When looking for a keyboard you are presented with a market that has near enough everything. You have basic PS/2 or USB keyboards, to wireless ergonomic ones and backlit gaming ones all the way to each key being an OLED screen which can display pretty much whatever you want. This has both its drawbacks and strengths. In favour of such a richly populated market comes a great deal of choice covering all budgets, features and colours. On the other hand though, it can make it an incredibly hard choice with there being many keyboards offering slightly different features. One of the main divides between the keyboards out on the market is the switch technology they employ. The more traditional and commonly seen keyboards use a membrane while the other main type uses mechanical switches. I have been trying out a mechanical gaming keyboard, the Razer Black Widow, and a gaming membrane-based keyboard, the Razer Lycosa, to see what a mechanical keyboard is like during gaming as well as general usage and also to compare them with my usual keyboard, the Microsoft Sidewinder X4, along with each other.
The Razer Black Widow is, as stated above, a mechanical gaming keyboard which retails for around £70. It uses Cherry MX Blue switches for each and every key on the keyboard. With five programmable macro keys on the left hand side of the keyboard, a gaming mode and the ability to have multiple profiles, this keyboard should cater to the majority of gamers out there. Similarly, but on the membrane side of things, the Razer Lycosa is priced roughly £15 cheaper at £55. Although not offering dedicated macro keys, the Lycosa does offer backlit keys, dedicated media controls as well a USB extension port alongside headphone and microphone jacks.
Visually there isn’t much to either keyboard, the Black Widow has a glossy black surround to the keys with the keys have a rather square font to them. The one strange bit of it though is the markings on the keys being what I’d consider to be upside-down. That is, any key which results in a different character thanks to the shift key has its normal symbol on the top while the “shift + [key]” symbol is on the bottom. While I did find this a tad strange, I don’t particularly look at the keyboard while typing so it isn’t something I noticed while using it but others may do. Other than a Razer logo along the bottom and the top right containing space for the macro record and gaming mode lights, there isn’t much more to say on how the Black Widow looks. Moving onto the Lycosa now and this uses a soft-touch rubber to its wrist rest with a surround that is slightly less glossy than the Black Widow’s. Utilising half height keys, the Lycosa has a much smaller profile when compared to the Black Widow’s full height keys. On the top right of the keyboard sits a little touch-screen section containing the usual media controls (Play/pause, stop, next, previous, volume up and volume down) as well as a backlight adjust control with a Razer logo in the middle. Along the top edge of the keyboard resides a USB port and two 3.5mm jacks, allowing you to plug a headset in. These connections are all pass-through so the keyboard overall has two USB connections, a green tipped headphone/speaker jack and a pink tipped microphone jack.
So what are they both like to use when gaming and when just casually using for general usage? To be completely honest, they’re both nice keyboards, well built and neither hindered me or greatly improved me during gaming or when generally typing but they’re just not for me. The mechanical keyboard has quite a lot of travel to each key which is no surprise as it has full sized keys but each key requires a bit more effort to push when compared to a membrane-based keyboard. This in turn, when not used to using a mechanical keyboard, can leave your hand a bit tired after a long gaming session. An incredibly common question is how noisy a mechanical keyboard is and whether it will suit office use or other situations where people may be nearby to where you’re using the keyboard. From the usage the Black Widow got, I would certainly say that you’d not be popular in an office environment with a mechanical keyboard such as the Black Widow. The switches are very distinct and would easily be heard over even the heaviest typist on a membrane keyboard. This noise, to me, was quite annoying and when chatting to others on Teamspeak/Skype they could hear every move of mine when gaming or typing. As you’d expect from a keyboard using a membrane instead of mechanical switches, the Lycosa was nowhere near as noisy but, like the Black Widow, took some getting used to.
Overall, for the money and just generally, I prefer the MS Sidewinder X4. It’s a great keyboard for starters as allows you to set the gaming profile to disable both the Windows key and caps lock. There are also a couples of raised dots on the W key so that you can feel that you’re in the correct place when gaming, a great help for those who aren’t sure where their hand is and can’t afford to look down to check when gaming! Both the Black Widow and Lycosa have features and aspects which a fair few will probably think are great but they are also some I couldn’t put up with. The first is pretty much a joint one and that is that I prefer dedicated media keys as use them a fair amount. Razer have given some of the F keys on the Black Widow a dual purpose with needing to press a second key (labelled “Fn”) down by Alt Gr and then whichever F key you want to get play/pause/next/previous (etc.) functionality. I know of some people who prefer it this way as they don’t like another row of keys to perform this task but I’m one of the ones who prefers the option of a one key press to do it. On the Lycosa, as I mentioned before, there is the dedicated capacitive touch-screen bit for the media controls. But the problem here is that unless the backlight is on you can’t see which control is which. Not everyone wants their keyboard backlit all the time but unless you wish to ignore the media controls or just guess then your only option is to have the whole keyboard lit as the three options for the backlight are off, WASD only or everything. Other than that, I’m not completely sold on mechanical keyboards or the general feel of the Lycosa, the keys seem closer related to a laptop’s keyboard than the X4’s are, even though both are half height, and this I’m not keen on.
Because of the nature of a keyboard, I would strongly urge you to not take just my, or any other person’s, point of view in isolation. They’re a very personal thing and people prefer them differently, if possible try one out for yourself and then make your decision. Otherwise, your best bet is to read around to see what the general consensus is on the keyboard and decide based on that.