SteelSeries Shift Gaming Keyboard Review

The SteelSeries Shift is all about one thing – customisability. Like the Zboard before it, the Shift can transform into a different keyboard to fit the game you’re playing. This isn’t just in software either; the actual physical keys can be quickly detached from the base unit and replaced with one of a number of different keysets sold by the company, allowing you to quickly change both the function and physical appearance of the keyboard. It’s a very cool idea, but how well does it work in practice?

Gaming

The base keyset included with the Shift is pretty much a standard keyboard (as seen on the right), with the exception of a split-apart spacebar and some helpful directional symbols on WASD. For gaming, it’s solid but unremarkable; the keys are easy enough to hit and well proportioned but have no specific advantage over a normal non-gaming keyboard. SteelSeries claims up to six presses at once (key phrase there, “up to”), and sure enough in my testing I never found it a problem.

The dedicated macro keys, found along the top of the keyboard, are flat, wide and easy to press. I like that they’re along the top instead of (as is so often the case) along the side, as it means you’re much more likely to press them accidentally, although of course it also means it’ll take a little longer to reach them. There’s a record key on the top too, meaning you can record a macro and assign it to one of the macro keys without leaving the game, something that spares a lot of time.

Where it’s supposed to get good is when you take out the base typing keyset, and load in a keyset for your favourite game. SteelSeries were kind enough to supply me with a StarCraft II keyset, something I was particularly happy about as I play a lot of StarCraft II. Truth be told, for me the StarCraft II keyset was a mixed bag.

While having the shortcuts printed on the keys isn’t that useful for most serious gamers (I can’t see a pro-gamer looking down at their keyboard to remember how to build a structure), it can be handy for teaching the game to your friends.

Having shortcuts on the numberpad also doesn’t fit StarCraft very well – generally, you’ll have your left hand on the left side of the keyboard at all times, as almost all of the game’s shortcuts are on that side. To press the macro keys then, you’d have to take your hand off the mouse or away from the left side, neither of which seems very possible when playing at all but the lowest levels.

It’s certainly worth mentioning that the StarCraft II keyset was actually originally built for the Zboard, and seems to feature the same lower-quality key feel that the Zboard did. Particularly on the circular StarCraft specific keys on the right hand side, I found it a lot more difficult to find and hit the keys when I needed to. I would assume that this isn’t a problem with the newer Shift-specific keysets, but I don’t have them around to test so I don’t know.

If you’re the kind of person that owns shirts, bags, mousepads and other merch from your favourite game (and I know I am) then it’s pretty cool to have a themed keyboard. Otherwise though, I found having the standard keyset installed to be much more useful, even when playing StarCraft II. Overall, I’d say that the base unit is the best non-mechanical keyboard I’ve used for gaming, even if the StarCraft II keyset I tried wasn’t to my liking.

Typing

As a typing keyboard, the Shift is far superior to its predecessor the Zboard. The base keyset feels a lot better to type on, and while the split spacebar can cause some initial aggravation, once you learn where it is it’s not so bad. The letter keys are weighted at 60g, which I feel is pretty close to ideal.

The media keys and macro keys are, mercifully, flush with the keyboard, meaning that it’s extremely difficult to hit them accidentally, something that always happens when a friend sits down at my BlackWidow or G15.

The Shift also avoids the typical gaming keyboard obsession with moving around the keys for no good reason; the numberpad is present and accounted for, and the function keys all act as they should. The Home/End block is shifted down slightly to allow for the Bar Lock and Pad Lock keys, but this is a fairly easy thing to get used to.

While mechanical switches offer the best typing experience, at least in my opinion, the Shift isn’t bad at all. In fact, I’d say it’s probably one of the better gaming keyboards for typing, as the keys aren’t too mushy and everything is where it should be. Unlike the Zboard before it, you could legitimately use the Shift as your one-and-only keyboard.

Comfort

The Shift is a pretty comfortable keyboard to type on using the base keyset and will work fine for extended gaming sessions. When using the StarCraft II keyset and its rounded keys, I found that I would slip off fairly frequently, making it a bit more tiring to use. Overall though, this is a perfectly usable keyboard for typing, although big writers or programmers will likely find a mechanical or scissor keyboard more to their liking than the Shift’s rubber domes.

Connectivity

As with most high-end gaming keyboards, the Shift’s cat-of-nine-tails cord features a number of passthrough options, allowing you to plug peripherals into your keyboard instead of scrabbling around the back of the computer to plug things in. If you’re low on USB ports or your case doesn’t feature front or top facing ports, this can be a real lifesaver. There are two USB ports, a microphone port, and a stereo port. Unusually, one of the USB ports is powered, meaning that you can plug in external harddrives, flash drives, and other USB devices that won’t work on a standard USB hub. The ports are fairly easy to reach too, giving the Shift the best connectivity options of any keyboard I’ve used.

Look and Feel

As with other SteelSeries products, the Shift looks more conservative than say, a Razer or Logitech product. Instead of constant flashy lights and poppy colours, the Shift has a muted and functional look, something that I personally prefer. While the choice of colour and finish is fairly standard, the Shift does feature a few strong curves; you can tell this isn’t a £3 keyboard.

The Shift feels well built as well; although made of plastic, it is weighty enough to convey a sense of strength. Each component is strongly constructed, from the thick plastic fold-up feet to the heavy plastic of the cord. This is impressive, particularly considering the potentially fragile operation of changing keysets, something that feels natural and not weak in any way.

Software

The Shift’s software portion, the SteelSeries Engine, allows you to further customise the keyset by remapping any key on the keyboard. As well as single keypresses and predefined shortcuts, such as launching programs or activating commonly used Windows functions, you also get access to the Engine’s advanced macro functionality. Essentially a stored sequence of commands and delays, macros allow you to accomplish multi-step tasks with the push of a button.

These are particularly great for MMOs, where you’ll be casting the same spells in the same order again and again. My own favourite macro usage is to spam the in-game chat with victory messages after I defeat the enemy team in FPS titles, but there are loads of situations in which a macro can be very useful.

As you change keysets, the Engine switches to that keysets profile, allowing you to have different functionality in different games. Typically, these mappings will only be activated once the game is detected by the Engine software, thus preventing the indignanty of performing a spell casting or chat spamming macro in the middle of your IM conversation.

You can also import and export profiles in the Engine, allowing you to share configs with your friends or download them off the internet. Another cool feature is the Stats tab, which allows you to record how many times you press each key on the keyboard during a gaming session, displaying the results in a nifty heatmap of the keyboard.

Overall, the Shift’s software is top-notch, tying with Razer’s in terms of functionality and ease of use.

Cost

The Shift currently costs £75 on Amazon.co.uk – roughly similar to the Razer BlackWidow and the Logitech G15, both of which have their unique features (mechanical switches and an integrated display, respectively). While initially this seems like a great price, once you factor in the cost of additional keysets at £17 a pop, it’s a harder one to judge. While the Shift’s base unit is excellent, you really need to buy a keyset for your favourite game to really take advantage of it, which may make the Shift just too costly for some.

Conclusion

The SteelSeries Shift’s excellent functionality, solid construction and top-notch software overshadow its small flaws, and if you’re all about macro keys and customisability, then this is the keyboard for you. While I prefer a mechanical keyboard for typing, as a gaming peripheral it’s excellent.

As always, buying a keyboard is a very subjective thing, so don’t take my word for it: Go and try a friend’s! And if you’ve tried the Shift or another great gaming keyboard lately, let me know in the comments!

The SteelSeries Shift and StarCraft II keyset were provided by SteelSeries.