The iBuyPower MEK is actually a rebranded Gamdias Hermes Lite. It comes with TTC Red switches, and the price is right, but this keyboard has some issues.
Introduction And Specifications
A trend among many companies these days is to extend their branding and overall reach by adding nicely-appointed peripherals to their other offerings. Custom system builder iBuyPower has followed suit by "making" a keyboard, although it's not really making anything; it's rebranding and selling the Gamidas Hermes Lite.
I wrote earlier about Gamdias' decision to roll with TTC switches and iBuyPower's in-house QA testing. In sum, the cost of TTC switches appears to be significantly lower than Cherry, and there were no issues with TTC filling orders as fast as the OEM needed. iBuyPower's staff of former pro and competitive gamers were apparently sufficiently satisfied with the quality and performance of the TTC Reds. And so it's come to pass.
The result is a keyboard that portends to offer the benefits of mechanical switches at a comparatively low price. Inevitably, there will be some high-end features missing from a budget keyboard like this one, but those bells and whistles might just be noise, anyway.
When we first wrote about the MEK, we noted that its $54 price tag severely undercut the Hermes Lite's $79.99. iBuyPower was effectively selling it at a loss (or perhaps at cost), recouping the value by pushing it along with one of its custom systems. Temporarily, things flipped--you could buy the Hermes Lite for just $59.99, whereas iBuyPower listed the MEK for $79. Now, iBuyPower flipped it again and is selling the keyboard for $59.
Although the MEK has an all-plastic ABS chassis, it's about as high quality-looking as plastic can get. The black finish resists fingerprints surprisingly well, and the black plastic keys perfectly match the chassis' color and look.
Gamdias employed a bowl design, wherein a top panel covers the backplate. It's not as slick as the Corsair style of mounting the switches directly to an exposed metal backplate, but Gamdias made the most of it. The top panel is one solid piece of plastic and extends out to give you a built-in wrist rest. (The downside is that if you don't want a wrist rest, you're stuck.)
In the upper right corner of the keyboard is a molded black plastic "iBuyPower" logo that looks a little cheap. One wonders how much it would "pop" if instead that logo was laser-etched and backlit.
There are no additional ports on the MEK, leaving the sides solid. Underneath though, Gamdias built a three-way routing trough for the braided red-and-black cable. Unlike some other keyboard designs that let you route the cable directly out the back or way off to either side, the MEK's three routes are all just a few inches apart. There's one directly in the center of the keyboard, and the other two are just a few inches to the right and left, respectively. This certainly affords you some flexibility for where your USB cable lines up on your desk, but fundamentally I'd prefer that the left and right troughs were closer to the edges of the keyboard. It appears that Gamdias cut the troughs short so they wouldn't run into the flip-up feet, but a better thought-out design would accommodate both, as on the Nixeus Moda V2 and Razer BlackWidow X Chroma. (A minor detail, I allow.)
Key Caps, Switches And Lighting
Like most keyboards, the switches on the MEK are ABS plastic with laser etching, and they're slightly concave. The large, wide font on the keys is not especially elegant, but it certainly contributes to readability.
All of the keys are backlit, and even the secondary characters are illuminated. The color balance under those secondary characters is a little dimmer because the LEDs are positioned at the top of the switches. (You can see this perhaps most prominently on the PrintScreen/SysRq key.) This is despite Gamdias' best efforts—note that the characters are all printed as close to the top of the keys as possible.
Further, the LEDs seem to have rather uneven light spreading. Even in a bright room, you can clearly see points of light peeking out from under the key caps. In a darkened room, it's even more pronounced. I believe that Gamdias attempted to boost the lighting by employing a shiny black metal backplate, which would reflect the light. A top panel design like the MEK uses can sometimes help to reflect light back down onto the backplate. The design choices seem to have backfired.
One particularly odd choice is that there's a single key that is backlit by a color other than red. The Windows key is emblazoned with an orange-lit iBuyPower logo. Yes, orange. Every key is red except for one clashing orange key. I understand the logic: You want the logo to stand out, and the Windows key is a great place to put it. It's also an important key you want to locate easily with your peripheral vision, but the execution is unfortunate.
On an RGB keyboard, it's a simple remedy to program any offending key to a different color, but the MEK offers only red (er, and orange, I guess, if you count the lone key).
There are just a few lighting effects you can employ. You can choose from three brightness levels (30, 60 and 100 percent), turn the lights off entirely, or set a breathing effect. This is all controllable with key events (Fn+8 on the numpad, Fn+2 on the numpad), or you can do it through the Hera software (more on than it a bit). You can set the breathing cycle to four, six or eight seconds.
A final, and somewhat seizure-inducing, lighting feature is Responsive Lighting. With that box ticked in the software, the lights will kick on only when you type. No matter what you do though, the Print Screen key remains lit.
Gamdias/iBuyPower went with TTC Red switches for the Hermes Lite/MEK—a bold decision, considering the industry perception that anything-but-Cherry is inferior—but I found nothing negative to say about the TTC switches. They're light but springy, and gun to my head, I couldn't tell them apart from Cherry Reds. As you can see in the table below, this is likely because the specifications for the two are strikingly similar, including the required actuation force.
|TTC Red||Cherry MX Red|
|Actuation Point||1.6 mm (+/-0.4 mm)||2 mm|
|Total Travel||4 mm||4 mm|
|Lifespan||50 million strokes||50 million strokes|
Gamdias Hera Software
Like other more expensive keyboards, there's a software component to the MEK via Gamdias' Hera software.
When you first launch the Hera software (it's a free download from Gamdias), it will recognize that the iBuyPower MEK is connected and will ask you if you want to download the drivers. Click Yes, and off you go. There are some nice details in the Hera software, such as the fact that the GUI of the keyboard is the MEK and not the Hermes Lite. It even has the iBuyPower logo in the upper right corner. If you click the Hera logo in the bottom left of the window, you can adjust the settings of the software itself, such as the language and background color.
On the right side of the window, you can select one of six profiles, and you can add up to three applications to associate with a given profile with Profile Match. When you click a space under Profile Match, navigate to a given application and select it. Then click the space (you can't really see it, but it's there) under Profile HotKey and enter a key or key combination that will launch that application. (I was never able to get this to work. It may have had to do with the issues I found in the Teardown and Key Rollover sections below.)
Along the bottom of the window you can see a thumbnail of the MEK with thumbnail silhouettes of other products. It looks like you're supposed to unlock more levels in a game, which I suppose in this case you could do only by purchasing specific Gamdias products.
You'll find multiple tabs on the left side of the window: Key Assignment, Macro Management, Keyboard Luminance, Assign Sounds & Timer, Sound File Edit, Timer Setting and Update/Support.
To save anything you've done, click an unlabeled button in the top right corner. The arrow button pointing down minimizes Hera; the one next to it, pointing to the right, is the save button.
Typically, keyboard companion software allows you to granularly adjust lighting, program every key and more. We've already discussed the somewhat limited lighting options, but macro keys are also limited. You can assign macros only to Fn+Spacebar or Fn+B.
On the Key Assignment tab, click "Fn+G" at the top of the window to program Fn and the spacebar. Below the GUI of the keyboard, there's a little caret and the word "Disable." Click that and select Macro; then you can select from a list of your recorded macros and set the playback options. Note that you can assign only one macro to the key combination of Fn+spacebar and Fn+B per profile. That's just two macros per profile. What you can do as a workaround is set one of the other keys to switch profiles. With six profiles, you could have 12 macros total. (That's perhaps too kludgy, but it should work.)
Click the "General" tab to program the Esc key. The process for configuring this key is nearly the same as the above, but there are significantly more options available. Instead of assigning macros to the key, you can click "Call Hera" below the keyboard GUI (this is the default key assignment) and assign it to:
- Profile Switch
- Other keyboard keys
- Quick Launch (run an application, open a website, or open a folder)
- Media Controls (play/pause, stop, previous/next track, volume up/down, and mute)
- Win Functions (Windows shortcuts such as the Windows key, show/hide Desktop, Calculator, shut down, restart, zoom, and more)
- Skype Functions (open, answer call, hang up)
- Game Functions (WASD / arrow key swap, Consecutive Mode)
- Blueprint (opens up your key assignment info even when you’re full-screen gaming)
- Call Hera (opens software)
- Hera download
Although the Esc key is highlighted, you can program any of the keys. Simply click the key you want in the GUI. It will be highlighted in yellow, and you can assign any of the above functions to it.
You can also check a box to swap the functions of the Fn and Windows key, and you can select between 6KRO and 21KRO.
The Macro Management interface is cluttered. The basic controls are scattered around the page, but once you locate Create Macro, Record and Stop, you're off and running. You can create folders to stash macros, edit the delay and key actions, adjust the speed of the execution and more. You can even fine-tune the cursor placement.
As I mentioned earlier, you can assign macros only to Fn+spacebar and Fn+B. For many users, this somewhat awkward combination may obviate the benefits of having a macro in the first place.
We've essentially covered the features already in this review. There is little you can do other than adjust the brightness, turn the lighting off and setting a breathing effect.
Assign Sounds & Timer
This is a somewhat quirky feature, but some users will no doubt get a kick out of it. You can assign sounds (either software presets or some of your own creation) to certain profiles so that you know which profile you're using, or to a given macro so that you know for sure when one has been activated. The timer function simply allows you to delay a macro's execution for a certain amount of time.
Sound File Edit
Here, you can record and edit your own sounds/audio files, and save them so they can be used in the Assign Sounds & Timer area. You can edit the existing ones (there are several "alarms") or you can create a new file and record your own.
You can create folders and individual timers, complete with countdown parameters and the ability to assign sounds to your alarms.
This page is self-explanatory. From here, you can update the firmware and software with a couple of clicks.
Nine total screws hold the iBuyPower MEK together. There are eight on the underside of the keyboard, with one hiding under one of the rubber-tipped flip-out feet. With those screws out, it still took a good bit of firm but gentle prying to wiggle the top panel off. With the top panel removed, there was still a lone, tiny screw holding the PCB assembly onto the back part of the chassis; with it removed, the assembly popped right off.
We never recommend that you try this at home, as you may void a warranty or inadvertently cause some damage. In this case, one must take care not to allow any pulling on the wires connecting the cable's plastic bumper to the PCB. It's a flimsy connection; in fact, its connection to the PCB was a mite loose. The bumper preventing cable damage is odd, but it seems effective: There's a small plastic rectangle into which the cable connects, and it's slightly larger than the rectangular cutout in which it rests, so it will never pull through. However, I'd be careful not to tug on the cable too hard, as I'm not sure the cable connection can withstand too much abuse.
Looking at the PCB, you can see some issues. The welds on the F1, Home and W keys have gaps, which likely contributed to the KRO issues listed in the "Key Rollover" section below. There's some sloppy soldering on the left Spacebar, although because this is purely a mechanical connection and not one pertaining to actual input, it's probably not a huge deal, but there are ugly flecks of solder around the A and Ctrl keys, as well as the 3 and the 6 on the numpad. The area around the C key is just a mess.
Further, note that the PCB is just a single layer. The tip-off is that the top of it is yellow-ish beige instead of green.
One positive note on the MEK's construction is the stabilizers. Although they're the Costar-style stabs I generally do not like, these feel much sturdier and springier than the ones I've seen on other keyboards. The metal itself is thicker, and even the plastic pieces feel less flimsy. I was able to remove several of the larger keycaps with no trouble, and although replacing them was just as annoying as with other keyboards with similar stabs, I never felt as though anything would break. A representative told me that these stabs were made especially for Gamdias.
The MCU on board the MEK is the Holtek HT68FB560.
Tests And Performance
The issues we noticed in our teardown were borne out in our key rollover tests. The MEK is listed as having 21KRO and 6KRO (you can toggle between them in the software), but under no circumstances could we get the features to work correctly.
For example, with 6KRO, you can depress and hold QWERTY (for example), and all six keys will register. On the MEK, only QWER would register; T and Y would not. However, I could get QWER and two other keys, such as UI or OP, to register. Experimenting with different key combinations yielded similarly inconsistent results.
What this tells me is that the key matrix is befouled in some way. In the teardown, I noted some holes in the soldering, as well as the fact that the PCB is single-sided, and those manufacturing issues are likely the culprits of the failed KRO.
There is not much to say about the quality of the MEK's sound, which is to say, things are mostly clean. There's a bit of extra "ping," to be sure, but it's fairly minimal.
The story of the iBuyPower MEK/Gamdias Hermes Lite is a surprising one. At first glance, it seems to be an attractive budget mechanical keyboard offering. It has a few perks, such as backlighting, not to mention the multi-faceted (if quirky) Hera software. And boy, the price is right: One way or another, you can snag this keyboard for around sixty bucks.
You would think that the sticking point would be the quality, or lack thereof, of the TTC Red switches. It smacks of cheapness and is a potential red flag. However, I found nothing at all to complain about regarding these switches. Based on my subjective experience with this one keyboard, they are on par with the quality you see from any Red switch.
No, the cheapness and quality issues are inside the chassis. The PCB is single-layer, and there were several holes in the welds as well as some other messy soldering. That appears to have affected the KRO performance, which I found to be in complete disarray.
For those reasons, I would not recommend purchasing this keyboard. There are other budget options available that do not have these quality issues, including the Nixeus Moda V2, which has a couple of issues of its own but costs $70 or $80, depending on the switch type. Even Razer has a keyboard now for $60.
Update, 5/11/16, 2:35pm PT: Updated pricing information.