Over the past year, the battle for feature mindshare in gaming keyboards has moved from “Membrane, or mechanical?” to “Okay, it’s mechanical, but what kind of lighting does it have?”
We have to admit, even we’ve been seduced by this trend. At first, we were happy with just a simple, single-color backlight for our go-to keyboard. (And plain white lighting was just fine by us.) But then Corsair came out with a series of RGB-backlit keyboards and blew up expectations into approximately 16.8 million pieces—or rather, colors.
In models like the Corsair Gaming K65 RGB, you can tweak the per-key lighting in a near-infinite array of colors, and set up something approximating a mobile light show on your desktop. Naturally, other vendors have followed suit, and now keyboards with a simple “on or off” backlight seem rather pedestrian. Not everyone wants a rainbow-riffic keyboard, but expectations around the sophistication of keyboard lighting have been raised.
Enter the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate 2016 Edition, which walks the line between RGB/customizable lighting and static “on or off”-backlit keyboards by allowing only a single-color backlight: Razer’s signature lime green, naturally. You can customize that lighting, though, on a per-key basis, in addition to selecting from a range of “dazzling” preset effects. We put “dazzling” in quotes because although most of them look nifty, we would never use any of these mostly gaudy presets (just the “straight on” lighting) in real-world, day-to-day situations.
The good news is that the Razer software lets you customize the lighting with precision, so you are guaranteed to find a setting that you like. If you have the patience for that, you’ll find this keyboard to be a solid middle-ground model that’s affordable as full-size mechanical keyboards go. And there’s no denying that it’s very well made, and has a host of useful features and software beyond the lighting stuff.
The BlackWidow Ultimate is a full-size keyboard with a 10-key number pad and a full complement of F-keys running along the top. Razer has added an Fn key that allows you to access a variety of media functions as alternate commands for the F-keys. These include volume control and stop/start/play/pause for media, as well as adjusters for the brightness of the key backlighting and two buttons that are Razer-specific.
One of the Razer buttons lets you record macros on the fly, while the other enables the BlackWidow’s Gaming Mode, which disables the Windows key and lets you press as many keys at once as you like (in essence, activating on-the-fly 10-key rollover). You can further tweak Gaming Mode in software, but more on that later.
The most noticeable design element of this keyboard, though, isn’t visible, but audible and tactile. That would be its custom-designed Razer mechanical switches, which the company says are made “specifically for gaming” (as if anyone would assume anything else from Razer and a green keyboard). The Razer switches have a similar aesthetic to the vaunted Cherry MX Blue mechanical key switches, in that they make an audible “click” with every key press.
So, be warned: This is a very loud keyboard to type on. We know that some keyboards aficions are definitely into that, so if you are one of them, you’ll delight in the clickety-clack this model makes during use. Razer says its keys require 50g of force to actuate, which is in line with the specifications of the equivalent Cherry switches. They are not feather-light to depress and require a bit of punch, but that necessary force gives you a very positive feeling on the keys. It is the polar opposite of mushy, and it felt fantastic to our fingers. Every key press is audible, firm, and precise.
Razer also claims that its switches are more durable than a “standard mechanical switch.” The usual claim from Cherry and others is that their everyday switches are good for 50 million keystrokes, but Razer says that its keys should be good for 60 million. That sounds all well and good, but that measly 50 million will do for most of us; we’ll have worn the legends off the keytops (or the tips off our fingers) before we get to test either claim to the full.
As we mentioned, every key on the BlackWidow is individually backlit, and you can control the lighting on a granular level via software. The one color for the backlight is bright green, though you can control the brightness quite easily and in several ways.
Beyond the keys themselves, the BlackWidow oozes premium design. This is a wired keyboard, as most gamer models are, and it features a slick, braided cable with two USB connectors for the computer end. (One is for the keyboard signal, and the other is for a USB pass-through port on the BlackWidow.) The pass-through port is, unfortunately, USB 2.0-only and positioned on the right side of the keyboard, where your mouse hand will be operating if you’re a righty. The headphone input is also on the right side, next to the USB port.
That was an awkward location, at least for us, as our mouse and pad were positioned just a few inches from the edge of the keyboard. We’d love to see these ports moved to the rear of the keyboard, where they won’t interfere with anything.
The BlackWidow Ultimate 2016 Edition has an MSRP of $109.99, which surprised us; that’s actually at the lower end of the range for a keyboard that is both backlit and mechanical, plus equipped with excellent software. It’s very competitively priced. The backlit (but non-RGB) Corsair Vengeance K70, for example, is around $120, and the Logitech G710+ Mechanical Gaming Keyboard is $130 from most resellers. You can find some models from makers like Rosewill and Cooler Master that are a bit cheaper, but they don’t offer the same ancillary features and software power that the BlackWidow does, so you will get what you pay for, essentially.