Gaming keyboards are first and foremost keyboards. While they must improve your gaming experience in order to earn the label, they must also perform well with more mundane tasks, including word processing, email, and controlling media player software. The SteelSeries Merc Stealth keyboard does a good job fulfilling the first mission, but sorely disappoints with the second.
SteelSeries managed to pack the Merc Stealth with a number of extra keys that you won’t find on a conventional keyboard without making the plank significantly wider. But we’re not happy with the compromises they made to get there.
On the upside, the extra keys include a constellation on the left side dedicated to walking (or running) in first-person-shooter games. The W, A, S, and D keys, for moving forward, left, right, and backing up, respectively, are duplicated here with slightly larger buttons. For games that support such movements, you also get dedicated keys for looking left and right (mapped to the Q and E keys, respectively), jumping and ducking (mapped to the spacebar and Ctrl keys, respectively), and a walk-run toggle (mapped to the shift key).
Learning to control these keys by touch—i.e., without constantly taking your eyes off the game to find them—requires considerable practice, because the keys don’t fall naturally under the fingers of your left hand the same way they do when your fingers are on the keyboard’s home row. Where the W key normally falls under your ring finger in the home row, the key in the dedicated constellation felt most natural beneath my middle finger, which threw off my other two fingers. Trying to overcome years of muscle training is not easy.
All of those buttons operate without SteelSeries’ Z-Engine software on your host PC, but you will need to download and install that software to access the pre-defined game profiles, to bind functions to some of the special-purpose buttons, and to use other special-purpose buttons with their default key bindings. The Load button, for instance, is bound to the F9 key, and the Save button is bound to the F6 key. But it’s much easier to remember which button to use to load a saved game and which button to use to save a game when the buttons are labeled just that way. There are also three buttons labeled with Roman numerals that you can program to launch your three favorite games (or any three other applications).
Pressing the stylized Z key launches this mapping software, and from there you can activate existing profiles (organized into Action, Role-playing, and Shooter categories) or define your own. The point-and-click interface makes it very easy to bind almost any command to any key, to assign multiple keystrokes to a single key, to disable any key, or to remap the entire keyboard to your liking.
But you had better enjoy creating your own profiles, because the collection of pre-defined profiles for new games is pretty thin — and we’re using a liberal definition of the word “new.” Some of the games for which you’ll need to create your own profiles include Batman: Arkham Asylum, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, and Dragon Age: Origins.
Unconventional key layout
In order to pack all those extra keys and buttons without making the keyboard radically wider, SteelSeries moved the arrow keys into the same group as the numeric keypad, and integrated the Home, Page Up, Page Down, and End keys into the numeric keypad. This means you must turn off the num pad to use those four keys. Adding an additional row of keys to the bottom of the num pad is even more annoying, because your fingers just don’t expect them to be there. We found it impossible to use the numeric keypad by touch.
But SteelSeries’ worst idea by far was to integrate the Del key into the num pad. With the num pad turned on by default, as most PCs are set up to do, you have no Del key. Try logging into Windows without it (you can’t, because you must hold down the Ctrl, Alt, and Del keys simultaneously).
Many gaming keyboards have long-travel keys, so that you can rest your hand on the keys without unintentionally activating the key. But SteelSeries has gone overboard on this point; the keys travel so far that it almost feels as though they’re resting atop bottomless pits. There’s virtually no wrist rest, but strips of thick rubber on the bottom of the board keep it firmly in place no matter how heated your gaming sessions might get.
If you enjoy gaming in the dark, you’ll appreciate the backlight. You can choose from three colors—red, blue, and purple—with three brightness levels (four, if you include off). The keyboard is also outfitted with a mic input and a headphone output, so you can plug in your gaming headset, and a two-port USB hub.
Keyboards are notoriously difficult to review objectively. We don’t like mushy keyboards, but many gamers won’t use anything else. To each his own. The Merc Stealth has many good points, including adjustable backlighting, solid construction, built-in audio connections, and a two-port USB hub. But when you mess around with the placement of essential keys, you render the product unnecessarily difficult to learn to use. If you think you can get over that, and you like long-throw keys, give this keyboard a try. Just make sure whichever retailer you buy it from will give you a refund if you decide you don’t like it.
- Pre-defined profiles for popular games
- Dedicated keys for in-game movements and actions
- Unconventional arrow key layout
- Del key embedded in num pad
- Excessive key travel