The K90 raises the bar to new heights for gaming and mechanical keyboards alike, but could stand to lose its dome-switched function keys that greatly diminish the backlighting and feel. A driver and firmware update couldn't hurt either.
Mechanical keyboards, despite their clear superiority over conventional dome membrane keyboards, have long been on life support. Major hardware manufacturers have abandoned the keyboards in droves for cheaper, quieter, mushier replacements that cost less than $5 to mass produce in China. And yet despite this, the mechanical dream has been kept alive for many years by a bunch of neckbeards who clutched onto their Model M keyboards for life. Usually for the improved feel, but also sometimes in a literal sense because that 6-pound behemoth is generally closer at-hand and much heavier than a baseball bat for fending off home intruders.
Thankfully, mechanical keyboards are finally making a comeback now that companies have realized that gamers care more about performance than they do maintaining a budget. Corsair's entered this ripe market with two mechanical keyboards of their own under the Vengeance brand, and naturally we've taken an in-depth look at both. The Vengeance K60 and K90 share many common features such as 20KRO, dedicated media controls and Cherry MX Red keyswitches, but otherwise split the FPS and MMO markets with a number of other features. In this review, I'll be going over the Corsair Vengeance K90 keyboard for MMO games, which distinguishes itself by having a sturdy wrist rest, backlighting, and a full complement of 18 macro keys. Should you be interested, I also have a full review of the FPS-oriented Vengeance K60.
The Vengeance K90 is in many ways what I'd consider to be a traditionalist gaming keyboard, drawing instant mental comparisons to my classic blue Logitech G15 keyboard of old. Take away the LCD screen, and just about everything else almost matches up: a full length wrist rest, standard 104-key layout, a Windows key lockout, deep blue backlighting on a silver backdrop, and a hearty supply of 18 macro keys with three shift states. And yet despite the strong resemblance between the two, it quickly becomes apparent that the K90 has a strong personality of its own that's well worth knowing.
To get started, the keyboard's frame is composed almost entirely of 2mm-thick brushed aluminum, used not only as the front fascia but also for the mechanical keyswitches' plate mounting. The aluminum is particularly prominent since unlike almost every other keyboard out there, there's no plastic shroud covering the bases of the keys. This alone creates a sleek design that's instantly unique and builds upon Corsair's aluminum-themed brand image that's shared by their high-end Vengeance gaming headsets. As an added bonus, the lack of a plastic shroud makes the K90 remarkably easy to clean since there's a clear pathway for a can of air duster and an exit path for the debris.
To the top right of the K90, you'll notice an array of silver multimedia controls that complement the Vengeance's aluminum design and are very reminiscent of Logitech's post-2009 gaming keyboards. The metal volume roller is particularly worthy of mention, offering smooth stepping and a perfect placement at the extreme corner of the board. The sheer drop to the low profile of the playback buttons from the adjacent number pad takes some getting used to, but does well to prevent accidental keypresses.
It's worth pointing out that besides the Vengeance K60, the K90 is the only mechanical keyboard I'm aware of that makes use of discrete media controls instead of function-shifted keys. Perhaps the other keyboards are just trying to keep the "pure" aesthetic of the Model M intact, but honestly the only things that mattered about that keyboard were its mechanical keys and tremendous weight. It's no longer the '80s, and these aren't laptop keyboards that I'm reviewing. All the other mechanical keyboard makers would do well to follow Corsair's lead here.
The Vengeance K90 sports an unusually thick braided cable that I'd be hardpressed to see you damage without a knife, or perhaps a buzzsaw. Like the Razer BlackWidow, the cable's end branches out into two separate USB connectors - one for the keyboard, and one that's a pass-through for a single USB port at the back of the keyboard. Though I'd be preferable to a 2-port USB hub for connecting gamepads or flash drives alongside my mouse, I do appreciate the stability of a direct connection to my motherboard. Where the K90 differs from the BlackWidow, however, is the placement of the USB port in a position that won't interfere with my mouse, and the lack of extensions for analog headsets. Not that I particularly care, being a USB headset reviewer and all, though you might.
The wrist rest that comes with the K90 has a smooth rubberized feel to it, and latches onto the base of the keyboard with two sets of plastic clips and two integrated screws. As a surprisingly nice touch, the wrist rest itself is built solid instead of a hollow dome like I'm used to seeing on Logitech boards. Unfortunately the angle and position of the wrist rest can't be adjusted beyond the optional tilt of the rear kickstands, and sadly there's no reverse tilt like there is on the K60. Still, I suppose we're lucky to be given a wrist rest in the first place. Apart from the SteelSeries 7G, I'm not aware of any other modern mechanical keyboard to offer one, which is a crying shame.
Of course, the biggest draw to the Vengeance keyboards is their use of Cherry MX mechanical keyswitches. Each key contains its own metal spring and plunger design, which greatly improves on the feel of the keys and also their reliability - rated at 50 million keystrokes per key. Contrast this to your standard membrane dome-switched keyboard that's sole purpose in life is to cut costs and offer you, well, a keyboard. They're good enough to get tasks done, but the silicone membrane beneath the keys is rated for only 2-10 million keystrokes per key and will feel mushy or uneven in comparison. The tactile difference between a mechanical keyboard and a dome switch keyboard is simply night and day. If you're a skeptic, find a friend or store that has a mechanical keyboard you can play with and feel the difference for yourself.
Today, Cherry Corp makes the most popular and widely available mechanical keyswitches as part of their Cherry MX family. There's a few different flavors of the MX keyswitch which range from MX Blues that replicate the tactile, clicky experience of IBM's legendary Model M keyboard and its buckling spring design, to the MX Browns that have a tactile bump but aren't as loud, and the MX Blacks and Reds that offer a linear application of force without any bumps or clicks. Finding the right color is a matter of subjective taste, so I strongly encourage you to take a look at Overclock.net's Mechanical Keyboard Guide to learn more about the different keyswitch types and see animated cutaway diagrams of them in action.
Corsair utilizes the lightest of the bunch in their mechanical keyboards, the linear non-tactile Cherry MX Reds. These keys are incredibly lightweight, requiring only 45 grams of force and 2mm of travel to actuate. This can be a problem if you're prone to resting your fingers heavily on the keyboard without intending to type as I sometimes do, but is otherwise a boon for combating fatigue during gameplay and minimizing response times. While I do prefer the Cherry MX Blue keys as found in Razer's BlackWidow for typing, I find myself coming back to the Corsair keyboard for the smooth linear action in gaming. The tactile click of the blues simply gets in my way when I'm quickly strafing left and right in a sniper duel, especially in Quake Live matches. I have yet to try the MX Browns that are described as a compromise between Red and Blue, but hope to offer my thoughts on those in a future review. Tactile or not, the Cherry MX Red keys in the Vengeance keyboards keys beat my array of traditional gaming keyboards hands-down for both typing and gaming.
With regards to noise levels, I do find the linear action of the Cherry MX Reds much more conducive to atmospheric gaming than the comparatively loud Cherry MX Blues, particularly in games like Metro 2033 where the subtle noises of the tunnels set a rather dismal mood. All of the Cherry MX keys do however produce substantially more noise than an ordinary dome switched keyboard, caused by the impact of the keycap bottoming out on the keyswitch. It's possible to lessen this effect by installing rubber O-ring dampeners on the interior of the keycap, which may be worth looking into if you find yourself staying up for late night gaming sessions while others are sleeping. I'm not sure why TechReport's K90 review sample came with dampeners, but mine did not and the reactions to this thread on Corsair's forum would indicate that clacky keys are the norm, which for me at least is a good thing.
It should be noted that the Vengeance K90 is not fully mechanical, though annoyingly you'll be hard-pressed to find that tidbit of info on the box or any e-tailer's website. Indeed, the top row of keys, the Insert-Pagedown cluster and even the entire bank of macro keys all use your typical silicone membrane dome-switched keys. Corsair explains on their blog that this was done to prevent accidental double-keystrokes with tuned silicone, as well as to place the keys on a lower plane than the typewriter keys. Alright, I'll buy that explanation for the macro clusters since they do have an inherent need to be distinct, but I personally find the dome-switched function keys to be inexcusable. Not only do they mar the backlighting as I'll explain later, but the keys themselves feel horribly mushy in comparison to the typewriter keys. Functions like Shift-Home or Shift-Delete just feel so wrong on the second keystroke. Hopefully Corsair reverses this decision in a future generation.
Illumination, Keycap Quality
The keys themselves look remarkably clean on the K90 and have a clear, easy to read font that's well-illuminated from the individual LED that's positioned behind each and every one of the mechanical keys. Brightness can be adjusted in three steps, though there's no WASD-specific lighting cluster or crazy fade in/out patterns. Not that they'll be missed. The lighting is decidedly blue and has a prominent splash off of the aluminum plating that looks astounding in a dimly-lit room. It'd still be nice to see the K90 offer up some different-colored SKUs or multi-color LEDs so I could have the keyboard match my computer's green lighting, though I do understand that silver and blue are the underpinnings of the Vengeance motif.
As is the standard for Cherry keys, the LED is positioned off-center just above the key stem, so expect the lower row of any dual-symbol key to shine noticeably dimmer than the top row. Short of adding an extra layer of thickness to create an even - albeit dimmer - look, there's not much that Corsair can do here. I'm just glad they didn't choose to switch around the top and bottom rows of symbols like Razer did on the BlackWidow.
Unfortunately the use of membrane dome-switched keys for the top row and Insert cluster means that there isn't an individual LED behind these keys, so they're quite dim next to the standard typewriter keys. In fact they're so dim that I actually find them to be the K90's biggest fault, but I'm a stickler for appearances. The dome-switched G-keys don't have as much of an issue in this regard, mostly because they're colored white and are supposed to appear distinct from the main keys anyway.
The soft finish of the K90's keycaps doesn't feel quite as good as the Vengeance K60's hard plastic, but the overall quality appears to be decent enough; I wasn't able to make any new translucent marks when scratching at the lettering with my fingernails, and didn't see any of the bubbling mentioned in AnandTech's K90 review. That said, the keys do appear to retain some of my finger oils and may develop a shine as the years go by. While Cherry keycaps all share a universal stem and are inherently replaceable, I'm not aware of any commercially available keycaps with transparent lettering, so I'd hope that Corsair can maintain a good supply for their 2-year warranty commitment.
I also noticed that the alignment of the laser etchings appears to be off, with some key symbols placed a bit higher than the adjacent keys. Minor as this may be, it tickles my OCD the same way that the small nicks in my car's paint do. I'm not sure if the alignment issue is a widespread one since I haven't been able find any similar reports from forum posters, so it could just be a problem batch and I'm unlucky. If you do notice bad key alignment, however, please sound off in the comments section below.