At this year’s CES, Tom’s managed to video one of the most elusive and most overdue products in tech.
Art Lebedev Studio is a Russian industrial, graphic, web, and interface design firm whose bold "no nonsense" ethos is outlined in its About Us write-up (in which they plainly state that they don't work with "jerk-offs", and a whole lot more - It's a great read). It is also famous for creating the legendary Optimus Maximus keyboard back in 2008; a keyboard that had a fully-customizable 48x48 pixel OLED screen under every key, and cost $1600 when it was finally released (after being announced in 2005). It was bold and brash (just like the Studio), and unlike any other keyboard ever made, but its price put it way out of reach for the average user.
A few months after the Optimus Maximus started shipping, in May 2008, Art Lebedev announced that it was developing a more affordable follow-up to the Maximus, the Optimus Popularis. The prototype that was shown back in 2008 looks substantially different from the final design shown at CES. The original design had a numeric keypad and a more traditional key layout, but the basic principle remains the same. In order to lower the cost, instead of having an OLED screen in each key like the Maximus, the Popularis has one large touch-screen underneath transparent keys that interact with it. This would allow each key to still display a custom image, without the need for 113 tiny and expensive OLED displays.
In 2008, Art Lebedev said that the Popularis wouldn't take nearly as long to be released as the Maximus had – but two years later (in 2010), when Tom's first wrote about it, it hadn’t been released, and the initial design had changed into the current version, with no numeric keypad and laptop style key layout. It was slated to be released in Q4 of that year, with a reasonable (well, reasonable compared to the Maximus) sub-$1000 price. In December 2011 we wrote about it again after its release was delayed. Art Lebedev announced that it was finally starting to take pre-orders for a June 2012 delivery, and that the price had now gone up to $1100 - and that was the pre-order price, with the final price expected to be even higher.
Well, June 2012 came and went, and there had still been no sign of the Popularis. Would it ever come out? Finally, at this year’s CES, we were lucky enough to be able catch up with Art Lebedev, and get some hands-on time with this almost mythical keyboard, which you can check out in our video.
The unit that the Studio had with them at CES was a pre-production model, but we were told that it is representative of the final product. It features Art Lebedev's innovative transparent keys (that have to use their edges to activate your key presses, so as not to have any mechanical elements block the image below) over a 7" LED backlit LCD. We saw a number of pre-built custom layouts for the keyboard, including ones for gaming (Half-life 2, a generic flight-sim, Black Ops II, and WoW were shown as examples), and ones for productivity (Final Cut Studio and AVID video-editing software were shown as examples). Art Lebedev has also promised that along with the pre-defined layouts that you will be able to download to the keyboard, they will also ship Mac and PC software with it that will allow you to create your own custom layout for any app you want, with any icons or graphics you choose.
Another part of the keyboard that was showcased was the LCD strip above the numeric keys. This panel can be customized with widgets (stock ticker, weather, social media notifications), though Art Lededev wasn't 100 percent clear if they would be providing just a set number and type of widgets for certain information, or if developers will be able to create their own for users to download (we would assume that Art Lebedev would be happy to work with any developer willing to officially support the Popularis in their apps).
Since it is, after all, a keyboard first and foremost, when it comes right down to it the most important question is how does it feel when typing? Well, from the limited time we were able to spend with it, the typing action didn't feel all that different than a laptop keyboard – the keys were a little stiff, but that may have been down to the pre-production unit we were testing. Also, with the lack of a numeric keypad, we wouldn't go so far as to say that the Popularis would make a good choice as a primary keyboard for text input. With the customizable layout, it is probably better-suited as secondary input to control various professional applications, sitting next to a nice mechanical keyboard for day-to-day use.
What makes it shine are the customizable layouts that will come in handy for video editors, 3D modellers, and professional photographers using Photoshop or Lightroom. For professionals who need quick access to controls for the many applications they switch between during a busy working day, the high expense of the Optimus Popularis is outweighed by its usefulness. Having all your common controls and actions in front of you on physical keys will allow you to dedicate more screen space to the content you are working on, and will probably make you more productive. However, for the rest of us, unless you have very, very, very deep pockets, the Optimus Popularis is most likely an extravagance you can live without.
On the official design blog for the Optimus Popularis, “The Life and Incredible Adventures of Optimus Keyboards”, Art Lebedev Studios thanked everyone who came to see them at CES this year, and reiterated the May release date we were given in the video, by stating that "Optimus Popularis will be shipped this year. Electronics are ready, moulds are done, mass production is about to start." Pricing should be around $1200 when it is finally released.
At the end of the day, we must remember that Art Lebedev Studios are not a dedicated peripheral maker like Logitech, nor is it a creators-focused Kickstarter project for just one product. Rather, it is primarily a graphic design studio that creates hardware on the side, so the delays in the release of the Optimus Popularis are not surprising (but of course still frustrating for those who pre-ordered one in 2011). While the Popularis IS an expensive peripheral, and not for everyone, it is no more expensive than a high-end flight-sim cockpit set up, or a complete pro racing wheel and pedal setup, and it is a lot more practical than both.
Fingers crossed there are no more delays, and hopefully we’ll be able to spend some time with the final model in our labs once we get our hands on it.