We review the full-featured Razer BlackWidow Chroma (Origin PC Edition) and the slightly less full-featured Razer BlackWidow Ultimate.
Razer has been carefully fleshing out its lineup of keyboards. As it stands, the company's offerings are aimed at satisfying every gamer, offering Chroma (16.8 million colors) and non-Chroma (but still backlit) keyboards in full-featured and tenkeyless versions, as well as some other unique devices such as the non-mechanical (but Chroma-equipped) DeathStalker.
It is the highest-end Razer keyboard, the BlackWidow Chroma, that we are evaluating today. This keyboard offers full Chroma lighting, a bank of macro keys and a full numpad. Razer's Green switches are under the keys.
This specific model actually comes to us via custom PC builder Origin PC—hence the "Razer BlackWidow Chroma (Origin PC Edition)" title—but literally the only difference is that Origin was able to pop its own logo into the spot under the spacebar where the Razer logo would normally go.
Simply, this is just a fun way to match your gear; if you're buying an Origin PC and dig the BlackWidow Chroma, you may as well have the logos match. (And of course, with the Chroma lighting, you can set the backlighting to match whatever Origin PC build you have.) The price is the same between both outlets.
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As mentioned in the introduction, Razer has been producing keyboards with and without certain features in order to please as many users as possible. The BlackWidow Chroma, however, has all of Razer's bells and whistles.
Keys And Switches
Razer's switches are rated for 60 million keystrokes, which the company will note is 10 million more than many other switches on the market, although that's all mostly just marketing talk. (If you clicked a single key every second of every day, 24 hours a day, it would take you around two years to reach 60 million strokes.)
These Green switches are both tactile and clicky, quite similar in feel and sound to Blue switches from the likes of Cherry and Kailh. In other words, those looking for that well-known linear feel and sound of Cherry MX Red switches should look elsewhere for their next gaming keyboard.
All of the BlackWidow Chroma's keys have mechanical switches under them; this is important to note, as some keyboard makers will slip non-mechanical switches under certain less-frequently used keys.
Under the wider keys (Shift, Enter, Backspace, and so on), Razer opted to use stabilizers sourced from an unspecified Japanese maker. These Costar-like stabilizers are not my favorite; they make the keys annoyingly hard to yank off, and when you do wrest a key from their grasp, you often have to fiddle with all the little parts that break free. Underneath each key cap are two tiny black plastic pieces into which a metal bar clips. The bar locks into two black brackets, which themselves are mounted into the keyboard's backplate.
It's hardly worth the hassle of messing with these keys, because it can be tricky to stick them back on correctly. It's also terribly easy to break one of the parts, and if anything is amiss when you put the key back on, you'll have problems. For example, you could end up with a disastrous amount of play in the wider keys, and if you strike one of them too far from center, it may not even actuate.
For a company as dedicated to crafting the perfect keyboard as Razer is, using these stabilizers is an unfortunate oversight, in my opinion.
The BlackWidow Chroma includes a full numpad as well as five macro keys running vertically down the left side, which ensures full typing and gaming key options for users.
Across the top of the keyboard, several of the F keys pull double duty as extra function keys. F1, F2 and F3 offer volume controls, and the F5, F6 and F7 keys are for playback (forward, back, play/pause). The F9 key doubles as the on-the-fly macro recording switch, and the F10 key has the Gaming Mode key (that disables the Windows key). Using the Fn key along with F11 and F12 adjust brightness, and you can put the PC to sleep with Fn+ Pause Break.
The lone Windows key is located to the left of the spacebar, and the Fn key is to the right.
I found the macro keys to be a bit too snug to the letter keys for my liking. I kept accidentally striking them because they were so close. Granted, this could be seen as a positive, as macro keys that are too far away from the letter keys make it harder to use them when you need to. Suffice it to say that typers may find the macro keys somewhat intrusive (unless you're a quite accurate typer, which I am not), whereas for gaming, the close proximity is more desirable.
Keycaps, Ports, And Overall Design
On the right side of the BlackWidow Chroma, you'll find a USB passthrough port and a pair of audio jacks. The top cover of the keyboard chassis has a small lip that extends out just a few millimeters and obscures these ports from view, which is a nice little touch.
I'm not a fan of having these ports on the right side, though; inevitably, the connectors for my mouse and headset stick out far enough that it creates a mess near my mousepad. I find that I'm constantly pushing cables out of the way and bumping into the connectors with my mouse.
The overall design of the BlackWidow Chroma will be familiar to Razer fans. The chassis is all black, with a soft-touch top and a light-up logo (in this case, Origin PC) below the spacebar.
Again, as we're accustomed to seeing from Razer, the backplate is sunken in a bit and covered by a black plastic top. Compared to other boards with similarly clicky keys, it sounds to my ear that this design dampens the sound of the switches ever so slightly.
The backplate is plastic, and it's colored white so that the LEDs reflect off of it, ostensibly making the whole backlighting system appear a bit brighter than if it was backed by a darker-colored plate. The illumination effect is beautiful; the lighting is even and consistent, and it fills in the crevasses between each key perfectly even as it backlights the characters on the keys.
One qualm I have with the otherwise attractive soft-touch finish of the BlackWidow Chroma is that, like many such surfaces, it shows grease all too prominently, and it's difficult to wipe off smudges. Although the keys have a different finish—it looks almost sprayed on—I found that grease appears readily on those as well. Let's just say that after a few weeks of consistent use, my BlackWidow Chroma looks rather broken in.
Razer had the keys made from ABS plastic, and the characters are laser-etched. Then, the key caps are UV hard-coated to promote endurance.
Razer's Synapse software is what you use to configure the lighting, macros and more on Razer devices. The software recognizes which Razer device you have connected, and after an automatic download and restart when you connect a new peripheral, you're ready to customize that device. Synapse looks a little different depending on which device you have connected, of course, but in all cases, you'll see a graphical representation of whichever keyboard or mouse you have connected, which makes it easier to track your changes.
There are four main areas in Synapse 2.0 for the BlackWidow Chroma: Keyboard, Macros, Chroma Apps and Stats.
In the Keyboard area, there are three tabs: Customize, Lighting and Gaming Mode. From within the Customize area, you can create a number of profiles, and within those profiles, you can map keyboard shortcuts and bind keys.
For each key, you can leave it at its default setting or set it to perform a keyboard or mouse function, or perform a function for another connected device (such as adjusting sensitivity for a connected mouse). You can also assign a macro to a key or configure it to select a given profile, launch an application, control a media function, and assign a Windows 8 Charms function or Windows shortcut (such as launching the Task Manager or cycling through apps).
If you like, you can create a profile for a single application, and the profile will become active only when that program is open. To set this, simply check the Link Program box, click the file folder icon directly below it, and navigate to and select the application you want.
The Lighting area looks rather spartan at first glance; in addition to the same Profiles menu as the Customize screen, you can set brightness (off, dim, normal, bright), and there's an Effect menu where you can set the lighting to custom, breathing, reactive, spectrum cycling, static, wave and ripple.
But then you click "Chroma Configurator," just to the right of Effect, and find the mother lode of lighting options.
I will spare you an exhaustive read by summarizing what the lighting options are rather than write a tome explaining every detail. You can start customizing your lighting from scratch by selecting all the keys or just specific clusters, such as macro keys, WASD keys, arrow keys and so on. You can also select a sort-of preset template for game types (FPS, MMO, MOBA, RTS) or specific games (CS:GO, DOTA, LoL, StarCraft II).
From there, you can add layers of effects—the aforementioned spectrum cycling, breathing and so on. So for example, spectrum cycling essentially just slowly shifts through the colors of the whole spectrum. Then you can add, say, a ripple effect that will run on top of the spectrum cycling.
What's more, you can add a number of variables to any effect. For example, let's say we've set all keys to have both spectrum cycling and ripple effects. I can select the ripple effect and choose various patterns, stops and colors (meaning you can more granularly select which colors go where and how they blend), and the speed at which changes occur (slow, medium, fast, custom, measured in keys per second). I can also choose the "width" (whether the effect will light up one, two or three keys at once), whether and when to pause the effect(s), how many repetitions I want the effect(s) to perform, and even whether to let the effect(s) begin automatically or with a key press.
Those are just the options for the ripple effect—the other effects have different customization options. For example, "static" just wants you to pick a color, whereas "wave" has a similar number of pattern/stops/speed options as "ripple."
Adding and deleting "layers" of effects is an extremely simple, one-button task. Reordering layers is simply drag-and-drop.
All of this, of course, includes the full range of RGB colors. You can get yourself completely lost in the Chroma Configurator when trying out new ideas, and it's quite intuitive to use. I found the learning curve to be essentially nil.
On to the Gaming Mode area. Primarily, Gaming Mode is a fancy way to describe a Windows disable key. (On the BlackWidow Chroma, you can switch this on or off with Fn+F10; a small LED indicator located above the numpad will tell you if it's engaged or not.) Within the Synapse software, you can also opt to disable the Alt+Tab and Alt+F4 shortcuts.
At the top here, it's important to note in addition to creating and managing macros in Synapse, the BlackWidow Chroma supports creating macros on the fly. Press Fn+F9 (the F9 key has an "m" on it) to turn on the macro recording function (you'll see a little "m" indicator light above the numpad). Perform your key combo; press Esc to cancel or Fn+F9 to stop the recording; and as the little indicator light blinks, press the key you want to assign the macro to.
Shortly, you can see the new macro in Synapse, under the Macro section. (It should appear as "New Macro 1," or something similar.) From there, you can further edit the macro, such as adjusting, adding or removing the delay.
Within the software, of course, you can also create and manage all your macros. In the Macros area, you can click the tiny "+" sign to make a new macro. Give it a name, select the delay, hit record, perform the desired key presses, and click stop. As with on-the-fly macros, you can further edit these.
To assign a key to a given macro, click back over to the Keyboard tab and mouse click on the key you want for the macro. When the window appears, choose Macro from the pull down menu, select the correct macro from the list, and click Save.
Because Synapse is cloud-based, all your macros are safely backed up, so if your computer dies an ugly death or your keyboard spontaneously combusts, you won't lose them. You can just go to a different machine with Synapse, connect your Razer peripheral, and they'll be there.
At first, this area of Synapse will be blank, but you can head over to the Chroma Workshop and grab special lighting effects for specific games and apps. You can also upload your own Chroma lighting creations to show them off for the community.
Chroma Workshop is fairly new, so there's not much happening there; at present, five games (but more "coming soon") have special lighting, and seven apps (including Outlook!) offer integrated lighting. There are dozens of user-submitted Chroma configurations, though.
You have to enable the Stats feature, and with good reason—it's a little eerie to let Razer "Track all your button presses, mouse clicks and mouse movement to analyze your gameplay with mouse click and mouse movement heatmaps."
Once enabled, though, the Stats feature will show all your connected Razer devices (so you can see stats from each), and you can filter to view different time frames (eg, today, yesterday, all time, etc.) Click a specific device to see more detailed stats.
The stats will show the number of your keystrokes, total keystroke distance, profile switches and macros, as well as the number of hours you've played. You can view this for all games, or just for specific ones.
There's also a Heatmaps tab, which is really cool...for people who are into that sort of thing. You can see a heatmap-style representation of where your mouse clicks have been centered, a linear track of all your mouse movements, and a GUI that shows which keys you press most often.
From the Stats settings, you can connect Facebook and Twitter, turn data tracking on or off, and choose to see your numbers in imperial or metric units.
We take apart all of the keyboards we review to have a closer look at their build quality. Some keyboards are more friendly to teardown than others (which is neither positive nor negative), and the BlackWidow Chroma is one that you should not disassemble at home. The risk for breakage of the top cover is high. But we did it anyway, because it's what we do, for you our dear readers.
First, we located the screws. Razer kept them cleverly hidden under the rubber feet, presumably for aesthetic reasons, so you have to pry them off to get to the screws. The adhesive used to keep the little feet attached is strong.
There are six screws total holding on the top panel. Even with them removed, it's tricky surgery to wiggle the top panel off without breaking it. However, there are barely-perceptible notches dotting the edge of the panel that will let you slide in a small flathead screwdriver (or knife blade, whatever works for you) and leverage things loose.
With the top panel gone, I had to remove eight more screws and apply some gentle wiggling to get the full switch assembly unattached from the back of the chassis. Two more screws freed the cable assembly, which uses a piece of plastic that's screwed into the back of the chassis to hold the cable in place.
Bless Razer for using screws throughout that are all the same size.
On the rear of the switch assembly, there's a black PCB with four chips embedded. These are P3917 3731 microcontrollers, which handle all the LED lighting. The welds under the switches are mostly clean, but there are several that look sloppy.
Flipped back over, the keyboard's microprocessor is visible on the upper right corner. It's the NXP LPC11U24F ARM Cortex-M0/M0+, which features 256 KB of flash and 32 KB RAM. This chip also handles the USB passthrough.
Tests And Performance
Although NKEY rollover is a feature you'll find on some keyboards, Razer stuck with 10-key rollover for the BlackWidow Chroma, which should be more than sufficient. In fact, using the AquaKey test, we found that we could depress as many as 14 keys, plus four modifier keys (Shift, Ctrl, Windows, Alt), simultaneously.
The Razer Green switch, like Blue switches, is noisy. It's "clicky" of course, but there's also the sound of the key striking at the bottom of the travel and a loud "ping" reverberation from that. If you press just past the actuation point and jiggle a key without completing the full travel, you'll get that telltale Blue switch jiggling sound, like something's loose.
In sum, the action of a Green switch, like a Blue switch, is complex. In the case of the BlackWidow Chroma, the whole thing is slightly muted by dint of the fact that the top panel traps some of the sound.
I must note that I experienced the infamous dead key issue when using the BlackWidow Chroma. The "r" key went dead on me at one point, and another time, one of the keys was stuck on (not physically, mind you), repeating its input incessantly. I believe that these issues came about when I was wantonly playing with the on-keyboard macro recording feature. They did not reappear after I stopped toying with that feature and actually performed specific macro recording.
I was unable to repeat the errors once they went away, so I do not have a clear solution for users that experience the same. I would suggest unplugging the keyboard, ensuring that Synapse is updated, and restarting the PC.
Razer BlackWidow Ultimate (2016)
It would be tempting to give the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate (2016) its own review, but if so, we'd essentially just be copy/pasting the review for the BlackWidow Chroma and making some slight modification. For you see, they're almost identical.
Almost. There are a couple of key differences, which we've already written about somewhat, which include:
- A slightly different pane for the Caps Lock, Scroll Lock and Num Lock indicators on the upper right side of the keyboard
- The top panel is no longer soft-touch
- There are no M keys
- There's no RGB lighting—just green lights—and the backplate is green instead of white
And that’s about it, on the surface.
As previously noted, the soft-touch top cover looks lovely but tends to show shine, so although the harder, slightly textured plastic of the BlackWidow Ultimate isn't as sexy, it does hold up a little better in terms of displaying smudges.
The green backplate ostensibly enhances the green lighting, slightly moreso than a white one, but comparing the BlackWidow Chroma and BlackWidow Ultimate side-by-side, I can't discern any difference. Maybe you can. Here's a picture; correct guessers receive 50 points:
Note that just because the BlackWidow Ultimate has no RGB lighting, that doesn't mean the Razer Synapse software is useless. You can still use most of the same lighting effects, just without color options, including breathing, reactive, ripple, starlight, static, wave or nothing at all. (Wait, starlight? You can't do that on the BlackWidow Chroma. On the BlackWidow Ultimate, starlight just makes a sort of twinkling effect as multiple keys light up and then quickly fade, like—well, like stars twinkling in the sky.) You can also dial the green-ness of the lighting up or down to get your preferred brightness and look.
The ability to do everything else in Synapse (map keys, create macros, check stats and so on) is virtually the same as on the BlackWidow Ultimate as on the BlackWidow Chroma. It has the same NXP LPC11U24F MCU, although on the BlackWidow Ultimate, there's just one chip for the lights instead of four (and it's not the P3917 3731—it looks to be Q0903 3731).
Also note that the BlackWidow Ultimate has two USB plugs like the BlackWidow Chroma, but just a single audio connector, and thus a single audio passthrough port on the right side of the keyboard.
The fact that there are no M keys means that the BlackWidow Ultimate is slightly narrower than the BlackWidow Chroma.
Under the hood, the first difference I noticed was quite minor—on the BlackWidow Ultimate, the assembly that holds the USB cable in place is one solid plastic piece instead of a removable part, like on the BlackWidow Chroma.
Finally, there's the price. Whereas the BlackWidow Chroma tops out at $169.99, the BlackWidow Ultimate is comparatively inexpensive at $109.99. For that, you lose the RGB lighting (but not lighting entirely, and not the Razer Synapse-enabled effects), M keys, and one of the two audio passthrough ports. You also get a hard plastic top panel instead of the soft-touch finish (which could be considered either positive or negative, depending on what you like).
Razer bills its custom switch as ideal for gaming, and that claim is not untrue. However, it's also not necessarily true for a number of gamers. The clickiness and tactile bump may turn off those who are linear (eg, Cherry MX Red) diehards. On the other hand, the clicky feel may appeal to gamers that also spend lots of time typing, or those who just enjoy the tactility and noise.
In my time clacking away on the Razer BlackWidow Chroma, I found the experience perfectly acceptable while both typing and gaming. Reds, of course, can be a little tricky for typing because of the lack of tactile feedback, but then Blues can be a bit noisy (and with complicated key stroke events) for some gamers. There is a barely perceptible difference between Razer Green switches and the Cherry MX and Kailh Blue switches I compared them to.
Razer has invested much of its energy into the lighting and software, and it shows. Although I dislike the need to download a Synapse update and restart my PC every time I connect a new Razer peripheral, once you have things set, the software is sufficiently easy to use and offers myriad customization features. Other than the rare, odd dead key issue, I found no glitches in Razer Synapse 2.0, and its performance was consistent, if a little slow at times.
The lighting customization options are so vast and granular that it's almost ridiculous, and Razer has done strong work in designing a backplate that enhances the LED performance.
Although that soft-look finish is attractive—moreso than hard, textured plastic—it shows "shine" too quickly. After just a couple of hours of use, especially on the palm rest, you can tell that it's been used.
One aspect of the BlackWidow Chroma that I take serious issue with is the Costar-like stabilizers on the wider keys. They break far too easily, which makes cleaning underneath the keys a nail-biting task, and they can offer an uneven key stroke if you strike at all off-center. Essentially, the stabs torpedo the otherwise strong performance of the switch. This is especially true of the spacebar; how often do you hit the spacebar dead center compared to striking it somewhat to the left or right? For a premium-priced keyboard, this is a tough pill to swallow for me.
What the Razer BlackWidow Chroma (Origin PC Edition) has going for it is the strong lighting and robust software offerings. It also has that "Razer" look, including the funky font on the keys, which will appeal to fans of the company's products.
However, the noisy Green switches won't appeal to some users, and the stabilizer issues could be a dealbreaker for others. (The same is true for the BlackWidow Ultimate.)