The latest keyboard from Razer takes more than a few cues from the Blade laptop – but is that a good thing?
There’s no doubting that the Ultimate moniker attached to the very fancy Death StalkeR Ultimate is well-deserved. Straight out of the box, this is an imposing and heavy keyboard, boasting an array of unique features. It’s matte black, with rubber highlights and sexy chiclet-style keys (which you’d normally find on a laptop) and an angular design that looks aggressive without being over the top.
Sadly, in day to day use, the very high price tag of the Ultimate is very tough to fully justify.
Even though the Death Stalker is not a full-size keyboard – it’s missing it’s number pad – it’s still a very long board, thanks to the inclusion of the rather shiny Switch Blade UI. This sites on the right-hand side of the board, and is made up of a touch-sensitive LCD panel, and ten ‘adaptive tactile’ keys. This is the same system utilised on the very charming Razer Blade laptop; on that device, it works pretty damn well – on a keyboard, the experience is a little more trial and error.
But more on that later.
The Death Stalker Ultimate’s not only long, but also quite deep, thanks to a permanently attached wrist rest. This is actually very well-designed, with a thick layer of highly tactile rubber that’s not only comfortable, but guaranteed to help keep your hands in the same position game-in, game-out – it’s just impossible to slide around on sweaty palms.
In fact, the entire keyboard is very well engineered. I’ve often found Razer keyboards to feel a little cheap, but the Death Stalker is very solid. It certainly looks like you’d expect a $350 keyboard to look.
Though, it must be said that while larger and heavier keyboards are certainly handy – there a little easier to use, with more space between keys, and tend not to move around much in intense gaming sessions – but if you’re gaming space is even a little cramped, the Death Stalker Ultimate may well be too big. If space isn’t an issue, great – but there’s more to be aware of.
What the hell’s a chiclet?
If you don’t know much about the world of laptop keyboards, the term chiclet may well be more than a little odd. It’s what those typically flat, square keys – with horrendously short travel – that you find on most modern laptops are called, and it’s named after a brand of game that’s, well, flat and square (and probably also has really shallow travel). It’s a space-saving measure for laptops, so the shallow, scissor action makes a lot of sense.
So how does it fare on a gaming keyboard?
Well, better than you’d expect, to be honest, and certainly better than it feels like you’re doing. The shallow travel means you’re getting very limited feedback on key activation, so it often feels like you may not be striking keys cleanly. In typing and gaming, this leads to a lot of double-activations, but the thing is you generally are getting clean strikes; it’s just the poor feedback making it feel like a mis-key.
It certainly takes some getting used to, especially after using a mechanical keyboard for so long as standard, but it’s surprisingly workable. I wouldn’t call it ground-breaking – and it’s certainly not on a par with a mechanical option – but it’s better than we expected. That said, Razer’s insistence on using non-standard alpha-numeric characters does make looking for certain letters a bit of a challenge – the standard characters are so ingrained that any change in design means you’re almost learning the keyboard layout from scratch again.
Keyboard to a knife-fight
The Switch Blade UI is arguably the star of the Ultimate, though, and it’s certainly what bumps the price up to such an impressive amount. It’s without doubt very well made, especially the way the tiny adaptive screens in each of the ten keys is situated so that it appears clear from a natural angle. And it’s certainly neat to be able to punch up Facebook or Twitter, or set up timers for key game events (like respawns in an MMO for instance), but the real pull is seeing the Switch Blade UI change completely to match your game, with custom keys and symbols.
At time of press, there’s limited games available – Battlefield 3, Star Wars: The Old Republic, TF2 and one or two others, and while Razer’s opened the UI up for coders, the rather empty state of the official forums suggests we’re not going to see a lot of development in this area, making the Switch Blade a bit of a white elephant if your favourite game is not on the list. Even then, I simply couldn’t get BF3 to work. The Old Republic worked fine; however, it does take a little bit of retraining to get used to the different key layout.
And, of course, you can program the UI yourself, adding custom icons for whatever game you feel needs the extra love, and the UI is great for on the fly macro customisation. It’s also handy to have the touchpad as a backup, especially if you often swap between mice (which is likely something not many people usually worry about).
Ultimately, though, it is bit of an unnecessary gadget. It’s great on the Blade, where it’s more tightly integrated with the overall machine, but on a keyboard it seems a bit cludgy, not to mention excessive in terms of cost. $350 is a huge outlay for a keyboard that isn’t even mechanical – quite possibly, too much of an outlay. It’s a solid keyboard, but simply too expensive and niche, even for us.