While Corsair, at the moment, owns our gaming keyboard throne with its killer K95 Platinum, Razer aims to usurp it with an all-new flagship keyboard, the Huntsman Elite ($199.99). To that end, Razer has deployed a new kind of key switch that uses optical light technology. The company claims it will improve durability, and it allows for a key feel that is both light and clicky. What’s more, the Razer Huntsman Elite introduces dedicated media keys, a volume dial, and onboard memory for settings and profiles to a Razer keyboard for the first time. It’s a solid effort, but it lacks a handful of features that were already present in more affordable Razer keyboards before it. We’d call this strike at the king brave, but a near miss.
Everything But the Macro Keys
Last year, the 3.31-pound Razer BlackWidow Chroma V2 impressed us with its minimalist design, per-key RGB backlighting, and dedicated macro keys. The Huntsman Elite takes some of these ideas and stuffs them inside a meatier, 3.82-pound board measuring 1.42 by 17.64 by 9.21 inches. Should that feature set (or the price) be more than you can handle, Razer also offers a non-Elite version of the Huntsman, retailing for $149.99 without many of the bells and whistles (no wrist rest, dedicated media controls, or volume wheel, all of which we’ll talk about in a moment).
Much of the Huntsman Elite’s weight gain versus the BlackWidow Chroma V2 is due to a new metal front plate screwed into the plastic center of the board. A handful of new buttons has been added, as well. Back, Play/Pause, and Skip media controls, for example, now rest above the number pad. To their right is a volume dial (or, as Razer calls it, a “Multi-Function Digital Dial”) that you adjust by rolling your finger along its side.
Otherwise, the design of the Razer Huntsman Elite closely resembles that of the BlackWidow Chroma V2. The keycaps are identical, with tops that curve slightly to fit my fingertips. The 7-foot braided-fiber cable, too, appears to be of the same girth as the cable on its predecessor.
The biggest difference you will notice is the Huntsman Elite’s lack of dedicated macro keys. They seem curiously absent from a keyboard as expensive as this one, but depending on your priorities, the sheer mass of RGB lighting and the comfort amenities might make up for the lack of dedicated macro keys.
That’s most likely to be the case if you’re an RGB geek; if so, this keyboard will tickle you pink (and every other color). Almost every physical feature on this keyboard—from the keys to the volume dial to the leatherette wrist rest—has embedded lighting this time around. The lighting works with Razer’s Chroma control scheme, which means you can assign one of 16.8 million colors to each discrete key. Also, you get 24 customizable lighting zones on the underside of the wrist rest. This keyboard can be a veritable desktop fireworks display, if you want it to be.
Speaking of the wrist rest, it’s a comfy one. It attaches magnetically to the base of the keyboard, with an electrical contact in the center to transmit the signal and power for its embedded LEDs. If you prefer faux leather plush layered over plastic instead of a hard wrist rest, you are in for a treat.
Switching It Up: Opto-Mechanical
The make-or-break element of any mechanical keyboard, of course, is the switches it uses, and these are a new kind. The Huntsman Elite’s keys feel similar to the old familiar Cherry MX Blues—which is to say, unapologetically clicky, with clear key-press feedback and a little bump in the key action. They sound the same as the classic MX Blues, but they have a lighter touch, requiring 45 centi-Newtons (cN) of force to actuate as opposed to the 50cN rating of the original Cherry MX Blues.
This is an important distinction, since Razer is flogging these new, so-called Opto-Mechanical switches as the “world’s lightest clicky switch” based on this specification. According to Razer, these switches use infrared light beams to detect when keys are pressed, rather than leveraging electrical contacts like traditional mechanical keyboards do. As Razer puts it, “A light beam passes through the switch stem when a key is pressed, which then actuates via a receiver that sends the corresponding signal to the computer—bringing actuation at the speed of light.”
I suspect some marketing mumbo-jumbo here—speed of light versus speed of an electrical contact?—and could not tell from the feel of the keys any specific tactile distinction that the optical aspect delivers. It feels like a typical mechanical switch, with a slight flavor of its own. To test whether it makes a difference in real-world applications, I put the Huntsman Elite through LiveChat’s free typing-speed test against a Cherry MX Blue-equipped keyboard I had on hand, the Fnatic Streak. On the Fnatic, I garnered a speed of 72 words per minute and an accuracy rating of 97 percent. With the Razer Huntsman Elite, on the other hand, I scored 71 words per minute at 95 percent accuracy on the second try.
That’s totally anecdotal, of course, and I’d expect to improve on the Huntsman Elite as I get used to these lighter switches. But in the early going, I find that bottoming out each keystroke is not as effortless as it is with non-clicky switches such as Cherry MX Reds. (Then again, I prefer linear key switches, such as MX Reds, to those that are clicky and loud, so take my bias with the appropriate grain of salt.) However, that bottoming-out trait is curious considering that the Huntsman Elite’s key switches have a 3.5mm vertical travel distance and a 1.5mm actuation point; in contrast, Cherry MX Reds/Browns have a 4mm travel distance and a 2mm actuation point. So you actually have to press the Huntsman’s keys less far to activate them.
Also worth noting: Unlike the BlackWidow Chroma V2, the Huntsman Elite ships in just one flavor of switch, the so-called “purple” Opto-Mechanical. That’s all well and good, though my gut reaction is to ask, where are the Razer Orange and Yellow Opto-Mechanical switch equivalents? As a long-time user of Razer keyboards, it strikes me as odd that a new flagship would go without an option for quieter keys. Perhaps Ming Lian-Tang and company are saving them for a later date.
For gaming, the Razer Huntsman Elite is, indeed, fast for a clicky mechanical keyboard; I’d equate it to a clicky Cherry MX Red. In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), you can crawl around in the bushes with the satisfying, audible reassurance from your keys that you are in motion. Moreover, in Starcraft II, you can be certain that your frenetic striking of the letter “A” gets registered when spawning a new Marine. For fans of Cherry MX Blues, Razer’s Opto-Mechanical switch is a promising, light-touch alternative to the longtime favorite. Gamers and typists who prefer a metallic, decisive response from their keys should like the feel.
Razer rates the switches for a 100-million-keystroke lifetime, which raises the uncheckable-claims bar here. Cherry MX Switches are rated for a 50-million-keystroke lifespan, but given no feasible way to test for durability, these claims are basically on faith. Plus, even if it is true, it would take almost 100 years to register 50 million keystrokes based on an analysis conducted by Digital Citizen. Grim as it may be, none of us is likely to outlast a Razer Huntsman Elite, if Razer’s claims are true. Not that it matters, anyway; most of us move on from a keyboard before its effective life ends. That future model with 300 RGB zones will likely seduce us first.
In the meantime, take solace in the fact that the Razer Huntsman Elite boasts 10-key rollover that works well, according to my experience with OTD’s Aqua Key Test. The image above illustrates one of my many attempts to mash 10 keys at once, all of which saw all of the keystrokes register. While I can’t fathom a scenario in which I could pull off a 10-key masterstroke in a game, 10-key rollover is a happening buzzword that some keyboard makers claim as a set-apart feature, given that some models claim to support only six. So here’s to one more.
Synapse Shapes Up
It’s not the first with 10-key rollover, but the Huntsman Elite is the first Razer keyboard that can save profiles and settings locally—that is, on the keyboard—in addition to in the cloud. Previous Razer keyboards tied these elements to a Razer account that’s needed to log in to the controlling utility, Razer’s Synapse software. The Huntsman Elite, in contrast, gives you the option to store up to five profiles on the keyboard itself, a task that’s as straightforward as dragging and dropping profiles into an section of Razer’s Synapse 3 utility, called On-Board Memory. Better yet, you can store macros on the keyboard, as well as part of profiles.
As a result, if you lug the Huntsman Elite along with you to esports tournaments, you won’t have to worry about installing the software. (Assuming, of course, that your tourney allows for profiles, macros, and shortcuts.) All of your profiles will be there with you, on your keyboard. To switch among profiles, you’ll press the Fn key and the Menu key (to the right of Fn) at the same time. Each of the keyboard’s five profiles is indicated by a color; the Menu key will glow to show you which one is active. (The profile colors are white, red, green, blue, and cyan.)
The Synapse 3 software, which was still in beta at this writing, is proving to be more reliable as time goes on and updates roll out. It’s still not clear when it’s going to leave beta; I was told “June,” back in early May, but June is winding down as I write this and there’s still no sign. Previously, as I mentioned in my review of the Razer Basilisk, Razer’s device lighting settings would not “stick,” at times, when I had both Synapse 2 and Synapse 3 installed. The reason it was necessary to have both versions of the software active: Older (mostly pre-2017) Razer devices required Synapse 2.
For households that plan to synergize their Chroma-enabled peripherals, it’s worth keeping in mind my uneven experience with Synapse 3 up to this point, though I’m encountering issues on a less frequent basis now. That said, Synapse 3 is more intuitive than other gaming keyboard software I’ve used, so I’m hopeful for the time when the wrinkles get pressed out.
From the home screen, accessing the settings of the Razer Huntsman Elite is as simple as clicking a picture of the keyboard under the Devices subheader. After that, everything you can change is listed under two categories: Customize and Lighting.
Under Customize, you can modify the function of any key to have it emulate a keyboard function, a mouse function, a macro, and more. Furthermore, you can create, import, and switch among profiles manually from the Profile dropdown box at the top and the Profile settings option to the right of it.
At the bottom of the Customize screen, you can toggle between Standard and Hypershift modes. The latter option lets you configure shortcuts that work only when you are playing games, versus typing. Further down the screen, you can enable or disable the keyboard’s Gaming Mode (or choose to enable it in-game). You can configure what Gaming Mode entails: disabling the Windows key, disabling Alt+Tab, or disabling Alt+F4, depending on what makes the most sense to you. This comes in handy, say, in Overwatch when you want to avoid launching the Start Menu by mistake when all you’re trying to do is crouch.
Under the Lighting column is where things get interesting. On a basic level, you can change the brightness of the backlighting or opt to switch it off completely when the display is turned off or your PC is idle. But locate the Advanced Effects tab, and you can delve into Chroma Studio, where you can customize the keyboard’s staggering 168 discrete lighting zones—that’s each key in the standard 104-key layout, plus two zones for the media keys, 38 underglow zones on the keyboard alone, and the 24 zones on the underside of the wrist rest.
You can change the color of each zone on an individual basis, but you don’t necessarily have to get that granular. Instead, you can use Chroma Studio’s canned effects. These include Breathing, Fire Reactive, Ripple, Spectrum Cycling, Starlight, Static, and Wave. Apart from that, if you’re wielding more than one Synapse 3-enabled device, you can return to the previous Synapse screen to turn on Quick Effects, which applies a single animation (or a static lighting setting) to all of your Razer Chroma devices at once.
All in all, Synapse 3 is seeing improvement. While it’s not 100 percent stable when it’s installed in conjunction with Synapse 2, I hope to see this issue mitigated once Synapse 3 leaves beta and gains compatibility with legacy Chroma peripherals. Right now, though, unless you’re hoarding an entire family of Razer accessories (like yours truly), you shouldn’t have problems with the software designed to complement the Huntsman Elite.
Beauty Has Its Price
The Razer Huntsman Elite has a lot going for it, to be sure. This is a mechanical gaming keyboard that tries something new with its Opto-Mechanical switches, and ends up being, from a key-switch perspective, something wholly new, a unique midpoint among several kinds of Cherry MX switch. And if peak lighting is your thing, the Chroma feature and the absurd number of lighting zones will illuminate your desk and everything surrounding in as wild a rainbow as any keyboard to date. The dedicated media keys and volume dial, are pluses, too.
For $199.99, however, we expect to have it all: multiple key-switch options, perhaps, but for certain some dedicated shortcut/macro keys. Those are two things that the Razer BlackWidow Chroma V2 already had before the Huntsman Elite debuted, and they are a prerequisite to play at the $200-keyboard tables. As a result of that, we’re hoping that Razer—and its etailers—adjust where this keyboard fits in, before long, with a bit of a price drop.