The gaming keyboard 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.
April 2012 R. Scott Clark
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.
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.
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.
Beyond backlighting and a standard wrist rest, the last major reason to consider the Vengeance K90 over the K60 is its array of 18 macro G-keys. Throw in three different shift states, and you’ll have a full complement of up to 54 macros per profile. But in order to make use of these, you’ll need to install some drivers first. Like with many of the products I’ve reviewed lately, the K90 keyboard lacks any driver disc or proper manual in the box, with only a quickstart pamphlet to guide you in the right location for downloading them. This is probably for the best since it reduces waste and promotes the use of the most current drivers, though users with limited internet access will obviously need to jump through a few hoops.
In this review I’ll be discussing the beta v2.12 drivers since those are the ones Corsair have been pushing since early January in place of a stable release. While the K90 uses the same unified configuration software as the M60 and M90 Vengeance mice that I previously reviewed, you’ll need to run separate installers for each device if you plan on using multiple Vengeance products. Bundled in the driver zip file for the K90 is a firmware updater to v1.07, which should be installed before using the drivers.
Configuring the macros themselves is fairly straightforward, matching up with the likes of Logitech’s G-series keyboards. Press the Macro Record (MR) button, press a desired macro shift-state (M1-M3) followed by a macro G-key, and type your macro before pressing MR a second time. It’s also possible to record macros while in-game via the hardware MR button. I should point out for the hardcore macro users that recording mouse actions like Mouse1 or the scroll wheel not currently an option, nor is the ability to write any scripts. For now, simple keystrokes are all we have to play with, though I’d hazard a guess that this is all the majority of gamers including myself would need anyway.
Recording delay options are plentiful with checkboxes for using the natural delays as you type the macro, a default delay of N milliseconds in-between each step of the keystroke, a random delay time up to N milliseconds, or no delays whatsoever to type as fast as possible. Playback options are equally abundant with options to play a macro once, a set number of times with a fixed delay in between sequences, constantly so long as a macro button is held, or continuously until the button is pressed a second time. The only playback feature that’s notably lacking is the option to have a single key held down so long as the macro key is held – a natural requirement for push to talk applications. Corsair has stated on their forums that this will be built into a future release of the drivers, though for now there’s a workaround that involves creating a repeating macro with no key release stage.
Profile management is here and in force, allowing you to create a seemingly-unlimited number of profiles for various needs. It’s possible to have the drivers automatically switch profiles if you bind one to a specific application or game, though the K90 shares Razer’s limitation here that you’re only able to bind one application to each profile. You can always duplicate existing profiles to work around this, though if you ever make changes you’ll then need to update multiple profiles. It’s also possible to backup profiles to XML and make changes in a text editor before re-importing it elsewhere.
One interesting feature of the Vengeance K90 keyboard is its ability to playback macros through hardware, which can be ever useful if you’re a tournament gamer and are using a computer without keyboard drivers. This comes with a few tradeoffs, mainly that application-based profiles will no longer work even if you’re on a computer with drivers, and also that macros recorded on the fly won’t be made active until a profile is saved back to the K90. Only one profile can be loaded into the K90’s memory at a time, though with a total of 54 macros through the three shift states I doubt that will be a major cause for concern.
Hardware playback’s use case isn’t limited to tourney gamers, however. Certain games like Battlefield 3 and Skyrim are unable to make use of macros unless the Hardware Playback option is enabled, which then presents the restrictions I just detailed above. I’m not sure why Corsair in particular faces this problem, as my G15 keyboard from 2005 works just fine without hardware macros. In any case, thankfully the K90 deals with this problem a bit more gracefully than the M60 and M90 mice that I’d previously reviewed. Whereas those mice had all their buttons rendered useless in software mode including Mouse1, all of the K90’s keys except the G-keys will continue to work reliably.
Many of the functions and caveats of the Vengeance software that I just went over are covered in this software guide (PDF), though you’ll notice that it was written for the M90 mouse. You should still give it a read, though, since many of the macro functions are shared between devices. But of this guide and some insightful threads on Corsiar’s forums, there’s not much in the way of documentation for these drivers. Mouseover tooltips are sorely missing from the program’s interface, and an integrated manual or bundled help document are nowhere to be found in the drivers. There is a question mark button at the top right corner, though it links to an online FAQ that’s as much for the K90 as it is for the Vengeance 1500 headset with completely different software.
While I personally haven’t found the Vengeance drivers to be nearly as buggy or irritating as they are with the Vengeance mice, there’s still a clear need for a driver update. You’ll want to keep an eye on this Corsair sub-forum for newer drivers since there’s presently no automatic update mechanism built-in to the present ones. As much as I respect the notion of shipping an all-encompassing update that’s received plenty of love from the quality assurance department, we’re now five months into a product launch. The lack of solid drivers at this point or even piecemeal updates is disheartening to say the least.
Of course, one of the staple features of a gaming keyboard is a Windows key lockout, and the K90 is no stranger to this. Positioned next to the backlighting toggle, this button will effectively disable the Windows key to prevent you from accidentally minimizing your game during the fiercest of firefights. It’s also particularly handy when playing MAME titles with the default keymaps that straddle the Windows key like a time bomb.
Another major gaming feature on the Vengeance K90 that’s not given nearly enough credit is its 20-key rollover (20KRO), making it possible to press literally any combination of up to 20 keys simultaneously. For left-handed setups, emulators and niche games like Frets on Fire, this is a huge deal. Contrast the 20KRO to most other USB keyboards, which set the limit at six simultaneous keys and have problems with ghosting.
What is ghosting, you ask? Almost every keyboard is set up on a key matrix, where several keys are placed on a shared circuit instead of one circuit for each individual key. This can cause problems such that pressing certain combinations of two or three keys will result in an unexpected “ghost” key. Modern keyboards work around this by detecting the combination and jamming the ghost key, though you’ll still find yourself unable to press certain key combinations. To use some real-world examples of jamming in action, the Razer BlackWidow optimizes its matrix to prevent jamming around the WASD cluster, but cannot register the Z+X+C combination or more than two arrow keys. Other keyboards can have it worse still, like the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard that can’t register the almighty W+Shift+Space combo. But with the K90’s 20-key rollover, you never have to worry about this.
There is one glaring bug with the K60 and K90 that you should be aware of. On occasion a key may stick down, infinitely repeating itself until the offending key is pressed a second time. Only, the physical key isn’t actually stuck, Windows just thinks that it is. The effect isn’t always instant, and may take a few seconds for the key to start repeating after it was initially hit. Over the course of a few weeks, this bug has so far resulted in me continuously moving backwards in Quake Live once, along with five instances of the backspace key going rogue while I’ve been writing reviews. Irritating, yes, but infrequent and easily fixed by an extra death or a Ctrl-Z. For tournament players, however, this contingency means more than a stupid death; it means your ranking and livelihood. I’d advise any pro gamer to avoid buying a Vengeance keyboard until this bug is confirmed squashed.
You’ll want to check on these forums for updates in the mean time. Corsair has mentioned to me that they believe the issue lies with the polling rate and have also hinted at a firmware fix to address the issue sometime in the future. In proper FPS form, the timetable given for the fix is when it’s done. Whenever that is. Frustrating, but I suppose it’s better than Valve Time.
I really like the direction Corsair has taken gaming keyboards with their Vengeance K90. Mechanical keys are a godsend that should be placed into every gaming keyboard, and I find myself preferring Corsair’s selection of Cherry MX Red keys for gaming over the MX Blues in its closest competitor. Ultimately this boils down to personal preference, however, so it’d be nice if Corsair were to offer a a variety of SKUs with different Cherry keyswitch types. Dedicated media controls, 20-key rollover and a full-length wrist rest do well to push the K90 above the rest of its mechanical cousins, and other keyboard makers would do well to follow Corsair’s lead here.
The one major downside to the K90 that I find myself shaking my head at are the mushy dome-switched function keys, which spoil the otherwise brilliant backlighting. The dome-switched G-keys, however, can safely be left as-is since they work rather well in both form and function. I would like to see some improvements to the Vengeance gaming software that’s still in beta, though I found myself much less annoyed with it here than I did with the Vengeance mice.
Overall I’d say the Vengeance K90 easily justifies its $130 street price and is well worth the upgrade over your dome-switched keyboard no matter who the manufacturer is. If you’re a professional tournament gamer, though, I’d hold off on buying until Corsair releases a firmware fix to quash the annoying albeit infrequent key repeat issue.