By: Jeremy To (Debut Review)
With bits added by Preston Yuen
February 18, 2011
The world of gaming, especially that of PC gaming, has become more than a simple hobby for a lot of us. In fact, gaming has grown and shaped itself, becoming part of people's lifestyle. Tournaments, from the World Cyber Games (WCG) to the famous GSL tournaments, have made gaming a fascination to viewers, fans, and gamers alike. I myself have devoted countless hours to this world of gaming, and by no means do I consider this time wasted. It becomes more than a hobby, and slowly, it transforms into a passion that can be greatly admired by other gaming enthusiasts. When I was asked to review the official keyboard of the WCG tournament of 2010 -- Tt eSPORTS Challenger Pro -- I could not help but feel my passion burn with excitement. Being the first keyboard to come out with a cooling fan, chills were sent down my back at the pure creativity of Thermaltake's long standing tradition of keeping things cool. Spending my sweet week and a half with one of the newest and most compelling of all gamer keyboards has allowed me to view the world of gaming in an entirely new fashion. That is right, ladies and gentle-readers. This single gaming peripheral has changed my perspective of PC gaming and brought something much more to be either praised or condemned. Itching to find out what became of my thoughts? Read on to find out!
Three review units, all of which are branded under the Tt eSPORTS series, including the Challenger Pro gaming keyboard (Reviewed by yours truly today), the Meka G1 mechanical gaming keyboard, and the Black gaming mouse, came in two separate boxes from Thermaltake's office down south in California, USA. How exciting! Handled by UPS, the two boxes arrived at our office in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in excellent condition; they had the usual bruise here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary to be overly concerned about.
The retail box of the Challenger Pro carries on the red-black theme nicely, which is a consistent color trend seen throughout the brand of Thermaltake. With regards to the eSPORTS series, the retail boxes encompass an armored-like metallic background, making the box theme for this particular sub-brand one of a kind. In maintaining the gaming atmosphere, the box implants the keyboard boldly on the front angling slightly away from us. Some of the key features are placed to the right of the keyboard, giving this box an overall balanced appearance. With regards to the physical design, Thermaltake has made a front flap, the inside of which describes the keyboard in a more detailed fashion. The backside of the box provides they key features stated in multiple languages. Like its appearance, the box is durable and can withstand quite a beating without its contents being damaged.
Once opened, a travel bag is revealed, which contains the Tt eSPORTS Challenger Pro sheltered with a plastic carrier in order for it to stay safe and unharmed. The travel bag is particularly nice, giving extra convenience to those who spend a lot of their time traveling to LAN parties or similar events -- or even those who enjoy a dust free keyboard after a short time in storage. Under the travel bag is a small pouch, revealing several extra red keycaps, keycap dummies, and a keycap puller. Also placed snug under the travel bag is a bag with the cooling fan and USB cord. Finally, a small package unveils several miscellaneous items, including the user's manual, software CD-ROM, and warranty policy information. The Challenger Pro, branded under Thermaltake's Tt eSPORTS, first arrived as a repackaged product with a few key components missing, namely the cooling fan and its detachable USB cable (The fan uses a generic digital camera USB cable). Fortunately, Thermaltake sent out a new replacement review unit, and this time everything we would expect was included inside the box.
Before we go any further, let's briefly look at the features and specifications of this keyboard, obtained from the product packaging as well as from the manufacturer's website:
- Red Illuminated Back Light: Red illuminated back light design simulates the true-to-life gaming atmosphere
- 2 × 2.0 USB Ports: Provide easy usage of other USB peripherals. Each USB port supports up to 100mA
- Macro Keys: Program the combined actions in a quick ‘T’ button to make a move ahead of other gamers
- Multimedia Keys: Instant access to multimedia function for quick audio control
- 64KB On Board Memory: Storage of up to 40 macro keys for action, shooting, RPG, strategy games
- On Board Profile Switch: On board profile switch to engage for instant game changes
- Back Light Switch: Back light switch allows gamers to choose the different levels of lighting depending on the mood
- Fan Device: Cooling fan not only keeps your hand dry and provides comfortable gaming experience
- Windows Dummy Keys: Enclosed with two Windows keys to disable the function; prevent from jumping out of the game by accident
- Smart Cable Management with Detachable Cable Design: Protects cable from damage to improper use, for easy storage and cable protection
- 8 Additional Removable Keycaps: Additional W, A, S, D and four directional arrow keys for durable gaming alternative
- Interface: USB
- Operational Systems: Windows 7/Vista/XP
- Number of Macro Keys: 10
- Number of Multimedia Keys: 6
- 2.0 USB port: 2
- Switch Lifecycle: 10 Millions
- Cable Length: 2m
- Body dimension (L×W×H): 505×195×27mm
Hand Cooling Fan Specification
- Fan Speed: 6,000 RPM(±15%)
- Max. airflow: 2.7CFM
- Noise level: 21.7dB
- Rate voltage: DC 5.0V
- Life expectancy: 50,000 HRS
- Body dimension (L×W×H): 30×30×10mm
In terms of physical appeal, I would argue that the Challenger Pro is probably one of the most edgy-futuristic gaming keyboards on the market. The angular design featured throughout the keyboard -– although it may have no functionality other than aesthetic appeal -– makes this keyboard one of a kind. Many small design elements are used, like the slanted macro keys that enhance the Challenger Pro's look, making the Challenger Pro seem as if it was intended to become a piece of technological art.
As for the keyboard layout, the Challenger Pro more or less covers the standard QWERTY format, apart from a few differences seen on the production keys, multimedia section, as well as its macro keys. One thing to take note regarding this keyboard is the keycap design and typing feel. Keycap designs on most keyboards nowadays are fairly boxy, both vertically and horizontally, so that they are almost cube-like. However, the keycaps featured on the Challenger Pro are similar to the design of laptops, where the keycap vertical length is shorter and more angled as well as being thinner than the typical cubed shape. In my opinion, this design works well as it not only complements the keyboard's sleek appearance, but allows my fingers to glide over the keys when typing or gaming.
On the lower part of the keyboard lies the Tt logo and palm rest. The logo is stylish, and once plugged in, it lights up in neon red, showcasing the keyboard's color theme. Its angular design, seen on many parts of the keyboard, adds to the overall physical appeal. However, when used for prolong periods of time, your wrists will start to hurt as the palm rest does not provide enough support. It is only good to look at, in my opinion. It would be greatly appreciated if Thermaltake had implemented an extended palm rest. Even a convenient detachable palm rest would be a great addition. I noticed that my palms were resting on the table most of the time, and therefore, there was really no functional use for the palm rest, aside from the odd glance at the logo to lighten my mood.
Flipping the Tt eSPORTS Challenger Pro over displays nothing special in particular. The standard rubber footholds to secure the keyboard in its place are found as well as the usual two keyboard risers. However, after using this keyboard for some time, I did notice a small drawback. In every keyboard, I assume that the rubber footholds and risers will complement each other, meaning the rubber footholds will always hold the keyboard in its place even when the risers are in use. With the Challenger Pro, however, the keyboard would at times slide away from my hands during long periods of intense typing. Nevertheless, this problem may not be too much of an issue when gaming, since I noticed my hands would be gliding over the keys instead of being situated in one position.
As mentioned in the specifications above, the dimensions of the keyboard measures 505mm in length, 195mm in width, and 27mm in height. The keyboard is longer than most conventional keyboards mainly because of the extra macro and miscellaneous functions.
When I come across any gaming keyboard, I immediately look towards the macro keys. Why, you may ask? Well, the answer is quite simple: Because they help me macro better, duh. Of course, if you have never utilized macro keys, or do not even have a clue as to what macro keys are, then my answer does a horrible job of answering your question. In short, a macro key allows any user to bind a certain key combination into a single key. For example, your keyboard has two macro keys. You bind your first macro key as 'Alt+F4' and your second macro key as 'Ctrl+Alt+Del'. The results of your binds will allow you to use the 'Alt+F4' command by pressing the first macro button and the 'Ctrl+Alt+Del' combination with the second macro key.
Looking at the macro key setting of any keyboard, I have noticed that the number of keys is almost never the issue, but the position or location of the keys is. In fact, where the macro keys are located is so important that it generally determines whether a gamer will even consider purchasing the keyboard, if he decides to utilize them. Say, for example, as a StarCraft player, you are looking to bind potential macro possibilities with your new gaming keyboard. Building a 'supply depot' is the combination 'b+s', which is fairly close and in relative proximity to where your left hand would be positioned in most Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. But, if your keyboard's macro-set is built at an inconvenient location, where pressing 'b+s' is faster than changing your entire hand position to utilize that macro key, then your keyboard would actually be making your gameplay more inefficient.
So how does the Challenger Pro fare against such demanding gaming standards? In my opinion, it is a definite pass. The Challenger Pro includes a total of ten macro keys, labeled from T1 to T10. It isn't the number of keys, but rather the innovative positioning that is conducive for macro intensive gamers like me. In this case, Thermaltake has decided to get creative by constructing two different macro sections on the keyboard -- T1 to T5 on the left side, and T6 to T10 on the right. With this positioning, gamers will find it difficult to criticize the positioning in terms of a left-right perspective. Also, by spreading the keys out by at least a distance of one centimeter, the macro keys cover almost the entire vertical portion of the keyboard, which in my opinion, is almost picture-perfect vertical positioning. Users will rarely miss use their macro keys and will also find it quite easy to exercise them in almost any situation. In addition, what the Challenger Pro does that adds to the overall 'wow' factor is the macro key sections being lower than the rest of the keys, and thus, creating a natural division. Physically making all the macro keys lower also allows gamers to distinguish between the sections of the keyboard not by sight, but by feel while making the keyboard look spectacular as a secondary function. However, no matter how perfect the positioning, the macro keys are not without its flaw -- that is, the feeling of the keys. In this particular case, I can understand the reasoning behind this design decision. Thermaltake most definitely wanted to heighten the world of macro keys, and in many ways, they did. However, in their last attempt at creating the perfect set of macro keys, they decided to change the feeling of these keys from the rest of the keyboard. There may be good reasoning and good intentions behind these decisions, but the results atrocious. The keys are so stiff that when pressed, you would sometimes second guess yourself in thinking that the key bottom was not reached. Don't you hate that? Other than this one flaw, the macro keys were most wonderful to work with. Binding the macro keys were effortless using the graphical interface program. Also, switching between the four different macro profiles was quite straightforward, and I will be going into more detail on that later.
We all love the idea of having absolute control at our finger tips. In this case, I am referring to the miscellaneous key functions that allow you to do a lot of miscellaneous... stuff. First of all, looking towards the upper right side of the keyboard, we see the well-loved and well-received multimedia keys. Six of them, to be exact, include your standard play/pause, stop, skip backward, skip forward, volume up, and volume down. In regards to this set of keys, it would be nice if a volume meter or indicator was included. Not having one can be a little devastating if the volume was left on the highest setting, ouch. Also, my last suggestion would be to add a mute button. Not that it makes a huge difference to the overall performance towards the keyboard, but as stated before, we all love absolute control. To the right of the media controls sits the most electrifying key on this keyboard, in my opinion. This button, symbolized by a sun, commands the red illuminated under glow effect that is so needed for lighting the atmosphere. However, since this feature is so important, I'll give a detailed analysis of it later.
To the right of the sun button, dwells the one key that can determine a success or failure in any macro-intensive game, the macro profile changer. Pressing this button will allow you to cycle through four different macro profiles, each profile with ten macro keys summing to a total of 40 macro possibilities. The keyboard's 64KB onboard memory allows the user to store all 40 macro controls using the included software.
Looking to the left of the number pad, we see the usual set of production keys, using its traditional QWERTY layout. This stack consists of 2 rows of 3 columns with the first row consisting of the 'Ins', 'Home' and 'PgUp' keys, while the 'Del', 'End' and 'PgDn' key encompasses the second row. For those who are used to the Logitech layout -- since Logitech keyboards are so common -- which is 3 rows of 2 columns with the 'Del' key being twice as big, may be a problem as the efficiency in using the production keys may be hindered. I personally do not have a problem with the traditional key stack, as it seems more organized and in the case of the Challenge Pro, and it is more symmetrical. However, since I have been so used to the Logitech production key layout in the past few years, I found my efficiency being affected, especially when using the 'Del', 'PgUp', and 'PgDn' keys. So if you are currently using a Logitech keyboard, you can assume switching back to the traditional format seen on the Challenger Pro may require some time getting used to.
In the picture above, we see a component that is the first of its kind on any keyboard to date -– a hand cooling fan. At a first glance at the fan on the Thermaltake website, it looked a bit big and bulky. However, the fan turned out to be quite small. In fact, I'd have to say that in proportion to the entire keyboard, it's the perfect size. What I was most impressed though, was how well-built it seemed to be. The plastics used are most definitely not cheap, and every miniature component on the fan fits together nicely. Thermaltake also did an extraordinary job in protecting the user's fingers against the blades with the outer shell of the fan. Weighing around just 20g, it is surprisingly lightweight. Placing the fan in one of its two power stations is easy and requires no instructions. The fan turns on automatically so long the keyboard is plugged in. The fan is obviously very straightforward to use, because, well, it's just a fan.
Just a week ago, as I was discussing this keyboard with a few individuals, I got many different responses. A few were optimistic of the implementation of the fan, while a few rejected the idea of a fan, and a few thought the fan was too hardcore or overdone. So, after leaving the fan on for countless hours while using the Tt eSPORTS Challenger Pro keyboard, I came to a simple conclusion. It's quite comfortable! In fact, in long games or intensive typing sessions, the fan comes into handy as the small breeze cools and prevents any sweat from forming at your fingertips. The device is also incredibly quiet, allowing one to barely notice that it is even there. However, like most first models, the cooling fan is not without its shortcomings. First off, not having the ability to turn off the fan forces you to have to pull it out when you want it to be turned off. Also, I've noticed the spread of wind from the fan is quite limited. When the fan was pointed at my left hand, it would only cool off three or at most four fingers at a time. Yes, it was comfortable, but because only three or four fingers were being cooled, my hand started developing different temperatures.
In the upper center of the keyboard, we see a set of LED indicators that determines whether certain functions are turned on. This includes a '1' symbol for the number lock, an 'A' for the caps lock, an underlined arrow symbol for the scroll lock, and last but not least, a '1 2 3' symbol below some white boxes that indicate which macro profile is being used. All of these indicators shine a red light when the certain function is turned on, with the exception of the macro profile indicator. The macro indicator consists of four different colors; each color representing which profile you are using –- the first macro set being the color red, the second macro set being green, the third macro set being blue, and the fourth macro set being purple. By pressing the macro changer key, anyone can cycle through these four profiles with ease.
Also, just above the multimedia keys are the two 2.0 USB hubs. The hubs are placed at an easy and convenient location; an all-around useful tool to have on a keyboard. However, little did I know, the Challenger Pro added two USB hubs that could only support USB peripherals of up to 100mA of power. It would be helpful if the hubs could support a little more juice, but it's not something to be worried too much about if your computer has enough front USB ports.
Just above the macro profile changer is the USB cable connector. To the left of that is a nifty feature that allows the USB cable to feed through in order to not get tangled or damaged, which is awesome for those enthusiasts that condemn messy wiring. The detachable USB cable works very well with this smart cable management system, as it allows the connection between the plug in to remain safe from improper force while ensuring the connection between the keyboard and cable is not disrupted. The detachable USB cable is also braided which not only makes the wire more resistant to improper forces, but allows more flexibility in the cable to avoid tangled wires. Also, the connector of the USB cord is gold-plated which may allow better connectivity between the ports.
One of the most exciting physical features of this keyboard is most definitely the keycap replacement options. With the option of changing either your set of arrow keys, the WASD keys, or both as red keycaps, the keyboard gets an amazing paint job. Complementing the theme color once more, the Challenger Pro comes to life, looking remarkable and prepared to challenge anyone in any arrow or WASD intensive game. In a more functional analysis, knowing where your WASD keys are is always useful for those first person shooters. Other than that, the red keycaps will not affect your overall game play or experience all that much. It becomes just another one of those features you can use to boast about.
Another aspect of this keyboard is the Windows dummy key. By removing either of the windows key (one on the left and one on the right) you can replace these keys with the dummy key that will prevent you from accidentally jumping out in those critical moments of game play. Although the Challenger Pro gives you this option of placing a windows key dummy, I found it inconvenient at times. If you always utilized the left side windows key like me, but also found it useful to use the dummy key when you gamed, you became conflicted with a choice. That is, to either keep the dummy key on, keep the windows key on, or to continuously switch them, which was simply annoying.
Removing the keycaps is fairly easy using the provided keycap puller. At first, it was confusing as it didn't come with instructions, but after a short time of trial-and-error, it becomes painless to remove the keycaps.
Remember those keyboards that allowed you to play comfortably at night because of the backlight on the keycaps? Well, the Tt eSPORTS Challenger Pro introduces the illuminated under glow effect. In other words, backlight on steroids. Night gaming with this keyboard is more exhilarating then I can put into words. Sometimes, I would even find myself turning the lights off on purpose just because the under glow would get me more energized. I know...I need to get out more, haha. What is really amazing with this lighting feature is that every keycap, including the macro buttons, are outlined with this under glow adding to the performance of this keyboard, especially at 2:00AM in the morning. By seeing every outlined keycap, you are able to strike with absolute accuracy, which increases the pleasure of night gaming or last minute papers.
The backlight and under glow only has one color, which is red. This is to be expected since this keyboard focuses on the red-black theme. However, the solid sun key, described earlier, allows any user to cycle through three light intensities, and the fourth option being to turn the under glow off –- an option perfect for pleasing the energy sensitive parents.
The software provided with the Challenger Pro is the only way to get started with binding macro possibilities. The scroll-down options for each 'T' key allows any user to either set a custom key combination symbolized by the word 'MACRO', or use the interface's already preset commands: including 'CUT', 'COPY', 'PASTE', 'UNDO', 'ALL', 'FIND', 'NEW', 'PRINT', 'SAVE', and 'LAUNCH'. The customizable macro option also features a delay time choice, which would allow controlled time delays in each combination between each stroke. Also, by using this interface, every profile is first saved in the computer before uploading it onto the keyboard. With this in mind, any individual could literally have hundreds of profiles saved onto his/her computer, with a combination of four profiles uploaded at a time for a certain task, whether it is gaming, or a day to day functional use. In addition, the program has the option of changing the under glow lighting, and includes a timer used primarily for indicating the length at which you've been gaming, if you're one of those individuals who loses track of time occasionally.
If I had to compare the Challenger Pro to others, I would simply state that it's the Maserati of keyboards. Not as fast and expensive as the Ferrari, but just as exotic. It's good at what it's designed for. Priced around the 70 dollar mark MSRP during press time, this keyboard is reasonably priced of the higher-up gaming keyboards. The keyboard's features –- including a cooling fan, two USB hubs, ten macro keys, and the illuminated under glow -– will allow almost any gamer to be proud of the performance possibilities for such a price. Conversely, the keyboard's sliding rubber footholds, stiff macro keys, and unsporting palm rest at times question the capability of the keyboard when performing certain functions. So is this keyboard worth the price tag? In my opinion, it lives up to what the market wants. However, if you are looking for that keyboard that can be both great at gaming and also be practical in the sense of being well, a keyboard, then you might need to reconsider. Whether or not this keyboard is suited to your likings is ultimately determined by none other than the users themselves. At the end of the day though, in my opinion, the Tt eSPORTS Challenger Pro, in all its glory, will remain true to its word, "Challenge is the Game."
Thermaltake 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 aren't 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 7.5/10
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 Tt eSPORTS Challenger Pro is a great intermediate to professional gaming keyboard addition to your set of gaming peripherals.
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