I’m a mechanical keyboard nerd from way back. I learned to type on TRS-80s and IBM Model Fs. However, my very first Cherry MX-style mechanical keyboard was a Cooler Master QuickFire Rapid tenkeyless model equipped with red switches. That was a good while ago—in 2011 or thereabouts—and so it’s well past time that I checked in with CM to see what’s going on. As it happens, the company recently released the first keyboards in its new CK series. Let’s have a look at the Cooler Master CK552 mechanical gaming keyboard.
Much like the mouse I just took a look at, Cooler Master’s CK552 is perhaps better defined by the features it doesn’t have. This is a beautifully basic mechanical gaming keyboard that doesn’t have a pile of extra macro buttons, gimmicky detachable sections, or a built-in wrist rest. What it does offer is a typing experience slick as motor oil along with some of the most beautiful RGB LED lighting I’ve ever seen.
|Cooler Master CK552 Keyboard|
|Polling Rate||1 KHz|
|Keyswitch Type||Red (Linear, silent)|
|Built-in lighting||Per-key configurable RGB|
Now, the keyboard we’re looking at today is the CK552. However, I want to note that it has some cousins to which it is very closely related. The CK550 series is functionally the same keyboard with a gunmetal grey face and your choice of Gateron blue, brown, or red switches. The CK552 only comes with Gateron red switches, and it’s exclusive to Best Buy, Staples Canada, and EB Games stores. Dedicated typists may prefer the brown switches’ tactile feedback or the blue switches’ audible click, but red switches’ linear motion and relative silence are arguably the best-suited for gaming. This keyboard is among the quieter mechanical keyboards I’ve used, too.
Like I already hinted at, the switches on these keyboards are manufactured by Gateron rather than Cherry, but as a long-time user of products with both companies’ hardware inside, I can tell you that the Gateron switches are at least the equal of Cherry’s. The Apex M750’s QX2 switches were also built by Gateron, and I quite liked those, too. It should be no surprise then, when I tell you that the CK552 is absolutely lovely to type on. All 104 keys in its mostly-standard layout have Gateron switches underneath.
I say “mostly-standard” because, while all of the keys are the standard size and spacing (meaning that keycap sets will fit on just fine), Cooler Master has elected to replace the right-hand Menu key with a CM logo key that is used to access the vast array of second-layer functions. Just like the RK-9000V2 RGB keyboard that I reviewed, the CK552 can be configured entirely using logo-key shortcuts. That includes not only the lighting but also the macro and profile functions.
This isn’t the “quick start guide”, which is even less informative.
The image above is taken from the one-page “manual” for the keyboard, and lists the available hotkeys. The media and volume controls are smartly placed on the editing block, so they’re easily accessible while holding the CM logo key with a thumb. Most of the rest of the controls will require two hands, but aside from using logo+numeral to toggle profiles you’ll probably want to use Cooler Master’s software to manage those bits. Still, it’s very cool that you can completely configure the keyboard without using CM’s software.
RTFM? I’d love to
Cooler Master doesn’t include any install media in the box, so you’ll have to go to the website to download the software for the CK552. Actually, the company barely includes anything in the box; there’s no manual, either. I won’t knock Cooler Master too hard for the omission since you have to go to the company’s site to get the software anyway. I will take issue with the fact that there is no actual documentation. The “manual” download goes to a one-page document, most of which I reproduced at the bottom of the last page. It doesn’t explain how to use the listed keys at all, so I had to spend most of a day figuring that out.
There wasn’t much point in doing that, though, since you can control all of the same functions using the keyboard’s software. The download from Cooler Master’s site installs the Cooler Master Portal, seen above, which lets you then automagically download and install the software for any connected CM devices. It’s a weird extra step that other companies’ software, like Steelseries Engine or Razer’s Synapse, doesn’t require.
The reason it’s required here is that each Cooler Master input device requires its own application, separate from the others. This has a number of implications, but the most obvious is that there’s no way to synchronize lighting effects across devices, or copy a macro from one device to another. The former point is bothersome, but the latter point is almost irrelevant because the macro editor on the CK552 is one of the less useful examples of the form I’ve seen.
Macro editing is done purely through recording. This means you can’t insert mouse buttons or joystick actions in your macros, nor can you manually build macros by inserting keystrokes. You have to tap each key you want in the macro, in sequence. The whole experience is pretty unfriendly; you can’t move keystrokes around after recording them, you can’t insert delays, and you can’t set a default delay between actions. You also can’t program keys to perform Windows functions, run scripts, or launch applications like you can with other companies’ software. Finally, since there isn’t a fun cluster on this keyboard, you have to remap keys to assign macros, which means you can’t use those keys in other macros without unbinding them.
Having to manually enter the delay for each action wouldn’t be so bad, but you can’t even tab between the delay fields. You have to use your mouse to click through them, and you have to make sure and press enter after typing in your delay every single time. It’s tedious and cumbersome. To make matters worse, that kind of shoddy UI design pervades the CM software. You can’t resize any of the windows, for example. They’re also not HiDPI-aware, so trying to use the 1366×768 app on a 184-PPI display took a bit more focus than usual.
Moving to the page where you can create and assign macros, we spot a key mapping tab. The whole existence of this tab is curious to me. Here, you can click any key and remap it. In theory, that’d be pretty handy, but you can only remap keys by pressing another key on the keyboard. There’s no way to select the key or function you want to map from a list, or otherwise manually define it. To CM’s credit, you can remap the media keys to the main layer of the board this way rather than hiding them under function layers, but that’s about the only interesting thing you can do with this page. Otherwise it’s just mapping keys to other keys. You can’t even move macros to other keys on this page.
The last page in the configuration app lets you import, export, and reset profiles on the keyboard. I don’t have much to say about this page other than that you can rename your profiles by double-clicking on the “PROFILE 1” name bar. That little nugget of information isn’t communicated anywhere, so users less-inclined to exploring their software might be stuck with exporting and then importing a profile if they want customized names. Cooler Master could stand to add a few tooltips.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Cooler Master’s software. The first tab of the software, right up front, is the lighting configuration page. While this page, again, makes very little attempt to explain itself to the user, it’s fortunately intuitive enough that all of the functions should be immediately obvious. Here, users can choose from 19 preset lighting effects, customize each key’s lighting individually, turn the lights off, or… play a game of Snake on the keyboard’s RGB LEDs using the arrow keys. (Doing this disables the keyboard’s regular inputs.) Lighting effects can be customized using a “foreground” and “background” layer for colors, which is pretty unique.
I’m not kidding, it’s incredibly bright.
The lighting itself is one of the main bright spots (ha ha) of the keyboard, in fact. It’s extremely vivid, and some of the presets are great. “Reactive Tornado” cycles colors in a rotating pattern around the most recently-pressed key, for example. You can also use the keyboard’s RGB LEDs to represent CPU usage, or work as a rudimentary spectrum analyzer for your audio output. The color transitions are remarkably smooth, although I’ll note that the speed control for the color-cycling presets only has five settings, and the faster three are rapid enough that I’d be cautious of sitting down an epileptic person at my PC. The fastest setting is comically quick, like a strobe effect. That’s a nitpick, though.
When I first started messing around with the CK552, I was pretty put off by the poor macro programming and the mediocre, sparse UI of the software. I like to make macros, and I like to use them in games. This keyboard isn’t very good at either of those, even judged against other basic gaming keyboards. However, it’s a dream to type on—the Gateron Red switches somehow feel glossy in their actuations—and I found myself enjoying the exuberant lighting more than I would ever have expected.
The CK552 isn’t flawless, even ignoring the second-rate software. There’s no way to adjust the brightness of the lighting, for example. It’s pretty darn bright, so if you’re not keen on that, too bad. The near-complete lack of documentation for the logo key functions is pretty weak, too. Plus, the keycaps are ABS and many of mine (particularly those under my left hand, where I game) are already starting to feel slick.
With those things said, I think it’s important to note that this is a fully-mechanical gaming keyboard with brilliant RGB LED backlighting that goes for just $70 at Best Buy. This specific model is a Best Buy exclusive, but you can pick up the nearly-identical CK550 at Newegg or Amazon for even less if you don’t mind the gunmetal grey baseplate. Given that price tag, I’m willing to forgive a lot of the CK552’s flaws. If you can forgive them, as well, you can rest assured this keyboard comes TR Recommended.