When it comes to product design in the tech world, most devices have a decidedly sleek, modern quality that, even now, conveys a sense of the future. Look at a gaming laptop sometime if you don’t believe us. But some tech companies have occasionally introduced gadgets with contrary, nostalgic designs that look backward to the past instead of forward. Wireless speakers and digital cameras are two such markets where we’ve seen this trend. What’s surprising is that this retro fad took so long to show up in the mechanical keyboard market.
However, you can now choose from several antique-styled, 1940s Remington typewriter-esque keyboards, including the Nanoxia Ncore Retro Aluand the Qwerkywriter S (the latter, with its working knobs and return lever, may provide the most visually faithful reproduction of a period typewriter yet despite its heart-attack price of $399.) In our view, the most luxurious (and luxuriously priced at $189.99) riff on this idea to date is the Azio Retro Classic mechanical keyboard that’s the subject of today’s review.
Azio offers four keyboards in its Retro Classic line, alike in features but different in appearance. We’ll be displaying photos of all of them, but the one we tested was the Artisan (black leather with copper frame). Here’s a first glance at it…
The keyboard is designed with white lettering on black, circular keys. However, Azio’s take includes a plate covered with leather, and a frame made of zinc aluminum alloy plated for a matte copper finish, for a lush, tactile feel on each key. It’s even got a hex-bolted manufacturer’s logo plaque, if that sustains your whimsical fancy.
This is the Posh (white leather with copper frame) version…
Overall, the Retro Classic is a handsome keyboard, no doubt about that, but its beauty isn’t just skin deep, with a bit of copper detail skimming the top edge. The copper detail is actually part of the full frame, as you can see here in the Elwood (walnut wood with gunmetal frame) version…
All that metal contributes both to the unit’s sturdiness, and to its weight of 3.8 pounds. It’s not the heaviest we’ve ever tested, but it’s one of the heavier standard QWERTY keyboards without a wrist rest or expanded real estate to hold additional keys.
The lack of additional keys, however, means that the Retro Classic’s function keys work double shifts in tandem with the Fn key on the bottom row. Fn+F1, for example, opens your Web browser, and Fn+ F3 your email client. (Backlighting is also doubled up, something we’ll cover in our next section.) There are no dedicated media keys, which we would have expected in a mechanical keyboard at this price, but at least the function keys for media commands are sensibly arranged together, from F5 through F11—unlike the Razer Cynosa Chroma, which for some reason utilizes F1 through F3 and F5 through F7…
One of the things Azio does right is set the keys above the frame, rather than recess them into it. Check out the Onyx version (black leather with black chromed frame, resembling the Ncore Retro in style) to get a sense of this…
Here’s a view from a different angle of the Artisan keyboard…
The advantage to keys recessed in a frame is that light pools nicely around them. The far-more-serious disadvantage is that anything small that accidentally drops on the keyboard tends to get stuck inside, possibly forever. By contrast, keys that sit above the frame have much smaller openings underneath for dust, grime, water, or beef stroganoff to get caught in. A can of compressed air can deal with debris that lands on top of a frame. In our experience, you can’t do the same for recessed keys.
Another point Azio gets right is the placement of unshifted key symbols below shifted ones (2 below @, for example), which was the traditional arrangement on typewriters and computer keyboards for more than 50 years until backlighting arrived. Then, the top halves of keys were better lit than the bottom halves, which led some companies to invert symbol placement. As a result, on some keyboards it’s all but impossible to read shifted symbols on keycaps. But on the Azio, the backlighting is perfectly even, and the symbols are easy to see.
Instead of the usual pinpoint LED indicators for Caps Lock, Num Lock, Scroll Lock, and Win Lock, the Retro Classic has fairly large and bright LEDs, which bear a passing resemblance (deliberate or otherwise) to Art Deco light globes. It’s a minor point, but we found the LEDs more conspicuous on the Azio than on most other, similar implementations. Here they are…
The Retro Classic has four large, rubber-padded, pillar-style feet, which supply excellent anti-friction…
The rear pair can be turned clockwise until they reach the same 1-inch height as the front ones, or turned counter-clockwise to provide a boost of up to four-tenths of an inch…
While we really like the “choose your own height” approach, we wish Azio had supplied a larger boost for a full inch. The idea is to raise the keyboard sufficiently so that the fingers aren’t required to stretch to reach the back rows. Stretching them tenses up tendons and contributes to repetitive strain injury. You can always replace a set of mechanical keys when they wear out, after all, but neither Cherry nor Kailh can supply a new set of finger tendons.
Finally, the Retro Classic comes with a thickly braided, 71-inch cord. Braided cords are definitely stiffer than rubber-coated ones, especially when it’s a good, industrial strength braid, like this one. Rubber-coated cords are far easier to slash or break, or simply twist repeatedly until the wires inside fray. With a Velcro tie, braided cords are our preferred method of USB connection.
The Azio Retro Classic has no configuration software. That’s a drawback since configuration utilities provide a centralized, easy-to-use interface for a host of choices involving key remapping, macro editing, lighting, and other features. Lacking that, Azio has fallen back on key combos for backlighting. Key remapping and macro editing aren’t even on the menu.
It’s true that these features aren’t as significant in a productivity keyboard as a gaming one. Still, macros are important to some business people, and being able to remap keys is arguably just as important in Visio, Word, and Acrobat as it is in Dota 2 or Crusader Kings II.
Azio does furnish key combos for white backlighting. The two modes, breathing and reactive, are pure fluff, but the lighting on/off and brightness adjustment combos are all useful because, unlike the Ncore Retro, the LEDs shine through the keys. This means that you can work, game, or surf the Web effectively in a relatively dark space, and control the degree of lighting if you don’t want to wake a sleeping spouse or roommate.
And as we mentioned in our last section, they shine evenly from the center, so that shifted and unshifted symbols on keycaps share equally in the limelight. According to Azio, this necessitated going with Kailh switches; the LEDs in Cherry MX models are positioned to light the upper half more brightly. Since Cherry started making exclusive arrangements with only select companies over the last few years, Kailh’s reputation as a manufacturer and co-developer of excellent mechanical switches has steadily risen. While its relatively new Box and Speed lines are getting most of the attention these days, the company’s Blue switches in the Retro Classic are just as effective as Cherry’s MX Blue. There are minor differences between the two, such as the MX Blue’s total travel distance of 4.0mm and its actuation point of 2mm, versus the Kailh Blue’s 3.6mm travel distance and 1.6mm actuation point. But these net out in actual use to the same thing, and both possess an actuation force of roughly 50g.
The only difference we could find between the two in day-to-day application is that the loud click of the MX Blue is somewhat dulled on the Kailh model, spacebar aside. Whether that’s a matter of switch or keyboard construction (or both) we can’t say, but you can use the Retro Classic without everybody else within 50 feet being aware of that fact.
Like all Blue switches, these have a tactile touch rather than a linear one—such as that of the gamer’s current favorite, the Cherry MX Red. Combined with a slightly heavier activation pressure than MX Reds, they’re generally preferred in situations where you need to do a lot of typing.
According to Azio, the Retro Classic furnishes N-key rollover. This means that however many keys are pressed simultaneously and in close proximity to one another, all will be correctly scanned. We tested this out at the Microsoft Applied Science Group’s site, but could only get 6-key rollover. This is certainly good enough for most applications and games, barring some music programs and flight simulators, but it isn’t what Azio claimed.
The story doesn’t end there, however: the Retro Classic comes with a key combo to switch between 6-key rollover and N-key for some reason. (If your CPU can’t handle N-key rollover, replace it, not the keyboard.) We’re sure you can predict what happened when we tried Fn+PrtScn: The keyboard switched to N-key rollover, and we then achieved 20 keys or above consistently. We can’t say that any other purchased unit will arrive with 6-key rollover activated, but it pays to set it correctly first.
Lastly, note that the unit in this review is the USB model. However, there is also a $219.99 Bluetooth version of the Retro Classic available, sporting a 6000 mAh Lithium ion rechargeable battery. It’s rated for one to six weeks of use with backlighting on and six months with the backlighting off. A USB port is furnished for recharging.
We tested the Retro Classic in a variety of applications and games, with expected results. As a productivity keyboard, its Kailh Blue mechanical switches offered excellent performance in Microsoft Word and similar programs. Like this keyboard’s frame, they’re built to last; according to some estimates, up to 10 years depending upon the environment (humidity, dust) and amount of use. We could wish for higher rear feet, so that there’s less tendon stretching to reach the Retro Classic’s back row. But the keys feel good under the fingertips, and the craftsmanship is truly solid.
But frankly it’s not a gamer’s keyboard—if by gamer, we mean the person who enjoys real-time action-based titles, as opposed to leisurely turn-based and pause-based ones. That’s why linear Red switches have become the gamers’ favorite over the years. Blue mechanical switches are fine for speed typists, however, since the extra degree of pushback pressure and a tactile “squeeze” point help cut down on stray key presses.
The absence of a configuration utility doesn’t help sell this keyboard to productivity users, let alone gamers. All the features people have come to rely upon from the Corsair Utility Engine, Razer Synapse, Cougar UIX System, SteelSeries Engine, and other, similar software packages—unlimited executable-specific profiles, key remapping, a macro editor, and more—are missing from the Retro Classic. Even Logitech Options, intended for productivity peripherals, offers extensive remapping of a relatively small number of keys. It’s not that you couldn’t play games or run applications without these features. It’s just that doing so is a hassle.
Finally, we could have wished for dedicated media keys, and a volume dial, for that matter. Whether you’re working up a report or playing a game, it’s great to have a single control to immediately change the volume level.
When Nanoxia released the Ncore Retro Alu not long ago, we noted that we thought the company made a small tactical error by emphasizing games (“game mode light settings”). Azio doesn’t make the same mistake with the Retro Classic, but its MSRPs of $189.99 (USB) and $219.99 (Bluetooth) will raise eyebrows. There are certainly more features in the Retro Classic than in the Ncore Retro Alu—most notably, adjustable feet height and white backlighting that shines through the keys—but is it worth what is effectively an extra $100 at the time of this review?
We think not, unless you’re looking at the Retro Classic as more of a luxury item. Make no mistake, the Retro Classic is a good, solid (in more ways than one) productivity keyboard, with great Kailh Blue mechanical switches. But in our view, it’s more of an extravagance—an unexpected gift you might give a person who does a lot of typing but who also likes stylish things, and would never dream of purchasing one for him- or herself. Or, of course, a gift for yourself, if you feel a little self-indulgent.
Our perspective shifts if the Retro Classic is evaluated from the point of view of a luxury good. Then styling becomes a major selling point—as it was for the now-discontinued anniversary edition of PFU Limited of Japan’s Happy Hacking Keyboard, a $4,200 mini-keyboard whose keycaps were covered with 10 layers of Urushi lacquer and and sprinkled with gold dust. Granted, the Retro Classic has a lot more to offer the average productivity user, but the basic idea is the same: owning something that stylishly incorporates nostalgic elements of a cultural past, yet remains useful. Azio achieves this in a classy manner, in all four of its Retro Classic incarnations. They could have done more with this keyboard from an ease-of-use standpoint, but there’s no denying that the Retro Classic hits all the basics, and that you’ll have it around to admire and enjoy for a long time.
It’s pricey, but the Azio Retro Classic is a distinctive and elegant take on 1940s Remington typewriters. With Kailh blue switches and a metal frame, it’s a productivity keyboard that’s also built to last.
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