SteelSeries Apex [Raw] Review - Layout and Performance
The SteelSeries Apex Raw's layout is an intriguing one that incorporates an oversized spacebar and Esc key and several other tweaks as well. The Esc key is essentially just large to match the dual rows of keys that run along the top but the spacebar has a little more purpose to its footprint. Its size is supposed to make it easier to hit while in the heat of battle or typing away furiously, and we actually found it worked. It’s not very often but every now and then a thumb can slip below the bottom edge of a conventional spacebar but here this never happened. Somewhat contrarily we actually found it most useful while typing rather than gaming but either way it did seem of benefit overall.
Next we have the Up Left and Up Right arrow keys that complete the top row of cursor keys. By default these, as you’d expect, perform a Left then Up or Right then Up movement, though they can be configured to do whatever you like. Either way, we found we didn’t really get on with them, finding little use for them and hitting them by mistake. That said, if you are still a cursor key user (rather than WASD) when gaming then these could come in useful. Also of little use are the two little blips on the W key – they’re simply too subtle to be useful.
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In terms of multimedia keys, the Apex Raw does feature them but they’re resigned to secondary functions of the F keys. They’re activated via the SteelSeries logo key that replaces the right Windows key, and they work perfectly well. However, being secondary functions there’s not that immediacy of access you get with dedicated controls, meaning we never got into the habit of using them.
More successful are the macro keys. There are two sets, with one that runs above the F keys and one that runs down the left side. Those on the left are conventional keys but those at the top are smaller and taller than a standard key. The idea is that by having them taller it’s less of a stretch to reach them. As with the large spacebar, we found this did actually work, with the different feel of the keys making them easier to find and hit, at least for the M1-M4 keys – the others are far enough away as to make less of a difference, given that you’re nearly always using your left hand to activate macros while your right hand uses a mouse or digitiser.
The 'W' key features two little blips to help find the key in the dark, but we found them too subtle to feel in the heat of battle. - Click to enlarge
Regarding the left set of macro keys, we found them easy enough to use, though we do prefer the way the Logitech G710+ splits up its macro keys into pairs, making them easier to distinguish by feel alone.
Completing the key features (geddit?) are the two buttons labelled L1 and L2 in the top left corner of the Apex Raw. These are used to switch between the two macro layers that define the functions of the other keys for any given profile. The L1 functions are default while a tap of L2 will invoke the second set of functions. Profiles are either activated automatically when an application starts or manually by going into the SteelSeries Engine software – there is no profile switching on the keyboard itself.
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Engine enables you to define the function of every single button on the keyboard. Any key can either perform a KeyPress Macro (i.e. press one or a number of keys), an application launch, a text macro (press ‘I’ and it types ‘I’m a silly billy’) or it can simply be disabled, giving almost complete freedom.
The software is well presented and makes it easy to setup profiles and macros. It also controls backlight intensity, polling rate (125, 250, 500, 1000Hz) and the language layout.
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An intriguing addition is the ability to record every key press made. Simply tap the record button and go off and play your game, or start typing, and the software will record not just how many keys you press but which keys, providing a heat map showing how frequently each key was pressed. Sadly it doesn’t allow you to store the results, instead resetting each time you hit record.
When it comes to the ultimate act of typing and gaming on the Apex Raw, having got used to using a succession of mechanical keyboards, the membrane keys here inevitably felt like a step backwards. There’s a surprising amount of force required to activate the key (to ‘pop’ the rubber membrane beneath) making typing feel a bit sluggish. However, in being so they actually provide good feedback, making it easy to tell when you’ve pressed a key or not – smooth, linear action Cherry red switches these are not.
The keys actually have something of a unique feel because they’re semi-low profile. By this we mean that a conventional low profile keyboard, like on a laptop, uses scissor key actions, whereas this uses a rubber membrane action. As such you get that smooth, flowing feeling from the wide, flat key tops and narrow spacing of a low-profile model but without the super-defined break of scissor switch keys. All told, we quite like it. It’s almost forgiving. Full height keyboards (mechanical or not) have small key tops, which means they require a greater degree of accuracy, and consequently is why you need to be accurate to actually get the most out of mechanical keyboards. Here though there’s a little more leeway, even if the ultimate typing speed isn’t quite so high. We’d prefer a little more cupping to the top of each key but not so much as to be a concern.
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A word on membrane keyboards in general before wrapping up. Most membrane keyboards tend to perform quite well in in their initial few months of use, in terms of typing speed and key responsiveness. However it’s how they respond six months down the line that is the clincher. The switches wear out and key action becomes less defined. That is simply the compromise of membrane (or benefit of mechanical, if you will) so is something to consider for any non-mechanical switch keyboard. It's for this reason that these days we'd seldom recommend a membrane switch keyboard that costs much more than this one, which is precisely why it's a much more sensible purchase than the fully-fledged Apex.
Nonetheless, we’re still somewhat in two minds about the Apex Raw. On the one hand it is a sensible lower-price version of the Apex, with a reasonably well balanced selection of features that really do work when it comes to both typing and gaming - it's classic SteelSeries 'no frills' stuff. But on the other hand, it still feels a feature or two shy of actually being good value. For the same money you can now get basic mechanical keyboards while similarly featured membrane switch keyboards can be had for £15-£20 less. We're generally fans of SteelSeries approach to product design but can't help feel they've missed the mark a little here.