We've reviewed a healthy number of peripherals from Logitech, Corsair, SteelSeries, and others, but our coverage of Razer's kit has been pretty slim. Razer is one of the biggest and most respected gaming peripheral companies in the business, and they took umbrage at the fact that they hadn't been featured up to this point. So much so, that they sent along two of their finest keyboards and their brand new gaming keypad.

In a recent roundup I mentioned what I considered to be the one serious flaw of Razer's portfolio: their Synapse 2.0 software. Razer's approach to software isn't uniformly bad; having a unified software suite for their products is good, and being able to synchronize settings to the cloud is a welcome feature. But the Synapse software has two dire shortcomings: it requires a Razer account, meaning you have to log in to the software every time your system boots up, and its update process is onerous at best. It seems like no matter what version of Synapse you download from Razer's servers, it always has to go through a long and drawn out update period, and heaven help you if you plug in any new Razer peripherals. You'll likely have to restart your system after installing them as well. Synapse has a lot of polish, but let me put it another way: if you can update your video card drivers without having to reboot, why should you have to wait so long for updates to install for your keyboard, and then reboot after?

Blackwidow Ultimate
Mechanical Keyboard, $139

Backlit with Razer's trademark green, the Blackwidow Ultimate shows tremendous promise. This is an extremely sturdy, attractive keyboard, with several levels of backlighting adjustment, a USB 2.0 port on the right side, and a harness for headphone and mic pass-through. If nothing else, it proves that Razer can definitely do industrial design right; it's easy to see why Vivek's a fan.

While I prefer having an optional wrist rest, I think the Blackwidow Ultimate's major failing as a gaming keyboard is the use of Cherry MX Blue switches. No amount of macro recording, gaming modes, backlighting, and so on can really change the fact that for the vast majority of users, Cherry MX Blues are one of the worst mechanical switches for gaming. I adore them for typing text, but the amount of actuation force that Blues require makes them poorly suited for any game that might require quick input and especially double tapping. This is something that's going to be a matter of preference for a lot of users, but there's a reason Blue switches are rarefied in gaming keyboards. Under the circumstances, I'm still inclined to stick with my old recommendation of the Corsair K70 and K95.

DeathStalker Ultimate
Switchblade UI Keyboard, $249

My first inclination is to compare the DeathStalker Ultimate to Logitech's flagship G19s keyboard; they both feature color LCD displays with custom user interfaces, and they both make the same fatal mistake. I'm much, much more forgiving of the DeathStalker Ultimate, though; what you're essentially looking at is, at worst, a gaming keyboard with a touchpad built in. Razer's Switchblade UI interface allows for dynamically changing the icons and functions of the ten keys above the display, and in turn also allows you to use the display for different functions. Its default function is to be a touchpad, but you can use it as a web browser, media player, Facebook or Twitter client, calculator...it goes on.

Where I think Logitech's G series UI has Razer beat presently is in third party support; I played with the available Skyrim applet which was fantastic for shortcuts, but doesn't really make use of the touch display except as...a touchpad. It doesn't display any useful information. Additionally, the list of available applets for Switchblade is pretty spare. Razer really needs to step their game up in terms of developer relations.

I'm also really underwhelmed by the keyboard itself. $249 for a membrane keyboard is a very bitter pill to swallow, Switchblade UI or no. People willing to spend $249 on a keyboard are liable to be willing to spend the extra scratch to get one with mechanical switches. Where I do think Razer has a slight edge is that the chiclet keys are very shallow; the DeathStalker Ultimate fares a lot better at the quick taps that the Cherry MX Blue switches hinder the Blackwidow Ulitmate with. If you're strictly gaming with the keyboard, then it definitely gets the job done.

The problem is trying to do just about anything else with it. There's definitely an adjustment period with the DeathStalker Ultimate, but the keys just don't lend themselves to a very enjoyable typing experience. This is like a slightly deeper laptop keyboard. The chiclets make sense for style and matching the Switchblade UI, but they really are lousy for productivity.

Still, Razer gets a lot of points for doing something different. Logitech's G600 MMO mouse was too big and unwieldy for me but found a very happy home with a friend, and I think the DeathStalker Ultimate is another one of those products that just needs to find a good match. I can see this being a borderline ideal keyboard for some users, and it's entirely possible I'm off base with parts of my assessment. I just can't help but feel that Razer, like Logitech with the G19s, is scratching at the surface of producing the ultimate gaming keyboard but not quite willing to make that jump yet.

Gaming Keypad, $69

A product like the Tartarus is difficult to evaluate because it's really very niche. The keyboard and mouse initially existed as ways to control games because, well, they were what happened to be connected to the PC. PC gaming evolved to exploit the advantages of this control scheme, and the peripherals themselves evolved in kind. Keypads like the Tartarus (and its predecessor, the Nostromo) attempt to specialize the keyboard half of the traditional PC gaming setup a bit more, but results are mixed.

Gaming keypads require a heavy adjustment period. I have a friend who swears by his Nostromo and actually has trouble adjusting back to using a conventional keyboard for gaming; I personally have a harder time making the adjustment. If I'm going to invest in the time it takes to adjust to using a new peripheral, it needs to be worth the transition, but something like the Tartarus only gives you more input options if you use the thumbstick and buttons. If you don't, you're actually down keys.

It's comfortable enough in the palm (the palm rest itself is adjustable, capable of sliding on one axis closer to or farther from the keys), and I find the membrane switches a bit more forgivable than on a full keyboard. For some users, the Tartarus will shine. Certain gamers, but I also know that a lot of art students will use a keypad like this in conjunction with a Wacom Cintiq and program it with Photoshop shortcuts. Either user will be very happy with the Tartarus, but it's difficult to recommend. Some users will become true believers, but some, like me, will probably just be happy to stick with their gaming keyboards.

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  • echtogammut - Wednesday, September 4, 2013 - link

    With the Nostromo, I can move the rest far enough forward but the 15 "space" button is un-usable. My hands are pretty nimble from 25+ years of piano playing, but there is no way of using that button comfortably. So I remapped the space to button above the joystick (the joystick was just too slow) which works but not very well. With the wrist rest moved forward, the bottom keys (11-14) become hard to hit. I do find the Nostromo useful for MMOs, but it is just not fast enough or ergonomic enough for FPS use.
  • SkyBill40 - Thursday, September 5, 2013 - link

    I see your point about the positioning of the rest making the space button and the bottom row of keys hard to use. I, too, have it all the way forward but don't have as much of an issue reaching or making use of it as you do. I've also spent years of playing musical instruments (saxophone being the most relevant of the many I play for comparison). What I'm beginning to find is that my left thumb seems to ache more than it used to, but I don't know whether to attribute that to increased play on my PC or my Xbox.

    As I don't play MMOs, I can't speak to the usefulness of it there but would imagine it to be quite good. I'm pretty much an FPS man and I've had no issues. If I were to be forced to go back to a KB/M setup exclusively now that I've grown accustomed to my Nostromo, I'd be terrible for a while until I re-learned how to play without it.
  • Volnaiskra - Thursday, September 5, 2013 - link

    You don't know what it means to be annoyed by Synapse until you've used multiple Razer devices that live at different computers.

    I have a Razer keyboard on my work Mac, and a few Razer devices on my home PC. Every time I came home from work, Synapse on my home PC would popup a warning saying, effectively, "Help! The settings I uploaded to the cloud on your Mac today differ from the ones I uploaded on your PC last night. I don't know what to do! Tell me which one to overwrite!".

    I think a compulsory cloud management system for something as minor as keyboard settings (who regularly carts their keyboard around from computer to computer anyway?!) would be silly at the best of times. But one designed so poorly is just ridiculous. In the end, I had to uninstall Synapse on the Mac, hoping that the keyboard could fend for itself with default OS drivers (which it does, for the most part).

    As for the Tartarus, I'm very puzzled to see that product. It replicates what I believe to be the biggest flaw of the Nostromo: only 3 rows of keys. That's the main reason I ditched my Nostromo for a Razer Orbweaver, which has 4 rows. Combined with my delightfully extravagant (yet genuinely useful) 14-button Corsair mouse, I now have all the controls I need, all at my fingertips.

    I'm very happy with the Orbweaver, and I too can't imagine gaming on a regular keyboard. An input device that doesn't even take advantage of my opposable digits?! That's so......um, what's before Stone Age? ;)
  • SkyBill40 - Thursday, September 5, 2013 - link

    To remedy the situation on your work Mac, wouldn't it have been easy enough to create a new profile instead of removing Synapse entirely? If not and you're fine with default drivers to get the job done, that's just as well. It IS work, after all.
  • Volnaiskra - Thursday, September 5, 2013 - link

    Maybe. Except why should I bother? Synapse's cloud functionality is an annoyance that no one asked for, so why should I have to look for workarounds just try and make it work properly?

    The whole point of a cloud is that things become unified. Setting up multiple profiles for one individual person flies in the face of the whole philosophy.
  • SkyBill40 - Friday, September 6, 2013 - link

    Oh, I agree. I wasn't thrilled when my keyboard was working perfectly fine before Synapse was released and then I was essentially forced to it due to some functionality issues being suddenly "lost" to me. Once I upgraded my OS to W8 (despite XP working just fine before it) and re-DL'ed Synapse, all the functions decided to play along again.

    I'm not a fan of the persistent cloud setup as it's just unnecessary in my opinion as well as the opinion of others here. I can see what they're trying to do but, in the same view, I can understand your point and empathize with your frustration with it.
  • Sabresiberian - Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - link

    I too am irritated by the fact that I have to log in to Synapse to use their software. In fact, I uninstalled it; there is plenty on my system already that connects to the internet and keeps tabs on my software - and whatever else it sneaks - and I just don't want more of it.

    It should at least be optional.

    That being said, their positional audio system did help a bit using headphones while playing Borderlands 2.

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