Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6043/capsule-review-thermaltake-meka-keyboards-and-black-element-mouse
Capsule Review: Thermaltake Meka Keyboards and Black Element Mouseby Dustin Sklavos on June 28, 2012 2:00 AM EST
Mechanical keyboards have become increasingly sought after over the past year, with more and more manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon, oftentimes producing gamer-oriented hardware that features mechanical Cherry MX switches. Going mechanical has a lot to offer both the seasoned typist and the serious (or even semi-serious gamer), and we've gone over those benefits in our reviews of Rosewill's RK-9000 keyboard (with Cherry MX Blue switches) and Corsair's Vengeance K60 and K90 keyboards (with Cherry MX Red switches).
For a little while we've also had on hand a trio of Thermaltake's Meka keyboards (along with their Black Element mouse), and all of these keyboards feature Cherry MX Black switches. So we have a few questions to answer here: what's with all these colored switches, what has Thermaltake made out of them, and which one is going to be the best for you? And as a substantial sidenote, in a world dominated by Razer and Logitech mice, what is Thermaltake bringing to the table with the Black Element?
Thermaltake Meka in Three Flavors
With the Thermaltake Meka we have not one but three keyboards on hand, which sounds more onerous than it is. All three of these keyboards feature the same build materials and the same Cherry MX Black switches; they differ only in size, layout, and additional features. In order from smallest to largest, we have the Meka, the Meka G1, and the Meka G-Unit.
The smallest of the three, the Meka (no suffix) has the most condensed/compressed layout. The document navigation key cluster is gone, with the Insert and Delete keys moved to above the number pad while the Page Up, Page Down, Home, and End keys relegated to the number pad. More perplexing is the reverse-L-shaped Enter key, which forces the "\" ("|") key to share space with the Backspace key. And probably the most unforgiving change is moving the "? /" key from the left of the Right Shift key to the right of the Up Arrow. Mechanical switches or no, the Meka's bizarre layout makes it a poor choice for many typists, particularly those who routinely switch between keyboards. If Thermaltake wanted to save space they would've been better off looking at notebook keyboard layouts featuring keypads rather than putting together this chimera. On the good side of things, note that the Meka also features two USB 2.0 ports at the top, which is always a welcome touch.
The next keyboard, and my personal favorite, is the Meka G1. The G1 features the most standardized key layout of the three; the only hiccup is replacing the Windows key with an Fn key and then moving the Windows key over to the right of the spacebar. I'm not personally a fan of that change, but gamers who've had to get used to avoiding the Windows key will probably be happy to see the move. The G1's massive cable bundle includes two USB 2.0 connectors (one for the keyboard, and one for the two USB 2.0 ports at the top of the keyboard) along with passthrough cables for the headphone and mic jacks on your tower that connect to the jacks on the top of the keyboard (next to the USB 2.0 ports). Users who prefer PS/2 connectivity also have that option, and Thermaltake includes a removable plastic wrist rest. The one thing I don't like is that the lock LEDs are all very bright red; I actually found the Num Lock to be slightly distracting.
Finally there's the Meka G-Unit, the largest of the three. My only complaint with this one is the reverse-L-shaped Enter key, but the dedicated media keys, volume controls, macro keys, and control of the backlight are all appreciated. That white LED backlight is tough to capture in photos, but you can see that it's selective: Thermaltake only backlights the keys they expect gamers to use. That means the WASD cluster, the arrow keys (also on the number pad), the spacebar, the Left Shift, and the Left Control keys. The backlighting can also be disabled if you're so inclined.
One major point where the Meka G-Unit does differ from the Meka G1 is that it uses a single USB 2.0 cable as opposed to a bundle, and that cable powers the two USB 2.0 ports in the top of the keyboard. Not just that, but the G-Unit also features a built-in audio chip to handle the microphone and headphone jacks in the top of the keyboard. Installing the drivers will have Windows default to using the G-Unit's audio jacks, unfortunately, but it's easy enough to switch back to your normal speakers.
Of course, that's the other major point where the G-Unit differs from the others: it actually has driver software due to having macro keys. We'll take a brief look at the software on the next page.
Thermaltake Meka and Cherry MX Black Switches in Practice
While the aggressively loud and wonderfully clicky Cherry MX Blue switches in Rosewill's RK-9000 leave a lasting and indelible impression as being ideal for any serious typing (and not sensitive enough for gaming), the difference between the Cherry MX Red switches in the Corsair Vengeance keyboards and the Cherry MX Black switches in Thermaltake's Meka keyboards is at least initially a little more difficult to articulate. I had to take the Pepsi Challenge to really tell, but the Black switches definitely feel a bit softer than the Reds. In many ways they feel like the next logical step up from using a good membrane keyboard.
That impression changed once I took the Meka G-Unit on a jaunt through Mirror's Edge, a game I continue to be unusually enamored with. The Meka G-Unit's (and by extension all of the Meka keyboards) Cherry MX Black switches have a springier quality to them that becomes much more evident in gaming than in regular typing, and as a result I felt like they performed much more like the Cherry MX Blues in the Rosewill keyboard. Hitting the quick keypresses for some of the jumps in Mirror's Edge seemed just a little bit harder to time with the Meka's keys.
Meanwhile, typing up this review of the G-Unit on the G-Unit has for the most part been a fairly pleasant experience. The tactile response on the mechanical switches continues to be noticeably superior to basic membrane switches, but when it comes to layout I find that Thermaltake's Meka G1 is ultimately preferable. It's common for keyboard manufacturers to place the rows of macro keys directly to the left of the keyboard, but in practice this is a bullet that so far I've only seen Corsair dodge with their Vengeance K90. Even Alienware's M18x notebook has a problem with these keys. Basically, when you go for any of the keys in the lower left of the keyboard you're usually hunting for them by touch, and there were a couple of times in using the G-Unit where I was hitting macro keys when I really wanted to be hitting the Left Shift or Left Control keys. Corsair managed to avoid this by recessing the macro keys, placing them at a different z-height than the rest of the keyboard and thus making the difference clear from a tactile perspective.
As for the software of the G-Unit, I was pleasantly surprised. Thermaltake's software is actually fairly light and includes an OSD that's very inobtrusive. You can also toggle between "Normal" and "Game" modes, which is basically a toggle for the Windows key. My chief problem with the software is that it's a bit obtuse, but not outside of the realm of comprehension for most users. The twelve "T" keys next to the main keyboard can be programmed to launch applications, enter keystrokes, or run macros, and the keyboard and software support three different sets of profiles.
The Thermaltake Black Element Mouse
As someone who's been a fairly resolute Logitech user (and still enjoys the G500), I have to say Thermaltake has done a remarkably solid job with the Black Element Mouse. The Black Element uses a mostly ambidextrous design with a soft-touch plastic surface that isn't anywhere near as inducive to clammy palms as the material Razer uses (and by extension, the material used on the old Microsoft Habu). The ridges in the mouse buttons also don't feel quite as deep as the ones typically found on Razer mice, making the Black Element more comfortable in the hand overall.
The top of the Black Element features two plastic buttons beneath the mouse wheel that default to toggling laser sensor polling speed, effectively changing the sensitivity of the mouse on the fly. Above them is a mouse wheel that feels like it has just the right amount of resistance, both in scrolling and in pressing as a middle mouse button. On the left side, where your thumb would rest, are three buttons in a row. This is one situation where I think Logitech's G500 definitely has a smarter layout in having the third button beneath the two instead of between them, as it felt like my thumb had to slightly reach to hit the uppermost button. Meanwhile, the right side of the Black Element has a single long button that you should be able to hit with your pinky without too much trouble. Flip the Black Element over and you'll find a button for toggling profiles as well as user-adjustable weights.
The software for the Black Element is a little obtuse at first, but most of the simple stuff is easy enough to get a hold of. Each of the mouse buttons is programmable, and you can individually adjust vertical and horizontal sensitivity. The mouse also supports up to four different DPI settings, and you can change the LEDs that light up the mouse to one of five colors: red, cyan, green, magenta, and blue. You can also disable LEDs individually, but unfortunately you can't choose different colors. Finally, you can program macros and button functions directly into the mouse, which is nifty in and of itself.
And how did the Black Element work in practice? Very well, actually, although there are some snags in the design. The default sensitivity of 3200dpi (vertical and horizontal) proved to be just right for me, and that's good because the mouse sensitivity buttons feel like they're a bit on the chintzy side. The same is true of the programmable buttons on the sides. They just don't have quite the same feeling of resistance and quality that the buttons on Logitech's G500 or Corsair's Vengeance mice do.
Conclusion: The Pieces are Here
Since we're really dealing with four different products and two different categories in the space of one review, it makes sense to break things down. Before we do that, though, it must be said that Thermaltake has produced some fairly solid products. They're not exceptional and need a little work, but they're certainly worthy of consideration and the software is in much better shape than I'm used to seeing.
Of the keyboards, the base Meka model can easily be ruled out. While one can appreciate the desire to produce a compact but still usable keyboard, the layout is so mangled that it's going to be of little use to anyone but gamers. Basic typing with that layout is more of a chore than it needs to be, and instead of reinventing the wheel Thermaltake's designers would've been better served simply porting over a standard notebook keyboard layout and calling it a day. The price tag of $89 is just the final nail in the coffin.
The Meka G1 model, on the other hand, is pretty much where it's at. While I can't stand the red LED for the lock toggles (especially when the other Mekas use a pleasing white LED highlight under the lock keys), the layout is best of breed and the wrist rest, though chintzy, is comfortable. That said, the $110 asking price is a bit steep steep, especially when you can get a Corsair Vengeance K90 with arguably superior Cherry MX Red switches for the same price. Corsair did cut costs by putting membrane switches under the macro keys, function keys, and document navigation keys, but it's a fairly minor sacrifice in exchange for what's a more attractive and frankly better built keyboard.
Finally, the Meka G-Unit is a mostly excellent keyboard with all the bells and whistles. The MSRP of $139 would be difficult to stomach, but thankfully you can find the Meka G-Unit starting at $98 (around $110 with shipping) which is even lower than the G1. Again, the problem is that it's competing in a universe where the Corsair Vengeance K90 exists. One place where the Meka G-Unit does beat the competition is in including sound hardware that allows you to plug a headset and microphone directly into the keyboard instead of your tower, so for some users that may be a solid selling point.
Between the three keyboards, I'd really like to see the Meka G1's layout on the G-Unit, and have the G-Unit's macro keys either recessed or somehow differentiated by touch from the rest of the keyboard. Across the board, MSRPs are a bit high, but online prices are better; I'm also still not sold on using Cherry MX Black switches for gaming. I've been using the MX Reds for a while and have found them close to ideal.
As for the Thermaltake Black Element mouse, that's a bit of a happier story. While I'm not a fan of how chintzy the programmable buttons can feel, the LED lighting is soft and appealing, the software works well, and more importantly, it has a surprisingly good feel to it. Mice are in many ways even more subjective than keyboards, but the Black Element's adjustable weight and relatively easy (and flexible) programmability coupled with its excellent handling should make it a strong candidate for most. You can pick it up starting at $55 online (or $65 at Newegg), so the price is pretty much in line with other gaming mice. I'd personally recommend it over Corsair's Vengeance mice, but my trusty Logitech G500 is still cheaper and I prefer that to both the Thermaltake and Corsair mice. If you need a good mouse that's more ambidextrous, though, the Black Element is worth a look.