Occasionally, while holding down “W” to move forward and Shift to sprint, I would stop sprinting or moving altogether. It turns out that after holding down the keys for extended periods, I was lifting my fingers off ever so slightly. Lifting my fingers a tad wouldn’t cause a problem on a mechanical keyboard thanks to the distance between activation and bottoming out, but doing so deactivates rubber domes.
I ran into this problem only once or twice while playing Brutal Doom because I wasn’t lifting my fingers a hair during all the intense, twitchy action, but I encountered it constantly in Warframe while also relaxing and listening to podcasts. As I said earlier, Razer’s Mecha-Membranes are great for typing, but unintentional key deactivation is a big problem for a keyboard targeted at gamers.
The bottom line is that gamers who choose Mecha-Membrane-equipped boards will need to break any lift-off habits they might have formed while using mechnical switches, although I have to admit my experience is a bit unusual. The more likely target audience for this board is gamers getting away from pure rubber domes for the first time, and they’ll already be used to the particular activation characteristics of those switches.
Another, more general problem with the Ornata Chroma’s typing feel is that its base plate is made of plastic that bows in the center under pressure, making the switches at the center of the keyboard feel less solid than those at the edges. The keyboard is pretty solid otherwise.
According to Razer, the Ornata Chroma has 10-key rollover, but I was able to get up to fourteen keys active at once, not including modifiers. Not all combinations of fourteen keys can be active at once, so ten is probably a safe minimum of keys that can be active at once. N-key rollover is a nice peace of mind feature, but 10-key rollover should be enough for gamers and typists alike, barring a few rare exceptions.
You may already know that Razer’s Synapse peripheral software requires an internet connection and a Razer account. I can understand wanting to offer a service that saves your peripheral configurations in the cloud, but making it mandatory is a different story. I couldn’t even get into the software to tweak the keyboard settings without signing in. When I was first greeted by the login page, I had to go dig up my old Razer account and reset the password, a minor hassle in itself. What’s worse is that once you customize your keyboard to your liking, you can’t save your custom profile to the keyboard and sign out of the software. The keyboard will revert to its default settings if you aren’t logged in to Synapse on your computer.
The Synapse experience doesn’t get much better once you get past the sign in screen. It is, no doubt, a powerful piece of software with a great many options, but all the options are spread out over a whole host of tabs and sub-menus. I shouldn’t have to go digging in the software to find the settings I want to adjust. All the options should be clearly displayed on a single landing page. There can be dividers within the main page, but there should be as few as possible. We had similar complaints of late when TR’s own Zak Killian reviewed the Naga Trinity mouse—you should read his detailed take for more.
It’s not every day that you can say a peripheral company has done something inventive with its switches, but those days seem to be growing more frequent as the switch market speeds up and evolves thanks to new challengers like Gateron and Kailh. I think Razer has something with the potential for greatness on its hands with its Mecha-Membrane switches, but some further refinement is needed before that greatness is achieved.
The Mecha-Membranes’ binary actuation curve is no small problem for gamers. Lifting off a key even slightly will deactivate it. Perhaps Razer could learn something from the IBM Model M and use some kind of mechanism to press and hold down the membrane switches in order to provide a mid-point between switch actuation and bottoming out. A stronger base plate is also needed to make the typing experience consistent across the board. Double-shot ABS or PBT keycaps would make the experience even better, but those would probably break the Ornata Chroma’s budget. Lastly, Razer’s software is holding its peripherals back. The interface needs to be cleaned up, and signing in needs to be optional.
That said, Razer has made a valiant effort in making an affordable RGB LED-illuminated keyboard that feels good and doesn’t break the bank. The Ornata Chroma looks clean with a fairly slim design and does its thing without any unnecessary glowing logos plastered on it. The massive wrist rest is magnetic, planted, and comfy. The keycaps are low-profile, yet retain the centering curves of higher-profile keycaps. Most importantly, Razer has managed to make rubber domes feel like clicky mechanical switches. I didn’t much miss the Cherry and Kailh-equipped keyboards in my home while using the Ornata Chroma, at least going by typing feel alone.
If you’re a typist looking for an alternative to high-priced mechanical keyboards, don’t let the mem-chanical nature of the Ornata Chroma turn you away. However, there are other good alternatives, like Havit’s HV-KB390L, that have even lower asking prices than the Ornata Chroma’s $100 price tag (or about $84 as of this writing on Amazon). That said, if you want RGB LEDs, good typing feel, and the cachet of the Razer brand name, the Ornata Chroma is a fine way to get into the game for not a lot of cash.
It’s also worth noting that Razer makes an Ornata Expert with green-only backlighting that goes for just $49 on Amazon right now. If you’re really trying to get a good keyboard on a budget, the mean-green Ornata keeps the Mecha-Membrane switches and drops the RGB LED backlighting for a budget blend that seems hard to beat.