Why is finding a new keyboard so difficult?
WARNING: Super long, very boring. Read at your own risk.
As someone who has always enjoyed writing since I was in my teens, the keyboard is a device I have grown to be pretty choosey about. While I did start writing on our family Commodore 64 back in high school, I can’t say I had a preference for or against its keyboard simply because I was rarely exposed to any other varieties.
My first computer was a Macintosh Portable, and I wore that thing out. I have to say though, by that time I was familiar with different kinds of keyboard styles and mechanics. Apple had several varieties of keyboard available for their Mac products, ranging from spongy to professional. The Mac Extended Keyboard II was a beautiful device and a pleasure to use for any length of time. The Portable’s keyboard was based on this keyswitch tech, and I never got tired of using it.
I won’t walk you through my long storied history with keyboards in the 90s and 00s. Suffice it to say I was happy with Apple keyboards, until I discovered Logitech made some pretty cool devices in the early 00s, and started using those. One of the finest keyboards I’ve ever owned was their diNovo Media Keyboard from 2003. I still own this device, and on occasion it feels good to be able to unpack again and enjoy typing on this first-rate peice of luxury technology.
However as I bounced around (and wore through) one after another after another Logitech board, I discovered to my absolute delight that a new era of keyboard technology was upon us: the era of mechanical keyboards. My first experience with this was the Das Keyboard Professional Model S, with its click-tastic Cherry Blue keyswitches. I used this less than a year before deciding that my Corsair K90 which I’d bought for my gaming PC, was actually better to type on than the Das. I also liked that its keys were illuminated, which the Das was not. So I replaced the Das with a Corsair K70, a magnificent and uncompromising piece of technology that made me so happy to use I never considered replacing it until now.
The K70 served me faithfully for seven years. Seven years. Easily more than twice as long as any Logitech board had in the past. And the K90 was eventually replaced with a K95 which is still in use today.
However after seven years of service, I kind of just want something new now. There’s nothing at all wrong with my K70, I just kind of want to have a different typing experience now. And thus began the Saga.
My first thought was to go back to Das. Since the Model S, they released a new board with backlit keys that I thought I would enjoy using. So I ordered it and was excited to receive it, set it up and spend an evening writing on it.
Except… I didn’t like it. The keys felt mushy, even though they were Cherry Browns—a keyswitch that’s supposed to be slightly more tactile than the Reds. The keys were backlit, however I noticed that the backlighting was very poorly controlled. Even on low brightness settings, the LEDs were spilling light all over the place underneath the keycaps onto the board beneath. There was so much light, in fact, that the light in the spaces between the keys were interfering with the legibility of the keycaps. It sounds ridiculous but I actually was having a non-zero amount of trouble telling the keycap letters from the light between them. This didn’t make the board difficult to use, but it did make it unpleasant to use.
Also, I found that I was utterly dependent on the media controls at the top right of the Corsair boards I’d been using. Muscle memory was just too ingrained. The Das Prime13 has no dedicated media controls; it’s just a flat unused surface up there, and my fingers kept reaching for that space and finding nothing there. This was a regular irritant.
So I decided, if I don’t absolutely love the experience of using a new keyboard—especially one I’d spent a substantial amount of money on—I wasn’t going to accept it. I boxed it up and returned it to Amazon within days of its arrival.
Then I decided I might as well return to the source I enjoyed so much: Corsair’s Vengeance line. The successor to the K70 from Corsair was the K95 RGB, and a beautiful piece of hardware it is, at least in pictures. I placed my order and thought, surely this will do the trick.
The device arrived, and quite to my frustration, the light-spill issue was even worse than the Das. At this point I decided to take pictures, to illustrate how crazy this was compared to the K70 I’d been using up to now.
There’s a bare touch of light-spill on the red K70, but as you can see above, it’s nowhere near as intrusive as the K95. It is so bright, the LED from beneath a key on an upper row was casting light competing in brightness with the keycaps on the row beneath it. It was really confusing my eyes. I don’t need to look at the keyboard when I’m typing, but on the occasions I do, I need to be able to read what I’m looking at.
So I returned the K95, and decided I was determined to find the best keyboard to replace the K70, even if I had to do more significant research before making another purchase decision. By this time, a set of criteria had coalesced:
- Low-profile. Wanted something sleek and elegant this time.
- Media controls in the upper right corner, at least a volume control.
- Backlighting needed to be muted and not overpower legibility of the keycaps.
- Typing feel had to be good enough for me to want to use it.
And the money barrier had been raised. I was willing to spend just about anything, up to about $300. (Yes, they do make keyboards that expensive, and then some.)
So after some further research—mainly watching videos by Hardware Canucks, which is a great channel—I decided that Logitech G915 was looking awfully pretty. Since I had experience with Logitech boards, I wasn’t worried about typing feel, and the G915 was just a beautiful piece of hardware. Fortunately, my area Best Buy had one on display, and another G915 TKL (tenkey-less), with different keyswitches. One was clicky, the other was linear. Neither was what I wanted, so I decided to roll the dice and shoot for the third, the tactile. Since I didn’t need it to be cordless, I saved about $50 on a corded version: the G815. I ordered it and a few days later, it arrived.
The good news: it was beautiful. It’s hard not to admire the design, and the premium materials made it look incredible on my desktop.
The bad news: the keys felt terrible. They felt cheap. Everything about the board screamed “premium” except the typing experience, and the typing experience is the whole reason I wanted a new keyboard in the first place.
I kept the keyboard over the weekend and really tried to get used to it. I wanted to love it. But no matter how long I used it, I just couldn’t stand typing on it. It felt so cheap.
So I took a deep breath and returned the board to Amazon, and went back to researching. I went back to watching Hardware Canucks, and found that a keyboard released by Razer recently was meant to go head-to-head with the G915. It was called the Deathstalker V2. Stupid name, but the design of the board was very restrained. It looked almost basic, almost nondescript compared to the G915.
It had everything else I was looking for, too. Low profile design. Premium materials, Restrained key lighting. And the Hardware Canucks guys were saying the Razer board felt better to type on. I also discovered a new channel called The Provoked Prawn, which I actually like a lot in spite of its juvenile name. So I decided the Razer Deathstalker V2 would be my next, and hopefully last, choice to replace the Corsair.
The keyboard arrived right on my birthday, which was a nice surprise. I got it unpacked and set up on my iMac. And WOW.
It doesn’t look quite as nice as the G815, but I don’t really care how it looks. I wanted a good typing experience, and this keyboard delivers that. I decided my quest for a new keyboard was over.
Unfortunately, after living with this keyboard for a few weeks, there’s one thing about the Razer Deathstalker V2 that made me seriously consider sending it back. And that is: Razer’s marketing materials flat-out lie about it.
Just about any keyboard will work when you plug it into a Mac. You need to reverse the placement of the Option and Command keys, but now that functionality is built into the OS, so it’s very easy. So I was able to get typing on it right away, and I’ve been writing quite productively with it since. It really is a joy to work with. However… I really want to change the color of the key lighting. Out of the box, it does this subtle rainbow wave, which is pleasant and not terribly distracting, but I don’t need that. I want the keys to be plain white, or maybe that slightly cyan Tron Legacy-white. Given how customizable the keyboard was designed to be, this should not be a problem.
Razer claims the keyboard is compatible with Mac OS. That strongly implies its configuration software will work on the Mac. Here’s the first lie: it doesn’t. Razer’s most current Mac-compatible config software, Razer Synapse, is version 2. Version 3 was released four years ago and still does not offer Mac OS support (Razer promised it would, at the time). There is no way to configure this model keyboard on a Mac using Synapse 2. The functionality that’s baked into the hardware is all you get.
But that should not have been the end of it. Because Razer also promotes this keyboard as having on-board memory that can save up to five separate profiles. That means if I plug the board into a Windows computer that is running Synapse 3, I should be able to configure the board with five different lighting profiles, save them to the keyboard itself, and then take it to my Mac, plug it in and have those five profiles to choose from and use.
That’s lie number two. Sure, you can save profiles to the keyboard, but they only work when the keyboard is plugged into a PC running Synapse 3. Without it, the board behaves as though it’s right off the factory line.
I had to borrow a friend’s laptop to get access to Synapse 3; it does not install on Windows 7 computers, which is all I have at home. Synapse is an exceedingly difficult program to use and it took me nearly two hours just to figure out how it works, how to set up different lighting options I wanted, and how to save them to the keyboard. I must have watched 4 different YouTube tutorials on the different aspects of the process (and there is an endless amount of YouTube tutorials on Synapse 3—it’s a real pain to figure out). It was incredibly frustrating.
But not nearly as frustrating as learning that all of that time was wasted, because the board does not acknowledge the existence of the saved profiles without Synapse 3 on the host PC. They have yet to release Synapse 3 for Mac, and I have no expectation that if and when they do, it will even help me. Because I’m running Mac OS Sierra on my main writing computer at home. Dollars to donuts, when they get around to releasing Synapse 3 for Mac, it will require a newer operating system than that.
But wait! you exclaim. There’s an open source solution for this! Check out “Razer macOS” on Github, you say. It will allow you to configure Razer devices on MacOS, you say.
There are six different lighting profiles built into the Deathstalker V2 from the factory. One of them is static light: the color is kind of a Matrixy green. It’s not terrible, it’s not offensive on the eyes, and I don’t really have a problem with it. It wouldn’t have been my choice, though. I would have preferred white. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to change the color on the board itself; if selecting different color options is possible, why shouldn’t I be able to press a key combination, type in a hex code, and have the keys change to that color? For that matter, why the Babushkan Borscht doesn’t the board save the five lighting profiles in hardware, like Razer said it does?
In searching the internet for answers trying to get this thing to do what it should be able to do, I found endless forum threads of frustrated users absolutely livid at Razer and their [lack of] support. Not just the complete absence of support for Mac users, but even on the PC side, they really seem to disregard their users feedback altogether. People are frustrated that Synapse 3 is so confusing and unintuitive. They also say it’s full of bugs after years of development time and beta-release. I can’t say I encountered bugs, but I did come up against some wildly confusing design ideas and things in the software that made absolutely no sense to me. Corsair’s software is far, far easier to use. A lot of people refuse to buy Razer products now, as a result of how they treat their customers and their radio-silence to legitimate criticism.
I probably won’t return the Deathstalker V2, though I was frustrated enough with my experience with Synapse 3 that I was incredibly tempted. I think I’ll hang onto it a while, and use it until I decide I’m ready for something else. I do like typing on it, which is really all I need.
And if you’ve read this whole post, I gotta say, thank you. Thanks for listening to me vent. I’m sure this is of interest to exactly no one, I started this post hoping it would have a happy ending… “yay look at my awesome new keyboard!” But if there is a lesson to be had here… I guess it’s “Don’t buy Razer if you want to use it with your Mac, and even if not, don’t expect much in the way of customer support cause they suck at it.” That’ll have to do.
If the Deathstalker breaks in the next 6 months or something, I will definitely update.
UPDATE: Very soon after posting this, I discovered this product: Corsair K100 Air. I might have to give this a look. Also, Das has released a new keyboard that piques my interest, the Das Professional 6. It’s not low-profile, but I might have to check it out at some point.