Review: Corsair Vengeance K90 mechanical keyboard

Previously here on Neowin Paul Ferson checked out the Das Keyboard Professional S, an excellent mechanical keyboard with a robust set of features and a fantastic noise that makes typing fun. After seeing the review of a mechanical keyboard and never having used one personally, I decided to hunt down a high-end model that I could try out.

Here's where the Corsair Vengeance K90 comes in. Unlike the Das Keyboard, which is aimed at professional typists, the Vengeance K90 has gamers in mind; specifically MMO gamers with the set of 18 macro keys. It is the big brother of Corsair's K60 keyboard for FPS enthusiasts and actually comes with a better set of features all-round.

I've been using the Vengeance K90 for over a week now, getting used to the feel of a mechanical keyboard, so lets get on with the review. Big thanks to the guys at Corsair for supplying the keyboard for review, much appreciated.

Appearance

I've gotta say, this is one great-looking keyboard: far better than the cheap Microsoft one I was using previously, which you would hope as this one comes with a premium price point. The main body of the keyboard is a solid piece of brushed aluminium sitting atop a wedged plastic bottom that conceals the innards of the keyboard, and not only does it look amazing but it also feels solid and expensive.

The portion of the keyboard that houses the macro keys is made of black plastic, and while I originally thought this might detract from the premium feel, it actually contrasts well with the silver aluminium. The detachable palm rest is made from soft-touch black silicone (I believe) over plastic, and by adding it to the keyboard it complements the wedge design and feels amazing.

Corsair's choice of materials actually adds a nice amount of heft to the keyboard which prevents it sliding around on your desk, of course aided by the silicone rests on the underside of the keyboard. The cord is reasonably thick coming out of the center of the board, but it's made of great anti-tangle mesh-fabric cable and keeps up with the whole premium nature Corsair is going with.

The main set of keys sit directly atop the brushed aluminium and there is no surround, so there is a reasonable gap between the keys and the material they sit on. Not only does this design look great, but it allows for easy cleaning as you can simply shoot some compressed air underneath the keys; it also allows for an awesome back-lighting system.

Each of the main keys is back-lit by a blue light, and the excess light leakage (so-to-speak) from lighting the letters on the keys spills onto the aluminium and makes the whole keyboard glow in-between and around the keys. The result is stunning at night and enhances your ability to see the keys and appreciate the great design used. The only part of the keyboard that is not lit by blue lighting is the macro keys, which are white back-lit that suits the black plastic surround more.

The keys themselves are made of a soft-touch polycarbonate and feel amazing while curving perfectly to ergonomically fit your fingers. The other extra keys around the board, such as the media keys and macro set keys, are made from silver plastic but feel remarkably solid and easy to operate. The volume scroll cylinder (for lack of a better description) has a diamond pattern embedded in the metal that, again, feels amazing.

In fact generally speaking every part of the Corsair Vengeance K90 feels amazing and looks great. I really can't fault them here for designing and constructing a great keyboard.

Features

The K90 comes with a great appearance and feel, but there is also a good set of features to complement this. First up is the actual key switches used on the keyboard, which is the star of the show on a mechanical keyboard. Where the Das Keyboard Professional S I mentioned at the start uses Cherry MX Blue switches, the K90 here uses Cherry MX Reds which require less actuation force to register a key-press.

The Cherry MX Red switches are rated for 45g of actuation "force"; although if you've studied physics you'll know grams are not a proper measurement of force, so technically the MX Red requires 0.441 N to activate. Corsairs tells me to actuate the key you only need to press it in 2mm, while 4mm takes it right to the bottom, and it takes a phenomenal 50 million presses on a single switch before it gives in.

An animated diagram that shows how the Cherry MX Red switch works

Unlike a standard membrane keyboard, with mechanical keyboards you'll notice key-presses are registered before the key is pressed the whole way in, meaning in general that the keyboard requires less force to use which equates to a more comfortable and amazing experience. The MX Reds used in the K90 require the least force to actuate out of all the switches Cherry makes, and this has its advantages and disadvantages as I'll go over later.

The MX Reds are not actually used across the whole keyboard, they are only used in the main key section, for the arrow keys and in the numpad (as shown above). The other keys (including the macro keys) use cheaper silicone done (membrane) keys, and there is a noticeable difference in feel between the mechanical and non-mechanical keys. Luckily the non-mechanical switches are the least frequently used on the keyboard and it shouldn't be a huge problem, but it would have been nice to see an entirely-mechanical set-up.

There are a number of other great keyboard features here outside the mechanical key switches, such as the inclusion of media keys and a volume control. The media keys are in a great position and work well with most popular media applications, and the volume scroll-bar-thing works very well if you don't have an external volume control on your speakers.

Next to the numlock/capslock/scroll lock indicator lights are two buttons. The one to the left controls the brightness of the backlight in three different levels as well as the ability to turn it off; and the right-hand button disables the use of the Windows key so you don't accidentally press it in the middle of your gaming with annoying consequences.

There is a second set of similar buttons located closer to the macro keys that control the different macro key banks. While there are only 18 physical macro keys, you can change the banks by pressing either the M1, M2 or M3 keys, allowing up to 54 macros stored in the keyboard at once. The MR button next to the bank keys is for recording macros, and the ring around it flashes red when pressed to indicate recording.

The keyboard also features a USB pass-through port which can come in handy for plugging in devices without having to reach over to your PC case, although it does mean the keyboard requires two USB ports to function properly. The underside also features adjustable tilt controls, which is great if you prefer your keyboard slightly more tilted than it would be flat on your desk.  

Less obvious features include "full key matrix" anti-ghosting that uses diodes on every key to prevent ghosting. If you're not sure what ghosting is and how it affects you, Microsoft has a great explanation here. The K90 also implements 20-key rollover, meaning you can have up to 20 simultaneous key-presses all register over USB, and the 1ms reporting rate allows software to register held keys very fast and accurately.

Comfort and Experience

I never really thought that using a mechanical keyboard would be all that different to your regular-style keyboard, but there is actually a number of things that make the keyboard so much better to use.

The first is the feel of typing: it feels damn amazing. Normal membrane keyboards require the keys to be fully pressed before they are registered, but with a mechanical keyboard like the K90 you have to put virtually no pressure on the keys to get them to actuate. This takes some getting used to as you'll probably start off by hitting the keys way too hard, but after around a week you'll find it almost effortless to type. Currently I still end up hitting the base of the keys, but I think after even more use I will be typing using next-to-no force.

For gaming the lightness of the keys is a real bonus. You can just lightly tap on the directional keys to get them to actuate, and it actually makes playing games a lot easier as a you barely have to move your fingers to get the actions you want. This should be a lot better for your finger health and it can improve your in-game reflexes with a bit of practice.

The lighter key-preses I've found to also be more comfortable. I'm young, and I've never really experienced any sort of strain in my fingers even though I can be typing thousands of words in the one day, but I feel like I've done less work when typing (or gaming for that matter) using the K90. The mechanical switches will probably reduce your chances of getting a repetitive strain injury (RSI), and if I was to choose between mechanical and ergonomically curved I would definitely go with mechanical.

The effortless key-presses do have their disadvantages though, it can mean that you accidentally hit keys you don't want to, and at first typing can be really loud as you'll always hit the maximum actuation. I was actually shocked at the noise when I first started using the Vengeance K90; I thought it was annoyingly much louder than my original membrane keyboard. However again after practice I'm not only typing with less force but I'm also making less noise.

That said while I originally didn't like the sound it has grown on me. I now sort of like the fact that it sounds like a combination between a typewriter and 80s computer keyboard, and after quieting the sound down a bit by changing my habits slightly I'm enjoying it a little bit. Paul said in his review that it makes typing a little bit more fun and I'm somewhat inclined to agree.

I also found the positioning of the macro keys to be great. As they are not at the same level as the main set of keys (they are slightly recessed), and because they use membrane keys rather than the MX Red switches, you need to apply more force to get them to activate which means less chance of accidentally doing so when you don't want to. They are grouped well to help you remember where your favorite macros are, and the positioning means they are not too far away.

Other things I really liked about the experience using the Vengeance K90 was the Windows key lock button, which meant less accidental presses of the Windows key while I was gaming (really helpful when so little pressure is required to actuate it). The ability to change the backlight level was welcome, and while I generally left it at 66% I sometimes bumped it lower in a darker room or turned it off in the middle of the day. Back-lit keys also have the obvious advantage of being able to see where the keys are at night, especially it late-night gaming sessions.

I'm really not looking forward to going back to my mediocre membrane keyboard after having the joy of using the Vengeance K90. I don't think you'll be able to fully appreciate the greatness and differences until you try out a mechanical keyboard, and once you do you'll probably not go back.

Software

Unfortunately while the appearance, build quality and experience using the Corsair Vengeance K90 is all great, there is one glaring downside. As you have probably guessed from the section I'm writing, the issues are with the software that Corsair provides.

A note must be made here that if you don't plan on using the macro keys for the keyboard there is no need to actually use the software that Corsair provides, and so there will be really no downsides to deal with. Although if you weren't planning on using the macro keys you may as well get the similarly-featured Vengeance K60 for slightly less money.

Now back to the bad software. I think the overall issue here is twofold: lack of documentation and lack of features. The software itself appears to be labelled as a "beta" and it certainly feels like it is because things are quite hard to get working correctly. Through trial and error I managed to figure out how to set-up a macro on the keyboard, which I have listed below for anyone who wants the information.

  1. Press the MR button on the keyboard
  2. Press the G key that you want the macro recorded to
  3. Type and have the macro recorded
  4. Press MR again

That's fairly straightforward, but there are a couple of other things you may want to do to modify your macros. For one, any delay you input physically while recording is not transferred to the software, instead it just puts a default delay between the key-presses. Then you have to go into the software and manually manipulate the delays if you need certain ones, and there doesn't appear to be any option to have the physical delays recorded making the whole process easier.

Then there's the issue that the software is confusing to actually use. The list of keystrokes for each macro is particularly confusing without any documentation as to the symbols, and the unlabeled buttons in the Playback Options section are equally confounding. The box next to Assign Key and the key number appears to be for naming the macro's function, but again without documentation I really don't know.

And it doesn't end there. There's a Hardware Playback checkbox that I still have no idea what it does save for not making the macros work; again, no documentation is not helping. Then there's the Advanced Options that can have the macro keys open applications or perform functionality like copy/paste, but to get these functions to work it seems to be a trial-and-error mix between pressing MR, the G key wanted, the plus button in the software and the command drop-down box.

The Advanced Options themselves also seem somewhat limited. There is no easy way to allocate one of the macro keys to sleeping your computer (I resorted to a custom batch script with a shortcut), and the launch software functionality is limited such that any shortcut parameters are not properly translated. The Run and Open Explorer options are not particularly useful to have and I would like to see some more useful default commands.

With all the above said the software does have good features like the ability to make different macro profiles and controlling the backlighting from within the software, along with the actual macro controls, but the utility definitely feels unfinished. For a beginner creating macros it's not going to be an easy ride using the Corsair software, and for those that want more advanced functionality it's not really there right now.

Luckily all the problems here can be fixed with the combination of both a future software update and by Corsair releasing a user manual to the keyboard that instructs people how to use the software and how to set up macros. Let's hope that happens at some point in the future.

Conclusion

In a great number of respects I love the Corsair Vengeance K90. The feel of typing using mechanical switches is much better than I thought it would be, and the tiny amount of force needed to actuate the keys means that typing can become less effort, more efficient and faster (especially while gaming). It also sounds reasonably nice and not too loud after some practice of not hitting the keys ridiculously hard.

The feature set is quite robust as well, such as the inclusion of 18 macro keys for a maximum of 54 macros using the three banks, the fantastic adjustable blue backlighting, the useful media keys, the Windows key lock and the pass-through USB port. The design is also stunning, using solid brushed aluminium in conjunction with perfectly textured black keys and the comfortable black palm rest to deliver said great looks.

The unfortunate downsides, though, all relate to the seemingly unfinished Corsair software that makes creating macros a pain; and the surprising lack of any sort of user manual that would make the process so much easier. While the perfectly good hardware is all there, the software requires some polish before it can be deemed an awesome product.

At an RRP of US$129.99 it's also reasonably expensive for a keyboard, but a much better choice than other comparably priced and featured non-mechanical keyboards like Logitech's G510, and seemingly better featured than Razer's BlackWidow Ultimate (mechanical) keyboard for the same price. If the software was rock solid it would be a no-brainer purchase for someone looking for a mechanical keyboard with macro keys, but alas, that isn't the case (yet).

The Corsair Vengeance K90 website for more info
→ Buy the Vengeance K90 from Newegg

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