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Given the keyboards role as the most used peripheral attached to a computer, it's surprising that a majority of users are happy to go with cheap everyday keyboards for their typing needs. When my third Razer keyboard gave out due to heavy usage, I decided to look into the re-emerging market of mechanical keyboards to see what all of the hype was about.

Keyboards are one of the few areas in computing where technology appears to have receded rather than progressed. The first keyboards on computer systems used mechanical switches to detect the depression of the keys. As time passed, economics took over and cheaper alternatives to mechanical switches were found. The cheapest of these alternatives is the dome-switch; which took over as the mainstream technology. These dome-switches are by all accounts an inferior technology. Whilst not in the scope of this review, a full recounting of the benefits of mechanical switches is available: http://www.overclock.net/t/491752/mechanical-keyboard-guide

Having researched thoroughly the available mechanical keyboards, and taking into account my bad track record with Razer products, I finally decided on Corsair's K90. Without further ado.

Specifications

Courtesy of Corsair's product page

  • Light, responsive Cherry MX Red mechanical switches for fast, efficient gaming action
    45g actuation force
    2mm to actuation and 4mm to bottom
    Rated for 50 million operations
    Gold contacts
  • Tuned silicon dome key switches: F1 through F12, Esc, PrtScn, Scroll Lock, Pause/Break, Insert, Home, Page Up Page Down, Delete, and End
  • Three banks of eighteen G Macro Keys with Macro Record and Bank Select hot keys
  • 36Kb of on-board memory for storing up to three sets of eighteen G keys for gaming on the go
  • Laser-etched, backlit keys with four illumination levels (off, 66%, 75%, and full illumination) selectable from the keyboard
  • Six multimedia keys ? Stop, Previous, Play/Pause, Next, Mute, Volume Up/Down ? with Solid metal, weighted volume ?drum roller?
  • Windows Lock key for uninterrupted game play
  • Metal top plate for increased strength, durability and rigidity
  • USB pass-through connector giving easy access to a USB port on the back of the keyboard
  • 2m non-tangle cable Adjustable feet tilt for optimum personalisation and positioning

Packaging

The K90 is sold as a premium product, and first impressions of the packaging bear this idea out. The box is solid and has enough weight to feel like a quality product. Inside, the packing holds the keyboard firmly in place with plenty of protection from accidental damage during shipping.

Packaging.png

Included in the package are a warranty card, a quick start guide, the detachable wrist rest and of course, the keyboard itself. The quick start guide is woefully inadequate; consisting of a large picture showing a USB plug being inserted into a port and a picture of the keyboard. The quick start guide fails to inform the user that the Corsair software is required in order to configure the macro functionality on the keyboard.

Quickstart.png

The Keyboard

First impressions of the keyboard are good. The keyboard feels sturdy and looks great. The cable provided connectivity is extremely sturdy and has two USB connectors to allow for a USB socket at the top of the keyboard. Also worth noting is the unique design of the keys on the board. They are positioned above the baseplate which gives the appearance that they are floating. Aesthetically this gives the keyboard a great look and in practicality should allow for much easier cleaning of the keyboard.

KeyboardOff.png

It's not until you plug in the keyboard and turn on your machine that the keyboard really begins to shine.. Quite literally. The blue back lighting provides a truly unique look. Each of the mechanical switches has a single blue LED shining up under the key providing a bright, solid blue back-light. Unfortunately, on keys that have multiple characters etched on them (i.e. 1 and !) the character at the top is strongly lit with the lower character lit up far more dimly. This small flaw, coupled with a similar lighting issue on the dome-switched keys, detracts from an outstanding aesthetic design.

KeyboardOnLight.png

On top of the standard keys, the K90 has a collection of media keys above the num pad. These media keys are attractive and well laid out, providing the basic functionality you would expect. There is a small metallic "drum roller" that allows for changing volume from the keyboard. The move from plastic media keys to metal drum is quite jarring at a touch, however the metal drum is a nice inclusion and the use of plastic media keys is not unexpected. The keyboard offers two more buttons for toggling the brightness of the back-lighting and a button to disable the start key button during gaming.

MediaKeys.png

Finally, the K90 includes a collection of 18 macro buttons, with a toggle switch allowing for each button to have 3 macros bound to it for 54 macros in total. These buttons require the Corsair software in order to program, however once set these buttons remember the macros assigned to them and can be used on any computer without the software. Given the lack of Mac software, this means the macros can be configured on a Windows PC and used on a Mac.

MacroKeys.png

Usage Impressions

I admit that coming into this review I was sceptical of the benefits of a mechanical keyboard as opposed to other keyboard technologies. It seemed unlikely that the simple change in switches would lead to a noteworthy change in usability or typing habits. I was wrong.

The mechanical keys are outstanding. My typing speed has increased dramatically. While I could not tell you why this is, I suspect it is due to the much faster rebound and the significantly lighter actions of the keys. Having typed the entire review above with this keyboard, I find myself wondering how I last so long with such a mediocre keyboard previously. The texture and feel of the keyboard is outstanding and the action of the keys makes you want to press them repeatedly just for the novelty of feeling their action.

Unfortunately, this brings me to the largest short falling of the keyboard. This keyboard is not entirely mechanical. As noted above in the technical specification, all of the escape, F (function), G (macro) and the key cluster above the direction arrows are in fact dome-switches.

DomeHighlights.png

This leads to a glaring and frankly disappointing difference when using these keys. Typing a word is brisk, snappy and feels great. Pressing the delete key to remove a wayward letter just feels.. Smooshy.. It seems such a silly area to try and save costs. The average user willing to spend the money for this kind of keyboard isn't going to object to the extra few dollars required to make the entire keyboard mechanical. Corsair provide a justification for these choices by saying that each of the keys that use dome-switches are keys that you want the full action to be used before the key activates (press it all the way down before the computer registers it). In practicality, it just feels cheap. As noted above, it also takes away from the aesthetics of the keyboard.

Conclusion

The K90 represents Corsair's first crack at a mechanical keyboard. It's a worthy first attempt and represents a great buy if you can get past the hybrid nature of the dome-switch/mechanical-switch key blend. It is worth noting that with the premium market this keyboard targets, corsair ask a premium price. At $160 Australian, the K90 is far and away the most expensive mechanical keyboard on the market. I would be inclined to say however, that it is well worth it with outstanding aesthetics and a great feel.

It is also worth mentioning the K60 keyboard offered by Corsair. The K60 is $30 cheaper and is the same mechanical keyboard as the K90. The K60 lacks the keyboard width wrist rest (replacing it with a WASD wrist rest), blue LEDs and the programmable macro keys. In all other regards it is the same keyboard. If you are looking to save some money or don't need these extra features, the K60 is well worth your time.

Pros

  • Great aesthetics and build quality
  • Outstanding touch and feel
  • Strong blue back-lighting
  • Programmable macro keys
  • Comfortable (removable) wrist rest
  • 2 year warranty

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Not entirely mechanical
  • A noted issue with LED lights failing

EDIT::

24/03/2013 - Corrected the address discussing the pros/cons of the various switches.

Edited by articuno1au
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Sorry for the poor camera work. Turns out the camera on my Trophy 7 is pretty average :\

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No questions or comments?

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Looks nice, thanks for the post.

I'll be looking into this keyboard soon.

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Huzzah, a reply :p

If you have any specific queries, just shout :)

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I haz this board along with the k90 mouse.

Both are freaking awesome.

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Wouldnt ever go back to old school keys, mechanical is the only way. Ive had this Steelseries 7G for like 4yrs+ now and aside the odd bit of "aaa" or "ss" where single letters should be its awesome. I get the extra letters mainly over the wasd keys which kinda figures, but it normally means Ive got a crumb stuck in the switch.

The lightness of the key strokes is what makes the difference tbh.

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Is there one without the Macro keys?

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Mechanical is all I really like... right now I am using the HHKB Pro which is perfect for my small space. I've been a user/programmer for nigh on 27 years and I miss the mechanical keyboards of yore. :) But this little HHKB is great. I also like the Tactile Pro series.

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Nice review. I can't really say I like the design of this keyboard. Also the fact that not all keys are mechanical is disappointing. But I'm going so search for other mechanical keyboards. I'd like to try a mechanical keyboard. My current keyboard is "ok", but not much more. I hate the fact that on many dome-switch keyboards the key's are hard to press when you press on the corners of the keys instead of in the middle. Can you say how this is on the K90? Do the key's get (a little bit) stuck or hard to press when you press on the corners of the keys?

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Is there any particular reason for these keyboards to be so pricey apart from the novelty value? It strikes me as being a touch odd that a technology that was commonplace is now so expensive.

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Nice review. I can't really say I like the design of this keyboard. Also the fact that not all keys are mechanical is disappointing. But I'm going so search for other mechanical keyboards. I'd like to try a mechanical keyboard. My current keyboard is "ok", but not much more. I hate the fact that on many dome-switch keyboards the key's are hard to press when you press on the corners of the keys instead of in the middle. Can you say how this is on the K90? Do the key's get (a little bit) stuck or hard to press when you press on the corners of the keys?

I can't say I have had any issues with this. Quite the opposite actually, I fat finger multiple keys sometimes :p

I have had one instance where I pressed backspace and the key stuck down, but only one >.< Luckily Ctrl + Z brought back my work :p

Is there any particular reason for these keyboards to be so pricey apart from the novelty value? It strikes me as being a touch odd that a technology that was commonplace is now so expensive.

The cost of the individual switches is a lot higher than the single piece required for dome switches. A dome switch keyboard is manufactured as a single "slab" of circuitry that you just stick under the board. Mechanical boards required 1 switch per key, thus making them far more expensive :)

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See my next post.

Edited by Raa

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What? O.o

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Whilst not in the scope of this review, a full recounting of the benefits of mechanical switches is available <:address here:>

I'm interested in reading more. :)

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Brilliant review.

I have to say though, gaming keyboards are just flat out ugly as a rule. This is no exception - I would never ever buy that.

Myself, I have a custom WASD keyboard - doesn't have all the macro keys (of which there are far too many on the Corsair anyway) but it looks so much prettier. It has better build quality too, as it uses the same backboard that Filco use on their mechanical keyboards.

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I'm glad you liked it :)

I might just do some more as I get new hardware >.<

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If I could only find a mechanical 'natural' keyboard.

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Thanks for the link, still thumbing through but found this statement that fits me to a 'T'

A MS Natural 4000 with Cherry browns would be money.

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The cost of the individual switches is a lot higher than the single piece required for dome switches. A dome switch keyboard is manufactured as a single "slab" of circuitry that you just stick under the board. Mechanical boards required 1 switch per key, thus making them far more expensive :)

Makes sense, thanks. As an owner, do you believe that the benefits justify the cost?

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Makes sense, thanks. As an owner, do you believe that the benefits justify the cost?

For me, absolutely. The quality and feel of the typing is amazing and it's an absolute godsend if you do a lot of typing (this is not on the Corsair though, I don't own that, but rather referring to mechanical keyboards in general) - they also have a much longer lifespan.

The average membrane keyboard has a keystroke life of 20,000,000 per key ( and tend to last nowhere near that long - I had to replace even Logitech keyboards once a year because it broke), while mechanical switches bump that up to 50 million.

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Makes sense, thanks. As an owner, do you believe that the benefits justify the cost?

I think that's a question of how much you use your computer.

I think it's an enormous improvement, much like when you go from a normal mouse to a gaming mouse. I think it would be a waste if all you do is facebook and check your emails though :) I do a lot of work on my computer, so it's well and truly worth it for me :)

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