Last week I had the pleasure of attending Computex Taipei. Computex is a computer trade show that focuses on PC hardware. There are lots of companies presenting there, big and small. Some names you might recognize are NVIDIA, MSI, Intel, and Cooler Master. But there are countless other companies presenting a plethora of PC-related hardware such as VR headsets, 3D printers, and keyboards. I had actually never heard of Computex until a week before the show happened this year. The only reason I ended up attending was because I was invited to check out the Wooting one mechanical keyboard. The PR/business part of Wooting’s three-man team contacted me personally to ask if I would like to visit their booth at the trade show. Being a gaming enthusiast who is currently building a PC, I was delighted to attend such a trade show.
I have been working on building my very first custom, high-end gaming PC for the past several months. I spent a number of months acquiring the funds and have put in more than a hundred hours of research to try and get the best build possible for my needs, one that will last as long as possible. The only reason I hadn’t already built it is because I was waiting for the new NVIDIA 10 series GPUs to drop. Can’t wait to get my hands on a 1080. I’m so glad that I was delayed in building my rig because if that hadn’t happened, I would have regretfully not found out about the Wooting one before dropping around $200 for a Razer Chroma. Now when it comes to keyboards I knew very little. I knew I wanted a mechanical keyboard and I knew I wanted something with customizable key backlighting. That’s literally all I knew and that’s the only reason I was looking at the Chroma. That’s not to imply that the Chroma is the only keyboard option for single key backlighting. I say “knew” because I learned a ton about mechanical keyboards from the Wooting team in the 4 – 5 hours I spent talking with them, time that I had originally planned on using to see other booths. Now, I know a heck of a lot more about mechanical keyboards. The only reasons I could see myself buying any other keyboard than the Wooting one are it’s still a number of months off, or another company might take their idea and have the resources to implement it better for the same price or less.
If you don’t what a mechanical keyboard is, essentially it’s a keyboard that clicks when you type. But what’s important is that the buttons click before you’ve actually pressed them all the way down. At a young age, people are trained to type by pressing keys all the way down. Part of the reason for this is that older keyboards required you to do this for the computer to recognize that you pressed something. This is no longer the case but the practice remains ingrained in typing culture spanning all the way back to analog typewriters. The truth is that the keys on a desktop keyboard today can often pick up the input before you’ve pressed the key all the way down. A mechanical keyboard makes an audible sound to notify the user that the key has registered before the user has pushed the button all the way down. A normal keyboard key switch can go 4mm. It can probably register the input at 2mm for most boards today. Once you get used to not pushing buttons all the way down, and multiply that effort by the amount of keys you press in a given gaming session or writing a text document, and we’re talking about saving quite a bit of time in the long run. That’s the layman’s explanation of what a mechanical keyboard is and what they are commonly used for. Other than the actual mm numbers, all of that I knew before I ever heard the name Wooting one. What I didn’t know until I met them was that we gamers have been getting shafted on mechanical keyboards basically since they became a mainstream peripheral.
Most people who use their PC for serious gaming and have for an extended period of time have either had to replace a keyboard or gone through hell trying to repair it. Even non-gamers have experienced keys sticking, dust getting stuck under and inside of keys, and even keys getting permanently damaged or pulled off. The dust and damaged keys issues aren’t necessarily the end of the world. Depending on the type of keyboard you have, it’s quite possible to remove keys and clean or replace them. But when a key is sticking, that’s usually the key switch. The key switch is the piece that contains the plunger that allows the keys to be pushed down and then spring back up when you remove pressure. These little plastic switches are stupidly simple. They don’t cost that much to make and replacing them is a breeze. Or it would be if basically every company wasn’t soldering them down so that you can’t remove the key switches. That’s the only reason repairing keys is such a nightmare. You have to remove the solder, replace the switch, and then re-solder it down. Or at least you did before the Wooting one.
The Wooting one mechanical keyboard is the first board that I’ve seen where you can easily remove and replace both the keys and the switches with nothing more than a small plastic tool. They let me try it on one of their prototypes and it is very easy. The entire process of removing and replacing an entire board’s worth of keys takes maybe 30 minutes once you get the hang of it. Not only is it easy to do, but it’s a part of what makes this product special. The company doesn’t actually make the switches. They get them from a manufacturer called Adomax. They use a special type of switch that reads input based on optics instead of pressure. Essentially that means that the keyboard/computer is reading how far you’ve pressed the button at literally the speed of light. Having tried the keyboard out personally, I can say there is no lag. In fact, one of the big issues that I was experiencing while using their prototype was that the computer couldn’t keep up with the keyboard’s input speed so it kept locking up until the on-site engineer altered the code to slow the keyboard down slightly so the computer could handle it.
The Wooting one gives you the option of using two different types of switches and the ability to toggle between analog and digital typing at a whim. Digital means, press the key and it reads. Analog means the keys are pressure sensitive and those different levels of pressure can be used for different things. They have both silent and audible switches so you can choose if you want the noise or not. You also have the option of mixing switches because the keys aren’t connected. If you wanted to you could have an entire board with silent switches except for the ones you use for gaming, such as WASD. You can even put the keys in different locations because the board allows for full cover disassembly and customization without having to use any special tools. They also have a variety of plate colors so you can style your board however you want.
That’s all just basic hardware stuff, just the bare minimum of why this board is amazing, but without actually delivering anything that shouldn’t already be industry standard. We should already be able to change our own switches and keys at will. We should already have full customization options for our keyboards. That shouldn’t even be considered special in 2016. But on top of that there’s other great stuff about this keyboard. The board is fully mappable on a software level. What that means is that you can map the keys to be whatever you want. If you want A to be where N is then you can just tell it to do that and it will work that way for all programs. You could rewrite your entire board and place the keys however you like for a completely custom typing setup. You can save multiple layout profiles within the keyboard, meaning that you can have a different layout for every task you do regularly. Profiles can be changed in real time with a single button press without ever having to look at the screen. With the ability to backlight the board in the entire RGB color range, you can give each profile its own color code. The way the Wooting one guys showed this off was by creating different profiles for various games. They had a special profile for Overwatch, The Binding of Issac: Rebirth, and Trackmania Turbo, to name a few. Every time they had me play a different game they just changed the profile, which I could see because the keys changed colors and then the layout was customized for that specific game. Their hope is to be able to build an online community with a working library where users can upload profiles and share them. So let’s say you make the perfect layout to play Elder Scrolls Online. Your friend buys the game and wants to use your layout. You would upload it to the free-to-use library and then your friend could download it into his/her keyboard and start playing ESO with a perfect button layout straight away. Then they could tweak it to suit their own play style, if need be. The keyboard itself is plug and play. You can hook the keyboard up via USB and it shows up in game as “WootingKB” right away. It can also be used as an Xinput device or an XBOX 360 gamepad. They showed me how to easily switch between all three. In some games, it read as multiple devices at once, allowing you to configure it in game however you wanted.
Another thing that really impressed me was that their optical key switches have multiple activation points. What that means is that one key can do multiple things on the way down. Currently the activation range is from 2mm – 4mm, but I was told that Adomax is looking into producing 1mm activation switches. Imagine you’re playing a game like The Division, and that it wasn’t a laggy piece of crap that could actually accept multiple inputs in less than a second. You could map both your base abilities to the same key, say First Aid at 2mm and then Sticky Bomb at 4mm. A shotgunner is coming at you and your health is low. In one button press you could heal and then stun the opponent. The multiple activation points also allow for much finer movement in games like racers and shooters. You can make that hairpin turn without needing a joystick. You can sneak just enough out of cover to get that shot without moving out into the open and becoming a target yourself. Even without the capabilities of this particular board, optical switches with multiple activation points should be the future of PC gaming.
The Wooting story is a very inspiring one. These three guys from Holland were actually trying to open up a peripherals store and when looking at keyboards couldn’t find any products they actually wanted to sell because they felt like all of them were crap. So instead of opening a store to sell other people’s crap, they decided to build the keyboard that every company should already be making because the technology exists. Their keyboard costs less than the less capable big name competitors, like the Razer Chroma. I think this is the kind of development that we need to see more of in the gaming industry, on both a software and hardware level: people making products that can and should exist because they offer the end user the best possible experience. The Wooting one is essentially the CD Projekt RED of keyboards. Even if I wasn’t looking to build a PC, I still respect Wooting for trying to give people the best possible product, one that shows true innovation and change from the substandard norm. One of their stated goals for this board is not actually to corner the keyboard market. Instead, they want to standardize the market to provide all keyboard users the same level of customization and quality regardless of what company they buy from. I respect that a lot.
I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that they currently have a working model ready to hit the shelves because they don’t. I was essentially one of their first out-of-house alpha testers and there were admittedly some problems with this first generation prototype. But those problems were nothing serious, and I’m 100% confident they will be remedied before these boards go on sale. Even as I write this Wooting is in the midst of their Kickstarter campaign, which was fully funded two times over in less than a week, by the way, proving that the demand for a keyboard like this is extremely high and thus necessary. They still have a long way to go and they told me about so many things they would like to do that they just can’t due to lack of resources. For example, the only complaint I had about the board is the lack of single key backlighting customization. You can backlight the whole board in any single color you want and you can backlight in 4 predetermined clusters, but you can’t make your own specialized pattern or rainbow keys, not because they wouldn’t like to do that, but simply because they don’t have the money to take the time to write that code. That’s near the bottom of the list of things they’d like to be able to do before the product ships. It really does come down to this being a great product that can be greater if people support it, and what’s coolest about it is the keyboard is updatable on both a hardware and software level. If users don’t get 1mm – 4mm activation switches before shipping, the switches can be easily changed. You’ll be able to upgrade your switches to the better ones once they get released in about 30 minutes with nothing more than a plastic switch remover that comes standard with the keyboard. At some point when they hopefully do get the code written for single key backlighting, that update can go straight to your board from the internet without you having to pay for a new board. And let’s be honest, single key backlighting isn’t a serious issue that should stop any mature adult from buying a keyboard that’s noticeably more useful than anything else currently on the market.
The only serious complaint I have with the Wooting one, and again I only got to use the alpha form of the product, is that the key switches aren’t labeled. As I said before, you have the choice between silent and audible optical key switches which are not manufactured by Wooting. In order to cut costs, Adomax only uses one mold for both types of switches and thus fails to visually differentiate the two switches in any way. The only way you can tell the difference is by actually hearing it. And if you’re not trained to hear the difference, you’re not going to know what type of switch you’re holding until you put it in the keyboard and start typing with it. Obviously the switches aren’t sold mixed together, and this is in no way, shape, or form the fault of Wooting. But that’s still really inconvenient. If you spill a bag of those into the pile you’re switching out, you are screwed. So fingers crossed that Adomax fixes that issue.
I don’t often take the time to endorse hardware. If you read my stuff regularly then you know that I stick to games mostly and sometimes say something about consoles. It’s even rarer for me to endorse any sort of crowdfunding campaign because I still don’t feel totally comfortable with the idea of handing money to a company for promises that I can’t prove will come to fruition with no protection on my “investment.” But I can comfortably endorse the idea of supporting the crowdfunding campaign for the Wooting one. I met the guys personally. I used the keyboard. I can say with confidence that their Kickstarter campaign is genuine and that their product delivers what it promises even in its alpha form. And even if they don’t make it as big as they probably should, just getting that product out there will revolutionize the way mechanical keyboards are produced and sold, eventually making keyboard purchasing better for everyone. If you’re a PC gamer or even just a hardcore PC user, I highly encourage you to check out their product and support the Wooting one.