Here at TSA, we’re all predominantly console gamers. We tend to favour our plastic boxes under the TV, with their handy little ergonomic controllers. But there’s a compelling case for keeping a serviceable PC gaming rig in your life too and with the prospect of living room PCs bringing that aspect of gaming to a much wider audience in the not-too-distant future, it’s good to have a handle on the best ways to control some of the most absorbing gameplay experiences available – those only on PC.
With this in mind, we jumped at the chance to take a look at one of the most important pieces of any PC gaming setup: the keyboard.
The opportunity to look at this mechanical gaming keyboard was given to us by Ebuyer so we’ll be quoting their prices and offering their links to the product in question when available. Honestly though, that’s not a bad thing because Ebuyer usually have some of the most competitive prices online for this kind of thing and I’ve always found them prompt and helpful when I’ve ordered anything – really: look around for yourself and compare.
So what is the keyboard? Well, it’s Asus’s final piece of their Echelon gaming range. The range also includes a mouse and mousepad, as well as a headset and 7.1 sound card. Everything else in the range is covered in a slightly subdued blue-grey digital camouflage pattern but this keyboard is spared that treatment, presented instead with a nice matte black, slightly rubberised coating over everything from wrist-rest to key surface.
Time will tell how that grippy coating holds up to months of future play sessions and greasy finger prodding – there’s a possibility that it will wear thin and shiny or even peel if it’s subjected to the kind of abuse these keyboards generally have to put up with. After spending a little over a week with it, I can tell you that it is still as good as new and every aspect of it still feels well finished. That’s the very least you would expect from a keyboard which is currently priced at over £100 though and I’d be very disappointed if it suffered from wear a year down the line.
The keyboard box announces it as the Echelon Mechanical Gaming Keyboard but there are a few extra pieces of very important information there too. Firstly, that it’s based on the Cherry MX Black switches. Those are the firmest of the Cherry MX switches which are favoured by many mechanical keyboard manufacturers. What that means is that each key has a nice firm action to it that should insure against accidental key presses. They also have a fairly long throw so you’ll feel the 60 grams of pressure required to get each key press down before they return with a very satisfying rebound.
The full anti-ghosting and NKRO systems are technical provisions that mean you’ll be able to press as many keys at once as you need, without the keyboard missing any of them. That might initially seem superfluous if you’re not used to PC gaming but it basically means you can walk forward, strafe, crouch and reload all at the same time without any issues. Aside from the hand cramp you’re flirting with by having so many fingers active at once.
Those blue LEDs are another front-of-box selling point too. They have four levels of brightness, adjustable with the FN key in conjunction with Numpad 2 and 8. I never found that I needed anything other than the very lowest setting, even wishing I could go slightly dimmer for nighttime play sessions in a very dark room. The brightest setting is actually quite distracting in most cases, with those blue LEDs really standing out from your peripheral vision – although blue LEDs do tend to be less stressful on your eyes than, say the orange ones in my usual Logitech gaming keyboard.
Like most higher end keyboards these days, the Echelon comes with ports for your headset – speakers and mic – and a couple of USB ports too, although these are both powered via one USB plug so they’re okay for low-power peripherals but you won’t be able to power external hard disks or the like from them. It also has the standard volume and multimedia controls, thanks to the FN key and the first six F keys.
There are no profiles or other special features though and the Echelon doesn’t even come with bespoke controller software – it’s solely a generic driver at work here. That means it does work just as well plugged into a Mac or even a console like the PS4 or Xbox One, should that kind of functionality ever become more useful on the next gen consoles. The cabling is stiff but not unbendable, with leads to run the audio input and output as well as a USB lead for the 2-port hub and the PS2 lead with a USB adaptor that makes the keyboard itself work.
I’ve lived with the Echelon keyboard for over a week now, trying lots of different types of game with it – from Elite Dangerous to Half Life and Gone Home, Starcraft to Company of Heroes 2 and even a couple of twitchy hard-as-nails platformers like Super Meat Boy. I’ve also used it for plenty of my usual Windows-based typing, including writing this script with it and a few other office-based tasks like the regular heartbreak of perusing my personal finance spreadsheets.
The Echelon is clearly meant for games, though. Regular typing feels like it’s a lot more effort than the MacBook Pro keyboard I’m used to for 95% of my typing and even that little wrist-rest doesn’t do a great deal when all of your fingers are pressing down 4 or 50 words per minute on those stiff Cherry MX Black keys.
For games, the stiffer keys and longer throw is a very good thing – you feel very definite in your key presses. Obviously this meant that twitchy gaming like Super Meat Boy requires a bit of dexterity but the payoff is that you almost never strike the wrong key. For slower gameplay styles, it’s perfect and FPS play is probably the most satisfying as you have that responsive surface beneath your fingers and it all feels very definite. Although I can hardly claim to need it, the stiff mechanism also means that the keys rebound faster – that’s a boon for players of Starcraft and similar games that emphasise a high Actions Per Minute count.
The keyboard’s solid construction is also worth noting. Although it’s a little lighter than some of its competitors – at 1.175Kg, not including the cable weight – that’s just over 17 and a half unfrosted chocolate cupcakes, if you’re interested – it is still weighty enough to make accidental slipping on your desktop an unlikely event. The no-fuss approach to key layout and spacing also means it’s got a very conservative footprint. That’s something that’s increasingly important to PC gamers as they need to leave space for their HOTAS joysticks, speakers, multiple monitors and mouse pads as well as potentially making way for a VR headset in the near future.
Overall, I think the Echelon is a great bit of kit for playing almost any type of game but I wouldn’t want it to be the only keyboard I have for typing out 1,000 word reviews. For someone like me, who does most of their work on a MacBook and only keeps a Windows PC for games, it’s a perfect peripheral. Likewise for someone who doesn’t need to type much. For those with more of a mixed use, it might be a more sensible compromise to opt for a mechanical keyboard with slightly softer switches.