Monday, March 19, 2012

Zowie Celeritas Mechanical Gaming Keyboard

Over the course of the last week I've been hunting for a new keyboard to replace my slowly failing Logitech G11 keyboard.  I had a few requirements:

  • Good tactile feedback
  • left-hand windows key (for my XMonad keybindings)
  • Media keys (play/pause/forward/back/volume)
  • "Normal" QWERTZ layout (i.e. no shortened keys, or messed up/mangled key configurations).

After a lot of testing and looking, I decided that a mechanical keyboard was most likely to fulfill my most important requirement (feedback).  I looked at things like the Das Keyboard Model S, and Razer Black Widow and the SteelSeries 6vg2.  Each of them had something that was missing (the Das had no media keys, the Razer's build quality seemed to be lower than the others, and the 6vg2 had a few missing/changed keys).  I stumbled upon a guide on geekhack mechanical keyboard guide that included a review of the Zowie Celeritas keyboard (which was also briefly mentioned as good value/quality on a different guide I was reading).  So I figured: "Let's see what it looks like".  The Zowie website had a decent series of pictures of even the German layout keyboard, and I was able to see that the keys were all there and in the correct locations.  To make a long story short, I ordered a "used" (it had been returned) version of the keyboard from amazon for 95€ (the keyboard was sold out/unavailable from most stores I looked at).

A quick list of features of the keyboard:

  • n-key rollover (when using the supplied PS/2 adapter)
  • up to 8x RTR (basically how quickly a held key registers as a repress)
  • a function key (instead of a right-hand windows key) for media buttons (on the F1-F6 keys)
  • Cherry MX Brown switches
  • Standard layout (numpad, home block, arrow keys, etc.)
  • Option to switch the windows key on the left to a second control key (for gaming) via the function key + windows key (though it only seems to work when using the PS/2 adapter).

The Zowie Celeritas

Here are my thoughts on the keyboard:

  1. The tactile feedback is excellent (compared to the G11).  I'm not very experienced with mechanical keyboards, having only bought this one, and having tried out one or two over the course of my life (usually without any idea as to switches within).  My opinion of the Cherry MX Browns are that they are comfortable, and give decent feedback.  I'm still typing more heavily than I need to, but I'm pretty sure I'll get used to the fact that I don't need to depress the keys entirely fairly soon.
  2. Media keys work fine, and don't use any weird keycodes, meaning X can register them as the standard media keys (XF86PLAY, for example).  This means that all my keyboard shortcuts are preserved.
  3. The layout is extremely comfortable, and similar to my G11, meaning I'm not hitting alt when I mean to hit the windows key, etc.
  4. Slippage will be a thing of the past.  They keyboard itself supposedly weighs 1.4kg (if I remember that correctly - I haven't checked this myself).  Also, the four feed on the bottom of the keyboard are some of the most effective I've ever seen on anything.  Pushing against the keyboard takes quite a lot of effort to get it to move, meaning it shouldn't shift as you type, unless you use a lot more force than necessary.
  5. The space bar key does tend to slant a bit before registering as a key press when not hit directly in the center, but it's not much of a difference to the G11, so it doesn't bother me.
  6. the RTR functions (1x, 2x, 4x, 8x) seems like it might be useful for some, but I don't forsee myself using it for any reason.  As such, it doesn't bother me that it seems to not function in Linux.  As far as I read, it should have been done in-hardware, but since it isn't something I'll use, I won't be researching it any further.
  7. Windows/Ctrl switching works fine in both Linux and Windows, for those of you who want to avoid hitting the windows key when gaming.  The Zowie logo is lit, and red means normal windows key functionality, and blue means control key functionality.  Seems to be implemented very well, and it's nice to have the option (as opposed to simply having no windows key on the left).
  8. Comfort:  I find typing on this keyboard is much smoother and more comfortable than typing on my G11, even with a foreshortened palm rest.  I may be raising the keyboard a bit simply to offset the slant caused by my desk chair (my desk is lower than the arm rests of my chair, leading to my hands hovering a bit above the keyboard - same thing happened with the G11).  The keyboard does not have feet, and as such can't be angled.  This isn't an issue (for me at least), because the rows of keys are raised as you move from palm rest to cable, making it very comfortable to type on (and allowing me to reach all the keys as I would usually).  The keys are (logically) a bit louder than my G11, but once you get into the habit of half-pressing keys (which is all that is required on mechanical keys for it to register as a key press) it will get much quieter.  Cherry MX Brown switches have no audible feedback, unlike the Blues, meaning whatever click you hear is simply the key bottoming out.  I haven't found anything uncomfortable (or irritating) about this keyboard, whether I was playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, or typing this blog post.
Conclusion: If you're looking for a nice mechanical keyboard with media keys, and tend to type a lot, I would have no issues recommending this keyboard to anyone.  However, it does seem to be rather difficult to purchase (not sure if they're planning another production run of these or what the reason is for them being unavailable).  If, however, you can find a decent deal on a used one, I'd advise you to give it a shot.  If it's too grimy, you can always switch out the key caps (one of the benefits of a mechanical keyboard).

On a more general note, if you are undecided between a normal membrane keyboard and a mechanical keyboard (this applies mainly to Browns or Blacks, as I've tried both), then I would highly recommend the mechanical one.  As always though, if you're going to buy something without trying it out first, make sure you can return it.  For those of you wondering, the difference between Cherry MX Browns and Cherry MX Blacks is simply that the Blacks lack a tactile cue on half-press.  Basically they tend to show up more on gaming keyboards, and are slightly harder to press, as you bottom them out every time.  The browns are (generally) seen as more comfortable for longer typing.  Having tried the Black Widow out briefly (with Blacks), I'd say that it feels a bit more like a membrane keyboard with a bit more feedback.

For anyone confused about the differences, skip on down to the Appendix section where I (very briefly) discuss a few differences.  I hope anyone who's considering a mechanical keyboard finds this review helpful.  I realize that a review after only a few hours of use is hardly an extensive test, and as such I will update this review in the future, if I find I need to add to (or remove) some part of it.  If you don't see an edit on this post in 6 months time, I've either forgotten, or I have nothing to add to the review!


For those of you who aren't sure of the difference between a mechanical and a membrane keyboard, I'll briefly outline it here (however, the link above to the guide goes more in-depth).

The basic difference is that mechanical ones use switches as opposed to a circuit board with membrane nodes per key (anyone who has yanked a key off a laptop keyboard will know what I mean).  Mechanical keyboard are rated for a rough estimate of 50 million key presses, as opposed to the 5 million membrane ones are rated for.  As such, the mechanical keyboards are generally more expensive, but also last longer.  Another plus point for mechanical keyboards are that they can be repaired easily - you can get new key caps.  I'm not sure about replacing the actual switch mechanism, though I wouldn't be surprised if that were also possible.

A more subjective difference is that mechanical keys cause less fatigue (as they don't require as much force to register, i.e. a half-press) than other keyboards.  As such, they can be more comfortable to work on for longer periods of times.  Of course, if you're using an ergonomic keyboard already, you probably won't find this to be a compelling reason to consider one.


gmh_michael said...

did you test this using a Linux Distro?

Lswest said...

Yup, the post was even written in ArchLinux. The only thing that doesn't seem to work is the toggling of the windows key to a control key and back again - but that's not much of an issue for me.

neovatar said...

Even if this blog entry is already a bit dated, I wanted to add the following:

If you use the Zowie Celeritas in Linux via USB, some keys do not work (e.g. ALT GR on german keyboard). It's working fine when connected via PS2.

Also see this thread on the linux-input mailing list:

Lswest said...

Thanks for the info - I'd never tried to use the keyboard without PS/2.