By: Jonathan Kwan
June 24, 2016
Have you ever preferred the original thing, no matter how hard people tried to push something else, or how many claimed improvements a newer model has? I am not a big consumer of soft drinks, but if you ask me, my favorite will have to be Coca-Cola. As for anything from Pepsi, even if it could win all the so-called taste tests, who cares? It is just not Coca-Cola. Thankfully, I am not the only one who thinks this way, as Coca-Cola is still the most popular soft drink in the world. In fact, its popularity is so intrinsic to the drink itself, even the company themselves could not change it. Back in 1985, when they tried to change the formulation of the drink, the public reaction was so hostile, the company was forced to quickly reverse its decision and put the original back on the shelf within three months. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to try out many keyboards, whether it featured membrane, scissor, or mechanical switches. Even within the mechanical realm of things, we here at APH Networks has tried everything ranging from TTC to Kailh to SteelSeries' own QS1 found in the Apex M800. Most of them has its merits, but when it comes to what I would really use day-to-day, I would stick to switches manufactured by Cherry. I do not care if they are not as quiet as other brands, or even if they often cost the most money; the fact is Cherry MX switches are often imitated but never duplicated, just like products from Coca-Cola. Do not get me wrong -- the Apex M800 in question is a brilliant keyboard. But die hard loyalists like me will only stubbornly settle for keyboards equipped with the German switches. Thankfully, even if we are not hostile with our voices, we vote faithfully with our wallets, and companies understand that. Today, we will take a look at the SteelSeries Apex M500, a keyboard featuring real Cherry MX Red switches. Cherry MX Red is my favorite kind of switch, so will the SteelSeries Apex M500 be my favorite new keyboard? Read on to find out!
Our review unit of the SteelSeries Apex M500 came in a surprisingly large, brown corrugated cardboard box from the company's American offices in Chicago, Illinois, USA using UPS Standard. A keyboard is not necessarily a small item to ship, but compared to the size of this box, it is. So why was such a large box used? Unfortunately, this is not a question I can answer, because this was literally only product that was inside, and I do mean literally -- not even packing peanuts or brown shipping paper. Scratching my head and wondering aside, after opening the package and getting a whiff of Chicago air here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, let us move on to the more important bits of this review.
The retail box design for the Apex M500 carries forward the company's latest design theme first seen in the Rival 100. The revised layout and format is more stylish and modern; the black and dark grey background is accentuated by a sharp orange band crossing at an angle, complete with predominantly white text printed on the box all oriented at the same 45 degree angle. A photo of the keyboard itself can be seen occupying the majority of the box. There is one slogan that describes the SteelSeries Apex M500 in front, and that is "Mechanical Pro-Gaming Keyboard" in two different languages. A couple of feature highlights can be seen in the front, with more detailed descriptions at the back. If I were to see the SteelSeries Apex M500 in a retail store, this will definitely give me a pretty good idea of what the product is, along with what makes it special. I will have to give the company a pat on the back for providing to the point information in an appealing package.
Before we move on, let us take a look at the specifications of the SteelSeries Apex M500, as obtained from the manufacturer's website:
Switch Type: Mechanical
Switch Name: Cherry MX Red Gaming Switches
Throw Depth: 4 mm
Actuation and Reset Depth: 2 mm
Actuation Force Needed: 45cN
50 Million Click Lifetime Guarantee
Full Anti-Ghosting Support
N-Key Roll Over: 104 Key
Illumination: Per-Key Blue LEDs
Quick Access Media Keys
Fully Programmable Keys
Cable Management System
Weight: 1241 g, 2.742 lbs
Height: 136.43 mm, 5.37 in
Width: 440.56 mm, 17.34 in
Depth: 39.52 mm, 1.56 in
Large Adjustable Rubber Feet
Cable Length: 2 m, 6.5 ft
Engine Support: SSE3
Custom Key Illumination
Quick Start Guide
Contents inside the retail package can be removed after opening the large flap at the top. The keyboard is secured inside a cardboard tray with a clear plastic bag. As you can see in our photo above, the bundle is totally minimalist. Out of the box, in addition to the SteelSeries Apex M500 keyboard, you will find a quick start guide and a few SteelSeries stickers, and this is it. A driver CD is nowhere to be found, but this is okay, since no one really installs anything from one anyway -- not to mention a lot of new systems are not even equipped with optical drives. The Apex M500 is not natively designed for a wrist wrest, nor is a detached one included. Actually, it is not even available for purchase from SteelSeries.
At first glance, like its predecessor, the 6Gv2, the SteelSeries Apex M500 is as down to earth as it gets. If you are looking for what the definition of a traditional keyboard is, look no further than this. With straight edges, no dedicated macro keys, and a practically reference layout, you will have to look pretty closely to see what makes the Apex M500 special. Indeed, there is nothing that really sets it apart, other than the fact this is a good old mechanical keyboard with real Cherry MX switches. Its platform beneath the keys is colored blue to give it a little more style. The textured plastic construction around the outer surfaces is comfortable to touch. There is no integrated wrist rest as aforementioned, and there is no specially designed accessory for it like the Apex M800 either. It is true there are a lot of mechanical keyboards that do not come with wrist rests, but there is a reason why I am such a big fan of the Fnatic Gear Rush G1, even if it did not score very highly in our review.
The SteelSeries Apex M500 measures in at 440.56mm width, 136.43mm depth, and 39.52mm height. This is about as compact as a standard QWERTY keyboard will go. To go along with its medium footprint and medium profile, the keyboard weighs about 1241g according to the manufacturer. This is pretty heavy, but this is expected from a mechanical keyboard. If you do not know what a mechanical keyboard is, there are three main types of keyboards in the market today. The cheapest is the membrane keyboard, which is the easiest to make, but also has poor typing feel and response due to squishy keys. A scissor switch keyboard has its own independent keyswitch mechanism for each key, which delivers improved tactile response and typing experience. Modern scissor switch keyboards can be very good for everyday office use. Mechanical keyboards such as the SteelSeries Apex M500 costs the most, because each keyswitch is an independent part.
Surprisingly, the Apex M500 with Cherry MX Red mechanical switches is pretty quiet during operation. This is probably due to its solid steel base plate design, making it to be much quieter than the Fnatic Gear Rush G1, even when equipped with identical switches. That said, it is not as quiet as the Apex M800 with the company's QS1 switches co-developed with Kailh. Cherry MX Red switches are relatively new -- introduced in 2008 -- and are basically lighter versions of the Cherry MX Black. Cherry MX Red, like the MX Black, is marketed as a gaming type switch. The maximum key travel distance is 4mm, with actuation at 2mm. With an actuation force of 45g in a completely linear fashion, it is about 15g lighter than the MX Black; generally speaking, the SteelSeries Apex M500 will feel very different than other non-mechanical keyboards. This keyswitch is desirable for gaming, because you will be bottoming out all the keys anyway, but the lack of the "bump" of the Cherry MX Red may not appeal to everyone. It is rated for fifty million operations like other Cherry MX switches. The steel reinforced base is rock solid and among the best I have seen, so you will not get any keyboard flex, which is excellent.
The SteelSeries Apex M500 is a full NKRO keyboard. NKRO stands for N-key rollover. If you have used keyboards with limited NKRO capabilities, you may have experienced ghosting issues in the past -- where when too many keys are pressed at the same time, your system unable to register any more strokes. A full NKRO keyboard like the SteelSeries Apex M500 overcomes this by independently polling each key, making all inputs detectable by the hardware, regardless of how many other keys are activated at the same time. This mean in the event you have every other key on your keyboard depressed, it will still register the last stroke. While this is a highly unlikely scenario, since you have only ten fingers, but this is as good as it will get.
Once you turn off the lights and activate the SteelSeries Apex M500's backlit keys, the keyboard really shines -- no pun intended. The font of the key labels is large and easy to read. The Apex M500 features full key backlighting, but in only one color, and that is blue. Backlight intensity or breathe speed can be adjusted on the fly by hitting the Function key along with the labeled F5 and F6 buttons in the F-key row to increase or decrease the level, respectively; depending on the current active illumination effect set in software. The backlight can be turned off completely as well. I found it rather strange you cannot switch illumination effects without opening the SteelSeries Engine 3 program. That aside, I am a big fan of fully backlit keyboards, and I am happy the company designed the Apex M500 with this feature. On the other hand, while I do not expect SteelSeries Apex M800 kind of light show, a few more user configurable color options would be nice. Thankfully, blue is a pretty calm color, so it is not distracting at night, unless you use breathe mode. But let us be honest here -- breathe mode is annoying even during the day, so I have no real complaints in this regard.
The SteelSeries Apex M500's key illumination distribution is not very even. For keys with more than one line of text label, you will notice the top half is significantly brighter than the bottom half. This is due to physical design limitations of Cherry MX switches, as you can see in our photo above. This is no different than any other backlit keyboard with Cherry MX switches, but this can usually be avoided by avoiding double line text labels as much as possible.
The F keys at the top converts into specialized feature keys when the SteelSeries key, which is basically a rebranded Function key, is depressed at the same time. Starting from F5 and ending in F12, in that order, we have Backlight Decrease, Backlight Increase, Skip Back, Play/Pause, Skip Forward, Mute, Volume Up, and Volume Down. All keys are designed to work out of the box, and do not require any software -- software is required only to modify settings. When used with SteelSeries Engine 3 and an active account, all settings are stored in the cloud for you, which, in my opinion, is a decent alternative to having internal memory to store settings. However, it would not hurt to have both for those who plan to use it with PCs without SteelSeries Engine 3 installed.
Almost everything here is pretty standard in terms of layout, with a few additions. I am a big fan of the single row Enter key layout, as present on our US QWERTY SteelSeries Apex M500. Keyboards with a double row Enter key usually means the "\" button is moved to the left side of the right "Shift" key; reducing the size of the latter. I am more used to having a full width Shift on the right, and a half height Enter. Obviously, this is more or less personal preference, but having a half height Enter key makes a lot more sense to me.
Three standard plus one custom indicator LED corresponding to Num Lock, Caps Lock, Scroll Lock, and Win Lock, respectively, can be found at the upper right hand corner. They glow blue when activated, just like its backlight color. When Win Lock mode is on, the Windows key is disabled. This is an important feature in any gaming keyboard, because let us face it: How many times have you tried to duck in your favorite FPS while engaging an enemy, only to be killed instantly, because you missed the "Ctrl" key and your game was minimized? To prevent any keyboard rage, SteelSeries has you covered.
At the back of the SteelSeries Apex M500 is the USB cable lead out. A couple of pre-attached Velcro straps helps you to keep things neat and tidy. The cable is not detachable from the keyboard, but an integrated cabling guide allows you to route it out either from the left, middle, or right of the back of your Apex M500. This nicely braided cable extends 2.0m in length to connect to your computer via a standard, non-gold plated USB connector. When we bring about the question of whether gold plated connectors are actually useful or not, let us just say if it was the actual pins, then possibly -- since gold offers better conductivity than other metals. This theoretically establishes a better connection with your computer, but on a digital signal level, we must understand it is a discrete one or zero; so if anyone tells you they can tell the difference, you can definitely defeat their theory with a double blinded test. Additionally, if you are referring to the gold part of the connector you see on the plug, I would like to point out it actually does not make any physical contact electrically with your computer. In other words, it is nice to have, and it is pretty to look at, but it is not anything significant on a practical level. The lack of a gold plated USB connector will not have any performance impact on the SteelSeries Apex M500.
At the bottom are three rubber pads at the back and two rubber coated riser bases in front to help the Apex M500 stay in place during intense gaming sessions. The two flip-out risers at the front tilts the keyboard up for those who prefer it. Once flipped out, the same rubber is still making contact with your desk, which is a good design. The SteelSeries Apex M500 is a pretty heavy keyboard by itself; great to keep it in its place during intense gaming sessions. No keyboard drain holes are available, so be sure to keep your Coca-Cola far away.
The SteelSeries Apex M500 is managed by the familiar SteelSeries Engine software; the same program used for all the latest hardware from the company. Upon installation, it will automatically update your keyboard firmware to the latest version. Here, you can custom tune options like keyboard polling rate, illumination effect, and custom macro combinations. SteelSeries Engine 3 is refined and easy to use, with a clean and intuitive interface.
Once the SteelSeries Apex M500 is selected from the main hardware devices menu, a new window will pop up to allow you play around with settings on your keyboard. Here, you can configure as many profiles as you like, which synchronizes to the cloud with your SteelSeries account. Any individual key can be programmed to do virtually anything. This includes recording macros, function as a regular keyboard key, mouse button, media control, or launch application. Our screenshot above shows pretty much everything there is. On the right, you can configure the lighting effects. This includes three levels of brightness, plus 'off' (Although if you use the increase/decrease brightness buttons on your keyboard, you will get four levels of brightness, plus 'off' -- strange), change the illumination effect to "breathe" instead of "steady", adjust the polling rate, and set your keyboard region. There are not a whole lot of configurations options on the Apex M500, being a good old down-to-earth mechanical keyboard, and this may actually be a good thing. The only downside is you cannot switch profiles on-the-fly using hardware buttons.
If there is anyone who knows how to make a good gaming product, it will have to be SteelSeries. But what is "good"? The definition of a good gaming product is as broad as saying what makes a good soft drink -- it really depends on what you are looking for. For some people, it will have to be the bells and whistles normal products do not have. For others, it will have to be the intrinsic elements of the product itself. For SteelSeries, it is about having all their bases covered. If you want a no-expenses-spared mechanical keyboard with unmatched lighting effects and a unique feel, the company has the Apex M800. If you want a down-to-earth mechanical keyboard with original Cherry MX Red switches for a moderate price of $100, the Apex M500 is what they offer. As a diehard OEM Cherry loyalist, how is SteelSeries' 6Gv2 successor? Well, you will get the usual full NKRO support, media control function keys, and full key backlighting. What really stood out to me, however, was it was much quieter than other keyboards equipped with Cherry MX Red switches. Its actuation profile is still the same, but I think this can be attributed by its solid steel backplate design. As a SteelSeries product, you can configure it using the Engine 3 software, which, in my opinion, is one of the best, if not the best, in the industry. The interface is not only smooth and visually appealing, but it is also powerful and easy to use. Cloud profile synchronization is also a very nice feature to have, although you cannot switch profiles on-the-fly with hardware buttons. One thing to note is the backlight is available in a single color only, with very primitive lighting effects. Admittedly, I do not use anything other than the standard steady glow, and thankfully, the color is blue, which is less distracting at night. With that in mind, in my opinion, the biggest downside to the SteelSeries Apex M500 is its lack of wrist rest. I love down-to-earth keyboards with OEM Cherry MX keys, and the Apex M500 is exactly that, with great configuration software to boot. But its lack of wrist rest is quite a big deal to me. I do not believe it is that expensive to include one for those who want it, and for those who do not, no one is forcing them to use it, right?
SteelSeries 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 7.1/10
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 SteelSeries Apex M500 is a good old down-to-earth backlit mechanical keyboard featuring OEM Cherry MX Red switches with a twist: It is much quieter than other keyboards equipped with the same switch type.
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