Over a month ago I received a very, very sexy package from Mad Catz. I say that because I want it to be clear that the packaging alone for the Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E.7 gaming keyboard is the nicest packaging I’ve ever seen for a retail video game product. Oh, and before I go on with this review, let it be known that the official name of the STRIKE 7 has the periods in it, but I’m not typing those again. Also, I don’t know if it’s called the ‘Strike Seven’ or if they were going for a leet-speak “R” in there and trying to call it the ‘Striker’. Either way, for the remainder of this review, I’m referring to the keyboard as the STRIKE 7.
Let’s deal with the immediate pink elephant in the room: This keyboard is three hundred dollars, and it’s not mechanical. This price range is not for the faint of heart. After this review, you’ll have to decide whether or not you feel that the pricing is justified.
We here at Icrontic don’t normally go in for the unboxing stuff, but I think it bears mentioning here. Here’s how it breaks down:
The “Cyborg” branding has actually been superseded, and this keyboard is officially known as the Mad Catz STRIKE 7 now, just FYI.
The main keyboard is relatively small.
On another layer we have more components
Then we have some different keycaps and a changing tool as well as a wrench for assembly of the separate components.
And finally, fully unboxed, we have the entire spread of all the components available with this package.
Here are the sections:
- The letter key section: This is your main keyboard piece. It has the normal QWERTY keyset , twelve function keys, and that’s it.
- The numpad section: a full numpad, five macro keys, arrows, and the insert/home keyset.
- The macro section: four pinky-accessible macro keys that can also double as CTRL, shift, enter, and backspace
- The V.E.N.O.M. screen section: A full-color digital display, three menu keys, and a media key set (volume, mute, mic mute)
- Thumb wheel and red button section: An additional thumbwheel for the left hand as well as a satisfying and mysterious programmable red button
The first claim to fame that sets the STRIKE 7 apart is its modularity. You can set up the STRIKE 7 in quite a few different configurations. For tournament gamers who travel, this could be something very important. If you want, for example, just the numpad section and the macro keyset, you can do that. If you want just the letter keys and the screen, you can do that. The downside is that the keyboard pieces attach with hex bolts. This means it’s not exactly a quick transition to change things up—you need to bust out the provided wrench. It’s not a really big deal, but having a quick-release snap system would have been convenient. That said, having the pieces bolted to one another means the entire keyboard structure is rock solid when it’s all put together. The plates and screws are all steel. The only exception is the left palmrest / thumbwheel piece, which is snap-locked into place and is slightly flimsy. If I lift the entire keyboard up, that is the only piece that sags and looks like it could fall off after some time.
The rest of the hookups involve braided USB cables to attach each section to each other and a 5V power brick (which connects through a Y-cable pigtail off the main computer plug).
The package also includes extra keycaps for WASD, and arrow keys if you’d rather put them elsewhere, like ESDF, as well as a tool to change keycaps.
Assembly and setup
The keyboard assembly is relatively straightforward, especially since all the ports are lettered. Plug “A” goes into port “A”, and so on. There’s no way to get it wrong. When you power up the keyboard, the VENOM display boots (it’s definitely running its own OS, very likely Linux based), and the backlighting comes on.
The backlighting is fully configurable with 255 levels of red, green, and blue. With some tweaking, you can get pretty much any color you want out of the backlights. The blue tends a little strong, so a full 255/255/255 is not so much white as it is white-blue. To get a pure white, I found 255 red, 175 green, and 100 blue to be the closest I could get. I’m not sure if the calibration was off on my particular model, but I suspect it’s more likely that the blue and green are just stronger than the red.
The software install didn’t exactly go smoothly for me, though.
It took several days and several emails back and forth with support staff to discover one important factoid: If you have any Razer software installed on your PC, you will have to uninstall it before the STRIKE 7 driver and software will install correctly. I’ve double checked other sites who have reviewed this keyboard, and their experience matches mine. You can reinstall Razer software after the STRIKE 7 software is up and running, but until Mad Catz releases a patch or a new installer, that’s the story.
Once the software was installed and running, it worked flawlessly, even after reinstalling my Razer driver for my mouse. Obviously, Mad Catz would like to pair this keyboard with their Cyborg MMO 7 mouse, but many gamers will have Razer mice, so this is something they need to address.
The Smart Technology Profiler is the main interface for configuring the multitude of macro keys on the various sections. From here, you get a really intuitive graphical representation of each section as well as which keys can be configured:
You have a lot of control over the VENOM interface. For example, the Launcher app allows you to move frequently-launched apps onto the screen. There’s also a built-in Teamspeak app that brings Teamspeak to the VENOM screen. The VENOM screen supports three sets of two screens’ worth of 12-button macros. Put another way, you can have a screen up with 12 touchscreen macros on it. There are two of those screens. Then, you can swap between three completely separate macro sets, for a total of 72 macros available through the VENOM interface.
Just for a simple example, here’s a very simple World of Warcraft setup: one touch opens all your backpacks, and another opens a character’s equipment sets manager:
As you can see, I was able to import icons to make it look extra snazzy.
You can have completely independent macro sets for different games. Mad Catz provides basic macro sets for a huge variety of games, lumped into profile packs by genre. There are MMO packs, FPS packs, Adobe Creative Suite packs, and so on. They’re all free.
In addition to the VENOM screen, there are five macro buttons (labeled “C1-C5″) on the numpad and four macro paddle buttons on a side panel, labeled M1-M4. All are fully programmable.
The mechanical problem
When you spend $300 on a keyboard, you are probably expecting a mechanical keyboard. The STRIKE 7 is a rubber dome keyboard, but the team at Mad Catz is quick to point out that they’ve taken steps to ensure that despite it’s rubber dome status, they keyboard is meant to perform, if not feel, as well as a mechanical keyboard.
Taken verbatim from their reviewer’s guide is the following brief answer as to why they opted for rubber dome:
Q. Why does the S.T.R.I.K.E.7 not have mechanical keys?
A. The design of the S.T.R.I.K.E.7 comes after deep consultation with many leading professional gamers and gaming teams around the world, including many members of our ‘Team Mad Catz’ professional gamers. The membrane designed for the S.T.R.I.K.E.7 has been chosen for two key reasons:
It enables Mad Catz to feature ‘halo effect’ backlighting. Gamers have told us that gaming in a dark environment is commonplace, especially at LAN tournaments. Backlighting allows gamers to precisely control their gaming in the dark and the halo effect would not be possible through the use of mechanical keys.
Mad Catz have tuned the feel of the keys to match that of the most popular mechanical keyboards available today, providing the key response favored by gamers.
Whether or not that’s a satisfactory answer for you is up to you to decide. I personally take issue with the idea that halo effect backlighting is essential for LAN gaming in dark rooms, something many Icrontic readers are very familiar with. Having backlit keycaps is good enough, and there are many mechanical keyboards with backlit keys. Yes, you lose the bling of having fully programmable RGB halo lights below the keys… but that is not exactly an essential feature.
As far as “tuning the feel of the keys” to match, I can say that going from mechanical to this is like going from Cheetos to mashed potatoes. Once you’ve gone mechanical, you can’t “un-go” there. Going back to rubber dome is like mush. The key response is good in games, and you don’t need a full keypress to actuate the keys, but the mushy feel is just not personally my cup of tea. Here is another answer they provided with the review unit, because they know that reviewers and readers are asking this question first and foremost:
We have developed our membrane to have a 60g actuation force. Our research showed a possible range of between 50g and 80g. Too high, and the long gaming sessions would start to take their toll on your digits. Too low, and the key would not reset at a fast enough speed for gaming. Our actuation force sits in the optimum zone of this range and is specifically targeted at reducing muscle fatigue and discomfort whilst remaining speedy and responsive over long gaming sessions.
The goal with our membrane was to achieve great tactile feedback for our key input. We specified that there should be a bump in the actuation to let the gamer know that their input had been received; the 60g actuation force helps deliver this tactile feedback.
As well as actuation, the reset point of the key is also crucial for in-game actions. Actions such as double taps would not work if the reset point was further back on the key travel than the operating point. We have made sure that the reset point is tuned to the position of the operation point, to ensure that fast input isn’t missed whether you are gaming or typing.
I know it sounds technical, but the real-world effect, in layman’s terms, is that you don’t have to press hard to activate the key. You can quickly touch a key to get it to act in a game.
For pure gaming, the tuned rubber membrane this keyboard uses is fantastic. I have no issues with it, and it’s definitely better than other rubber dome keyboards I’ve used… for gaming. But I also type, a lot, on my PC, and therefore this keyboard is not going to be my go-to for every day use. If I was a professional tournament gamer only, I might tell a different tale. If you’re used to mechanical keyboards already, you’re not going to like this—no matter how tuned it is.
Since this is a USB keyboard, the interface itself limits the keyboard to 6KRO (six key rollover), which means you can input up to six keypresses at once, as well as CTRL, ALT, and SHIFT as modifiers. The numpad section, being on its own USB interface to the VENOM unit, is also 6KRO, so really the unit as a whole is a strange 12KRO, which makes no sense since you’ll not likely be hitting six keys with your right and six keys with your left hand. Here’s a test with Aqua’s KeyTest. I couldn’t hit the screenshot button while hitting six keys, but rest assured this is tilde, W, D, K, Space, and Shift simultaenously.
Another arm-mash test resulted in this:
Point being: There will be no ghosting issues with this keyboard.
The keycaps are extremely high quality, double injection molded with custom translucent graphics on every single key to let the backlighting show through. Each key has a distinctive shape that matches the Mad Catz branding. The FN key, for example, has the Mad Catz “slash” icon, the Windows key has a circular indent around the Windows logo to make it stand out, the C1-C5 macro keys on the numpad are slightly lower and flatter than the arrow keys to set them apart, and so on.
The VENOM unit is equally well-built, with the three macro Mode switches being satisfying, the touchscreen is high-resolution and bright (TFT LCD), and as I mentioned previously, the metal plates and screws hold everything together rock-solid. The k eyboard itself is hefty, weighty, and doesn’t slide or bounce when you pound on it. The only slightly cheap part is the way the palmrests mount to the keyboard, and even that is nicer than other keyboards I’ve used. All the USB cables are thick and braided, with high-quality strain relief rubber plugs. I have no complaints at all about the very high build quality of the entire unit.
Mad Catz has a tough sell here, no doubt about it. The extreme price tag clearly and obviously reflects the highly refined build quality, the excellent versatility of the modular units, and the awesome touch-screen VENOM unit. However, as nice as all of that is, one simple fact remains: many gamers will simply not consider a rubber dome keyboard, under any circumstances, no matter how nice everything else is.
The keyboard is a showy, sexy conversation piece. Every inch of it shows attention to detail and—let’s face it—the backlighting is totally rad.
However, that’s the biggest problem: you may want this keyboard for all of the awesomeness that it presents, but the lack of mechanical switches is the biggest tease of all.
If Mad Catz finds a way to make this mechanical, I will highly recommend it even at the $300 price point. For now, understand that you’re buying a $300 rubber dome keyboard and if that doesn’t bother you, you will be able to enjoy an exceptionally cool, robust, highly configurable bling-blang keyboard while I switch back to my much less sexy, but much less expensive mechanical board.