Exclusive: Razer's New 'Mecha-Membrane' Switch And Ornata Chroma Keyboard, Hands On (Updated)

Update, 11/7/16, 1:20pm PT: The article below was written based on a protoype of the Ornata. We now have a finished, shipping version of the Ornata on hand.

On first inspection, the differences between the prototype and the final version are negligible. It appears that the key caps on the final Ornata have slightly more texture than on the prototype, and that should reduce shine a bit. The plastic chassis looks to be slightly brighter and more textured, as well.

More pronounced is the difference in the feel of the switches. We noted in our original coverage that the switches felt somewhat “sticky,” but Razer seems to have ameliorated that issue. Indeed, when we reached out to the company for additional information, we were told that the switches had been “refined” for “tighter tolerance, lighter actuation, and an overall better feel,” with “a newer spring mechanism for a more refined click.

Razer has not responded with clarification on what, exactly, that means. Subjectively, though, we noted that the sound of the “click” is less punchy on the newer version, and most of the switches feel less sticky. However, we noticed a certain degree of inconsistency among the switches on the final Ornata. Some of the switches sounded and felt different than on the prototype, but others did not. We believe, then, that the switches are certainly different, but perhaps the new tolerances aren’t actually so tight.

Razer also told Tom’s Hardware that it “optimized the padding on the wrist rest and lighting for better comfort and aesthetics,” but we could detect no difference at all.

Original article:

When I put my fingers on Cooler Master's "memchanical" MasterKeys Lite L, I noted that you would never mistake them for real mechanical switches. With Razer’s new "Mecha-Membrane" switches, built into the Ornata Chroma keyboard, though, you just might. Maybe. But if you’re intimately familiar with mechanical switches, you’ll probably frown and furrow your brow and promptly pluck off a key cap to see what’s up.

What is up is that Razer, using its very own factory equipment, developed a not-quite-mechanical but allegedly-just-about-as-good-as-mechanical switch.

To hear Razer tell it, the company developed its Mecha-Membrane keyboard platform--and that’s really what it is, more than a “switch”--to serve consumers who prefer a softer, cushioney feel over what typical mechanical keyboards offer. (One could argue that Topre and Romer-G switches already serve that very market, but, hey, options.)

Blue Switch Lite?

Razer’s goal here was not merely to create a gussied-up membrane keyboard: These actually are switches that you can remove from their sockets, and they have a click, just like Blue switches or Razer’s Green switches (but no tactile bump).

The click, though, feels lighter and somehow less substantial than real Blues or Greens, yet they feel a little sticky. (This may change after more hours of typing.) Razer did not share many specifications, so we don’t know exactly what the key travel is, but it felt a little shallower than the 4mm you get with most mechanical switches. That could, however, be an illusion created in part by the low-profile key caps.

In any case, it seems that Razer’s goal was to give users a taste of clickiness within a non-mechanical keyboard, and it has done so. The switches are squarish, with flexible wings on two sides and a tiny nub on another. The switch housing has a tiny, springy metal blade; when you depress the switch, the nub pushes past the blade, creating the click.

In that regard, it’s not completely dissimilar to a standard mechanical switch. However, there is no spring; the rebound action comes from the membrane that pushes the switch up from below. The LEDs are located in the center of the switch shaft, so they shine directly up through it.

The stabilizers are simple. There’s a u-shaped metal bar, and two plastic pieces under the key cap clip onto it, essentially just like Costar stabs. Flanking the switch casing are two post holes. The underside of the key caps have posts that drop into them for stability. There is no mechanism rebounding the stabs.

Surprisingly, I found the wider keys to have better consistency than on a standard mechanical keyboard. To be clear, that’s a purely subjective observation, but I fully expected the stabs on a keyboard like this one to be sub-par. These aren’t.

(Below, you can see the Razer Mecha-Membrane switch next to a standard key cap.)

Design And Experience

Unlike Razer’s new BlackWidow X designs, which feature steel plate-mounted switches, the Ornata has a bowl design like earlier BlackWidows, and it’s made entirely of plastic. Because the keys are set into the belly of the chassis and sport low-profile key caps, the whole look of the Ornata Chroma is slim and trim.

However, in what in my opinion is the strangest design choice of the Ornata Chroma, the squared-off flat look comes at the sacrifice of pitch. Whereas most keyboards have an upward angle, the Ornata Chroma is as level as the Great Salt Plains. It’s striking when you first sit down to type--almost disorienting.

I eventually (over the course of an afternoon) became accustomed to the flatness, but I definitely preferred flipping up the keyboard’s feet to get some semblance of an angle.

The wrist rest throws a wrench in things, too. It’s probably the largest one I’ve seen; it spans the full length of the keyboard, and it provides a wide and deep area for you to lay your weary arms. It’s also thick and soft; a small child could almost use it as a pillow.

This, combined with the flat angle of the Ornata Chroma, makes for an oddball typing experience. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as uncomfortable, though. Just...different. The wrist rest attaches to the Ornata via a few relatively weak magnets. You can easily snap it on and off, but the wrist rest may shift around somewhat while you type.

Another unique design choice Razer made was employing low-profile key caps. Again, this contributes to the smoothed-out look of the keyboard, but it’s unclear to me what advantage these might afford the user. The key caps bear the same new font Razer has been using for its latest keyboards and Blade laptops.

Although the all-plastic chassis and backplate will inherently fail to provide the same rigidity and solid feel of a metal-reinforced keyboard, it did allow Razer to create a beautiful backlighting system. The backplate is translucent plastic, and when it’s illuminated by the LEDs underneath, the key caps appear to float. This is not dissimilar to Cooler Master’s MasterKeys Lite L, nor for that matter KBP’s V60 RGB keyboard.

Dissecting

We took the Ornata apart to get a closer look at this Mecha-Membrane business. The top panel was held on by a few obvious screws, as well as a raft of screws hidden underneath little plugs. (It’s almost as if Razer didn’t want me to disassemble one of the Ornata Chroma prototypes.)

Usually, switches are PCB-mounted or plate-mounted. The Mecha-Membrane switches on the Ornata are kind of neither because the switches aren’t really mounted to anything. The backplate is molded plastic, and the switch casings are part of that mold. (The clicktastic metal blades inside the switch housings are inserted after the mold is produced.) The switches themselves snap into the casings, but you can pluck them out at any time, with ease.

Beneath the plastic backplate is a thin, floppy rubber membrane. This is the membrane--the one with the nubs that stick up into the switch casings and rebound the switches. Sandwiched between the membrane and the PCB are three layered pieces of paper-thin flexible clear plastic. The top and bottom layers have trace paths, and the middle layer is a buffer between them.

The PCB has an MCU, of course, and four LED controllers. The LEDs are small, flat squares as opposed to the bulgy LED bulbs you usually see in keyboards.

Specs, Such As They Are

Razer was light on details about the Ornata Chroma, such as the switch travel, force required for key presses, switch lifetime and more, but we do know a few tidbits.

There are (or will be) two Ornata models, a Chroma version (the one we have on hand) and one that has only green backlighting. (This is similar to Razer’s strategy with its BlackWidow Chroma and BlackWidow Ultimate keyboards.) Both are full-size layouts with standard bottom rows.

The Chroma version will have Razer Synapse software support, meaning you can configure a multitude of RGB color effects and options (the keys are individually lit), and you can tweak the keyboard’s settings and create and assign macros. The green light-only Ornata will also have Synapse support.

The keyboard offers 10KRO has a dedicated “Game Mode,” and as you would expect, many of the F keys serve double-duty as media keys and lighting controls.

Make no mistake--the Ornata will not completely replace a true mechanical keyboard, but for what it is--plastic on plastic on plastic--Razer seems to have made an overall quality product. You can preorder a Razer Ornata or Ornata Chroma now from Razer’s site for $79 and $99, respectively, and both will ship worldwide in October.

Those prices are premium for this kind of almost-mechanical keyboard; you can find perfectly good mechanical keyboards for much less. What you’re paying for with the Ornata keyboards is the original Razer switch technology, the lighting and software support, and of course, that Razer snake logo.

Update, 9/6/16, 9:43am PT: Since publishing this article, we've now learned that the force required to depress the switch is 60g, and the total switch travel is 3.5mm.

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11 comments
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  • Nintendork
    For that price there's little advantage to get it.

    G.Skill KM780 RGB $139 right now at newegg. Pretty much the best mechanical (software aside) keyboard on the market.
  • turkey3_scratch
    205977 said:
    For that price there's little advantage to get it. G.Skill KM780 RGB $139 right now at newegg. Pretty much the best mechanical (software aside) keyboard on the market.


    My $7 Logitech keyboard/mouse combo has better price/performance :P

    But yeah, you pay for the Razer brand name pretty much.
  • notlim981
    The Azio MGK-1 for 66 bucks makes it very appealing to get a real mechanical one as it's received some really good reviews.