I am a very picky person, when it comes to keyboards (and I stated that during my review of Logitech G13). I guess part of that comes from the fact that I have been using computers for a long time - and old habits are really hard to change.
The first PC I got - about 1995 - had an AT keyboard. It was mechanical, featured a high-profile keys (I think it was the only option back then) and its back was a solid steel plate. I did not pay much attention to neither the quality, nor the look of the keyboard. If I remember correctly, it was ugly grayish-white and it was the cheapest one available. The distinctive feature of the keyboard was its top row:
- = \ BACKSPACE. That meant that
Enter/Return key was big - at the far right side of both the second and third key row - and
backspace was short, of the size of a normal key.
Many years later my PC got upgraded to a newer model. The technology went ahead and AT port was no longer included in motherboards. PS/2 was everywhere. Needless to say, the keyboard I got had exactly the same key layout and high profile keys, but it was not mechanical. Its durability was also substantially lower, and within a year I started looking for a new one.
My attention was drawn towards a keyboard with built-in macro buttons for cut, copy, and paste, located slightly left off the left shift and control buttons. The keyboard itself was plastic-fantastic no-name made-in-China model, but - it was offering large
Enter/Return key and a short
backspace. And it was black! It served surprisingly well and long, considering its price and quality. Unfortunately, during a move to Finland I had bent the cable too much and tore it slightly. I got so used to those three macro buttons over the years that I added them to the list of requirements my next keyboard needs to have.
Within few months I was back in Poland looking for a keyboard - and I have found it. The brand was ibox, and all the features where there, with an additional bonus. On top of the cut/copy/paste buttons there was... a scroll wheel! This time I have bought two units, so that I could use the same keyboard at home and at work. The scroll wheel was a blast, I have to say. The keyboards served for about 5 years, and it would serve a few more, but I started looking for a replacement. For the first time in my PC adventure I could get a keyboard without looking too much at the costs, and without hurrying.
My list of requirements was as follows:
- no need to elaborate on that; I got used to that layout for over 20 years and I know I am not going to change it
- at least 3 programmable macro keys on the bottom-left side of the keyboard
- that is another feature I cannot live without, those keys must be assigned to cut, copy and paste
- high profile keys
- I really suck at writing with keyboards that have low profile
- mechanical keys
- I wanted a keyboard for years of heavy use; and I quite like the distinctive click sound
- scroll wheel
- this was more an optional feature, as I knew there are no keyboards with scroll wheels anymore (sadly)
Based on those requirements, I knew my new keyboard is going to be professional and for gamers. I also knew that fulfilling all the requirements is going to limit the choice to at most two models. After some months of searching I have found exactly one model that matches all the criteria, except the scroll wheel. Without much ado I ordered two pieces and patiently waited until they arrive.
Azio Levetron Mech4 is not exactly a killer name, and I am pretty sure that the creative team had not had a very good day when they came up with ut. I mean, I get that Shadow or Phantom may sound cliché, pathetic and low-end, but Levetron Mech4 is not appealing, either. But at least Azio is consistent, the newer model was Levetron Mech5...
The keyboard arrived in a huge box. It held the keyboard in a thick, sturdy cardboard. There was also a CD with drivers and all of that was wrapped in a thin cardboard showing the features of the keyboard and multiple photos of it. Being a person that bought keyboards for much less than the shipment of that box, I was somewhat surprised by the fact that keyboards actually are sold in boxes ;)
Did I mention that the box is big? The keyboard is also big and heavy, and does not fit into the keyboard drawer of my desk. Or, it fits, but the drawer has to stay open at all times.
The layout of the keyboard is - at least to me - fantastic. The elements on the keyboard are spaced close enough to one another to not have problems when reaching them, but far away to not hit them by accident. The keyboard is modular - it features an extra pad with 6 macro keys (not mechanical!) that can be mounted on the extension rail at the top of the keyboard. In addition to that, the numerical keyboard can be attached to either side, or can be completely detached. On top of that, there is an extra column of macro keys on the left side of the device (together with a quick profile switch above it offers ten easily accesible macros). Overall, the design of this monster leaves very little to improve.
The keyboard is fashionably matte black, with typical white marks on the keys. The iluminated elements are the volume knob, numlock and status leds, and the five macro keys to the left (if their profile is active). An extra led appears on the Windows-lock key.
There are only two issues with this keyboard, one is almost irrelevant, the other is slightly annoying. The former is that there is a Calculator button just below the numeric keys - but it is not assignable in any way. Since I am very rarely using calculator, this is not a problem. The other thing, though, annoys me. The volume knob does not have a mute button - and that adds some disappointment to an otherwise fantastic design.
Ease of use
As one could reasonably guess from my preferences, I find this keyboard amazingly easy to use. The macro keys on the left are in the place I would expect them to find, and of course I have them assigned to cut, copy and paste. The upper-most is used for multi-clipboard - and I am yet to find the use for another 5 in the second profile.
The extra sixpack of programmable keys can be mounted on the extension rail. In such case it covers a bunch of function keys, so one has to flip it to use the regular keys. Although it looks inconvenient, I have found this not to be as big issue as I initially thought. The sixpack flips easily with one finger, and I have learnt to use it in its upside position as well. The design of those extra keys makes it a perfect foobar2000 controller.
While the keyboard itself certainly lives up to its price and promises, the driver is... somewhat disappointing. I mean, it does everything one would expect - it is possible to assign a macro, new key, a string, or a command to each and every single key on the keyboard (except the darn Calculator button), and save that as a profile. However - and this is where the disappointment shows up - there is no automatic profile switching, and not even a simple way to do it.
The solution is of course to assign macros to system-wide commands or to use macro keys with only the commonly used applications, but one cannot escape the feeling all of that could have been done better. Myself, I would love to use the sixpack depending on the software I use - but I will not, because I always forget to switch the profile. I ended up using Logitech G13 for application-specific macros instead, but not everyone can and would like to do that.
Performance and comfort
The switches are Cherry Black, built to last (according to Azio) for millions of clicks. They are stiff enough not to press a button by accident and produce an easily recognisable sound. As it is with every mechanical keyboard, this is not the quietest of devices - but compared to other mechanical keyboards it is not too loud. With careful typing one would hardly hear the keys being pressed, although - at least in my case - this would mean a productivity far from optimal.
Anyway, using the device for over 10 years I have not noticed any drawbacks resulting from long-time use. Everything seems to indicate that this is, indeed, a perfect keyboard for a very narrow target group (yes, that short backspace key can be annoying more often than one would imagine!). For everyone else, there are more options available.
- mechanical Cherry Black with short backspace and large
- five macro keys on the left
- detachable numpad (left- and right-sided)
- the sixpack
- no mute button on the volume knob
- not programmable
- no LED ilumination on the keys
- the sixpack is not mechanical
- not available anywhere anymore :(