As a console-focused gamer, I’ve never owned a keyboard aimed specifically at gaming. That’s not to say I don’t play PC games often – I’m an avid Quake and League of Legends player and I got my start in competitive gaming while playing an RTS called Praetorians. I’ve just never seen the need for a gaming keyboard when a cheap, lightweight keyboard served my purposes just fine. This is a concession I’d never make with a mouse, but for something as simple as a keyboard I’ve never seen the necessity.
This left me both excited and suspicious when I was asked to review the Shift (retail price $89.99) – would this actually make a difference in my play over my $20 keyboard from OfficeMax?
The biggest selling point for the Shift is that you can customize everything so that it suits the game you play. The keys can be plucked out and moved around, every key can be reassigned, multiple layers of macros can be programmed, and you can even purchase an entire keyset to lay right into the Shift. The keyboard folds into three separate parts and those customizable keysets, sometimes referred to as ZBoards, will change the Numpad panel into a set specialized towards a specific game or genre. The removable folding keyboard part also introduces an issue – the space bar is split in two. This can be a nuisance at times and can be a tough adjustment for some people. I didn’t get to use any of the customized boards, but one issue I see with them is the positioning – most games require one hand on the keyboard and one on the mouse. Positioning your hand on the right side of this keyboard to leverage the custom keys would mean moving your keyboard to the side so that your hand isn’t reaching across your body to hit the Numpad area. Given the size of the keyboard, this could be an issue for anyone with a small desk.
On the software side, the new “SteelSeries Engine” controls all reassigning of hotkeys and macros. The interface is easy to use – just click on a button and then type what you want it to do. You can even manage different profiles for different games and set it so they automatically switch when a new game is launched. Overall I felt the tool was very easy to use and set up a few specific macros. However, I had some stability issues and the engine needs to continue running in the background for your profiles to work. I ran into several random crashes during gameplay and in addition to losing any macros you have set, you also lose functionality of half the spacebar. The engine also crashed when attempting my very first action with the program – attempting to modify the extra row of keys at the top of the keyboard. After clicking on the  icon, the Engine simply crashes every time.
Ultimately I found that the customization is nice – but why would I use it? I’ve been playing with the same setup for years now in Quake – WSAD, Lightning gun on Q, Rockets on R, Rail Gun on E, Plasma on F, and so on. The game already allows me to customize what buttons do what – why would I want to customize them through the SteelSeries Engine? Macros are pretty situational and really I’ve only ever found them useful in MMO’s, which often have that sort of functionality built in.
This could just be a lack of imagination on my part – but I couldn’t come up with any sort of custom configuration I would want for League of Legends, Quake Live, or Shogun 2 Total War.
Durability and Performance
When considering the merits of a gaming keyboard, what I expected most was that it would be sturdy and reliable. I’m happy to say that the Shift lives up to that expectation – this thing is quite sturdy. It’s larger and heavier than any keyboard I’ve used, which is fine because it doesn’t really leave my desk. Traveling with it to attend a tournament would be a bit of a hassle, but I imagine you could throw it in a laptop bag without any issues. One complaint I do have about the size is that the width of the keyboard is such that if I were to center it directly in front of me – such as I would for typing a lengthy article – then my mouse has to rest far out to the right. This means that any time I want to transition from typing to gaming I need to move the keyboard and mouse over. Just a small nuisance, but something I’ve never experienced with smaller keyboards.
The keys use membrane dome switches which are generally viewed as the least durable, although SteelSeries uses silicone for the rubber domes which they claim brings the lifecycle from 5 million keystrokes to 15 million. Of course, I didn’t attempt to press a key 15 million times, so I’m going to take their word on that. You won’t be getting the performance of a mechanical switch (50 million keystrokes), but it will last you a long time. Another thing that SteelSeries has done with the keys is make them as responsive as possible with a travel distance of just 4mm and lower resistance for frequently used keys.
The Ironic Case of the Shift Key
Oddly enough, my biggest gripe with the keyboard is I had a ton of trouble getting adjusted to the shift keys. I’m not sure why, but I found for the first two weeks of use my typing looks as follows: “HEy, can you cover top while I flank/”. Every single line I typed would start with two capital letters, and I struggled immensely with shift-punctuation. It took me 3 weeks to get to a point where I could type competently and I’m still having issues from time to time. One possible reason is that I hit the shift key with my pinky, the weakest finger, and the shift key is fine-tuned to require 70g of force instead of the 60g of force required for the face buttons. Or it could just be a bad button. I did some searching and saw that Kotaku also mentioned issues with the shift key in their review, so this isn’t an isolated issue.
But this is a gaming keyboard….
As a gaming keyboard, I got what I was expecting. It is responsive, durable, and provided customization should I want to tinker with it. Aside for having some issues getting lost on the QWER-1234 row in League of Legends, I didn’t have any problems with the keyboard while I gamed. At the $89.99 price point I also felt there had better not be any issues on the gaming front. I ran into those issues in the form of the software crashing, but that happened infrequently. I’d definitely be hesitant using this keyboard if I was expecting to compete in a tournament, given that the engine has to run in the background and a crash could lose any of your settings in an instant.
Then there is the real question – is this keyboard $70 better than a simple $20 keyboard? I personally just can’t find the value there, particularly since I was unable to really leverage the customization aspect of the Shift. I think if you can imagine ways to leverage that customization then you just might find that extra value. Otherwise, if you do some shopping around you can find the mechanical SteelSeries 6Gv2 for about the same price, which looks to be a better keyboard without the bells and whistles. Or you could just stick with that cheap keyboard you already have – that works too.
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