I was typing on the Razer Huntsman Elite the other day, when I turned around and noticed a colleague peering over my shoulder. He wasn't looking at my screen, or me per se, but at his phone which he'd propped on the desk — running a decibel metre app.
Funnily enough, the latest in Razer's line of gaudy keyboards — complete with their tactile and clicky switches, which the company says are the most sought after amongst its line so far — wasn't that much louder than my daily driver, the no frills iKBC Cherry MX Red board.
The biggest difference with Razer's latest line of keyboards, which are available now starting from $249 (for the Huntsman) and $339.95 (for the Huntsman Elite), is the inclusion of opto-mechanical switches:
The advantage with the Huntsman's optical mechanical switches is a beam of light. Traditional mechanical keys register a keypress after a certain actuation point, with different "switches" (brown, black, blue, red, and so on) relaying this back to the user with a tactile bump, and sometimes a clicky sound as well.
But because traditional mechanical switches have to reach a physical point before the key can actually be pressed, there's a disadvantage in terms of speed. We're not talking a great deal — keys on the Huntsman and Huntsman elite actuate after 1.5mm, compared to about 2mm for your standard mechanical keyboard.
Beyond that, and you'll hear more manufacturers make this point as they graduate to optical switches of their own, there's an durability advantage. By actuating via a beam of light, keyboard makers don't have to solder switches directly onto the PCB. Traditional switches can also degrade over time due to the wear and tear of the contact points inside the keys, a problem which is lessened by activating via a beam of light instead.
In practical terms, that means the Huntsman lasts for a lot more keypresses. Razer's quoting 100 million keypresses for the Huntsman, whereas Cherry MX keyboards often have a quoted life cycle of 50 million key presses. (I'm yet to wear out a single mechanical keyboard I've owned, but if you want something to last, it's worth keeping in mind.)
Perhaps more critically — especially for those who pledged off the louder, clicky switches in the past — the opti-mechanical switches means Razer was also able to lower the amount of actuation force required. A typical Cherry MX Black requires 60g of force to actuate, while a keyboard with MX Blue switches needs 50 grams and a MX Cherry Red only requires 45g to actuate.
That's why red and brown switches (the difference being the tactile bump you feel when pressing the keys) are typically marketed towards offices and gamers — not only are they less noisy with the lack of that extra "click", the lower force is easier on the fingers.
The Razer Huntsman, though? Only 45g force required. That's been an absolute misery to everyone seated within a 20 metre radius, as they've had to listen to me for the past week smash out articles with a constant, clicky drum.
The volume dial at the top right acts as a basic volume control, but it can also work inside games for microphone volume and other functions through the Razer Chroma software. It's limited at this stage, however, to basic volume controls. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)
So one way of looking at it is, don't even consider the Razer Huntsman for an office environment unless you're in the kind of office where everyone is OK with mechanical keyboards. (The Kotaku offices is one of those, although even they have limits: our head of IT asked the other day if I'd consider a career as a QA tester for keyboard companies.)
But once you take the sound concerns out of the way, it's a great keyboard to type on if you wanted that clicky feel without the resistance. The multi-functional dial is nice, although you'll only get that on the much more expensive Huntsman Elite. It's customisable through Razer Chroma, and there's support for other features once you're logged into Razer Chroma (although using the dial for something like weapon switching, for instance, would be far more impractical than just hitting the mousewheel or number key).
You can't get a tenkeyless version of the Huntsman, sadly. And if you've owned a Blackwidow, you'll know all too well how well Razer keycaps pick up fingerprints. The Huntsman does nothing to fix that problem, and if Razer wants to do any R&D for the next iteration of keyboards, they'd be well served looking into some smudge-resistant keycaps and surfaces.
Both the Huntsman and Huntsman Elite do have on-board profile storage, mind you. The supplied wrist rest (Huntsman Elite only) is also very soft, and draws power from the pogo pins at the bottom of the keyboard. You can control the lighting of both through Razer Chroma, and there's plenty of profiles for various games.
Something worth noting is that the Huntsman and Huntsman Elite don't quite represent the future of mechanical keyboards. One of the advantages of optical mechanical switches is the ability to read multiple inputs from a single switch — in other words, analog input, much like what you'd get on a controller.
The Wooting One is one such keyboard, enabling pressure sensitive inputs rather than the on/off nature of traditional keyboards now. Put simply: imagine playing a driving/racing game with a keyboard, where a light press of a key turned the wheel gradually, instead of 100% to the left or right. Another example is the ability to bind multiple actuation points on a single key, so pressing WASD gently walks your character in an FPS, instead of running at full speed.
Of course, Razer aren't alone in the optical switch game. Manufacturers Bloody have been making keyboards with LK Libra (or Light Strike 3) switches for a while. The travel distance on their B930 mechanical keyboard is only 3mm as well, compared to the Huntsman/Huntsman Elite's 3.5mm. Kailh are another brand that's dabbled in the opto-switch game too, and while the travel distance on their gold/bronze/silver/copper switches match the Huntsman, the actuation point is only 1.1mm compared to the Huntsman's 1.5mm.
I asked Razer in a phone interview whether the optical mechanical switches in the Huntsman and Huntsman Elite would be capable of analog input. They said it wouldn't, and while updates to Razer Chroma and the firmware itself would add extra functionality down the road, a hardware update (read: a second-gen keyboard) would be required.
There's few games that are setup to take advantage of analog keyboard inputs, anyway. For the most part, the benefit of an optical switch is the improved speed and versatility. Optical switches can be more durable as well: beams of light are more water resistant than traditional mechanical switches, after all.
As always, price is going to be the kicker. The Huntsman costs $249 in Australia, while the Huntsman Elite will cost you $339.95. The only other keyboard I remember over the last few years costing over $300 was Cherry's own keyboard - and as nice as that was, I couldn't find a soul who would even contemplate paying over $300 for a mechanical keyboard given what you can get for two-thirds the price.
But I will say, those optical mechanical switches are mighty fine. I could never live long-term with a clicky keyboard — especially in an office setting. On the flipside, Razer's purple switches only require 45g of actuation. The Aorus K9, the other optical mechanical keyboard stocked by major Australian e-tailers right now, needs 55g of actuation.
That's not an inconsiderable amount. The Aorus is $70 cheaper — but then again, I've never bought a keyboard that required more force to type because it was cheaper. So if you're like me, and you want the benefits of an optical keyboard but want the least amount of resistance possible, the Huntsman gives you something to think about.