By: Aaron Lai
July 7, 2017
Last week, I made a bet with one of the interns in the office. For the longest time, I have been working about three kilometers away from Chinatown and I have always wanted to go there. We were talking over lunch about how long it would take to walk from our office to Chinatown. I definitely thought it would take less than forty minutes, while the intern was sure it would take more. Over our lunch break, we started our walk. Along with two other interns, we walked towards a bubble tea place. With our timers flying, I navigated the group to an optimal path, leading through the neighborhood rather than on the main roads. The intern realized how fast we were going, and we walked into the bubble tea cafe in less than thirty-seven minutes. The victory translated into a free bubble tea for me, which was nice. When I came up with the number of forty minutes, it was more of a guess. I think the crucial difference was just the fact I was able to dictate which path we took, which led us through a few more side roads. My victory came by a combination of intuition with modern innovations of Google Maps. Without either, this bet probably would not have been made on my part or it would not have been favorable for me. Today's product, the AZIO Retro Classic is another combination of a product, mashing together the older Victorian styling with the modern mechanical keyboard. We have already seen AZIO's first rendition of this in the AZIO MK Retro, so I have to wonder what has changed. Does this keyboard still provide a present-day typing experience with an older style of aesthetics? Let us read on to find out!
Today's review unit of the AZIO Retro Classic arrived from AZIO's offices in Walnut, California. Arriving in a brown corrugated cardboard box, this parcel was delivered to us by the men in brown suits, also known as UPS, with their standard ground service. It arrived in excellent condition as always, with zero dents or bruises to really be concerned about. Inside, AZIO packed the Retro Classic with some plastic air bags, providing some cushioning to the keyboard inside. I grabbed a pair of scissors, expecting to get at the retail container.
In reality, my expectations were incorrect. In fact, the AZIO Retro Classic is not currently a released product, and is going to be on sale first through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Due to this fact, the container holding the AZIO Retro Classic is just another generic brown corrugated cardboard box. Hopefully, this is not a case of nesting dolls, where all we received is a bunch of boxes. As such, I cannot really examine the container; I would expect something similar to the original AZIO MK Retro, although at this point your guess is as good as mine. I will have to say the AZIO Retro Classic name is yet another AZIO keyboard that dropped the letters "MK" or "MGK" from the front, as we have seen from some previous AZIO products like the Armato. This name was chosen more recently, so you may see some marks showing the original name of MK Retro Pro.
If you are interested, I grabbed the specifications from the manufacturer for your perusal:
- Model: Retro Classic
- Interface: USB
- Mechanical Switch: Tactile & Clicky
- N-Key Rollover: Full NKRO via USB
- Backlight: Yes
- Cord Length: 6 ft. Braided
- Hotkeys: Web Browser, File Explorer, E-Mail, Media Player, Back Track, Next Track, Play/Pause, Stop, Volume -, Volume +, Mute, Calculator, Win Lock
- OS Support: Windows 10, 8, 7, Vista, XP / macOS
- Dimensions (LxWxH): 147x455x40mm / 5.80x17.91x 1.58 inches
- Weight: 3.5 lbs / 1588 g
As this is a pre-sale sample, there are things that may change, including the items and accessories we receive out of the box. The AZIO Retro Classic is held between two foam brackets with a plastic shield and foam sheet protecting the top of the keyboard. The connected braided cable is wrapped in a plastic sleeve and twist tied to hold it all together. Otherwise, there really is not anything else in the box such as a manual, quick start guide, or warranty information. This is probably just because this is a sample. Retail units should have these things. As for warranty, AZIO did not specify exactly the terms of the warranty, but past AZIO keyboards including the MK Retro had a two year warranty, so I would expect about the same for the Retro Classic.
After seeing the original MK Retro, I did not think these typewriter style keyboards would really impress me with anything new. However, with the Retro Classic, AZIO has made some real smart changes, both functionally and aesthetically, to convey a stronger theme. As you can see from the image above, we still have a two tone design. The bronze or copper like color can be found around all of the different components from the entire keyboard frame to each keycap and the LED indicators. The entire frame has fake screws around the edges to further instill the retro or even steam-punk design. The rest of the keyboard is black with the font on the keycaps is translucent white. However, the few things that AZIO has improved upon include the backplate. Previously, this was a glossy black finish, which attracted fingerprints galore. The AZIO Retro Classic has now hidden this backplate with a leather wrapping over it, adding even more to the old style while preventing fingerprints. I should note my pre-sale unit has pleather on the cover, but AZIO will be using genuine cowhide for retail units. In addition, AZIO plans to have other color options available when the sale begins, with a marble white version among some other colors. The other design difference I really like is the metal plate located right above the keycaps. This strikes the right balance between branding and style, as it again aligns with the overarching theme. All in all, I really have to say AZIO has improved upon their first typewriter keyboard and the conveyed story of the design is even stronger.
Materially speaking, the AZIO Retro Classic may have the same plastic parts, but they are enhanced by some things like the zinc alloy frame and the genuine leather surface. At just under 1.6kg, the AZIO Retro Classic is actually pretty heavy, which might hearken back to the heavy typewriters. Due to his heavier design with better material choices, there is zero flexing or creaking when using the keyboard. This Retro Classic is definitely built like a tank, which is great to see. As for dimensions, the keyboard is 455mm in width, 40mm in height, and 147mm in depth, which is exactly the same as the original MK Retro. Every measurement is as I would expect, though once again, the keyboard feels slightly taller than other ones. Even with the keyboard completely flat, I think the Retro Classic would be better off with a wrist rest included, even if it breaks the retro-like theme.
Today's layout on the AZIO Retro Classic is the standard 104-key QWERTY ANSI layout. On a related note, the QWERTY layout dates back to 1873 with the original Remington typewriter, and was popularized by the second Remington model. While it has been debunked that the layout is meant to prevent mechanical jamming in the typewriter, it has become the standard for most keyboards. 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.
Just like all the AZIO keyboards we have received, the Retro Classic has a lot 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. The only one not found on the top row 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. Otherwise, the lighting can be controlled by other secondary keys, which I will highlight later in my review.
From this side view, you can see the profile of the keyboard. Unlike majority of the keyboards produced today, the AZIO Retro Classic actually has a different profile altogether. Keyboard profiles vary based on the shape of each row of keycaps and are affected by both the elevation of each row and the keycap themselves. The most common profile is the standard or "OEM" profile, which feature a slight contoured profile going from the back to the front. However, with the AZIO Retro Classic, you can see a more of a staircase like profile with the flat keycaps stepping down. You can see the second from the bottom row does slightly increase in height, but overall it does seem more like a staircase. It may seem like a subtle difference, but I will say it is quite noticeable. Otherwise, you can also see the island-style of keys, as each key looks like it is floating above the back surface.
As for the keycaps on the AZIO Retro Classic, from this angle you can see the copper colored rim each keycap has. While the rim may look like metal, these copper-looking border is just plastic, though it looks really nice nonetheless. Like the AZIO MK Retro, all the 1x1 keycaps are each contoured inward, which make for a really nice feel in the fingers. The keycaps are a bit smoother in nature, lacking the same texture. In addition, the font on the keycaps is smaller and are clear rather than the white etching we saw on the MK Retro. Both of these differences are directly because of the backlighting on the keyboard.
As we may have already mentioned, the AZIO Retro Classic 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 Retro Classic 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 Retro Classic, 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 Retro Classic features modified Kailh 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. This modification is quite prominent, as the keycaps do not even have the Cherry stems you normally expect from Kailh switches. Instead, AZIO and Kailh have worked together to make a switch with an LED in the middle for more consistent lighting. As such, these keycaps, as pretty as they are, will not fit on any other switches, which is too bad.
Flipping the AZIO Retro Classic over reveals a similar story of what we saw with the MK Retro. We have four circular rubber pads, with two at the front and two at the back. The rubber pads are also bordered with the copper color plastic as seen previously. Once again, 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 still wish these feet would extend more, but the keyboard is already relatively high. The only other thing to mention is the braided cable extending out the back of the AZIO Retro Classic in the middle. This braided cable is 1.8 meters in length, and ends with a gold-plated USB 2.0 plug.
The biggest difference between the AZIO Retro Classic and yesteryear's MK Retro is the white backlighting AZIO included with this keyboard. As we have already mentioned, AZIO and Kailh worked together in making the switch so that an LED could be placed right in the middle of the switch. This resulted in direct lighting under each keycap. As you can see in the photo above, the font is fairly small and located right over the middle. This does translate into pretty even lighting for each key, and it actually fills up the entire keycap. In addition, the island style keys meant the lights will shine out the sides of the keycaps, making for a pretty nice effect. While this may not exactly be very retro, it is a functional addition I really wanted. To be fair, AZIO could have totally ruined the old-fashioned look by throwing in RGB lights, and thankfully they did not. The lights themselves can be controlled with three different effects including static, reactive, and breathing. It has ten different gradual lighting levels, but it can also be turned off. I also really liked the fact these lights automatically shut off after a period of not using the Retro Classic.
As much as I wanted to just keep staring at the AZIO Retro Classic, I really had to start using it to talk about the usability side of the story. As with all AZIO keyboards, this one is software-less, so I plugged it in, let Windows recognize the device, and went on typing. Blue switches in general have always had a soft-spot in my heart for providing users with a very satisfying typing experience. Kailh has had a pretty good history with us reviewers at APH Networks, and the switches on the Retro Classic were no different. I did not find any inconsistencies in the keys, and the keycaps felt very stable. However, I have to say the Retro Classic does falter in a few areas on a day-to-day use. For one, no matter how long I used the keyboard, I really could not get used to the circular keycaps. As they cover less surface area, this does mean you may have more mistakes and typos. Unfortunately, this affects me in both gaming and productivity situations, as it really just takes time to adjust to. Overall, the typing experience is still a positive one, as it looks amazing on my desk, but will take a bit of time to get used to.
Before my review, I posted an image of this keyboard on social media, and I immediately received several compliments and likes. Many of my friends wanted to try this keyboard out. While I think most of them knew it would not necessarily reflect the typing experience of an old typewriter, I think they were captivated by the style and looks of the AZIO Retro Classic. To me, I think this is the main emphasis here and it really is well done. The strong thematic elements are clearly seen in the styling and material choices of the Retro Classic. Whether this includes the copper border, leather backing, circular keycaps, or even the small metal plate attached to the keyboard, these appearance choices all mesh together really well to deliver a cohesive steam-punk, older style. When combined with modern-day enhancements like the mechanical switches, white backlighting, and media keys, these features, which may not necessarily fit within the theme, do not hinder the older style at all. Furthermore, I think AZIO has really improved upon their previous keyboard in the fact we now have these conveniences like the lights. It is also now a much sturdier, albeit heavier, keyboard. On the other hand, I still cannot necessarily recommend this keyboard for everyone, as it really does take some time to get used to the circular keycaps on the Retro Classic. Secondly, I would have liked to really see a wrist rest to aid in typing. As we mentioned previously, the AZIO Retro Classic will be coming as an Indiegogo exclusive first, debuting as low as $95USD for early bird. With this in mind, I think AZIO has done a bang-up job in convincingly combining an old look with new features, making the Retro Classic a hit for those looking for a timeless design.
AZIO 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 7.4/10
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.
The AZIO Retro Classic is a perfect pick for those looking for a keyboard with both a well-aged design and modern conveniences.
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