Mechanical keyboards are pretty much standard enthusiast fare nowadays. That wasn’t always the case. There was a time when nearly everyone was seemingly content with the mushy, rubber-dome switches of Logitech or Microsoft keyboards. Today, though, a visit to the nearest enthusiast message board is certain to reveal gaggles of geeks debating the merits of this mechanical key switch or that.
Sensing a golden opportunity, or perhaps simply capitalizing on a trend they created, peripheral makers have swelled their lineups with all manners of clicky keyboards. Entry prices are lofty, often in excess of $100, and product pages tout various additional amenities for hard-core gamers, inveterate typists, and those who are neither but want it all.
In exchange for $134, typists are promised tactile bliss with the Das Keyboard Model S Ultimate Silent. For $5 more, gamers can delight themselves with a Battlefield 3-themed version of Razer’s BlackWidow Ultimate keyboard, which has light-up-in-the-dark keys, macro buttons, and a paint job crafted to highlight one’s taste for simulated warfare. Hopeless addicts of massively multiplayer games may indulge themselves with Corsair’s $115 Vengeance K90, which is also backlit and features even more macro keys (18 in total, plus three macro switching buttons). Some even take to specialized retailers, who might carry keyboards like the $345 Topre Realforce 87U Tenkeyless 55g. Other options abound; manufacturers like Cooler Master, Gigabyte, Steelseries, and Thermaltake all offer at least one type of fancy mechanical keyboard.
And then, amid all of that, there’s Rosewill.
You wouldn’t suspect Newegg’s innocuous house brand to be catering to keyboard snobs, but it does. It all started, if my memory serves, with just one mechanical model. That keyboard was pulled from Newegg’s listings one day and, not long afterward, replaced with a whole family of offerings, one for each type of the most popular mechanical key switches on the market. I’m talking, of course, about Cherry’s MX switches, which are known for their color-coded nibs and are widely used by makers of mechanical keyboards everywhere.
We’ve reviewed a number of Cherry MX-based keyboards recently, so the switches should be familiar to most of you. Some of those switches make a clicking noise when actuated, while other variants do not. Some demarcate the actuation zone with a tactile bump, while others have a completely linear response curve, giving the user no information beyond what’s visible on-screen. Different folks prefer different switches for different reasons, and we’ll look at those reasons in more detail shortly.
|RK-9000||Blue||Tactile||Yes||50 g||65 g||$99.99|
|RK-9000-BL||Black||Linear||No||60 g||80 g||$99.99|
|RK-9000-BR||Brown||Tactile||No||45 g||60 g||$109.99|
|RK-9000-RE||Red||Linear||No||45 g||60 g||$99.99|
The point is, Rosewill delivers all major Cherry MX key switch types inside affordable, no-frills keyboards priced around the $100 mark—eminently reasonable by mechanical keyboard standards. There are no flashy backlights, no fancy paint jobs, no blocks of macro keys, and no amenities beyond the strictly necessary. There’s just a plain black plastic frame, a set of 104 conventionally assorted keys, and some LEDs for caps lock, num lock, and scroll lock. Everything you need is there, and nothing more.
The concept is admirable, at least on paper. We certainly thought so. You might have seen a tentative recommendation tossed in the latest editions of our system guide. In any case, we’ve always been eager to give one of these keyboards a shot.
Rather than testing a lone representative of the lineup, we got our grubby mitts on four of ’em—one for each switch type available. We’ve compared and contrasted them to figure out not just whether the RK-9000 series is any good, but also which of the four options is the most comfortable for typing and gaming. Our findings are subjective, of course, but they should help you choose between the different key switches and decide whether you want them on one of Rosewill’s keyboards.
A closer look
Before we study the differences between the various Cherry MX key switches, let’s first look at the similarities between our four keyboards. They all look the same from the outside, like so:
If that spartan layout seems familiar, that’s because it’s not exclusive to Rosewill. The now-discontinued ABS M1 keyboard we reviewed over three years ago has essentially the same frame, and so do those Filco mechanical keyboards from Japan that were all the rage a little while back.
We like the design, for the most part. The outer rim of the bezel is very narrow, which gives the keyboard a very compact look and feel. It also affords as much space as possible for mousing, short of lopping off the numeric keypad altogether. We at TR like our numpads; we spend too much time entering data into Excel to do without them.
Other than that, there’s not much else to say. The blue LEDs for caps lock, num lock, and scroll lock are bright, but not blindingly so like on the ABS M1. The keys are arranged sensibly, with a full-sized backspace and no tomfoolery around the paging block area. Our international readers may take issue with the shape of the enter key, but that’s the most common design here in North America, and these keyboards are, to the best of our knowledge, not sold elsewhere.
It’s a shame about the ugly logo, though. Spencerian script looks great on Coca-Cola bottles, but not so much on computer peripherals.
Rather than a soldered-in USB cable, RK-9000-series keyboards feature a Mini USB port at the back. That seems like a good idea in theory. If anything happens to the cable, replacements are easy to come by. In a pinch, you could even use the cable from your digital camera as a temporary substitute.
Unfortunately, we’ve come across a number of complaints about the durability of the Mini USB port on the keyboard itself. You’ll find such complaints in Newegg’s feedback section, and a quick look through our forums shows TR forum admin and occasional contributor Just Brew It! voicing the same grievance. In his words:
The mini-USB jack on the keyboard is not very sturdy. Lateral pressure on the protruding USB cable can fracture the solder on the tabs that help secure the connector to the internal PCB, causing the jack to push into the keyboard the next time the cable is plugged in. This renders the keyboard inoperable since it is impossible to properly seat the USB cable.
Just Brew It! was able to repair the keyboard himself by re-soldering the connector. You’ll find pictures of the operation here. Less adventurous users who suffer broken connectors will likely have to go through Rosewill’s warranty service. The company offers three years of coverage for parts and one year for labor.
Rosewill could alleviate this problem in a number of ways, perhaps by recessing the port, or maybe simply by mounting it more solidly to the circuit board. For now, prospective users will want to keep the Mini USB jack clear of potential hazards.
Pictured above is the USB cable plugged in. Rosewill also bundles these keyboards with Mini USB-to-PS/2 cables (yes, whole cables, not adapters). According to the company, the PS/2 connection enables full n-key rollover with all 104 keys on the keyboard. When connected via USB, the keyboard can only register up to six simultaneous keypresses. MMORPG fiends, take note. I’m sure folks with older KVM switches will appreciate the PS/2 option, as well.
There’s not much on the underside. You can see the four thick rubber pads that keep the keyboard nice and stable and the retractable feet—for users who like that sort of thing. I’ve never understood the appeal of keyboard feet, personally. Good ergonomics mean keeping one’s wrists as straight as possible, and that’s awfully difficult to do with the back of your keyboard tilted up.
Let’s now look at what differentiates our four specimens—the type of Cherry MX key switch used. Note the response graphs embedded in each picture. We grabbed those from Cherry’s website. They show how each type of switch responds to pressure and how much pressure is required to reach the actuation point and bottom out. The “cN” in the Y axis stands for centinewton, with one centinewton being equal to 1.02 grams-force. (A gram-force is the amount of force exerted by one gram in Earth gravity.)
We’ve also recorded audio samples for each keyboard. If you have Flash installed, you can listen to the samples by clicking the play button at the bottom left of each image below.
Cherry MX blue switches most closely resemble the famous buckling spring switches of the venerable IBM Model M. While they operate very differently, they offer fundamentally similar feedback, generating both an audible click and a tactile bump upon actuation. The advantage is that you know the exact actuation point, regardless of what happens on screen, so you can calibrate the amount of pressure applied accordingly. Instead of bottoming out with each keystroke, you can teach yourself to press down only as far as needed to reach the actuation point. You might wind up typing faster with less fatigue.
That’s the theory, at least.
In practice, the Rosewill RK-9000 with blue switches feels crisp—almost too crisp—and really makes a racket. Instead of the musical, typewriter-like clatter of the Model M, the blue switches pelt you with shrill, high-pitched clicks. They’re very difficult to tune out, and they can get tiresome after a while. There’s an odd sort of grittiness to the tactile bump, as well, which makes it feel… sticky, somehow. The sensation didn’t bother me at lower typing speeds, but it got on my nerves when I ramped up over 110 words per minute or so.
In games, the blue switches feel a little awkward. As you can see in the graph above, the actuation and release bumps aren’t at the same spot in the curve. Sometimes, when you mean to repeat a keystroke rapidly, your finger might get stuck in the twilight zone between the two for a fraction of a second, and you might miss your shot—whether it’s steering a fast-moving vehicle or firing off a spell at an enemy. The noisy clicks can mar the immersion factor of some games, as well.
The Cherry MX brown switches also have a tactile bump, but it’s a more subtle one that requires less pressure to reach and isn’t accompanied by a sharp, shrill click. All you hear is an extremely faint, almost inaudible ka-chunk as you pass the actuation point. Also, the actuation and release bumps are at almost the same spot, so there’s practically no dead zone between them.
The softer bump and the effective lack of audible feedback makes the browns feel a little more uncertain, perhaps imprecise, than the blues. You can feel for the actuation point without much trouble, but it’s easy to miss if you type too hard or too fast. The result, at least for me, is a sort of mild bounciness that, while not entirely unpleasant, can take some getting used to.
Nevertheless, the browns feel very satisfying to type on. They still make some noise—a faint clatter that’s loudest when you bottom out—but that noise is actually pleasing to the ear. There’s something oddly satisfying about it. Gratifying, even. I still noticed some slight grittiness around the tactile bump when typing very fast (over 120 WPM), though.
The browns work well for gaming. Since there’s no twilight zone between the two bumps, the switches feel more predictable. Also, because the bumps are softer, actuation requires less pressure overall. That means quickly repeating keystrokes takes less work. Finally, there’s no noisy clicking to distract you.
The Cherry MX blacks are universally touted as gaming switches. They have an entirely linear response curve without clicks or bumps, and they require more pressure to actuate than the blues or browns. The appeal, or so I’ve heard, is that there’s nothing to slow you down on the way to the actuation point (or on the way back), which improves responsiveness and aids rapid keystroke repetition.
My take? These are the worst of the bunch. The linear response makes it difficult to tell exactly where the actuation point is, which leaves you no choice but to bottom out—and since the springs are even tougher than on the blues, that quickly gets uncomfortable. Fail to bottom out, and you’ll unknowingly miss the actuation threshold every once in a while, resulting in a growing collection of missing characters throughout your work. Also, paradoxically, the black switches make it easier to repeat characters by accident.
You’d think these purported gaming switches would excel in games. However, the total lack of precision proves punitive in titles like Trackmania 2, where minute, hair-trigger movements are paramount. There’s just no way to toe the actuation line as with the browns. The linear response proves to be less of a handicap in first-person shooters, but there’s still not much of an upside. Even if rapid keystroke repetition is easier—and I’m not entirely convinced that it is—that benefit comes at the cost of pretty much everything else. I just don’t see the appeal.
We don’t have a response graph for Cherry’s MX red switches, but it’s easy to picture one in your head. These switches have a linear response, just like the blacks, only with softer springs. Bottoming out takes only 60 g of pressure, down from 80 g with the blacks, and actuation takes 45 g, not 60 g. In that respect, the reds resemble the browns, sans the bumps in the curve.
The reds still compel you to bottom out in order to guarantee actuation, but the process involves much less effort than with the blacks. In fact, because there’s nothing in the way to slow you down, these may be better than the browns at very high typing speeds (when you’re likely to bottom out regardless). I managed to type slightly faster on them than on the browns. That said, the imprecision of the blacks is still present in the reds to some degree, and it still encourages typos. At lower typing speeds, it starts to feel like your fingers are digging into a block of jello. Not the nicest feeling.
If you’re choosing a linear switch to speed up keystroke repetition in games, then the reds are clearly the way to go. The lower actuation force makes repetition faster and easier than with the blacks, and there are still no bumps or clicks in the way.
Personally, though, I’m more partial to the browns for gaming. They’re almost as easy to mash repeatedly, and the bump in the response curve adds much-needed precision.
Well, you probably know where this is going.
Of the four models we sampled, the RK-9000BR with brown Cherry MX switches is our favorite. None of the switch types are perfect, but the browns do the best job of balancing accuracy and ease of repetition, which makes them great for gaming. Also, the fact that the browns feature a tactile bump without an overly shrill click makes them, in our opinion, superior to the blues for typing. The blues are just unpleasantly loud, and the gritty feel of their tactile bump—plus the dead zone between the actuation and release points—can make them uncomfortable.
As for the keyboard design, which is shared with the other three models, we’re rather impressed with it. The frame feels sturdy, and the action of the keys is solid. There’s none of that musical ringing we noticed with other mechanical units like the Das Keyboard—just nice, solid click-clacking. The Rosewill enclosure has no glossy finish to collect fingerprints, either. Some folks might have preferred to see a palm rest and some media keys included, but we appreciate the elegance of a plain, no-frills design.
For $109.99, the RK-9000BR is a rather solid deal. Other models may be $10 cheaper, but the more comfortable brown switches easily justify a small premium. Besides, Newegg offers free shipping on the RK-9000BR right now, while a couple of the cheaper variants each cost $7.87 to ship.
The only downside is the Mini USB port. Rosewill may have cut corners there, which is a shame given that mechanical keyboards are prized in large part of their durability. There’s no sense in having switches rated for 50 million operations if bumping the Mini USB jack too hard can make your keyboard inoperable. That said, as long as you’re aware of the issue and keep the jack out of harm’s way, there’s probably little reason to worry. As Just Brew It! demonstrated in the forums, a little soldering can resolve the problem if the connector does become unseated.
Before we sign off, we should note that Newegg also sells an “ivory white” variant of this design, the RK-9000I. From what we can tell, it has Cherry MX blue switches and is functionally identical to the others. The only difference is a white paint job on the outer frame.