In the world of technology there’s some expensive stuff available to gamers, and choosing between it all is no easy task. Today I’m taking a look at one of those expensive things, the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 keyboard from Mad Catz which boasts some cool ideas. It’s also the little brother to the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7, which costs around £70 more. For that money the big difference between the two is that the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 features a touch-screen, nicknamed VENOM. So, let’s take a look at this cheaper version, and see if it’s worth spending a hell of a lot of money on.
Note: henceforth the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 shall be referred to in this review as the S5, simply because I have no desire to keep typing that awkward name. And Mad Catz, please stop giving your products names with so many full stops. For my sake? Please. Pretty please, with a cherry on top?
Let’s get some basics out of the way. Inside the box you will find:
- Main Keyboard Module
- Control Module with OLED display plus 3.5mm Headset & Microphone Ports
- Macro Key (Function Strip) Module
- Number Pad Module
- 3 Palm/Wrist Rests
- Adjustment Tool
- 3 Keyboard Link Cables
- 6 Connector Screws
And the keyboard is compatible with:
- Windows 8
- Windows 7
- Windows Vista
- Windows XP
To operate the S5 keyboard to its fullest potential you’ll need to use corresponding software and drivers which sadly don’t come on a disc packaged inside the box, so you’ll need to head online and download them or, um, liberate a friend’s computer if you have no Internet connection, download the stuff and then transfer it to your own PC via a storage drive. Obviously do make sure that your friend is out when you use his computer and that you leave no evidence of you having broken into his or house. Or, of course, you could just ask to use your friend’s computer, but frankly that’s far less interesting and wouldn’t make for an amusing headline. Obviously these days pretty much the entire gaming populace is permanently plugged in to the Internet so that they never miss a single Tweet, so the fact that the software isn’t included in the box is hardly a big deal, but I still feel it’s worth mentioning just in case.
So just how easy, or hard, is this software malarkey to operate, then? Well, let’s go through the tabs one by one and investigate this properly. First tab up is the lighting tab, which is a pretty self-explanatory name, so if you’re unsure as to what it does then you might want to consider abandoning all hope right about….now. From here you can tweak the color of the LED lighting of your keyboard to your liking from a choice of 16-million hues – in my case it’s usually kept on red because (fun fact time) red is the only color that doesn’t affect your night vision, but on occasion I switched it to green so I could pretend I was on a Borg ship. Don’t worry, the LED lighting can be turned off at the push of a button if you’re not a fan of such flashiness or if you want to simply watch a movie. Next is the programming tab where you can choose the functions of each of the 21-programmable keys spread across the board and set up any macros that you want to use. Speaking of the macros each one can be programmed with timed and delayed key presses and limited mouse actions. Programming keys is pretty simple stuff, and as you would imagine you can program them for pretty much any action, including mouse clicks. The final tab we need to cover is the launcher tab which allows you to set up what applications and programs the OLED unit (more on it further in to the review) can launch. Using the software you can also set up an infinite amount of profiles, provided you’ve got infinite storage space, obviously. Three of these can be accessed quickly via the profile swap buttons on the keyboard, and different lighting can be set up for each in case you need a visual reminder of which one is which.
All in all the software isn’t anything special. It doesn’t present a great aesthetic look, but it does it’s job, though it could hardly be called intuitive by any means as there’s a few sections of it that could have been done a touch better. Still, if you ever do get stuck with anything there’s ample amounts of help to be found on Google, which has now become the font of all human knowledge.
Before I get into the performance and start picking the S5 apart piece by piece to see what works and what doesn’t, let’s take just a moment to stop and talk about the looks and overall build quality. There’s obviously plenty of pictures adorning this page so you can make up mind about whether it’s pleasing to the eye or not yourself, but I still want to chat about it quickly. The design is angular, bordering on what could be arguably described as sci-fi, especially with its backlit LEDs which give the impression that the keys are actually floating on a layer of light. It’s a visual design which I feel is going to be quite divisive, much like MadCatz’s entire Cyborg range, though I must commend the consistent styling across the products. Personally, I quite like it, mostly because it gives me that feeling of sitting behind the launch controls of a NASA rocket due to head off into orbit, or of being at the helm of a spaceship designed in the not-so-far future. Yes, I’m a sci-fi lover. The build quality of the entire unit is also solid, though I would expect it to be so with a price-tag like the S5 has. Nothing feels like it’s going to break or develop problems any time soon, and rest assured I’ve certainly been putting it through its paces – it’s been used not only for gaming but also for general work, meaning a load of typing and general abuse, for about three weeks now. Be warned, though, the S5 attracts dust like a freaking magnet, and the black finish marks pretty easily, too. Yes, those are very small nitpicks, I know. But to some people these things matter. Strange people, but people nonetheless.
The big selling point on the box of the S5 is its unique modular design, meaning it comes packaged in several pieces that can be put together in a total of five different layouts, allowing you to customise the whole thing to your liking. So exactly how is it divided up? Well, to begin with the main keyboard is split in to two pieces, the divide being between the return key and the directional arrows, so you’ve got the QWERTY section as one chunk and the NumPad as the other. There are a total of three different palm/wrist rests in the box, one of which has a nifty scroll wheel and thumb button, but we’ll come back to that later in far more detail. Then there’s a set of side buttons and the OLED E.Y.E., which is the unit standing at an angle at the back of the keyboard in the pictures. The only limitation is that your chosen configuration of parts must include the OLED unit as it’s used to provide power to the rest of the keyboard via braided cables which plug-in to the back of the main keyboard sections, with a single USB connection to your PC. Don’t worry about cluttered cables, though, the whole thing is pretty tidy, and in a nice move Mad Catz have included different cable lengths for use with the various different configurations.
When it comes to connecting all the pieces together it’s really pretty simple. The initial setup took me around 20-minutes, but that was mostly due to me taking my time and examining everything as I went along. The two sections of the main board hook together, while the OLED unit slides into the back of either piece and has an angled, fold-out support. Both the QWERTY and NumPad boards also have fold-out angled supports. The side buttons (I honestly have no better name for them) also hook on to either piece of the main board as well. The S5 also comes with screws and an Allen key which can be used to more securely connect all the pieces together if you think it’s required, though in my personal experience the entire unit fits together pretty well, the only exception being the side buttons which feel very loose. As for the palm/wrist rests, they’re a little different as they use a clip system which quickly proved to be a pain in the arse. While they’re easy enough to connect to the keyboard getting them back off is a struggle, and I often felt like I was going to end up breaking the plastic nubs in my valiant efforts to free them from their tyrannical constraints, resulting in me leaving them alone as much as possible, which obviously goes against the whole modular design concept.
A modular keyboard is certainly an interesting idea, one that is, I believe, utterly unique within the industry, but the question is really whether it’s actually useful or just a cool gimmick with no real practical applications, and the answer is….uh, it’s a bit of both. Personally I never had much of a reason to use anything but the default ( as I call it) configuration, which is to say the entirety of the parts fitted together to create one super-keyboard! However, having said that I did find the ability to take the keyboard apart and change the layout useful at times. For example when I was doing some heavy research and had my desk absolutely covered in books I found it handy to be able to remove the section of keyboard with the directional arrows so that I could fit the QWERTY section the keyboard on the desk and still type everything out that I needed to. I also found myself using what I nicknamed the FPS configuration quite a bit. In this layout I’d attach the OLED unit to the section of keyboard with the directional arrows, fit the side buttons and then use the adjustable palm rest with the scroll wheel and thumb button, creating a fairly small game-pad of sorts. So, in short, it is something of a gimmick but it can also have genuine practical applications.
I’d like to take this moment to quickly talk about the size of this beast. The main two pieces of the keyboard alone are a good few inches longer than your standard keyboard, and the side-button segment adds another inch or so to that as well. With the palm/wrist rests and OLED unit attached it’s also considerably wider than a normal keyboard. So those with very limited space may want to keep this in mind.
For the sake of this review I pondered for a while how best to actually talk about the S5, and eventually I reached the conclusion that it would probably make the most sense to chat about each piece of the keyboard individually, before commenting on it as a whole. So lets start with the OLED E.Y.E. module, since it’s the heart of the entire system, and in many ways encapsulates the overall theme of the S5: Cool features, of which only some are practical.
On the left-hand side is the aptly named E.Y.E. which lets you quickly launch applications and also comes with several built-in features, such as a timer, alarm, volume adjuster and clock. Navigating through the E.Y.E.’s small visual display is done through a combination of using the twist dial on the E.Y.E. itself and the directional arrows on the left-hand side, all of which feel quite nice to use and make selecting anything simple. And as a nice visual touch the logo of whatever applications you have assigned to the unit show up on the middle of the E.Y.E. The obvious problem with the OLED module is really the same problem with most of the keyboard: practicality. Sure, it can launch your applications with the turn of a dial and the click of a button, but you’re just as fast and efficient launching them the normal way. The thing is, though, that I found myself using the E.Y.E. launcher anyway, simply because I could and because it felt cooler than just double clicking on things. Some of the other features are a bit more useful in a practical sense, though, such as the clock, which I appreciated having when I was in the middle of a game and losing track of time. The respawn timer is also kind of useful, as is the volume control. In the centre of the unit you’ll find your media controls, comprising of stop, pause, mute, fast forward, rewind and play buttons. Again, on a practical level this isn’t all that useful since you’ll have easy access to all of these things in whatever media player you’re using, but once again I found myself using them just because I could. On the right hand side of the unit you’ll find the largest collection of programmable buttons on the entire S5 – nine in total, to be precise. As somebody who doesn’t play MMOs I didn’t find myself using these all that much as there was never any need, but I still very much appreciated having them available in the few instances where I did have a requirement for more keys, as I’m sure MMO players will too. Having said that the location and angle of them does mean they’re not the easiest or most comfortable to use as you obviously have to take your hands off the main body of the keyboard to get to them, and since the buttons are fairly small it’s pretty easy to hit the wrong one in the heat of the moment. The keys themselves also feel a bit flimsy in comparison to the rest of the S5. Rounding off the OLED unit there’s three buttons along the top right for changing profiles and then there’s two buttons the on the far right, one for turning on and off keyboard illumination and the other for turning on and off the Windows key lock so that you don’t accidentally press it during a game and send yourself back to the desktop with an embarrassed look on your face. Oh, and as a nice bonus there’s also two audio ports at the back of the OLED module, one for your headphones and one for your microphone.
Next up is the main body of the keyboard, which contains the biggest surprise: the keys don’t have mechanical switches, rather they’re membrane. While many elite gamers loudly declare mechanical to be far superior I’ve always viewed the choice between mechanical and membrane as personal preference, though I certainly wouldn’t argue that on a purely technical level mechanical switches are better, offering incredibly fast response times and a longer lifespan. At this price-point it is highly surprising to see a keyboard that doesn’t sport mechanical switches as that’s what the majority of gamers willing to spend lots of money are after. Despite this the keyboards response time is mighty impressive. It’s still not as fast as a good mechanical board, but to be completely honest nobody but the highest caliber of gamer would notice the difference in day to day gaming. By membrane standards the tactile feel of the keys is very nice, with an audible, light click to every stroke, requiring a nice 60g of actuation force. They’re clearly designed to mimic Cherry Browns, and in that respect do so quite well. The squishiness that membrane is known for is still present, but only to a small degree and is certainly nowhere near as bad as cheaper products. Aside from gaming the S5 also feels pretty nice for typing, though again it all comes down to personal preference. Simply said I liked the feel of the keys on the S5, but not everyone will. Other than that the spacebar has an extended lip making it easier to hit with your thumb while gaming or typing. It’s a small, simple detail but one that I’m still very appreciative of. situated around the directional keys are a further five programmable keys. As an FPS game who prefers using the directional keys these programmable buttons were of the things I loved most about the S5, and I also appreciated the fact that they sat lower the surrounding keys to make it easier to differentiate between them and to help stop you accidentally pressing them and activating a macro or something.
Then there’s the side buttons. This is a small piece made up of five programmable buttons which can be attached to the left-hand side of either piece of the main keyboard. Again, it’s always nice to have programmable buttons at your disposal. My own personal biggest use for these was when I was using the FPS configuration where I had them programmed to act as the return key and other practical functions. The only real complaint here is the same one I mentioned earlier, which is that it’s connection is a little loose without screws, or at least on the unit I’m testing it is.
Finally, we come to the wrist/palm rests. Two of these are just simple pieces of hard plastic that can be fitted to the keyboard for comfort and can also be extended out so that you can find the optimal positioning. They do their job well enough, apart from the issue I mentioned earlier with getting the damn things off again, but I would have liked to have seen padding on them for extra comfort. The third rest is by far the most interesting. Firstly it sports, in addition to the same extension ability as the other two rests, a height adjustment feature, allowing you to have it either flat or raised at about a 20-degree angle, depending on preference. It also features a metal scroll wheel and red button, both of which are positioned so that they should fall under your thumb quite naturally. I did find these quite useful when gaming and using them felt comfortable. In particular I liked mapping grenades to the red thumb button or sometimes melee, depending on the game, and used the scroll wheel for various things such as changing weapons or scrolling through webpages.
We do need to talk about the elephant in the room, though, and that’s the price-tag of a whopping £180. For that kind of money you can pick up a cheap and cheerful new 32” TV, or even a car! Not a very good car, obviously, but a car nonetheless. It’s a terrifying RRP, enough to make even those in pretty well-paying jobs flinch. And it’s here where I need to put the brakes own and provide transparency: I didn’t buy this keyboard. I didn’t pay a £180 for it. In fact it came in for review from the nice people at MadCatz, and therefore I’m really the last person to try to judge value. So, let me try to break it down. Would I buy this? No. Purely, though, because I never have a spare £180 lying around the place with which to do so. If I did just have £180 lying around that I could spend without worry, then yes I probably would buy this, because I’m a geek that likes having cool toys, and that’s essentially what the S5 is – It’s the ultimate gaming geeks toy.
This is purely the kind of thing you buy simply because you want it, because it’s cool and techy and fun, not because it offers a lot of practical value for the money. It’s exactly like why at the age of 21 I have a toy lightsaber sitting on a shelf – it’s useless, impractical and stupid to everyone else, but to me it’s just a cool thing to have. If you want something that boasts actual practicality for gaming, features that will genuinely help you and enhance your gaming experience, then there’s plenty of other, much cheaper keyboards out there that offer programmable, mechanical keys, which are the two main benefits that sensible people are looking for. But if you want something fun, flashy, and just plain cool then the S5 is for you. It offers up quite a few real practical benefits, but to get those you’ll need to pay quite a bit for the less practical but still awesome stuff. It’s a geeks toy, it really is, and as a proud gaming geek I’m more than happy to say that I love it.
To put it more simply, sensible people who are careful with their cash and are looking for a high level of practicality for as little as possible should probably steer clear of Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 5. For everyone else, it’s like something out of a freakin’ spaceship that offers great response, good tactile feel, programmable keys, a modular design and lots of cool stuff. What’s not to like about that? It’s the toy lightsaber of the keyboard world.
+ Great response.
+ Nice feeling keys.
+ Just plain cool.
+ 21-programmable keys.
– Hefty price.
– Lots of features that aren’t practical.
– It’s not mechanical.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Programmable keys, great response, good tactile feeling and a modular design are the main practical things that the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 offers. Everything else is bells and whistles – things that aren’t needed, but are completely awesome to have. It’s a geeks toy, and that should tell you everything you need to know about it.