Razer's Star Wars: The Old Republic keyboard includes some amazing features, but low-quality parts and performance issues ultimately get in the way.
Razer didn't make a name for itself by creating cheap, no-frills hardware. Quite the opposite; it has spent years honing its ability to cram features into peripherals that are designed to be wholly unique from the ground up. The Star Wars: The Old Republic Keyboard from Razer absolutely falls in line with the company's past efforts, offering capabilities found nowhere else in the marketplace. The problem is that innovation, especially in the hardware market, comes at a price.
At $250, the SWTOR Keyboard is far and away the most expensive keyboard available at major retailers. That said, it does feature Razer's cutting-edge Switchblade-UI, a combination of a full-color multi-touch screen next to 10 customizable buttons capable of displaying custom icons. These features aren't cheap, and high prices don't mean much if the functionality isn't up to par.
We are going to examine the functionality of the Switchblade-UI first, and then we'll address the quality of the keyboard on its own merits.
Switchblade-UI – Hardware
The full-color multi-touch screen is a thing of beauty, producing vibrant colors and deep blacks. The 4.05-inch display features a resolution of 480x800 pixels, pushing a respectable 236 PPI (pixels per inch).
The touchpad within the display is based on Synaptics' technology, one of the leading manufacturers of touchpads for laptops. It features multi-touch capabilities with up to three points of contact, and quite simply, it works. It's configurable, accurate, and responsive. Beyond five-point multi-touch gestures, you can't ask for much more in a touchpad.
The 10 dynamic adaptive tactile keys (DAT keys) that sit above the display are less impressive. Each key is a piece of clear plastic that acts as a lens, taking the light from the screen beneath the key and directing it towards the left. The unfortunate part about that is all of Razer’s promotional images represent the DAT keys with the icon reproduced at or near the top of the key. This implies that there is a screen within each key which does not appear to be the case.
The SWTOR Keyboard simply does not reproduce the claims made by Razer's promotional mock-ups, and the result is a screen that appears blurred or recessed well below the key unless you are within the sweet spot, as defined by the lens. Here are some photos we took that illustrate the aforementioned discrepancies.
The only conclusion we can draw is that Razer has implemented an array of screens within a single sheet, or it's activating regions of a single large screen beneath the entire DAT key panel. Razer’s current solution is the cheaper approach, and again, slightly contrary to the images used on their site.
There are other keyboards on the market that feature nine properly embedded OLED keys, with a single color, for around $180. If you prefer the full-color variety, Art Lebedev has got you covered at the cost of $530 for a 15-key panel, or $2,000 for a full-sized keyboard. Its latest product line has taken a step back, reverting to a recessed LCD panel, similar to the technique employed in the SWTOR Keyboard. You can preorder a six-key panel for $375 and a compact keyboard for $1,100. Below is an image that represents the concept of the expensive screen per key method employed in the $2,000 keyboard (i.e. not in Razer's product).
With these numbers in mind, Razer wins points for selling this young technology at a reasonable price compared to the competition, especially with a beautiful multi-touch screen beside it. Our only complaint lies in the fact that its promo images reflect a product that is drastically different from what it's offering.
We also couldn't help but wonder why the Switchblade-UI isn't on the left-hand side of the keyboard. It's doubtful that gamers will want to remove their hand from their mouse to hit macro keys, or crane their left hand over to the right side of the board. This product might be better as a stand-alone peripheral, rather than integrated into a keyboard.
Switchblade-UI – Software
The software behind the Switchblade-UI is as hit-and-miss as the hardware. The most reliable bit is by far Synaptics' configuration utility, which should look familiar to anyone who has configured a touchpad on a laptop. There are options for sensitivity, region detection, and gesture assignment. It's straightforward and robust.
The heart of the SWTOR Keyboard lies in Razer's Synapse (not Synaptics) 2.0 configuration utility. This cloud-based system lets you customize macros, profiles, lighting, and the icons displayed on DAT keys. Sadly, you must provide your own icons if you want to use anything outside of the SWTOR or FireFall universe. Most disappointingly, assigning an application to a key does not pull icons from the executable.
You can create macros on the fly, which includes the ability to view your inputs on the LCD display before saving the macro. You also have the ability to turn off delays if you want an unadulterated string of keystrokes. Recording and assigning macros works quite well, except in one particular, common, scenario. If you set a macro to the lower-left DAT key, it creates a problem when recording future macros. That key is where the record button appears on the SWTOR Keyboard, and when you hit record, it actually plays back the macro assigned to that key, making it a part of the new one you're attempting to create. Basically, don't assign a macro to that key, and you'll be OK. Not what we call a very elegant solution, but Razer can fix this with software updates if it gets its act together.