The Azio Retro Classic Mechanical Keyboard Review: Eyecatching, But Stiffby E. Fylladitakis on January 3, 2018 10:00 AM EST
Per-Key Quality Testing
In order to test the quality and consistency of a keyboard, we are using a texture analyser that is programmed to measure and display the actuation force of the standard keyboard keys. By measuring the actuation force of every key, the quality and consistency of the keyboard can be quantified. It can also reveal design issues, such as the larger keys being far softer to press than the main keys of the keyboard. The actuation force is measured in Centinewton (cN). Some companies use another figure, gram-force (gf). The conversion formula is 1 cN = 1.02 gf (i.e. they are about the same). A high-quality keyboard should be as consistent as possible, with an average actuation force as near to the manufacturer's specs as possible and a disparity of less than ±10%. Greater differences are likely to be perceptible by users. It is worth noting that there is typically variance among keyboards, although most keyboard companies will try and maintain consistency - as with other reviews, we're testing our sample only.
The machine we use for our testing is accurate enough to provide readings with a resolution of 0.1 cN. For wider keys (e.g. Enter, Space Bar, etc.), the measurement is taking place at the center of the key, right above the switch. Note that large keys generally have a lower actuation force even if the actuation point is at the dead center of the key. This is natural, as the size and weight of the keycap reduce the required actuation force. For this reason, we do display the force required to actuate every key but we only use the results of the typically sized keys for our consistency calculations. Still, very low figures on medium sized keys, such as the Shift and Enter keys reveal design issues and can easily be perceptible by the user.
The new Kailh Typelit switches gave us some interesting results here. The disparity across the main keys is ± 10.56%, which is very high and one of the worst results that we've ever had to date. To be clear, it is not something I expect to be a major problem for real-world use, but it is high enough for trained fingers to spot the difference between the keystrokes if they want to. Real-world use suggests that different fingers press different keys and, due to the speed of the typing, the user cannot really perceive the difference. The average actuation force is 52.7 cN, which is a bit higher than the rated 50 cN but natural for tactile switches due to the “force bump” that they require before the actuation point. Finally, the actuation force of the Space Bar button is very high because Azio installed two extra springs under this key for balance, greatly increasing its travel resistance and reset force. The latter also creates a small comfort issue, as the Space Bar makes a “clanking” noise each time it resets.
I always try to use every keyboard that we review as my personal keyboard for at least a week. My typical weekly usage includes a lot of typing (about 100-150 pages), a few hours of gaming and some casual usage, such as internet browsing and messaging. I personally prefer Cherry MX Brown or similar (tactile) switches for such tasks, suggesting that the Kailh Typelit switch should be a viable replacement. The Retro Classic keyboard required quite a bit of getting used to for me, as its feeling is vastly different than that of any typical mechanical keyboard.
Unfortunately, even after I was fully used to it, I found it far less comfortable than a typical mechanical keyboard for long-term use. On paper, the 50 cN rating of the switches might appear reasonable, but their shortened travel distance means that the stress on the user’s fingers is much greater. However, the problem here is not just the stiff Kailh Typelit switch but the “flat” layout of the keyboard and its circular keycaps. If the keycaps are not pressed exactly at their center and perpendicularly, the keys wobble, leading to uneven force application and travel resistance. It is difficult to express the feeling in words but think of it as having a sticky switch every time you do not press the key just right. After using the Retro Classic for 3-4 hours straight, I actually felt a lot of strain to my fingers, arms, and tendons, which I rarely ever feel using any typical mechanical keyboard.
For gaming, the Azio Retro Classic is largely unsuitable for the task, except if the user is planning to play only casual single-player or classic RPG games. This is not a fault of the Kailh Typelit switches but of the layout and the keycaps. The flat layout of the keyboard makes it very difficult to press the bottom row keys with your palm, creating a major issue for all FPS and action RPG gamers. Also, the necessity to press the round key right at their center and perfectly perpendicularly are certainly not going to be comfortable when rapid movements are required. Finally, aside from the ability to lock the Win key, the Retro Classic offers no gaming features to speak of. It is simply not designed with that in mind.