By: Aaron Lai
October 28, 2016
If there is one thing I often find a bit eerie, it is looking back at old or dated items. For example, black and white photos sometimes gives me a spine-tingling feel. When I was younger, I used to think the world was monochromatic, with only modern technology bringing color to the rest of the world. I now know color actually came after the Great Depression, which is obviously what got people out of the depression, haha. This is also why I do not teach world history. Joking aside though, there is something interesting about older looking things too. Not only do they usually function as expected, but the way they are built or designed often reflects the technology and thought process during the time period. Nowadays though, there are not a lot of old products carrying much value, especially when it comes to more recent technology. With how fast the latest and greatest are released, even daily sometimes, items become obsolete almost right away. For example, cellphones from only ten years ago are practically used as paper weight or in a museum of modern history. On the other hand, there are some examples of products lasting much past their intended life, such as the IBM Model M keyboard. This keyboard is probably one of the most famous mechanical keyboards, but even so, these relics are far and few. Today's review unit of the AZIO MK Retro is a different spin on things, as it pays homage to the original design with new functions. With a name like "Retro", I think you can get an idea of what to expect, but let us see what is in store for us when we take a closer look at the AZIO MK Retro!
Before you wonder what happened to the color on your monitors, we have decided to publish all of today's photos in black in white. As we know this keyboard is inspired by the typing devices of the centuries past, it only seems fitting. There is actually very little difference between our color originals and black and white finals. When I first started editing, I was wondering why the black and white filter in Photoshop was not working for some photos, until I realized it was. Today's review unit of the AZIO MK Retro arrived from the manufacturer's offices in Walnut, California. Traveling with FedEx, this parcel arrived in excellent condition with very few issues on the corrugated cardboard box to speak of. The contents of the box were surrounded by several plastic air pockets to ensure as little damage as possible to the product during shipment. Otherwise, there is not much to speak of, so I grabbed a pair of scissors and opened up the shipping container.
If there is one thing packaging should do, it is to set the tone of the product right away. With the AZIO MK Retro's retail box, I think this is precisely what it should look like. While other AZIO keyboards we have reviewed in the past have been targeted at the gamer market, the MK Retro is under AZIO's lifestyle lineup of peripherals. As such there are no flashy looks to the front box. However, what we do have is a very clean and minimalist exterior. The entire box is black in color, with a silver image outline of the MK Retro on the left side of the box. The product name is on the right side, with a description underneath of "Typewriter Mechanical Keyboard", all in silver again. Obviously the keyboard inside is not actually a typewriter, but rather it is styled to look like one. The back has some more details about the MK Retro.
If you are interested, I have pulled out the specifications of the MK Retro for your perusal:
NKRO: Full Key Rollover
Cord Length: 6ft / 1.8m / Braided
OS Support: Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10
Dimensions: 5.8 x 17.9 x 1.6 in / 147 x 455 x 40 mm
Weight: 2.3 lbs / 1043g
Package Contents: Keyboard, User Guide, Thank You Card
Warranty: 2 years limited
Opening the box is much like every other AZIO keyboard we have opened. For one, we have the keyboard surrounded by two foam brackets on the side. The MK Retro also has a plastic cover on top to shield anything from catching on the keycaps. The glossy areas of the keyboard are sealed in plastic to prevent any scratches from appearing before it gets in the consumer's hands. The cable is neatly twist-tied with a plastic wrapping around it. In addition to the AZIO MK Retro, we have two pieces of documentation. One is a user guide in multiple languages, which helpfully outlines the different features and how to use them. The other is a thank you card, holding contact information should you need customer support. Just to note, the warranty with the AZIO MK Retro has a duration of two years.
I do not normally do this, but I will just let you stop and stare at the picture above, because AZIO has made an excellent looking keyboard in the MK Retro. There is just something refreshing about a new product enclosed in an old design, and the MK Retro is just screaming this sort of sentiment. In fact, it is one of the few products that have left me speechless right when I opened the box. First off, there are three distinct colors on this old-fashioned keyboard. One is the silver chrome finish, seen around all the keys, LED indicator lights, and the keyboard frame. As you can see, these areas are glossy and smooth. Second is a piano black found on the board itself, and this glossy finish really is another stunner. Finally, we have a light tan found on each key, used for the font and lettering. Thus even if we were to publish the photos in color, the photos of the keyboard would actually look almost the exact same. There is a big note to make about the glossy finish, and this is the fingerprint magnet nature of this surface. Almost the moment I took off the plastic seal from these surfaces, I immediately noticed an oily mark from my fingers. I think they could have made this black finish in a matte style, but as it stands, this keeps well with the whole "neo-old" design. AZIO has often impressed me with their minimalist but stylistic design choices, and the MK Retro is no different. It is obvious from the outset they were targeting a typewriter like style, and I think they have nailed it. One disclaimer I should state is the fact this is not a totally new idea, as there are other companies who do this, such as Datamancer. However, with the MK Retro, AZIO makes this design more accessible to the everyday market, in both price and availability.
Materially, everything is plastic, but the keyboard has a good amount of heft and weight to it. At just a little over 1kg, the AZIO MK Retro holds a relatively average weight. I will say there is a bit of flexing and creaking, especially at the edges, but in no ways does it feel like the keyboard will break. As for dimensions, the keyboard is 455mm in width, 40mm in height, and 147mm in depth. Everything measurement is as I would expect, though I will say the keyboard does feel slightly taller than other ones. Even with the keyboard completely flat, I think the MK Retro would be made better with a wrist rest included, just to help with the higher placed keys.
Today's layout on the AZIO MK Retro is the standard 104-key QWERTY ANSI layout. On an aside, the QWERTY layout was actually invented not to be the fastest layout, but rather to slow people down and prevent people from jamming their fingers in between the typewriter keys. As this keyboard looks more like a typewriter, it seems only fitting the QWERTY layout is used here. Moving on, the keyboard is laid out in the same way as every other keyboard sent to APH Networks. At the top right corner are four white LED indicators. The first three are the traditional Num, Caps, and Scroll lock. The fourth one is marked by a W, and this shows when the Windows key is locked or not.
As with other AZIO keyboards, the MK Retro has a bevy of shortcut and secondary functions. All of the functions can be activated by pressing the Fn key found on the right side in conjunction with the respective key. Starting with the only secondary function not found on the top row, and this is the Windows logo. Pressing Fn before pressing the Windows key prevents users from accidentally activating the Windows key in more crucial moments, such as full screen games. At the F1 to F4 keys, we have four application shortcut keys. F1 opens the homepage in your default browser. F2 opens the File Explorer on Windows, which is a really handy addition. F3 opens your default mail application, and F4 opens the default music player. From F5 to F8 we have the media keys, and they are Previous, Next, Play/Pause and Stop, respectively. F9 to F11 holds the volume options, including Volume Down, Volume Up and Mute. F12 is another shortcut key to launch the calculator. Finally, there is a secondary function on the Print Screen key to switch between NKRO and 6KRO mode.
Speaking of NKRO, the AZIO MK Retro offers NKRO mode over USB. NKRO is abbreviated for n-key rollover, and it refers to the number of keys independently scanned by the hardware. In essence, this fixes ghosting issues found in cheaper and/or laptop keyboards. While ghosting is a marketing term, there are cases where keyboards will not be able to recognize more than one keystroke at a time, causing for missed keys. This can be frustrating when you are playing games, or even if you are just a very fast typist. On an aside, the original usage of ghosting in keyboards actually referred to a third key being registered when two other keys were pressed.
Before continuing on, one of the main selling points of the AZIO MK Retro is its mechanical key switches. There are three main types of keyboards in the market today. The cheapest but most common is the membrane keyboard, which is the easiest to make, but also has poor typing feel and response due to squishy keys. Next is a scissor switch keyboard. This can be thought of as an enhanced rubber dome, with two extra interlocking plastic pieces connected to the key and the keyboard. This creates a better tactile response and typing experience in comparison to the aforementioned membrane. Mechanical keyboards, such as the MK Retro, costs the most, because each key switch is an independent part. These switches are generally composed of a base, stem, and spring, with varying degrees of tactile and audible feedback. Our unit of the AZIO MK Retro features modified blue mechanical switches, according to AZIO. In general, blue switches are what I would call a typist's switch, with the nonlinear travel and tactile feedback found mid press. In addition, an audible sound can be heard on every actuation, which can be quite satisfying to the user.
From this back angle, there were two items I wanted to point out. First, we have the cable leading out the back. This is a braided 1.8m cable, permanently fixed at oneend. It would have been nice to see a removable cable here, as many other keyboards feature such. The end of the USB is gold plated, but obviously by now you know this does nothing to help or hurt the data connection since USB is digital. The second thing I wanted to point out however is the profile of the keycaps. As you can see and have already seen, the keycaps on the MK Retro are not traditional rectangles, but rather circular or oval in shape. These keycaps are bordered with silver plastic for that retro look and feel. One thing I also really like is the fact all the 1x1 sized keycaps actually concave in, much like other keycaps. Of course, all of these aspects reflect the old-fashioned style AZIO is aiming for. As mentioned previously, the letters on the keycaps are quite large and easy to read, with a dated looking font. Some of the coloring on the keys are also slightly weathered, which only adds to the nostalgia. The surface is not as smooth as other keycaps and have a quite a bit more texture on it.
Flipping the AZIO MK Retro over reveals a pretty big difference. While we have four rubber pads, two at the front and two at the back, these are not rectangles but are circles. The rubber pads are also bordered with the similar silver chrome plastic as seen previously. However, the biggest difference is the fact the back two rubber pads extend not by pulling them out, but rather rotating them out. This gives an approximately extra 5mm in extra height. While this may not be a whole lot of difference, this is a pretty neat way to implement the back risers. I would have wished these feet would extend more, as the keyboard is relatively high overall, but I still like the way they made these risers function.
Even though this is a marvel of a keyboard to look at just based purely on style, I still do have to mention how well it functions on a day to day basis. As with all the other AZIO keyboards we have reviewed, the MK Retro does not come with any software, so all I had to do is plug the keyboard in and start typing. Blue switches are probably one of the best switches to use for typing, and I think these switches underneath hold up well. I did not find any inconsistencies between different keys, which is another plus. I also think these switches are a decent replication of the original German Cherry MX switches. There are a few things I should mention. First of all is the fact I had troubles adjusting to this keyboard when gaming, especially as blue switches require a bit more effort to press with the bump in the middle. In addition, I had grown so used to the Tesoro Gram Spectrum with its shorter Kailh Red switches. However, the harder part to adjust to was actually the circular keycaps. When I first started using it, I actually found my fingers got caught on the sides of the keycaps, since they have a smaller surface area compared to regular 1x1 keys. There were some modern amenities I quite missed, including a wrist rest or LED lights. While it would not suit the overall theme, this definitely helps with typing in darker environments. Otherwise, the typing experience offered by AZIO is satisfying, and this keyboard really looks amazing on my desk.
You might think after three years of reviewing products, I would have nailed down how to close off a product review. However, this is not the case, as I still require a lot of time to summarize points and collect my thoughts. When I asked my compadre Kayla for help, she responded with, "It is good, and I would give it to my grandma. Take that however you want." I laughed at the time, especially since she did not know I was writing this review, but then I realized how true it is for this product. As I have mentioned in the introduction, old products often carry sentimental value, and the MK Retro, while it is not old, can often remind previous generations of where we have come from in terms of input devices. AZIO set out with a theme to bring a timeless design into a modern product, and I think the MK Retro is an excellent result. First of all, the design is bang on. Whether it is the chrome finish, the glossy piano black, or just the finish on the keycaps, the MK Retro truly is retro. Next, they combined this older fashion with modern implementation, such as media keys, volume controls, NKRO, and shortcuts. The mechanical switches too are a good combination of old style, in terms of tactile feedback, and new technology. Obviously, there are things you will need to get used to, should this be your daily keyboard, such as the circular keycaps, the lack of backlighting, or not having a wrist rest included. Overall, I think AZIO has done an excellent job in maintaining a cohesive theme throughout. The AZIO MK Retro may have its downsides and most certainly is not for everyone, but considering it can be found for as low as $110 USD, this specialty product not only looks great, but functions perfectly fine, too. If you are looking to add some old style to your new rig, the MK Retro is something you have to check out!
AZIO Corporation provided this product to APH Networks for the purpose of evaluation.
APH Review Focus Summary:
8/10 means Definitely a very good product with drawbacks that are not likely going to matter to the end user.
7/10 means Great product with many advantages and certain insignificant drawbacks; but should be considered before purchasing.
-- Final APH Numeric Rating is 7.2/10
Please note that the APH Numeric Rating system is based off our proprietary guidelines in the Review Focus, and should not be compared to other sites.
With the MK Retro, AZIO has brought retro back, and all the other manufacturers do not know how to act.
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