Field Test: Razer BlackWidow Ultimate 2013

[Rather than giving you a review packed full of benchmark numbers and charts, our Field Test series is all about taking technology out of the box and out of the lab. We use it in our everyday lives, and report what we find.]

Paying $140 for a premium keyboard may seem silly, until you realize how much time you spend typing every single day. While the new Blackwidow Ultimate mechanical keyboard from Razer is designed for PC gaming enthusiasts, anyone who spends the lion’s share of their day typing will appreciate the quality and convenience features of this premium keyboard.

Before I jump into the new features of the BlackWidow Ultimate, let's talk about why you might want to upgrade to a mechanical keyboard in the first place. I type words for a living, play PC games for fun, and I use mechanical keyboards at home and at the office because they just feel more satisfying than the cheap membrane keyboards that came bundled with most PCs. I call them "membrane keyboards" because that’s how they work: every time you press a key, you’re actually squeezing layers of synthetic polymer membrane together until the key bottoms out and a little metal or rubber dome on the underside of the key breaches the separating membrane to complete a circuit, causing the keyboard to signal your PC that a specific key has been pressed.

The mechanical switch

Mechanical keyboards like the Razer Blackwidow Ultimate are different. They work like you might expect a keyboard to work: press a key, and a mechanical switch beneath the key triggers a circuit that tells your PC what key has been pressed. You can feel the difference beneath your fingers; typing on a mechanical keyboard feels more satisfying than a mushy membrane keyboard because you can actually feel the switch beneath your finger first resisting, then yielding to pressure and activating before hitting the bottom of the keyboard with a satisfying ker-chunk.

Cherry MX Blue keyswitch in action. Image by Castin Cramer.

The Blackwidow Ultimate uses mechanical keyswitches (Cherry MX Blue switches, to be specific) that require roughly 50 grams of force to activate, and after using the keyboard for a week I'm learning to type faster because my fingers are hitting each key just hard enough to depress the switch instead of bottoming out. Touch typing is a little easier too, because the audible click of each switch subconsciously signals me to move to the next key. It's a small but significant improvement over my previous keyboard (a SteelSeries 6v2), which was fantastic for gaming but less fun to type with because it featured Cherry MX Black switches that didn't make the same audible click when pressed.

When you pull the Blackwidow Ultimate out of the box and plunk it down on your desk, you’ll notice it’s significantly heavier (a little over 3 lbs, in fact) than your typical membrane keyboard, and sports a few extra keys to boot. Razer builds an audio output and a microphone input jack alongside a USB 2.0 port on the right side of the board, a handy design feature that makes it easy to swap out USB devices or headsets without rummaging around behind your PC. While the BlackWidow Ultimate is designed for use at home and at the occasional LAN party, after hooking it up to my work PC I think the matte black finish and braided cable don't look too out of place in a typical office. The sickly green glow that emanates from beneath each key stands out no matter where you are, but you can disable that feature using the downloadable Razer Synapse 2.0 application.

Key features

In fact, the Razer Synapse app is probably my second favorite feature of the BlackWidow Ultimate (after the mechanical keys, of course). You can download it directly from Razer's website and use it (after you create a free account) to configure your Razer devices and store those preferences on Razer servers. It's a neat feature if you plan on using your Razer peripherals with multiple computers, but you'll probably find the app more useful for customizing the BlackWidow Ultimate's keys to suit your needs.

Like many premium keyboards, the BlackWidow Ultimate offers function keys that let you adjust the volume and playback settings of your media. There are also a few extra keys on the board, including five inactive (until you customize them) macro keys along the left edge of the board and a special Gaming Mode function key that you can tap to disable your Windows Key. This will prevent you from inadvertently opening the Start Menu at an inopportune moment, and while I've personally never done that* I think it's a useful feature. You can also use Synapse to disable the Alt-Tab and Alt-F4 shortcuts while the keyboard is in Gaming Mode if you're nervous about accidentally alt-tabbing out of a game or critical application.

Spot the Gaming Mode key in the image at the top of the page (hint: it's F10) and you'll notice there's also a weird M logo on the F9 function key. That's the Macro button, and hitting it lets you record a series of keystrokes and instantly bind them to another key on the keyboard. You can also use Synapse to record your macros with more detail (like how much time to delay between strokes, or what to name your creations) but frankly, keyboard macros are a big feature of the BlackWidow Ultimate that I just didn't get much use out of. Dedicated PC gamers might feel differently, but as a casual gamer I found myself rarely using the BlackWidow Ultimate's spare macro keys for anything besides conveniently launching my favorite applications with a single keypress.

The price of quality

$140 is a lot to pay for a keyboard, especially when you can get three or four cheap Logitech boards for the same price. After putting Razer's new BlackWidow through it's paces for a week or so I recommend you pay the premium price, because it feels like you get your money's worth for a peripheral you probably use at least 8-12 hours a day. The Razer BlackWidow Ultimate 2013 mechanical keyboard is durable, useful and just plain satisfying to use on a daily basis. I just wish they'd let me change the color scheme.

* - I have totally done that.

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