Date: April 12, 2013
Author(s): J.D. Kane
At the time of writing, the Isku FX is ROCCAT’s range-topping keyboard. Appropriately it’s packed to the gills with features and capabilities lesser keyboards tend to eschew. No, it’s not a mechanical keyboard, but despite this is it still worth your hard-earned dollars? Read on and find out!
Today I’m playing with something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary.
You see, your humble Techgage scribe here has been using mechanical keyboards almost exclusively for the last few years now. Only when I’m at my day job or when I’m on my laptop do I not use a mech. However, I promise you that I won’t let my preference for mechs color my review.
The ROCCAT Isku FX is a membrane keyboard with dome-type switches. It is currently the company’s top-of-the-line gaming keyboard. Soon, that title will shift on over to the company’s first mechanical, Ryos.
As you can see, the Isku FX quite stylish. Especially noteworthy are its trapezoidal outline, its chiseled surfaces, and the glossy black finish on the chassis. The embossed ROCCAT logos in the middle of the integrated wrist rest also catch the eye, as does the satin finish on the keys and the textured matte finish of the aforementioned wrist rest. And speaking of the keys, it has 123 of them, including its dedicated macro keys and other special function buttons. It’s very easy to see, then, that this is no ordinary plank.
With that overview done, let’s have a more detailed look at the distinguishing features of the Isku FX.
We’ll start our visual tour on its left side. What immediately stands out here is the column of five macro keys, labeled sequentially M1 through M5. Easier to miss is a curiously labeled key where CAPS LOCK is usually positioned. This is what ROCCAT calls its “Easy-Shift[+]” key. We’ll have a closer look at what the Easy-Shift[+] key does a little later in the review.
Now, going clockwise on our visual tour, we take a look at the Isku FX’s top left edge. There is a row of six rectangular LEDs on the top left. Five are grouped together labeled P1 through P5; these designate which user profile is currently active. The LED by its lonesome is the indicator light for the Macro Live! record button, which sits just to the right of its indicator light. As its name suggests, pressing this button enables the end user to create macro commands even on the fly.
Dead center at the top edge of the keyboard is where the eight multi-media and shortcut hotkeys reside. Going from left to right, you have: Mute/Unmute; Volume Down; Volume Up; Play/Pause; Skip/Fast Forward; Skip Backward/Rewind; Web Browser; and Windows Explorer. All of these can be re-purposed via the software suite.
The top right edge of the keyboard is not nearly as busy as the other parts of the Isku FX. Directly to the right of the central hotkey area is the backlight control key. You can set your Isku’s backlighting to any one of six brightness levels by pushing this key. And to the right of this key is an interesting bit of branding: ROCCAT Talk. We’ll have a look at what this piece of branding is all about later on in the review as well.
There’s nothing unconventional on the right edge, so we’ll continue with our visual tour with a look at the bottom edge of the keyboard. The textured expanse of the wrist rest dominates things here, but the ROCCAT logo is an interesting visual counterpoint. So overpowering are these two features that it might be easy to miss the three Thumbster buttons set inside a recess under the space bar. What are these Thumbster keys for? We’ll check them out in greater detail soon enough.
The bottom side of the keyboard is fairly uninteresting. There are four well-placed rubber feet which do a good job of ensuring the Isku FX stays planted on your desk. The top pair of feet flip down to raise the keyboard in case you’re more used to a higher-angled typing position. There are also grooves on the bottom surface; I’ve seen various other reviews describe these as being for cable management, but I’m a bit perplexed by that idea to be honest. The Isku FX’s USB cable, after all, comes out at the rear of the body (in other words, not from under the body). So, whether or not these grooves are functional or ornamental, I cannot say definitively.
Speaking of cables, the Isku FX has a single non-braided USB cable. I quite like the connector, as it is labeled very clearly. Labeling the connector like this is a very clever and elegant solution, one that I would someday want to be an industry standard. Times without number I’ve accidentally pulled out the wrong USB device from the rear I/O panel. Silk-screening a label onto the connector is a very intelligent convenience item, one for which I give ROCCAT a truckload of extra points.
If you were wondering about the backlight, here it is in action. The backlight is not the strongest I have seen, but there is a wide selection of colors, pulsing and so forth.
Now that we’ve had a good look at the hardware, let’s turn our eyes onto the software package and explore all that this keyboard can do.
Although this might be an obvious point to most Techgage readers, I always feel compelled to say it with all mouse and keyboard reviews I do here: The ROCCAT Isku FX works perfectly well enough as a basic keyboard when you first plug it into your PC. Windows’ native USB drivers ensure that end users can expect basic functionality, so you can literally plug-and-play.
As with many “gaming” keyboards, to be able to take advantage of all of the Isku FX’s bells and whistles, you need to install a proprietary software package from the manufacturer. Generally speaking, it is usually best to grab the latest version of the software from the manufacturer directly here instead of taking your chances with what might be an older version supplied on a disk. Very smartly, then, ROCCAT doesn’t even bother to package a software/utilities disc in with its Isku FX, thereby eliminating the possibility of using an outdated (and possibly buggy) version. Instead, a supplied Quick Start manual instructs you to get the latest version from the manufacturer’s website.
Once you’ve downloaded and installed the Isku FX software, you’ll be greeted by a black-and-blue GUI onscreen. The presentation is as eye-catching as the keyboard itself, but it does look a bit… busy at first blush. To be perfectly honest, given some foreknowledge of the full extent of this keyboard’s capabilities, using the software to squeeze every last bit of its feature set felt somewhat intimidating.
Fortunately, the interface is organized well enough so that navigating through it is fairly straightforward. Basically, there are six main sections (represented visually on the GUI as tabs) to peruse: Main Control, Easy-Zone Control, Media Keys/F-Keys, Advanced Control, R.A.D., and Update/Support. Additionally, the Game Profiles section occupies the bottom of the GUI and is accessible no matter which of the six main sections is pulled up.
The Main Control tab is where you can designate functions for the Easy-Shift[+], Macro (M1-M5), and Thumbster keys. By default, the Easy-Shift[+] key functions as the Caps Lock key. However, since Caps Lock is as useful in a game as an ashtray is on a motorcycle, you can designate this key as a function modifier instead. Essentially the Easy-Shift[+] key multiplies your available macro commands. The Macro and Thumbster keys just add to the party with one-key press macro execution capability.
The Easy-Zone tab gives you access to designating specific functions to twenty keys in the so-called “Easy Zone,” which basically are four rows of five keys each accessible with your left hand. Keys 1-5, QWERT, ASDFG, and ZXCVB comprise the Easy Zone. There is a plethora of functions you can assign to keys in the Easy Zone, although “Make Me A Philly Cheese Steak sandwich” is unfortunately not one of them.
The Media Keys/F-Keys tab lets you assign non-default actions to these specific sets of keys. Drop-down menus for possible optional alternative functions make reassigning these keys’ actions very easy.
Advanced Control is where you can customize the backlighting of your Isku FX. ROCCAT claims the Isku FX can produce up to a stupefying 16.8 million distinct colors in the backlighting. Personally, I don’t think my eyesight is good enough to discern each one of these 16.8 million color variations; that, and the fact that I can’t count upwards of forty-nine. On the other hand, the fact that the keyboard can do more than two or three backlight options (say, Red, Blue, and Green) on its key set is pretty impressive enough to me. Somewhat unfortunately, though, the notification LEDs (for the active profile designator, NUM/CAPS/SCRL Lock, Macro Live! record, and Thumbster keys) never change from their electric blue. It’s not a big point for me, but I can understand if people might not like that too much.
The next tab, R.A.D. (short for ROCCAT Achievement Display), is basically a key-press counter. It tracks how many times you press specific keys. It also shows you when you attain “Trophies” for certain performance thresholds. Key-press counters (and click-counters, for mice) are of dubious usefulness for someone like me, but I can imagine that truly hardcore gamers might find this useful as a tool to customize their keyboards’ configuration to a really refined degree. For example, for a certain game, if you find you’re relying on a certain command far more than others, the R.A.D. will tell you what key that is; then you can assign this function to a more accessible location on the keyboard so that you can get to it much easier than before.
The Update/Support tab is where you find links to ROCCAT’s website for either driver updates or to be connected to the company’s support lines. You can choose from between having live online chat support (obviously, this requires an active Internet connection), filling out a support form, or emailing the company.
The Profiles section is where you can assign user profiles to certain sets of customized functions. For gamers, this is a good convenience feature. You can activate a user profile for a certain game, and all your customizations will be loaded just for that game. Then, after your gaming session, you can revert back to a relatively vanilla setup for your typical Windows activities.
Very early in this review I mentioned the “ROCCAT Talk” branding on the Isku FX. ROCCAT Talk is basically a software package that ties compatible keyboards and mice from the manufacturer together to enhance their functionality as a tandem. It requires downloading the specific ROCCAT Talk software, as well. Fortunately, I was able to test this feature using a ROCCAT-provided Kone XTD with the Isku FX review sample.
ROCCAT has done a superb job at integrating its hardware with its software packages. When used in tandem, it’s simply staggering when you realize that you’ll very likely have far fewer customization requirements than what the Isku FX can actually deliver. My only gripe in using the software is that there is a delay between the moment you click to save a reassignment of function, to when the software is ready for your next move.
Now that we’ve had a look at the Isku FX’s extensive software, let’s talk about how it is to use and wrap this review up.
Before anything else, I think it is essential to assert that the Isku FX is a keyboard first, a gaming peripheral second. I suppose there are people who build PCs solely for gaming, but I would suspect that the majority of people don’t fit that description. Consequently, this review will be from the perspective of a general-use end user who also happens to play his share of PC games.
As a matter of course, I tested this keyboard on the basis of several related key criteria: Subjective feel during usage; ergonomics; typing performance; gaming performance; and, finally, miscellaneous.
In terms of subjective feel, the first thing I noticed about this keyboard is its lightness. In fact, it’s appreciably the lightest keyboard I’ve ever tested for Techgage. This gives off the initial impression that it’s not a robust product. The chassis exhibits a minimal but noticeable degree of flex as well, especially towards the top end (i.e., further away from the wrist rest) when you apply some torque to it. The very best keyboards in my collection exhibit zero chassis flex, so I tend to think of this as a reflection of the product’s build quality. That’s not to say the Isku FX is built poorly; actually, despite its lack of mass and noticeable chassis flex, it feels well-built. It just doesn’t feel rugged, in the way that the CM Storm QuickFire TK does, much less that tank-like beast of a keyboard, the GIGABYTE’s Aivia Osmium.
Moving on to the keys, this is obviously not a mechanical keyboard. Key travel is shallow, although it’s not nearly as shallow as that of a typical laptop chiclet keyboard (or a Mac keyboard, for that matter), and actuation pressure is very low. Consequently, it’s very easy to bottom out on your key presses. In my experience, bottoming out constantly leads to increased finger fatigue and strain especially during extended writing sessions. I’m not pleased, either, with the slippery, almost slick, feeling of the keycaps. The ultra-smooth surface of the keycaps tends to dull any sort of tactile sensation of the keys on my fingertips. Your natural reaction, therefore, is to tend to press even harder. Not only that, but that feeling of slipping off the keyboard is very odd. It’s weird to feel the need to concentrate harder just to stay in the correct position for touch-typing.
Ergonomically, it’s pretty solid. Other than the aforementioned gripes with the slippery keycaps, I can’t complain. I particularly like this keyboard’s integrated wrist rest. Typically I have my hands lifted off the desk completely as I touch-type: I don’t have a wrist rest on my daily driver keyboard. The Isku FX’s wrist rest is at the ideal height for the heel of my hands to rest on them, and its textured surface is grippy enough to somewhat counteract the keycaps’ total lack of texture. For someone like me who doesn’t need a wrist rest, this might be a moot point; however, others who do rely on their wrist rests will appreciate the one on the Isku FX, especially given its slick-to-the-touch keycaps.
Continuing with ergonomics, I found that the layout of the keyboard is good enough, given its plethora of specialized keys. The Macro keys require a small stretch with your left pinky, and the Thumbster keys are in an ideal location. The Thumbster keys are also placed in a special recessed section so that accidental key presses are virtually eliminated. The Media keys, though, are too remote to be accessed without your fingers leaving home row; you would have to lift your hand completely from at least half of home row to use the Media keys at the keyboard’s top center section. This, though, is no surprise and is not a complaint. At any rate, how often do you really lift your hands from home row whilst in the midst of a hot and heavy writing session to adjust the volume control on your media player software?
Given the generally sound ergonomics of this keyboard, I was expecting it to allow me to maintain my typical performance and speed in touch-typing. On my daily driver keyboard endowed with Cherry MX Blue switches, I can go as fast as 93WPM with 0 errors (I’ve improved from my previous typical best of 89WPM/0 errors from previous keyboard reviews). On the Isku FX, though, my speed and accuracy both plummeted somewhat dramatically: 81WPM/0 errors is as good as I could do sans errors, while 87WPM/5 errors is my typical peak speed (averaged from my three best runs). Five errors is too many, frankly, and I figured out that my decreased speed and accuracy have everything to do with the keycaps being so slippery. It’s simply difficult, if not impossible, for me to feel 100% assured that my fingers are in the correct position over home row. This is a unique phenomenon amongst all the keyboards I’ve ever used. I can’t (and won’t) say definitively that this is something all typists will experience; I’m only speaking just of my findings, so your mileage may very well vary.
Using the Isku FX in games, though, transforms it into what ROCCAT probably intended it to be: This is a gaming keyboard. I generally disapprove of hardware manufacturers’ practice of branding certain products as “gamer gear,” but in this keyboard’s case specifically, I understand the rationale completely. The soft, shallow key travel is not a handicap at all in-game as it could be in day-to-day typing. Limiting the usable area (just the left hand, really) seems to have also reduced the chances of incorrect key presses. Not only that, but the fact that the software allows you to customize the functionality of the keys and create macro commands so conveniently constitutes what could be an unfair advantage. Just think about it: Where with some keyboards a certain in-game action might require a sequence of key presses, with an Isku FX under your fingers you can do it with the press of maybe just one (or maybe two keys simultaneously, with the Easy-Shift[+] key combination configured as such). Hardcore MMO players, in particular, would absolutely love this keyboard, I’d imagine.
And that’s reckoning without ROCCAT Talk. With this, you can perform macros and special in-game actions using a key to activate a mouse-specific function. I tested one such combo, Easy-Aim, on a range of first-person shooters. On sniping missions, you can enable Easy-Aim by using a designated key: The Kone XTD’s DPI downshifted to a pre-programmed setting, making headshots almost too easy. No more futzing about with your mouse’s DPI selection buttons. This is a case of a two-handed operation being superior to a one-handed one.
ROCCAT Talk also unlocks special visual effects with your Isku FX and its compatible partner mouse. In effect, the backlighting on the keyboard and on the mouse can provide dramatic visual feedback to certain in-game events. Personally, I think this particular feature is overkill and is somewhat gimmicky, but hey, I’m sure some users would think that this is nothing short of awesome. At any rate, it’s completely the end user’s choice whether or not to enable functionality of this type.
So what do we make of ROCCAT’s Isku FX? To me, it’s got a bit of a dual personality. Dr. Jekyll, its better half, shows itself during gaming. The things I had issues with – the slippery keys, the short and mushy key travel, even its chassis flex – become irrelevant. Instead, its attributes, tied tightly to the software package it comes with, come to the fore. The fact that you can configure the Isku FX’s keys to such a large number of customized functions is simply mind-blowing. In fact, for a user like me who doesn’t really need to customize a keyboard that much (I don’t typically use macros), the number of options available to you is almost insanity-inducing. But an MMO player, or anyone else who relies on macro commands, will truly appreciate all that the Isku FX can do.
Unfortunately, there is an ugly Mr. Hyde to contend with as well. Looking at the Isku FX as just a “normal” (i.e., non-gaming) keyboard, there are some shortcomings. Chief of these are the slippery keycaps. These really hurt my performance as a touch-typist. The short, mushy travel of the keys are also a potential issue. No one wants their fingers to feel tired and strained even after typing for hours on end. With a well-designed keyboard, I can literally just bang away on the keys, writing either my next Techgage review or a complete chapter overhaul on my fan-fiction novella. The Isku FX potentially can cause you the inconvenience of stopping to rest your aching digits.
As much as the Isku FX and ROCCAT’s special software sauce impressed me in gaming scenarios, it’s very difficult to give it my full approval. At the end of the day, a keyboard is one of the most important links between an end user and his PC; keyboards, to me, are mostly about the quality of the keys in all relevant facets(layout, key switch type, keycaps, key travel, etc.). Everything else – specialized software, media control functionality, etc. – is superfluous. The Isku FX overwhelms you with its capacity for customization and its ROCCAT Talk-associated special effects; it can be a very convenient partner in crime in gaming situations, particularly if you rely on macros. However, it trips up somewhat when it comes to Job #1. It’s not so fun to use in any usage scenario other than hardcore gaming. That’s a shame, given its MSRP of $99.99. That’s in the vicinity of the price point of many a popular mechanical keyboard.
At the end of the day, the Isku FX leaves me wanting more. Sure, it’s got features in excess, and there will be people who will buy it to take advantage of all that the Isku FX can do in a gaming scenario. But I’ll always wish that it could do its primary job a bit better.
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