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Razer Deathstalker Ultimate gaming keyboard review

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Razer Deathstalker

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Razer’s Switchblade technology jumps from the Switchblade laptop and into the Razer Deathstalker Ultimate gaming keyboard, a sleek, versatile, and powerful gaming keyboard. There’s no denying the Switchblade tech is extremely cool, but it could be even better if it was easier to reach--both economically and ergonomically.

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Features
The Razer Deathstalker Ultimate is low-profile keyboard with Chiclet-style keys and Razer’s Switchblade technology, which was first implemented commercially in their Switchblade laptop (now in its second generation).

The Switchblade consists of a built-in touchscreen and 10 physical buttons, each of which has its own customizable LCD screen so you can make them look like and do nearly anything. In addition, games that directly support the Switchblade (such as Team Fortress 2, Battlefield 3, and others) can populate it with their own functions (switching weapons, etc.)

The Switchblade touchscreen can also function as a trackpad, and two mouse buttons are located directly below it. But the Switchblade’s real purpose is to give you mighty Pwnage Powers for gaming—and the ability to do things like check email, Facebook, Twitter, or other services without leaving your game (so you can brag about your pwnage powers).

The Switchblade works much like smart phone-style screen, although without haptic feedback. You can run apps inside of it and use familiar gestures to swipe, pinch, and zoom to view and interact with content.

Here’s a list of the Deathstalker’s key features (courtesy of Razer):

  • 4.05” touch screen / trackpad able to run widget apps
  • 5 additional macro keys (M1-M5 on the left side of the keyboard)
  • 10 dynamic display keys with 80hz response time
  • Fully programmable keys with on the fly macro recording
  • 1000Hz Ultrapolling
  • Anti-ghosting capability for up to 10 simultaneous key presses
  • Tri-colour backlit keys
  • Dedicated Gaming mode

Many features of the Deathstalker Ultimate, such as Gaming Mode, Macro Recording, and its Synapse 2.0 software drivers, are now common among Razer’s recent PC gaming products (including, for example, the Razer BlackWidow Tournament Edition.) Also, like the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate (one of my all-time favorite keyboards), the Deathstalker features 5 easy-to-reach dedicated macro buttons (M1-M5) on the left side of the keyboard.

The Deathstalker Ultimate also features back lit keys that can be set to any color of your choosing (including a ‘cycle’ mode to cycle through all the colors).

Like the Razer BlackWidow keyboards, you can record macros on-the-fly—but on the Deathstalker Ultimate you can use the Switchblade screen to do it and view your macros and timing as you create the macro.

One interesting thing about the Deathstalker Ultimate is that it features a very nice wrist rest with a cool rubber surface. It’s an excellent wrist rest generally speaking, but it can’t be removed. The wrist rest also adds some good, solid heft to the Deathstalker; although (on a side note) cat hair sticks to it like glue. The Deathstalker Ultimate isn’t as heavy as a mechanical keyboard, but it’s definitely no lightweight.

Opening the Switchblade
The ‘killer feature’ of the Deathstalker Ultimate is, of course, it’s 4.05” touchscreen, which comes pre-configured with a variety of apps. In addition, it can be customized with additional widgets, and you can, of course, customize the LCD-buttons with your own icons and macros to basically look like and do just about anything.

The standard apps are as follows

  • Game Timer—for use tracking cooldowns, respawns, or perhaps just how long you have to game before you have to put the kids to bed.
  • Gmail, Twitter, Facebook—access these apps without leaving your game so you can set your status to “Pwning Noobs”.
  • YouTube—watch funny cat videos—or game video guides for a game you’re playing while you’re playing it.
  • Screenshot—take a screenshot, upload to social media, and gloat.
  • Web Browser—access the Internet on the screen with full support for pinch, zoom, etc. Potentially very useful for looking up game tips, guides, hints, etc.
  • Clock—view the time or time something.
  • Macro Recorder—make advanced macros (including mouse button clicks) through the Switchblade screen
  • Gaming Mode—deactivates the Windows Key, and alternately ALT+TAB, and ALT+F4 as well.
  • Trackpad—use the Switchblade as a multi-touch trackpad/mouse.
  • Numpad—creates a virtual 10-key pad for you on the touch screen and 10 tactile LCD buttons above it.

Performance
I definitely love the Switchblade UI, its customization options, apps, and fully capable touchscreen on the whole. On a lark I configured the Switchblade buttons and track pad with nothing but “LOLcats” (there's a picture in the slideshow), and then populated them with Tribes: Ascend voice emotes and other game functions. (I don’t know why, but I really get a kick out of pressing a LOLCat button for “Cast Magic Missile” and actually casting a magic missile in a game. I think even Serious Cat was amused.)

It all worked beautifully, and the Synapse 2.0 software makes it easy to set up without having to edit pictures to specific dimensions or change file formats. You can use virtually any picture file in a common image format (.JPG for example) as an icon for the Switchblade buttons or used as trackpad ‘wallpaper’. Admittedly, I think the Synapse 2.0 software could make the process easier by employing a simple ‘bulk import’ function to quickly create a gallery of buttons. (The current implementation requires you add/change images one at a time).

Like all Razer products, the Deathstalker is eminently customizable and holds a lot of potential for the right kind of gamer.

But I’m not ‘the right kind of gamer’
As much as I like the Switchblade, however, it’s not quite right for me. Here’s why:

The keys: I would love the Deathstalker keys on a laptop, but otherwise I greatly prefer mechanical keyboards. Given the choice between the mechanical keys of Razer’s awesome BlackWidow Ultimate (my favorite) and the low-profile Chiclet keys on the Deathstalker, I’ll take the BlackWidow any day.

Ergonomics: Secondly, there’s the placement of the Switchblade itself. It’s harder for me to reach and use in fast-paced games such as Tribes: Ascend, Torchlight II, and Borderlands 2, some of the games I played with it. As a right-handed gamer, I generally use my left hand for 95% or more of all keyboarding, which includes using key-based macros. I just don’t like taking my hand off the mouse, and found myself using the left-hand M1-M5 macro keys in preference to Switchblade macro keys (unless I had an overwhelming desire to press a LOLCat button—yeah, that still makes me chuckle like an idiot).

In all fairness this may be less of an issue for games that can be played at a more leisurely pace, or have more pronounced breaks in the action. For example, strategy games, some RTS games, MOBA games (when you’re waiting to respawn anyway), and many MMO games can provide more opportunities to move your hand from the mouse and activate a macro to fish, farm, shop in the ‘store’, or fire off dance emotes while you plan your next quest.

I do like being able to check my email or browse the web without leaving a game, which also has a lot of potential gaming-related uses. But again, ergonomics rears its ugly head. Even though you can use the Switchblade to check your email, Facebook, or Twitter without leaving a game, you still have to look down (i.e. away from your game) to do it. And the viewing angle (straight down) also makes typing more awkward.

Usability trumps cool tech
Perhaps the most convincing evidence for this based upon personal experience is that I used (and wanted to use) the Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 keyboard’s V.E.N.O.M. touchscreen more than the Switchblade—not because the V.E.N.O.M. screen is better technology, but because it’s better-placed. In its default/recommend setup, the V.E.N.O.M. touchscreen sits directly behind the ESC/F1-F2 keys at an upright viewing angle, which means you only have to stretch a finger a couple inches from the W-A-S-D cluster to press a button. In addition, all it takes is a quick downward glance to view the screen.

To use another usability/ergonomic comparison, checking the V.E.N.O.M. touchscreen is like glancing at the rearview mirror when you’re driving, whereas using the Switchblade is more like looking down at the coffee you just spilled in your lap. It’s a difference of just a moment or two, but all it takes is a moment to have (or avoid) an accident.

The Deathstalker Ultimate’s Switchblade may be technically more advanced and have better software the V.E.N.O.M. touchscreen on the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 keyboard, but ergonomics and usability ultimately trump cool tech.

This was further proved (to me, anyway) when I configured the STRIKE7 in one of its alternate configurations—which is essentially a speedpad with a touchscreen—and then placed it to the left of the Deathstalker. I did this initially just for fun, but found that even moving the STRIKE7 touchscreen/speedpad to the left of the Deathstalker put it too far away for me to want to use it much. In this set up, I have to move my entire hand approximately 1 hand span (let’s say 4-5 inches or so) to reach the V.E.N.O.M. touchscreen – too far for quick access under typical circumstance.

Overall: Undeniably cool, but could be cooler—4/5 stars
Don’t get the impression that I don’t like the Deathstalker Ultimate; I just think it’s a product that could be significantly improved from a usability standpoint. However, I’m also well aware that not every gamer shares my preferences. And your mileage will vary depending on your own preferences—maybe you love right-hand macro keys, you’re left handed, or you prefer games that allow you to take your hand off the mouse without getting shot in your virtual face. In that vein, I think that RTS, strategy, and MMORPG games may be inherently better suited to the Switchblade—as long as you love those games enough to drop $250 on a keyboard.

I offered these thoughts to the folks at Razer in an email while composing my review. And in all honesty, I actually think the Switchblade technology would be a more compelling desktop companion as a stand-alone accessory (At a lower price point), or possibly paired with a speed pad like Razer’s Nostromo. Alternately, a keyboard that enabled you to simply move the Switchblade to where it works best for you would be good too.

I suspect my absolute dream keyboard would be a Razer Black Widow Ultimate (with its awesome mechanical keys) paired with an adjustable tilt-screen Switchblade UI, conveniently located on the left-hand side of the keyboard in the area around the ESC-F1-F2 keys (although the price of such a beast would probably send shivers down one’s spine).

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