Review: Razer's Orbweaver is stylish and completely superfluous
At a Glance
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The Orbweaver is slick, comfortable and limitlessly configurable, but it doesn't meaningfully improve upon a standard keyboard.
Do you really need another PC peripheral? Razer thinks so. The purveyor of high-end gaming wares recently released the $130 Orbweaver, a “gaming keypad” that aims to offer a different approach to the traditional keyboard-and-mouse pairing. Twenty keys, a pair of buttons and an 8-direction thumb stick are arrayed on a device that’s roughly the shape of a large human hand, promising supreme comfort and control if you can just figure out how it works.
Fortunately, it’s pretty simple. In its default state the Orbweaver mimics the left edge of your keyboard, with the traditional “WASD” directional keys sitting in the center of the device with a lever on the right edge that serves as a spacebar. But there’s a good chance you aren’t checking out a $130 peripheral just to sever off a chunk of a normal keyboard; to that end, every button and key on the device can be configured. The Orbweaver starts working the moment you plug it in, but you’ll need to install Razer’s Synapse software to unlock the keypad’s full potential.
Synapse is a tricky beast. The concept is a novel one: one software package to rule all of your (Razer) peripherals, syncing your preferences and macros into the cloud so they’ll be ready for use wherever you get your game on. You’ll need to download the Synapse app and sign up for an account before you can even start using your new gear, even if you have no intention of plugging the Orbweaver (or any of Razer’s Synapse-enabled hardware) into another PC. If you’ve grown accustomed to plug and play hardware, these extra steps can be an annoying hurdle.
The Synapse app is small (weighing in at about 12MB), and the installation process is painless. Once it’s up and running, plug the Orbweaver in and Synapse will start installing the Orbweaver configurator — you’ll need this software to, well, configure the keypad. Honestly, with the exception of needing to sign up for an account the process isn’t all that different from the software packages usually required by higher-end gaming gear.
The interface is simple enough to understand — a bit elegant, even — but the sheer number of odds and ends to fiddle with might frighten all but the ficklest gamers. You can create profiles, so particular games or programs have their own key configurations. Keys can be reassigned to do just about anything — set up complex macros, launch programs, or even emulate mouse clicks. Razer devices can also be linked together so that the Orbweaver’s keys can alter the profiles on your mouse or headset. And there are 8 keymap configurations per profile (they can be changed on the fly), resulting in a ludicrous number of options. The thumbstick can replace the WASD functions (though I found that made the spacebar lever a bit tricky to hit), or can serve as 8 individual buttons. Or you can configure it to function as a joystick, which strikes me as the ideal function. Someone will undoubtedly appreciate all of these options; I like to keep things simple, and only swapped a few keys about.
But the Orbweaver’s raison d'être isn’t just to serve up macros and let us tweak buttons. It’s supposed to offer a decidedly more comfortable gaming experience than our keyboards can offer. And it does—eventually. I only spent about thirty minutes experimenting with button layouts and profiles for the first-person shooters and MMOs I usually play, and considerably more time contorting the keypad into a shape that worked for my oversized mitts. The Orbweaver really shines here. There are three elements to tweak: the palm rest tilts to remain snug against your palm, and can be locked into a particular angle. Press a button on the underside, and the keypad can be extended or contracted—great for folks with large hands, or to tweak your grip. Press a button on the right, and the panel holding the thumb stick and space bar can be slid closer or further away. None of these adjustments look especially dramatic, but every allowance made for comfort can make a world of difference during especially lengthy gaming sessions. The Orbweaver’s mutability, coupled with the excellent and satisfyingly responsive mechanical keys (Cherry MX Blues, if you’re curious) make for a winning combination. On paper.
The Orbweaver is comfortable, limitlessly configurable, and looks pretty awesome—like some bauble from the future, replete with green glowing lights (also configurable) and racing-inspired exhaust vents running along the front edge. But it can’t replace my keyboard. For all its configurability and potential, 20 keys just isn’t enough: the Orbweaver sat to the left of my keyboard, and I constantly found myself turning back to traditional keys to have conversations, adjust my volume controls, open up a map, or hit the ESC key to skip a cutscene or back out of a menu. I could potentially bake most of those features into the Orbweaver with some time spent in the configurator, but… why bother?
Boring though it may be, pragmatism wins out here. Unless you’ve got $130 burning a hole in your pocket or physical limitations that make a device like this attractive, there’s no reason—beyond novelty—to add a device this unorthodox to your arsenal. And if you do have $130 to spend and are enticed by all of those configuration options, spend the extra $10 to get the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate keyboard. It isn’t quite as much of a conversation piece (and its decidedly larger), but sometimes the old ways work best.