Review: SteelSeries Apex gaming keyboard comes out on top

[Originally posted to my PC gaming column at]

The SteelSeries Apex may not be mechanical, but it's still a top notch gaming keyboard.
The SteelSeries Apex may not be mechanical, but it’s still a top notch gaming keyboard.

The SteelSeries Apex gaming keyboard is not just the most colorful gaming keyboard money can buy—it may well may well be one of the best values in gaming keyboards currently available. It’s comfortable, responsive, powerful, and whisper quiet–all for about a hundred bucks.

And it (very surprisingly) even managed to convince me that a keyboard doesn’t have to be mechanical for me to love it.

SteelSeries Apex features and specifications
Here is a breakdown of the key features for the SteelSeries Apex keyboard:

5 active zone lighting areas

  • Main keyboard area
  • Left function keys
  • Top row function keys
  • Number Pad Cluster
  • Side lights & Steelseries logo

6-key anti-ghosting for 20 keys:

  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,
  • Q, W, E, R, A, S, D, F,
  • Left-Ctrl,
  • Left Shift,
  • Space bar
  • 4 arrow keys

Rounding out the features are the following:

  • Small bumps on the W key to make finding the W-A-S-D cluster easier
  • 22 independent macros keys that are slightly raised for easier access
  • Removable rubber feet for adjustable height
  • 2 x USB 2.0 ports
  • Extra column of media control keys
  • Diagonal arrow keys added to the 4-key arrow key cluster

The unique and innovative claim to fame for the SteelSeries Apex is that it has five independently lit zones—4 of these are functional zones on the keyboard, and 1 is purely cosmetic (the lights on the left and right sides of the keyboard and the Steelseries logo above the number pad cluster).

The other color zones are divided up as follows: The 10 left-hand macro keys, the top-row function keys and extra macro keys (F1-F12, and M1-M12), main keyboard area, and the number pad cluster.

In addition, the Apex supports 4 different “layers” (or profiles), each of which can be customized with its own distinct color scheme and macro functions, which gives the Apex a total of 88 different macro functions.

The SteelSeries engine software—the unified driver platform for SteelSeries products—provides a good, intuitive platform for programming all your macros and keyboard settings.

The macro editor makes recording simple macros easy, and includes an advanced mode if you want to tweak or edit custom timings. From a user experience perspective, the SteelSeries engine software is among the best peripheral software in its class, in which I’d include Razer and Logitech (with Mad Catz a close 2nd).

The SteelSeries Engine software also enables you to track your most frequently used keys through its ‘heat map’ function. The heat map function simply shows you the frequency with which you press the keys on the keyboard. It’s an interesting feature but admittedly one for which I find little practical use.

As a self-confessed mechanical keyboard snob, I was a bit reluctant to swap out my Coolermaster Quickfire Rapid TK (which sports mechanical blue-switches) for a non-mechanical keyboard. I generally prefer mechanical keyboards (with blue or brown switches) for work and play and wouldn’t normally use anything else.

But surprisingly—very surprisingly—it didn’t take long using the Apex to fall in love with it.The Apex delivers a fast, responsive, and quiet typing experience that may have won me over for gaming–and I suspect my nearby cubicle jockeys would appreciate whisper quiet typing.

Gaming is equally satisfying, although I don’t think the tiny ridge on the ‘W’ key (a feature SteelSeries likes to brag about in their bullet points for the product) is pronounced enough to be truly helpful. I didn’t even realize it had that tiny ridge until off the product features in the bullet point list. The top row of function keys (F1-F12, and M1-M12) are also very slightly offset a little more to the right than on other keyboards—it’s a minor quibble, although it requires a small adjustment to get accustomed to it.

The Apex’s jumbo-sized space is shorter but wider than a standard spacebar–about 3.75 inches x 1.5 inches, vs. 4.5 inches x .5 inches for a standard keyboard. I actually grew to like the Apex’s spacebar, and at the very least it doesn’t seem to require any adjustment or learning curve to adapt to it.

One area the Apex leads many of the more expensive mechanical boards—aside from its far more colorful nature—is the plethora of programmable macro keys: 10 along the left side, and 12 above the function keys for a total of 22 (with 88 possible functions when you take into account the Apex’s 4 “layers”.

SteelSeries also adds two additional diagonal arrow keys (which aren’t particularly useful) and a column of media keys along the right side of the keyboard (outside the number pad cluster). There are also 2 USB ports on the back  of the keyboard, located centrally on either side of the connector cable.

Having different colored keys is probably not really helpful enough to have a significant impact on your gaming—but it’s still cool and I’ve been known to like colorful-if-useless lighted computer accessories).

More important is the placement of your macro keys, which fundamentally belong near your left hand by the W-A-S-D cluster. SteelSeries wisely placed 10 of them here, and the row of 12  along the top that admittedly aren’t  as easy to reach but can be used for less frequently used functions. (The biggest challenge is actually remembering what macros you’ve assigned to which keys.)

About the only questionable design decision with the Apex is pretty minor: the height adjustment feature. Most keyboards have small flip-out feet on the bottom for quick and easy height adjustment, but the Apex requires you to pop out two rubber feet and replace them with two taller rubber feet. Yes, it’s a very small inconvenience, but it’s an odd and seemingly unnecessary compromise—even if it’s something you’re likely to only do once.

Overall: 5/5 stars
The SteelSeries Apex is an outstanding all around keyboard, and probably one of the best non-mechanical gaming keyboards you can get in its price range, which is a very reasonable $100 (or so).

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