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Peripherals

Razer wants the best of both worlds with its new gaming keyboard (hands-on)

The Razer Ornata uses "mecha-membrane" switches under the keys -- but how do they stack up against fully mechanical gaming keyboards?

The great keyboard schism comes down to the keys. Membrane switches are electrical, and rely on each keystroke completing a circuit on a single board. Your average office keyboard most likely uses membrane switches.

The other side of the divide, favoured by gamers, uses mechanical switches. In a mechanical keyboard, every switch uses its own spring mechanism to record keystrokes. This gives a lot of control over travel distance, resistance and, most importantly, accuracy.

Razer's new Ornata Chroma keyboard isn't taking sides. It's using both kinds of switch in its keys.

razer-ornata-05.jpg
Dave Cheng/CNET

Key specs

  • $100 (£100, AU$170)
  • Razer's specially designed "mecha-membrane" switches
  • Full keyboard with numpad
  • Anti-ghosting on up to 10 simultaneous keypresses
  • Game mode to turn off Windows key
  • Magnetized palm rest
  • USB connection
  • Razer Synapse app and Chroma customisation

Of mech and membrane

OK, so it's a keyboard designed for gaming. Which means, you're probably dealing with some real purists, and you're telling them that their gaming keyboard doesn't have fully mechanical keys.

What do they get though? The newly developed Razer tech appears for the first time in the Ornata, and it does manage to combine the satisfying click of a true mechanical switch with the softer touch of a membrane dome. It can also manage an impressive 10 simultaneous keypresses without ghosting (when too many keys are pressed and some don't register).

On the technical side, it also means there's a much shorter distance between keystroke and activation without sacrificing too much travel on each key -- they all sit at half height. Whether that translates to more speed and accuracy is going to come down to the user.

I've typed this whole review on the Ornata, and for general use, I'll say this much: It stands head and shoulders above the mechanical keyboard plugged into my gaming rig at home. For one, the quieter actuation means my frantic tapping isn't driving my coworkers crazy. There's a reason my mechanical keyboard is at home, and not in the office. For another, it takes much less pressure per keystroke than pretty much every mechanical keyboard I've used.

The gravy

Then there's the little quality of life features. I'm in love with the included magnetized palm rest. It snaps in place perfectly and hasn't shifted on me once, even with rigorous use. It also puts your hands perfectly level with the keys, and honestly I wouldn't recommend using the keyboard without it -- at around an inch tall, it's just too far off the desktop to use comfortably with no added support. That also means it takes up a fair amount of desk space -- around 18 inches by 9.5 inches. Keep that in mind if space is already at a premium.

Make your keyboard psychedelic with Razer Synapse and programmable LEDs.

Dave Cheng/CNET

The Ornata is firmly in the Razer family, and fully integrated with the Synapse desktop app. The LEDs are completely programmable, and you can do anything from only highlighting your WASD keys to having a full rainbow wave playing beneath your fingers.

On the subject of lighting, I found the glow from in between the keys muddied the backlighting on the keys themselves. Not a deal breaker, especially if you're touch-typing or going by feel, but it's definitely something to be aware of if you're using the Ornata in a brighter room.

Verdict

The new switches, while in a very well designed package, are going to come down to personal preference. Are you okay with the half-height travel, with the resistance, with the sound of the keystrokes? Personally, I found that the hybrid switches make for a very good hybrid keyboard, but it's hard to go past fully mechanical keys on a gaming peripheral.

What the Ornata does offer is the best of both worlds. Springy keys. Clicky typing, but not too loud. Middle of the road travel and soft-touch actuation. It may not be enough to convert loyalists in either the membrane or mechanical camp, but if you're open to seeing how the other half lives, the Ornata is a great way to do it.

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