Review: The Razer Deathstalker Ultimate gaming keyboard
PC enthusiasts expect to pay extra for premium peripherals, and Razer's new Deathstalker Ultimate ($250) pushes that expectation to the breaking point by including a flashy new touchscreen interface that's unlike anything we've ever seen in a gaming keyboard.
The keyboard chassis is light and durable, sporting shallow chiclet-style keys that look great but feel shallow. A rubberized wrist rest along the lower edge attracts dust and crumbs like a vacuum but keeps you comfortable during extended typing sessions. Like most Razer keyboards the DeathStalker Ultimate is fully programmable, and includes five extra macro keys on the left edge, a dedicated on-the-fly macro recording key, and a gaming mode key that functions as a toggle which disables the Windows key (and the Alt+Tab and Alt+F4 key combinations, if you like). Alongside these Razer staples you’ll find a new key sporting the Razer logo, which you can tap to revert the LCD trackpanel and accompanying keys built into the right side of the chassis back to their default interface.
They call it a Switchblade
The standout feature of the DeathStalker Ultimate is the Switchblade user interface, ten programmable LED keys and a 4-inch LCD multi-touch trackpanel built into the right side of the keyboard. By default the keys are bound to common tasks like logging into Twitter or launching a calculator app (and they sport equally common-place icons) but you can customize them to do pretty much anything with the Razer Synapse 2.0 device management software.
It’s a really neat gimmick that works surprisingly well without a lot of setup time. The trackpanel works well for basic navigational tasks (selecting and editing files, navigating a web browser, etc.) and works as well as just about any laptop trackpad I've tested; the gesture controls are a nice touch that let you pull off tricks like propelling your browser backwards or forwards through your browsing history by swiping three fingers left and right. You will need to download the Razer Synapse software in order to take advantage of the dynamic keys and adaptive screen, though; otherwise, it’s just a fancy trackpanel with a glowing Razer logo.
As of this writing the Razer Synapse driver software is easy to download and frustrating to use. Conceptually, it's great: download Synapse and create a free Razer account, then customize your peripherals and your settings will be saved to Razer servers automatically, meaning you can take your Razer gear anywhere and simply download Synapse to have access to your custom configuration. In practice, Synapse runs slowly and sports an unintuitive interface. Most frustrating of all, during testing Synapse had a hard time reliably detecting Razer peripherals; while testing the DeathStalker Ultimate I had to install Razer Synapse three times across three different PCs, and each time I had problems convincing the software that I had in fact connected our review keyboard. I was able to solve the problem on all of our test machines by either rebooting the PC or reinstalling the software, but it was always a headache. I've never had this problem with Synapse while testing other Razer peripherals, so it may be an issue with the DeathStalker Ultimate; if so, a driver update may have solved the problem by the time you read this.
Once you do register the DeathStalker Ultimate with Synapse the ten dynamic keys transform into the afore-mentioned pre-programmed array of common apps; tapping one will open the linked program on the touchscreen, so if you tap the YouTube key the touchscreen displays a list of popular videos while the ten LED keys morph into shortcuts for common YouTube commands (Search, Watch Later, Account, etc.) The same goes for Twitter, Gmail, and the other pre-programmed apps on the Switchblade home interface; each will run on your keyboard's LCD trackpanel as though it were a second display, a neat but ultimately fairly useless gimmick. If you use the trackpanel to watch video or listen to music the audio will play through your PC’s primary audio output device, as though you were simply playing media in a separate app on your desktop.
The Switchblade apps were a little buggy during testing; you can scroll through websites on the trackpanel just like you were viewing them on a tablet, dragging your fingers to move and tapping on the LCD screen to make selections, but often the trackpanel would become unresponsive when launching apps. More than once I had an app crash completely, leaving the trackpanel blank (though still functional as an input device) until I unplugged and reconnected the keyboard.
Built for gamers, not gaming
If you play a lot of games on your PC you may appreciate the custom layouts and game-specific functions that can be downloaded from Razer Synapse. These profiles typically assign a bunch of game-specific commands to the dynamic keys (along with gorgeous custom icons) and employ the trackpanel screen as a secondary display for various in-game functions like changing classes, displaying health and energy bars, tracking match statistics, etc. Only a handful of games (Team Fortress 2, Battlefield 3, The Old Republic, etc.) are supported as of this review, but it’s possible that more developers will partner with Razer in the coming months to release downloadable profiles for the DeathStalker Ultimate that utilize the Switchblade interface. Hopefully any future updates will take advantage of the 4-inch LCD display to provide information that can’t already be easily gleaned from playing a game normally; as it stands, I didn’t have a better experience playing games with the DeathStalker (using Team Fortress 2 and The Old Republic profiles where applicable) than without it.
To the contrary, I had a slightly harder time gaming with the DeathStalker Ultimate because my fingers were accustomed to the satisfying tactile feedback of a mechanical keyboard and my eyes were accustomed to looking at my screen, not my keyboard. Having one of the ten dynamic LED keys light up with a custom “Call for Medic” icon when you start playing Team Fortress 2 is great in theory, but in practice you will spend precious extra seconds glancing down at your keyboard to hunt and peck the right key before it becomes second nature. You can save yourself those precious seconds (and a significant chunk of change) by skipping the DeathStalker Ultimate in favor of a mechanical keyboard designed for gaming. Razer themselves offer a number of great options, including my personal favorite, the BlackWidow Ultimate.
Building a beautiful LCD touchscreen and ten programmable LED keys into a gaming keyboard is a neat idea, but in practice the Switchblade interface feels more like a gimmick than a useful feature. Opening apps like Twitter or Facebook on your keyboard instead of your browser is pointless, and the Switchblade's custom game interfaces are frustrating because you have to look away from the action onscreen to use them. Early adopters and LAN partiers in need of a little extra braggadocio may embrace the Deathstalker Ultimate purely on the promise of being able to check Twitter on their keyboard between bouts of Counter-Strike, and MMORPG players will appreciate the extra screen space and programmable hotkeys afforded by the Switchblade UI; everyone else is better off saving some money and investing in a sturdy mechanical gaming keyboard instead.