2012 is most certainly the year of the Razer gaming keyboard. Not only is the company refreshing the entire line of Black Widow mechanical keyboards, but they’ve also introduced a chiclet style line under the DeathStalker name. For those that like a softer touch and shorter travel distance over the clickity clack of a mechanical (I won’t hold it against you), the two new models offer a solid, comfortable typing experience. If you’re looking for a little bit more, including a touchpad-slash-screen, adaptive keys that can be customized with your own graphics and a variety of included apps, then the Ultimate version might be for you.

The first thing I noticed when unboxing the DeathStalker Ultimate is its profile. Because this is a chiclet keyboard, the entire unit is very slim. The low profile means that it will easily meet clearance on a keyboard tray. However, unless you’ve got a particularly long shelf, you’re going to find yourself cramped for space. The unit measures over 20 inches long (in comparison, my Black Widow Ultimate is about 18.5 inches). You’re unlikely to have a lot of room for a mouse unless you put this on your desktop (the real one, not the virtual kind).

Another thing you should be aware of is that you’ll need to connect to two USB ports to make use of the keyboard and the Switchblade UI. I currently plug my mouse into the extra USB port on my Black Widow, so it required some reconfiguring to get everything where it needed to be. The final bit of setup was ensuring that Razer Synapse 2.0 was up to date and the drivers were ready to go. This is an important step for any Razer product these days, but seems even more so with the DeathStalker.

Prior to installing the drivers and simply using the device to login to my computer and startup level programs, I noticed that the keys weren’t responding quickly enough and keystrokes were missed. The software plays an important role in making sure that all of your presses are accurately accounted for, so do get that taken care of before calling support about your “broken keyboard.” Additionally, you won’t be able to do much with the Switchblade UI until everything is made current on your PC.

Once you’ve got everything installed and Synapse recognizes your device, the fun can begin. I typically don’t prefer chiclet style keyboards, especially after using a mechanical one for so long. The DeathStalker Ultimate did its best to win me over, though. Especially when it’s as cold as it is in my house, there is absolutely something to be said for having something that requires a softer touch. Additionally, I was impressed that the keys, while not mechanical, were not “mushy.” There is a firm feel while typing that is quite comfortable. The built in wrist rest adds to the usability, especially during extended gaming (or writing) sessions.

Of course, the reason you’d be looking at dropping $250 on the Ultimate rather than the $80 on the vanilla DeathStalker is the Switchblade UI that takes the place of the 10-key number pad on the far right of the device. The unit is composed of a 4 inch combination screen and trackpad with 10 buttons in two rows of five above.

By default, these buttons correspond to a variety of applications including a clock, GMail, Twitter and more. You can watch YouTube on the little screen, but I’m not sure why you would. That said, I did spend some time to test the screen resolution and was quite impressed with the fidelity.

The macro recording tool and stopwatch are more practical and a better fit for the device. I tried to use the number pad as I do with physical buttons, but I never quite got used to it. As someone who ten-keys fairly rapidly, it’s not a great fit. The trackpad function is serviceable for a lot of things, but it won’t replace a good gaming mouse. I also noticed a bit of lag as I used gestures (pinch-zoom, for instance) to manipulate the content on the screen.

Where the Switchblade UI does shine is when configuring it for in-game functions. Programming the 10 adaptive keys is easier than I expected, and adding custom icons isn’t any more challenging than using the sets pre-loaded into the UI. Some of the more interesting functionality is available for specific games. If you are a SWTOR player, the combat logging app gives you access to damage information. If you take your carnage Counter-Strike style and have a preferred set of weapons you purchase, the trackpad for that game will speed your between-round menu time. For something like Borderlands 2, the adaptive buttons are a good way to put easy access to the different menu tabs in an accessible location.

Right now, there isn’t a great deal of support for the Switchblade UI, but Razer has opened the SDK up to the development community. If you play one of the two games mentioned above, Battlefield 3 or Team Fortress 2, there is an app ready and waiting for you when you connect your DeathStalker Ultimate. For everyone else, you’ll be able to customize the adaptive keys and the background of the trackpad, but there isn’t anything game-specific for the majority of what people are playing.

There is a lot of potential in the little screen on this keyboard, but until more developers come on board and provide a good use for it, it’s hard to determine who would benefit from it. I hope more game-specific apps do emerge for the Switchblade UI, because having a second screen of vital information, a minimap for RTS games, a scoreboard in competitive first-person shooters or an inventory menu for adventure games would make a purchase quite compelling.

Razer has a history of innovation and iteration, and this gives me hope. The Switchblade UI is slowly evolving, and the availability of the SDK is a huge step toward wider usage. Until there is a greater density though, it’s only easy to recommend it as a comfortable and competent typing surface. If that’s what you’re interested in, I’d recommend looking at the DeathStalker, which is functionally very similar (just without the Switchblade). We’re keeping our eye on the progress of the Switchblade UI and we’ll keep you posted as more developers sign on with unique applications for the embedded screen.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Comfortable typing surface that is quieter and easier on the hands than a mechanical keyboard
+ Bright backlighting makes finding keys easy in low light environments
+ Switchblade UI screen is attractive, and customizing adaptive keys is simple
- Not many game-specific applications for the UI
- Touch screen can’t adequately replace a physical number pad or mouse
- Functionality is interesting, but YouTube, GMail, Twitter aren’t terribly practical 

 

The Razer DeathStalker Ultimate is available now from the Razer Store for $249.99. A unit was provided by the manufacturer to RipTen for the purposes of review.