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Aimpad's analog input on the Cooler Master MK850 keyboard


Analog goes mainstream

Forget, for a moment, what the Cooler Master MK850 looks like. Forget about its RGB lighting, its brushed metal top, its many keys and buttons, and the software that comes with it, because none of those things make it a keyboard of consequence. The only thing we really care about is whether or not the MK850 can deliver on the tantalizing promise of analog keyboard input for gaming. 

That promise first emerged when we had a long and deep look at the Aimpad R5, a prototype keyboard bearing Aimpad's analog sensing technology. If you haven't read that article, stop now and go do it. Seriously. Because after the R5 experience, we know what we want. Combined with the resources of Cooler Master, is Aimpad's analog input ready to "just work" on a polished, mature-feeling platform?

Analog versus digital

In short, here's what analog input is all about: Aside from the Aimpad-empowered MK850 and the Wooting One, all mechanical keyboards on the market right now employ digital input—which is to say, binary input. When you press a key, it sends a simple on or off message. This makes sense when you're typing, of course; you either want a character to appear on a page, or you don't. But in gaming, it's preferable to have more control.

PC gamers have long grown used to the idea that they're working with digital input. You press W to move that way, D to move that way, and so on. But as console gamers are well aware, using analog sticks for movement gives you a lovely amount of more nuanced control. 

Put as simply as possible: When you want to move in a PC game, you press a key and go. If you want to change your speed, you have to use a modifier, like pressing down left Shift to sprint. You can't creep slowly, walk, jog, and sprint using a single keypress. But if that W key was analog, you could. If you press down a tiny bit, you slink along; if you press a little further, you walk; and if you bottom out the keypress, you're running. Now apply that capability to things like racing and flying games, and imagine how much more control you have over the action. That's what analog keyboard input gets you.

Aimpad uses the action of a mechanical switch to create analog input. The technology is proprietary, but basically, it shoots a beam of light from the surface of the PCB into the switch housing. When you press the key, the switch stem descends, and the sensor measures the amount of reflected light and translates that to analog input. When you're typing, you can simply toggle analog mode off. Without Aimpad, in fact, the MK850 would still be a perfectly fine mechanical gaming keyboard. 

The road to here

The Cooler Master MK850 is the first shipping keyboard bearing Aimpad's analog sensing technology, and just the second of its analog kind after the Wooting One. The fact that this keyboard exists at all is big deal. Aimpad is a tiny upstart outfit that makes a weird technology that precious few people even knew was possible. It was hard enough to get keyboard enthusiasts and a couple of journalists (including Colton Westrate and yours truly) excited about Aimpad; it was quite another to convince a larger keyboard maker like Cooler Master to put it into a product. 

Credit where credit is due: Cooler Master deserves a hat tip for taking a risk on Aimpad. Too many companies play it too safe with things like this, largely because there's no guarantee of success (read: ROI). But sometimes you just roll the dice on something that seems too good to pass up. We don't know what sort of support (or lack thereof) there is for Aimpad within CM's ranks, but in any case, those hurdles have been cleared such that the MK850 was born. 

Partnering with established keyboard makers was always part and parcel of the Aimpad plan. The company never wanted to build its own keyboard, and its technology  doesn't need any special switches. In fact, both the Aimpad R5 prototype and the version of the MK850 I'm typing on right this moment use unmodified Cherry MX Red switches. (In the case of the MK850, it's Cherry MX RGB Red.) The patented Aimpad goodness is in and around the PCB, so although an enterprising keyboard maker definitely needs to specially design the internals of a keyboard to implement this analog tech, the other bits—layout, chassis, cable, switches, keycaps, and so on—are all off-the-shelf.  

This is in contrast to Wooting, which has taken the opposite approach. The Dutch company builds its own keyboards. Everything "Wooting" is analog, and its version of analog sensing requires the special construction found in Flaretech's switches. Because only eight keys on the MK850 have analog capabilities (more on that later), Wooting is still the only company that has made a shipping keyboard that is fully analog.

For what it's worth, neither approach is inherently better or worse. That two such different strategies have emerged side by side is to the benefit to this brand-new, tiny market.