SteelSeries have been carving out an increasingly large niche within the PC Gaming peripheral market, and their latest flagship product, the Apex M800, aims to show why. A high-end mechanical keyboard aimed squarely at the likes of Corsair and Razer’s most expensive offerings. Massively customisable in both form and function, how does it stack up?
An M800 was provided for this review
When it arrived, the first thing that struck me was how heavy it was. This is one hefty keyboard, that isn’t going to be easily nudged off your desk. The build quality is very good for a plastic keyboard, although I’d have liked to have seen it have some sort of metal frame given the high price tag (more on that later). Minor grumble aside, the overall construction is excellent, complete with a USB2.0 hub on the back, and a nice cutaway on the underside of the keyboard to allow cables to be routed under the main body of it for anything you plug into the back. It’s a neat little touch that helps keep your desk nice and tidy.
The keys themselves feel extremely responsive. With a custom designed QS1 key switch, the M800 has one of the lowest-profile actuations and throws for a keyboard on the market, at 1.5mm and 3mm respectively. In theory, this allows for fast, accurate typing, and SteelSeries say that there is no ghosting with the keyboard at all, allowing for 256 simultaneous presses. (Which is impressive, given that there aren’t that many keys!) This has proven true to life for me, with absolutely zero missed keystrokes in all of the time that I’ve been using it. There are raised points on the W key as well as the traditional F and J keys, allowing you to easily find your way back to the movement keys even if the backlight has been turned off. The oversized space bar is a little odd to look at, but feels incredibly natural once you start using it, and as a result becomes much more reachable with your thumb when your fingers are on the WASD keys.
Onto those QS1 switches. Custom designed by SteelSeries, the QS1 requires the same level of actuation pressure as a lot of other keyboards on the market, but with a much lower point of actuation. As promised, this allows the M800 to deliver on its promise of fast and accurate typing, whether it’s in the heat of a game, or whilst typing out a review. Unlike a lot of mechanical keyboards, the M800 does not give much of an audible “click” when using it. Personally, I really like how it feels under the hand and really like the quieter output it provides. The shorter throw and actuation make it a lot easier to use for extended periods of time, and it could quite easily become a primary keyboard for every day use as well as extended gaming sessions. As well as the switch’s typing functionality, the LEDs that provide backlight are positioned centrally on each individual key.
After downloading and installing the SteelSeries Engine 3 software, the customisation of the M800 begins. Engine 3 is a fantastic piece of software that gives you a full graphical overview of your entire keyboard, and allows you to alter both the function and the detail of the backlight for each individual key. In addition to the regular set of keys, there are 6 dedicated macro keys along the left hand side. It takes a little bit of time to get used to them being there, particularly if you’re moving from a keyboard that has no extra features, but they are very useful things to have. Most impressively of all, you can set up a set of customised key layouts for individual applications that will launch when you launch individual applications. Want to have your WASD keys lit green for an FPS, with your gadgets down the side, only to have your active keys pulse red whilst playing the Witcher 3? You can do it. It’s as though you’ve got a brand new keyboard for every single application if that’s what you want. The custom options for the Apex M800 are literally limitless, and it’s incredibly easy to create your own setups thanks to just how easy it is to use the Engine 3 software. There is even an option in there to allow you to play the classic “Lights Out” game on the number pad, and even play everyone’s favourite Nokia phone game Snake on the full keyboard if you get bored.
With a recent update, the M800 has also gained the ability to tap into games (and vice versa) to provide at-a-glance feedback on the keys themselves. Currently the only games that support this feature are Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Minecraft, both games I don’t really play, but SteelSeries promise that the API is open source and available to developers. Titled GameSense, the API allows developers to display in-game metrics on the keyboard itself. For example, with CS:GO, the Function keys light up blue, and display your ammo level. The more shots you fire, the less the keys light up. The number keys display your health, and not only do the lights turn off the more health you lose, the ones that remain lit will turn from green to red as well. It’s a cool concept, but the question is there as to who looks at the keyboard when playing games such as CS:GO.
The main drawback with the M800 is the price point. The cheapest I can find it is £145, which really is quite a bit. However, if you’re looking at picking up a high-end keyboard, the price point shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
The SteelSeries Apex M800 is a superb mechanical keyboard, whose QS1 switches straddle the line between the feel of traditional Cherry MX switches and the quiet nature of a membrane keyboard perfectly. With virtually unlimited customisation options, SteelSeries have produced a serious contender in the highly competitive gaming keyboard market at the top end, and can surely only improve things through advances in the SteelSeries Engine 3 software. The only two quibbles I have with it are the fact that it has a plastic construction (even though it is really sturdy) and that price tag. However, if you’re willing to drop some serious cash on your peripherals, it’s really hard not to recommend the M800.