Introduction: A Different Philosophy
Apple products, like the iPad and the Mac, have always been known for their incredible design, no doubt about it. Apple’s dedication to providing a superior hardware and software experience has made them the multi-billion dollar industry titan we know today. Companies like TwelveSouth and Griffin design accessories that land on the Apple Store page time and time again, making more customers happy with their bite taken into the Apple. So what happens when you decide to break all the rules in Mac product design, make a keyboard with neon green backlighting, and designate it for the Mac? You get a keyboard none other than Razer’s 2013 BlackWidow Ultimate – Mac Edition. Just one glance at this keyboard and it’s clear that words such as “minimalist” or “aluminum” aren’t anywhere in Razer’s vocabulary. I’m not even sure if Razer has a dictionary, with product names like “Tartarus”, “Ouroboros”, and “Anansi”. The three snakes that represent Razer’s brand seem like something only a 12-year-old boy would find fascinating, and in Razer’s factory, high quality plastic is king. The BlackWidow Ultimate attempts to combine both form and function with a keyboard that offers functionality not offered on other Mac keyboards, while maintaining poise as a keyboard that doesn’t have “GAMER” written all over it. Having spent just over a couple of months with the BlackWidow Ultimate, it certainly is not for everyone; but for its intended audience, it’s nothing short of a great value.
History, Unboxing, First Impressions
In order to fully appreciate this keyboard, it is important to understand its relatively short product life cycle. First introduced at Gamescom in 2010, the BlackWidow Ultimate shipped with Blue LED’s and had a glossy exterior finish. While it looked nice out of the box, many complained about fingerprints, a problem with any glossy finished product. In late 2012, the BlackWidow Ultimate received a facelift, featuring: a matte surface, green LED’s, capitalized keycaps, and compatibility with Razer’s latest software offering, Synapse 2.0. The original BlackWidow Ultimate was designed as a Windows keyboard, but a Mac version shortly followed, retaining the same aspects of the Windows model, save for dedicated media controls and Command/Option keys. Believe it or not, I went to great lengths to find a 2010 Mac BlackWidow Ultimate, having scoured websites from across the globe. The few e-tailers who could ship the 2010 version wanted absurd amounts of money for the keyboard, so it appeared that I was in luck when I found one in an eBay auction with a starting price of $25, in the United States! As tempted as I was, something was holding me back; not the keyboard itself, but the Razer Orbweaver and all of its green backlighting glory. While I certainly could have modified the Orbweaver’s LED lights to match my keyboard, I decided that spending $85* on a keypad was already insane enough, and that I may as well go for the brand new 2013 BlackWidow in order to keep things matching on my desk; modding either 20 switches to match a blue light keyboard seemed like the exact opposite of Saturday afternoon fun.
I managed to snag the last 2013 model directly from Amazon for full MSRP of $139.99 (and has not been back in stock as of this review), and had it in just under 2 weeks. Having to wait for so long drove my excitement down just a bit, as I FINALLY got to unbox this mechanical beast. The box is massive, but purposefully contains the stiff cardboard that secures the keyboard. When taking the BlackWidow Ultimate out of its packaging, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the sheer weight of this thing. While the box says it weighs around 6lbs., it feels more like 8 at first because its so incredibly solid. Once it is on your desk, it isn’t going anywhere without two-handed force. To attest to the build quality, the braided connector cable makes a bold statement. While very gamer-ish, thick wire will always beat out thin in terms of durability, and immediately increased my confidence in the lifespan of the BlackWidow Ultimate. The matte finish, another upgrade from the previous model, looks a lot better in person than any default image can express. While not completely fingerprint/dirt resistant, you don’t need to worry about cleaning the keyboard every five seconds; just once in a while will do if you’re careful with what’s around your desk. Unfortunately, the ugly Razer logo sits directly centered beneath the Right Command key, and glows in conjunction with the rest of the keyboard. As I quickly learned, however, electrical tape is my friend; and a couple of carefully placed pieces later, the logo has been given a proper burial. Once I accomplished this, my feelings towards the keyboard were only further satisfied as I realized that this keyboard looks even better than before. On another note, transitioning from a keyboard with smaller keys, like I did from my Logitech K120, requires a bit of acclimation to the BlackWidow’s layout, mostly due to the position of the keys; I found myself making few, but noticeable errors such as typing an extra letter or two every few minutes. After just three hours or so, I was fully acclimated, and error-free.
Like with any keyboard, one of the first things you probably test out are its keys. The Razer BlackWidow Ultimate features mechanical Cherry MX Blue switches on every key — all 112 of them. These switches are notable for being incredibly loud, and live up to their name in the BlackWidow Ultimate, providing a tactile feel rivaled to retro keyboards. Simply put, every keystroke is as enjoyable as the last, but may annoy your next door neighbor. Luckily, Razer also offers the BlackWidow Ultimate in a “Stealth” Edition, featuring MX Brown switches, which significantly reduce noise in exchange for some of the tactility the Blue switches have. Unfortunately, this “Stealth” edition is not available in a dedicated Mac layout; those who want the Mac layout must opt for the regular edition. I personally feel that the Blue switches provide the most authentic typing experience, but YMMV. As a gaming keyboard, though, I wonder why this keyboard was not offered in MX Black or Red switch option; both of which are enjoyed by hardcore gamers. The BlackWidow Ultimate has a standard QWERTY layout, complete with a number pad as well as five additional macro keys lined up in unison from the ` key to the Control key. Each key has a matte finish as well as an individual LED. New to the 2013 revision is a green neon undercoat applied to the base of the keyboard, making the black keycaps stand out even more, providing a real “wow” factor. The transparent lettering on each key is located at the top, centered directly above the LED. For keys with additional symbols, like numbers and brackets, Razer has opted to only illuminate symbols/numbers that do not require holding Shift. While working on code in low light, I have to hunt-and-peck for commonly used symbols like pipe, brackets, and so forth. It gets annoying quickly, and it appears in this instance that Razer sacrificed usability slightly to maintain a uniform appearance.
Specific to the Mac layout outside the Command/Option keys, are the function keys, drastically different from their Windows counterpart. While crafting these keys, Razer took to the layout of the standard Apple Keyboard, so everything is exactly where you expect it. The Mission Control and Dashboard keys (F3 and F4 respectively) also received a facelift to match newer Apple keyboards in light of Apple’s OS X Lion (and beyond). The music control and volume keys are universal to the system and work across applications; meaning the Pause/Rewind/Forward keys work in Spotify or other music apps without any additional programming. Unlike the Windows version of the BlackWidow Ultimate, the Mac version features a dedicated Media Eject key, a treat for owners of older Macs, or those with external CD/DVD drives. While Apple allows for a keyboard shortcut to sleep the Mac by pressing Command-Option-Media Eject, using Eject will not work with any shortcut. To the right of the Media Eject button are two blank function keys, F13 and F14. The Mac version of the BlackWidow Ultimate has 19 function keys, with Function keys 15-19 along the left side of the keyboard as macro keys. While Razer’s product website shows the BlackWidow Ultimate with M1-M5 keys on the left hand side, the Mac version does not have these keycaps, but nonetheless function exactly the same as its Windows brother. Keeping this in mind, it seems Razer has given Mac users a bonus with seven blank keys, compared to six on the Windows version, ready for macros or any function you can imagine.
Like many modern mechanical keyboards, Razer provides additional I/O on the right hand side of the keyboard, featuring a USB 2.0 port and Headphone/Microphone ports, fantastic for those with PC gaming headsets. The USB port and Audio jacks require dedicated inputs; meaning you need 2 USB ports and an audio source to get them working. Personally, I use a Sabrent USB Audio card (Amazon link), to power the additional audio input/output. While all connectors are braided and gold plated (a huge plus), having 3 USB ports (or 2 and 2 audio jacks) to fully run this keyboard is asking quite a lot, particularly for Macbook owners, as all MacBooks and most Macbook Pros come with only 2 USB ports. The easy answer to this problem is a USB hub; but make no exception — you are going to want a powered USB hub. Having the keyboard and audio card plugged into a non-powered USB hub gave me many issues with audio quality from both the headphone and microphone jack, as well as many frequent oddities with the keyboard acting up.
Software: Razer Synapse and the Mac, Gaming
While a ridiculous concept for the average consumer, the BlackWidow Ultimate requires software to fully function; and whether you like it or not, you’re going to need it. Out of the box, the BlackWidow Ultimate functioned like a normal QWERTY keyboard, including the function controls and on-keyboard backlighting. At this point, the F13-F19 keys, Game Mode, Macro key, and key programming were useless, so I downloaded the latest version of Razer Synapse directly from their website, which was version 1.17 at the time. Synapse is like the nervous system of Razer products, allowing you to maximize your keyboard’s potential, or connect it with other Razer peripherals you may have. Customizable profiles for your devices are saved “over the cloud”, effectively getting all of your friends to install their software so you or they can use this “precious” keyboard. Unfortunately, after installing Synapse, my function controls just stopped working. I couldn’t change the brightness, change the volume, or do anything outside typing. Even with multiple computer restarts, I eventually resorted to downgrading Synapse to an earlier version, 1.14 to be exact. Alas! It finally was working! I took a chance by re-updating to version 1.17, and had no troubles either. For software that acts as a nervous system for my keyboard, it was having some serious jitters.
Once you’re inside Synapse, you’re presented with a nice interface that allows you to manage your Razer keyboard (and works with multiple Razer devices quite nicely). At the top of the interface, you can access your account information and opt to select the offline mode; Synapse requires an internet connection for initial setup, updates, and accessing profiles saved “on the cloud”. In the middle of the home page is your device, in this case the BlackWidow Ultimate. Left-clicking each key allows for you to program it for a number of functions such as: Cut/Copy/Paste, Keyboard Shortcuts, launching applications, controlling your other Razer products, and more. To the left of the home page, you can create an unlimited number of profiles (with support for key-switching for up to 10 via function key), which is useful for games or specific applications. A nice bonus found underneath the profile page is the Link Application checkbox; with this, any app you select will apply your chosen keyboard profile upon launch, and is great if you happen to have multiple profiles. Backlighting can also be adjusted in the Lighting tab, with a slider option for custom brightness, or to have the keyboard pulsate. I find the pulsate option annoying for actual use, but cool to show off. The keyboard itself can adjust backlight via the F5 and F6 keys, but only supports 21 levels of brightness, from no brightness to maximum, which really is too much for most. Next, the Gaming Mode tab simply enables or disables the keyboard’s Gaming mode, represented by a crosshair’d G letter, and allows the F1-F12 keys to function as normal function keys. This may be more useful for the BlackWidow Ultimate’s Windows version, but is still nice to ensure that you don’t accidentally hit the Mission Control or Dashboard keys by mistake.
Finally, we have the Macro Menu, which allows for multiple key sequences to be recorded, and activated with the press of a key or key command. The macro is an invaluable feature for MMORPG players and certain types of gamers, and Razer has done an excellent job with this feature. Activating Macro mode is as simple as pressing Function plus the Macro key, located next to Right Option. Pressing Fn+Macro twice will begin recording your macros, and pressing the escape key will end the session. Programming macros on the BlackWidow Ultimate by itself is a nice feature, but somewhat pointless since the keyboard lacks any RAM to save your macros locally; rather, you must rely on Synapse to get anywhere. Fortunately, Synapse’s software works well, allowing you to adjust time between key presses, input custom time delays, or allow for no delay at all. For the right person, or an MMORPG player, the macro function is well done and highly useful.
Now, I don’t really consider myself a computer gamer by any measure, but I did use the BlackWidow Ultimate for a few games here and there. After all, this is a gaming keyboard. One of the major features of this keyboard is that it has “Anti-Ghosting” technology, meaning that it can keep up with lots of simultaneous presses. While it does not feature true n-key rollover due to USB limitations, having seven or eight keys pressed is no issue for the BlackWidow Ultimate; but at this point, its worth checking out that Macro feature. In games, the QWERTY side of the board holds up quite well, but I did have some issues with the arrow keys; about one in 200-300 presses would fail to register correctly. I’m blaming this on user error due to the amount of actuation force required — only 55g, and the fact you don’t need to “bottom out” in order have the key register, unlike a standard membrane key. I’m also not much for the Macro features, as my Razer Orbweaver will fit the bill in those scenarios. All in all, gaming was very nice on the BlackWidow Ultimate compared to my cheap K120, but serious gamers may want investigate other MX switches before deciding if the MX Blues are for them.
Criticisms and Potential Improvement
When you’ve owned as many electronic gadgets and gizmos as I have, you realize that there cannot be such a thing as a perfect product, because if a product is perfect, why would you bother revising it? Razer, like many electronic companies, understands this idea very well, and have shown signs of progression in all of their products. The 2012 BlackWidow Ultimate is a great revision from an already great product, with more friendly backlighting and a matte finish. That’s not to say this product can’t be greatly revised, so I’ve come up with a list of revisions that could help differentiate themselves further from the competition:
The Logo: The green glowing logo I mentioned earlier is an eyesore, at best. That’s not to say it can’t have a logo, but it should probably be printed in black like it is on the Razer Orbweaver. In my opinion, the keyboard would look considerably better out of the box with this option.
Focus on Low Power: Since I have plugged this keyboard into my powered hub, I have had almost no problems with it. While in a standard 4-port hub, it would: frequently disconnect, activate Game mode with or without its indicator, disable media and volume controls, switch Macro keys around, disable backlighting or make it set to maximum brightness, simply not work upon waking my Mac from sleep, and the list goes on. The same results occur in other non-powered USB hubs, so it is my guess that the BlackWidow Ultimate needs either a direct computer connection or a powered USB one.
Backlighting: For a $140 keyboard, being limited to green backlighting is a love/hate relationship. I love it, but it would be great if Razer went with RGB lighting in their next revision. As mentioned earlier, it would also be nice if Razer backlit commonly used keys as opposed to simply their un-shifted value, particularly with curly and angle brackets.
Synapse: Let’s face it, being required to sign up for an account through Razer just to use your hardware properly is downright silly. While Razer probably means well with their “cloud” philosophy, it’s pretty easy to see past the fog and understand that it’s just another way for the men upstairs to make more money. I also had a terrible out-of-box experience with Synapse, and had Razer just decided to include on-board storage for Macros, Synapse wouldn’t really be required. Of course, corporate culture doesn’t like it too much when consumers win.
MX Switches: With the amount of knowledge consumers have today, it’s incredibly easy for them to make informed purchases, and mechanical keyboards are no exception. $140 is expensive for a keyboard, and the lack of customization in switches means people who want anything other than Blue and Brown switches buy outside the Razer brand. For the Mac edition of the BlackWidow/Ultimate, having Brown MX switches would be a great option to reduce noise, or maybe provide one with Black switches for heavy handed typers. While the MX Blue and Brown switches are more tactile, broadening the customer base is never a bad thing.
There’s a reason why mechanical keyboards are making a comeback from the 1980’s-90’s, and it’s because they provide an unmatched typing experience not found in the average keyboard of today. While many seem to suffice with membrane or scissor-style keys, those who care about peripheral quality are rewarded with a product that will outlast the membrane keyboard many times over. While almost any mechanical keyboard will work with the Mac over USB, finding one that is built for the Mac is becoming more and more difficult. And that’s if you opt for one without backlighting. If you demand a mechanical keyboard for the Mac with backlighting, look no further than the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate Edition, because there isn’t anywhere else to look. Sure, you can take any backlit mechanical keyboard and use it with a Mac, but it cannot provide an “authentic” OS X experience. Of course, touch typists and others believe that backlit keyboards are moot, but in my opinion, if you’re going to spend $140 on a keyboard, why wouldn’t you get the complete package? That said, the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate Mac Edition is really quite a special keyboard. While large on the desk, it’s not gaudy at all, and again, that matte finish makes it look excellent. Green backlighting may turn some off, but I believe the backlighting is an important part of this keyboard’s design, and it works very well.
If there’s one thing that this keyboard does other than type, it’s that it proves everyone (including me), wrong about “gaming” products; they can look great on your desk, and you’re going to want to look at it. The only real problem with the BlackWidow Ultimate then is it’s price, because you can do a lot with a $140 keyboard budget. The regular BlackWidow model, without backlighting, is available for $99.99 and is exactly the same thing as this keyboard sans backlit keys. Outside of Razer, you can buy a Das Keyboard Professional S Mac Edition for $133, or you can go retro with an Apple Extended Keyboard II complete with a USB adapter for ~$75, depending on the eBay auction. With all this in mind, I recommend this keyboard solely on the want/need to have backlighting; if it’s not needed, you can do better than the BlackWidow Ultimate. But, if you want the complete package, and the bragging rights of owning a mechanical backlit keyboard designed for the Mac, the BlackWidow Ultimate delivers big time. I just wish Razer could come up with better product names; for a black widow, this thing is loud.