Thanks to a glowing array of 115 individual OLED displays fitted under its keys, Art Lebedev’s Optimus Maximus is the first and only keyboard that literally morphs before your eyes. Pressing shift and watching all the letters beneath your fingers leap to caps gives you some idea what the Maximus is capable of, and why it’s become one of the most hyped-up, fawned-over and generally talked-about devices on the Web. While it delivers sheer novelty value in spades, we found that its princely pricetag, layout and reliability woes may threaten its practicality as a typing device.
On paper, the concept for the Optimus Maximus looks like a guaranteed winner. By making each and every key a programmable display, you can switch instantly between different languages, preview every change that pressing shift or control makes, label keyboard shortcuts, and even set up application-specific buttons, like a switch-to-rocket-launcher button for Quake. In theory, anyway.
If you’ve only ever seen the Optimus Maximus in glossy press shots out of Lebedev’s studio, you’re likely missing one of its most striking facets: it’s an absolute beast. Forget the “keyboard” dimensions you may be expecting and think more in terms of a miniature Casio piano. It spans 21.1 inches, compared to about 17 inches for your more run-of-the-mill typing device. This thing can hide an entire Dell keyboard under it like Bigfoot on a Ford Festiva.
That may not be much of an issue if you have a cushy corner desk or other roomy computer surface, but the space-challenged should definitely be aware that the Maximus’ footprint will definitely soak up some serious table space.
Photos don’t lie when it comes to the Maximus’ 48 x 48 pixel OLED displays. They really are quite sharp and brilliant in real life, but one major oversight prevents the keyboard from really looking like art in most conditions. The keys are shiny. Really shiny. The slightest hint of overhead fluorescent lights (typical office lighting) sets them ablaze in glare, making the keyboard look more like 115 little mirrors than an alphabet. What’s worse, they collect fingerprints almost as well as glass, so you’re really looking at 115 greasy, smudged little mirrors. And if that weren’t enough, they also produce a prism-like rainbow effect at extreme angles, similar to gasoline on water. In the end, you’re really only looking at the Maximus of press photos if you sit in the dark hovering over it, severely limiting the wow-factor unless you compute from a cave.
Unlike your basic plug-n-play USB keyboard that lives up to its name with an almost-instant installation, the Optimus Maximus requires a few extras steps to use, even as a basic typing device. For starters, it requires specialized drivers and software from Art Lebedev, which come with the keyboard or in a mercifully small 2.7MB package that’s available online and quick to install. After that, you’ll need to hook up the included a 12-volt power supply and watch as each and every key flashes white in a sort of “boot sequence” that takes about 15 seconds. Fortunately, that’s pretty much it: Just hook up the included USB cable and wait for your computer to recognize it.
The back of the keyboard
The included Optimus Maximus Configurator software makes modest customization relatively simple, but definitely requires users to read the documentation and fiddle with the software to perform some of the more advanced features. For instance, changing a key image is as easy as browsing for an image file on your hard drive and – voila – it’s on the keyboard in front of you. However, making a custom back key that only appears when Firefox is open and disappears in other situations takes a bit more work, and an understanding of the software’s layered approach to keys (in which the top levels have priority).
While the Configurator manual is helpful, it’s also extremely short (only three pages,) so you’ll have to read between the lines and do your own experimenting to get precisely the right results. In short, those with dramatic aspirations for the way they use the Maximus had better be prepared to do some work.
It seems oddly appropriate that a device with a name that sounds derived from mythology should have an Achilles Heel, and the Optimus Maximus is plagued by quite a pronounced one. It’s an absolute bear to type on.
A combination of factors contribute to this fatal flaw. First, the physical size of the keys. They’re as disproportionately huge as the keyboard itself, making them perfect for Shrek but much less appropriate for anyone who learned to type on a standard, human-size keyboard.
Second, the layout leaves almost zero gap between keys, making it far too easy to press two at once, or the wrong key entirely. Traditional keys start wide at their bases and narrow toward the top where the finger touches, producing pronounced crevasses between keys. The Maximus’ keys are completely slab-like, and while it’s definitely an aesthetic necessity, it detracts significantly from accuracy.
Finally, key presses have a tough, sticky feel. The light, crisp tactile feedback that makes popular keyboards like those on ThinkPad notebooks feel so good is completely absent, replaced by keys that feel like they’re sitting on wads of hard gum.
Make no mistake, the Maximus works as a typing device. This entire review was written with it. But novice and even experienced typists alike will find it a major barrier to speed and accuracy. When it comes time for typing, you’ll almost certainly find yourself wishing for that crusty old IBM back.
The front of the Optimus Maximus keyboard
When a keyboard comes packaged with spare keys, you know you’re in for some headaches. Our Maximus had intermittent issues with the E key that we were unable to resolve even by plucking it out and putting on a fresh key, but it worked for the majority of the time. We weren’t able to put the Maximus through a long-term torture test, but the manual’s warnings about burn-in on the keys, bent contact pins and distorted images made us very skeptical of its long-term viability. And of course, the relatively common spilled beverage scenario would almost certainly be game over.
It’s hard to knock a device we wanted to like so badly based on its premise, but there’s no escaping that the Optimus Maximus makes a pretty dismal typing device. As a piece of art and a technological achievement, it certainly deserves credit, but for typing papers, programming, or even just IMing friends, the Optimus Maximus is a complete dud. And with a going price of $1,877.43 USD, “all show and no go” just doesn’t cut it.
• Completely unique
• Powerful options for customizing
• OLED displays are stunning in the right conditions
• Extremely poor for typing
• Questionable long-term reliability