Despite its innovative approach to keyboard design, the OLED-based Optimus Maximus keyboard is best considered an expensive novelty. Its $1,600 price tag keeps it out of the hands of the average consumer, and we also question the practical benefit of using 113 customizable OLED screens as an input device. There is something undoubtedly unique and appealing about the degree to which the Optimus Maximus gives you complete control over its keys' appearance. But even for gamers, designers, and others who tend to demand more from their input hardware, the Optimus Maximus offers insufficient utility to justify its high price.
The Optimus Maximus is a product of the Art. Lebedev Studio, a design firm in Russia. To purchase a board you can order directly from the Art. Lebedev store, or you can refer to one of five U.S.-based retailers listed on the Art. Lebedev Web site, of which ThinkGeek is perhaps the best known. Ordering from the Art. Lebedev Studio appears to be the most expensive option, presumably because your order will come from Russia directly, rather than through a U.S. distributor.
Physically, the Optimus Maximus is a bit clunkier than a standard keyboard. Its 6.75-inch depth and 1.25-inch height isn't that extraordinary, but at 21.25 inches wide, the Optimus Maximus is only one quarter of an inch less broad than Logitech's older G15 gaming keyboard, which is the widest modern keyboard we're aware of.
The Logitech board crams in 125 keys compared with the Optimus Maximus and its 113 keys. Considering that each key is in fact a small OLED display wrapped in a transparent plastic enclosure, it's perhaps easy to understand why the Optimus Maximus has a less efficient key density-to-width ratio. If the tiny screens were any smaller you'd lose visibility, and the plastic surrounding each display must be thick and durable enough to offer adequate protection. The keys are also removable, which makes for easy cleaning and replacement, but which also requires sturdy construction so that the connective parts hold up. The unfortunate side effect of such bulky keys is that the Optimus Maximus is terrible for touch-typing. The tightly packed keys make for lots of mistaken presses, and the mushy responsiveness slows down your words per minute.
The hallmark of the Optimus Maximus is that its software lets you customize the image on each tiny display. The default layout provides a standard alphanumeric layout, but through the downloadable configuration software you can change the color, font, and size of the letters. You can alter the background color, you can type words, reassign commands, and even tie image and video files to display on individual keys, or across multiple keys.
Open up an image-editing program through the configurator and you can draw freehand over an image of the keyboard layout. Whatever you care to draw on top of that layout will appear on the keyboard as soon as you save your new file. You can assign different layouts to appear on the keyboard when you open a specific application or with a certain key command. The software also comes with media controls, Gmail notification, and CPU performance presets to assign out, among others.
As the Optimus Maximus works with both Windows PCs and Macs, it will recognize each operating system automatically and load up the familiar Windows icon and Apple command keys by default, depending on the system. The default settings reside on an included 512MB SD Card, and you'll find an SD Card slot on the back of the keyboard. This lets you save custom layouts and bring them with you if you move the Optimus Maximus between different computers.
As technically impressive as these capabilities might be, it's hard for us to imagine who might truly need them. Gamers, Web developers, and professional digital image or video editors might seem like natural customers. However, given the level of familiarity most of those kinds of users tend to have with their computing hardware, it's the configurability rather than the visual reminder afforded by the Optimus Maximus's OLED keys that's most important. Much more affordable, mechanical keyboards from Logitech, Razer, and others offer similar customization flexibility through dedicated hot keys, macro programming, and even keys you can physically remove and rearrange in the case of the Razer Tarantula.
We can't say that the capability to alter your keys' appearance is a negative, and it's hard to deny that the Optimus Maximus has a very high novelty factor. Custom visuals on a keyboard are at worst harmless, and we can picture plenty of scenarios where they might be relatively useful, from teaching someone how to use a program, to switching between control schemes for different applications, to driving a home theater PC. The problem is that its $1,600 price tag is so far out of whack with the other keyboards on the market, that we simply don't find what the Optimus Maximus has to offer enough of a benefit to offset its cost.
This is not to say that we don't think the Art. Lebedev Studio is on to something, and the Optimus Maximus and the other products and concepts on its Web site present exciting possibilities. The Optimus Mini Three Keyboard is the only other currently shipping product, and it involves simply three programmable OLEDs for $180. That's still a lot of money for what's essentially three spare hot keys, but that price tag is much more down-to-earth. We also like the Optimus Tactus concept, simply one giant, touch sensitive pad that offers even more customization possibilities than the Optimus Maximus. The Optimus Popularis is also reportedly in the works, supposedly it's a less expensive, LCD-based version of the Optimus Maximus. We look forward to finding out what else the Art. Lebedev Studio has to offer.