The SteelSeries Merc Stealth gaming keyboard is nearly identical to one we looked at back in 2007, the Ideazon Merc Gaming Keyboard. SteelSeries has since updated the product--rebranding it as the Merc Stealth--and added tricolor LEDs and a handy two-port USB hub.
The keyboard features a separate game key cluster that essentially doubles standard QWERTY keys to the left of the board. However, since the bunched-up key layout impedes accuracy, it may require an adjustment period and with enough time we'd imagine getting used to the layout. The downloadable software allows for complete customization of the board, so if all you're interested in is tailoring your keyboard to your favorite titles, the Merc Stealth is probably worth a try.
Rather than forcing you to hunt and peck your way through a typical QWERTY layout, the idea of the Merc Stealth is to isolate an additional set of game keys in a more user-friendly design. We mostly found this setup to accommodate first-person-shooter titles, but some may find success with other genres as well.
Six directional control keys anchor the game controls. Those main buttons are surrounded by various other function keys (such as Jump, Reload, and Run/Walk) preset to those commands. The robust software (available on the SteelSeries Web site) lets you customize the game keys, as well as any other key on the Merc Stealth, to perform whatever function you want; from simple single-key commands to more-complicated macros that you can program yourself. The thorough help file walks you through the less-intuitive steps, and with diligence, you should be able to get the Merc Stealth to execute pretty much any command or string of commands that a game will allow. SteelSeries also includes a relatively large number of premade key mappings to current PC game titles.
Though the Merc Stealth definitely has a more solid, tactile feel to its keys, we're not sure it makes for an overall better gaming experience--specifically over the original Merc. In the case of the game pad, it's more the key design that makes it difficult to use. We'd expect a nonstandard layout such as this to take some getting used to, but even after you get past the learning curve, the combination of convex and concave round keys are too close together and feel too similar to each other. Precise gamers will most likely eventually make sense of the clutter, but for the casual player, it may be more intimidating than anything else.
If you're stuck between the Merc and Merc Stealth, the decision should be made on the Stealth's additional features: the LED backlights and USB hub. If those two upgrades don't seem like something worthy of the extra $40, better stick with the standard Merc.