I love watching StarCraft 2 played by the best in the world, from the team houses of Korea to the tournament scene in Europe. One thing that always struck me about these players, beyond their fancy unit movements and incredible decision making, was their choice of gaming peripherals. Instead of using the latest keyboards and mice with flashing lights, additional keys, and ever increasing DPI settings, StarCraft pro-gamers tend to favor equipment that seemed to be straight from the 90s; largely white or black keyboards with just 105 buttons and pedestrian mice. As I continued to follow the scene, I learned that the keyboards’ droll looks belied their expensive internals. These weren’t simply the low cost keyboards you find in computer labs around the world, these were specially designed mechanical keyboards.
So what is the difference between mechanical keyboards and normal keyboards? Well, instead of having bits of rubber underneath the keys, much like a remote control, mechanical keyboards contain high quality switches. This increases durability, but also provides a much different typing experience. Typically, instead of having to push the key all the way down to get it to register, mechanical keys only have to be pressed down a small amount. You often also get a nice and crunchy sound as you type, letting you know precisely when you’ve hit each key. Mechanical keyboards made using Cherry switches, the most popular supplier, are typically classified by the color of switches they use: Black is typically considered the best for gaming, Blue the best for typing, and Brown is somewhere in the middle.
I decided I really wanted to try one of these keyboards for myself, so I sat down and ordered the Razer BlackWidow. The BlackWidow is the cheapest mechanical keyboard sold in the UK at £60, at similar price point to Logitech’s G15. Its subtle piano black chassis houses a small Razer logo, Cherry MX Blue switches and 110 keys: that’s the standard 105, plus five macro keys on the left hand side. The BlackWidow also has a Ultimate variant, which adds backlit keys and USB/headphone passthrough ports for an additional £50. For me, it was a foregone conclusion that this wasn’t worthwhile, but if you’re planning on using the keyboard for a number of years (and with a mechanical keyboard, you certainly can) then getting the shiny version seems more reasonable.
Typing on the BlackWidow is a very pleasant experience; I’ve found that I’m able to type more quickly and with fewer mistakes than with my previous non-mechanical keyboard. This is invaluable to me as a writer and programmer, and I feel that I would definitely choose a mechanical keyboard over a non-mechanical keyboard in future. As a gamer, mechanical keyboards also make a lot of sense, with most offering the ability to press multiple keys simultaneously. Unfortunately, the BlackWidow falls short in this regard, as some key combinations will result in only two key presses being correctly detected. Razer have worked around this however, by making sure the common WASD keys are always detected.
One issue I anticipating having with the BlackWidow versus other mechanical keyboards was that of build quality; I expected the cheapest mechanical keyboard to also be cheaply made. Luckily, I found that the build quality of the BlackWidow is top notch; it is the most solid keyboard I’ve ever handled. It also weighs a hefty 1.4 kg, making it a top choice as both paperweight and emergency zombie-bashing weapon – it certainly won’t be accidentally pushed off your desk!
The keyboard’s looks are also a strong point. It looks more professional than a typical gaming keyboard, yet more polished than a typical mechanical keyboard, which have an unfortunate tendency to look very much like the £3 keyboard distributed with new computers. Like the PS3 or a Samsung laptop lid, the piano black service attracts fingerprints at an alarming rate, so be prepared to wipe it down before you take it to that LAN party.
If you’re thinking of getting an inexpensive mechanical keyboard, I’d enthusiastically recommend the BlackWidow – it provides a fitting combination of mechanical keyboard performance and gamer keyboard looks. For that reason, I’m happy to award it the WilliamJudd.com Editor’s Choice Award. You should also have a look at the excellent guide at OverClock.net, which covers the basics of shopping for a mechanical keyboard.