Please note: the below is based upon extensive testing of a US QWERTY keyboard supplied as review material by Mad Catz UK - we have no reason to believe that the UK variant has any significant differences apart from the key layout
Mad Catz are well known for their funky ranges of gaming peripherals, most of which are aimed at the competitive and professional gamer scenes. From headsets to mice to gamepads Mad Catz have you covered, so it should come as no surprise that they also produce volumes of that most traditional of controllers, the keyboard. Following in the footsteps of the S.T.R.I.K.E.7 the newer S.T.R.I.K.E.5 offers you much of the same build quality and gaming options but for a price tag that is a little closer to affordable. Just a little mind, but it can offer a lot to the discerning gamer.
Starting with the unboxing, the S.T.R.I.K.E.5 comes in some excellent, albeit large packaging. As with many Mad Catz products the box is sturdy with logically arranged insides, allowing for relatively easy repackaging should you ever want to box it up and move it around. The sheer size of the packaging is due to one of the main features of the S.T.R.I.K.E.5 - as soon as you take the lid off of the box the modular nature of the keyboard is readily apparent, with the product coming arranged over three layers. Amazingly enough, this is where the ‘5’ in ‘S.T.R.I.K.E.5’ comes from – there are five main pieces to the keyboard which can accept some kind of input. There is also a split wrist rest, taking you up to seven parts, but then as there is already a S.T.R.I.K.E.7 that would have confused things. Possibly.
One thing that was glaringly missing from our box however was an install CD with the required drivers and software; out of the box the keyboard can be plugged in and it will work, giving you an expensive board that shines red, although obviously none of the extra features or buttons will do anything. While it is simplicity itself to get yourself over to the Mad Catz support site and download the required bits and pieces it’s still an unnecessary annoyance to have to do so. Fingers crossed that this was an accidental oversight for this particular unit rather than a general omission from the whole product run.
While a modular keyboard isn’t quite the sea change that you may have experienced when you hit PC aficionado level and got yourself a modular PSU it’s still a rather nifty ability to have. For instance, the five main parts (the main keyboard, the extended numpad, the E.Y.E. module, the M button piece and the wrist rest with buttons) can all be assembled into a magnificent monster of a keyboard, the constructed whole fitting beautifully with the rest of the Cyborg aesthetic and looking great next to a R.A.T. mouse or a F.R.E.Q. headset. Or, instead, you could choose to just have the petite main keyboard resting alone on your desk, with the E.Y.E. attached to the numpad and set off to the side. Reconfiguration is as easy as removing a couple of hex screws with the supplied tool and then reattaching where you see fit; the screws are themselves supported by metal brackets giving the constructed keyboard a solid feel once on the desk, and a firm feel if you ever need to lift and shift it slightly.
Of course, regardless of how you construct the keyboard and where you choose to stick it, the most obvious feature of the S.T.R.I.K.E.5 is the E.Y.E. module. Looking remarkably like some kind of Borg device the E.Y.E. is your keyboard command centre; housing nine macro buttons and your three mode buttons (more on these later) it also allows you to disable the ever-annoying Windows key as well as turn the lights off on your keyboard (but, who on Earth wants less shiny light coming from gaming peripherals?). Throw in some media control buttons and you could have been golden, but Mad Catz (those lovable rogues) had to go further. So in addition to these controls we have the scary E.Y.E. itself. With the directional buttons next to it giving it an air of menace, the E.Y.E. allows access to (and displays!) keyboard brightness levels, a stopwatch, three different timers (which can all run at the same time), volume controls for your audio and microphone and, fantastically enough, a clock that pulls the time from your system clock. Who cares if we have clocks, watches, mobiles and the Steam interface to tell us the time while gaming – there’s nothing quite as cool as having your keyboard show you just how late you are going to bed.
It doesn’t end there though – the final functionality option is probably the coolest, albeit ever so slightly overkill. Using the previously mentioned software you can program the E.Y.E. to show up to twelve icons that can be used to launch whatever programs you wish. Once you have them loaded up the icons will appear on the E.Y.E. and you will be able to navigate through them by turning the E.Y.E. wheel and then launch whichever program you choose by hitting the top button on the module. In terms of convenience it’s arguable whether the E.Y.E. offers you anything over simply creating a shortcut on your desktop or sticking one on the Windows bar but, as with the clock, there is just something more than a little awesome about looking at the Steam icon on your keyboard display and hitting a button to take you directly there. A Steam button on your keyboard that you can use for eleven other programs or games? Yes please!
Now, before we go any further it’s probably time to address the whopping great elephant in the room, the fact that the S.T.R.I.K.E.5 doesn’t have mechanical keys. Now, Mad Catz have been very open about this fact and have stated that this was an intentional decision after consultation with various professional gamers and gaming teams. Essentially then the result of this consultation seems to have been that those consulted chose behind-key halo lighting over a fully mechanical keyboard. Regardless of the design and production cost of the membrane not using mechanical keys would also have been a money saver for Mad Catz, and it’s sad not to see them on any keyboard of this price. Saying that, the keys have a fantastic feel to them and are certainly some of the highest quality non-mechanical ones we have used. While there will always be an element of subjectivity to any key assessment, to us the keys felt great to use; requiring 60g of actuation force places them in a good position when compared to other membrane keyboards and the key snapback was perfect (although, of course, one would expect that from a keyboard taken direct from the box).
In terms of NKRO (N-key rollover) it’s a bit of a mixed tale. Special attention has been given to the WASD and cursor arrows as areas of main use for gaming and both allow for up to six simultaneous key entries from either the main keyboard or the numpad (and of course, that’s six not counting modifier keys such as Shift or Ctrl, which you are free to use in addition to those six). However, while the rest of the keyboard offers a better experience than the cheaper ones you may have experienced there are still plenty of instances where N will cap out at two. This isn’t really an issue for gaming (or indeed most use) as the places where this happens are essentially the same places that it will happen on the vast majority of other keyboards. For a keyboard of this price however it is a shame that our tests could not provide the minimum of four simultaneous keypresses that was advertised to us. While testing the keyboard we had no instances of ghosting, and the only finding that has the potential to affect your gaming was that when you press S and one of W, A or D then the P key will not register. We’re not sure how often you need to be strafing backwards while hitting whatever you have assigned to P but it is an annoyance in a gaming keyboard to find any non-registering of any key while using any combination of WASD.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that our testing revealed that each module of the S.T.R.I.K.E.5 was able to output multiple keypresses at the same time as the other modules, with our maths figuring this means the keyboard can register twenty-three keypresses at once. Our presumption here is that each module is its own logical USB device, offering you the ability to input up to six keypresses per module. Of course, this ability in of itself is not hugely helpful with humans only having two hands and all, but it’s a curious feature to note for the S.T.R.I.K.E.5.
Gripes around a lack of a mechanical keyboard and limited NKRO aside the feature that won out in their place is really quite nifty. The backlighting on the keys gives them a wonderful halo effect, the light coming out understated and in no way deviating your attention from the screen or affecting your peripheral vision. In low light settings the default colours work wonderfully, illuminating the keys for you and assisting in that all so importing in-the-dark-gaming. In fact, the only light from the keyboard that is annoying in a low light setting is the green shine from the E.Y.E.’s Window’s key button when you have it enabled, ,giving you yet another reason to go ahead and disable it. Beyond the defaults the S.T.R.I.K.E.5 offers you a full colour spectrum in the millions (millions!) most of which are easy on the eye due to the halo effect; the yellows on offer were a little too green for our liking but in all the lights not only look cool but they can serve a purpose.
Finally then we can take a look at some of the macro functionality offered by the S.T.R.I.K.E.5. Boasting a ridiculously awesome twenty-one programmable keys across the five modules it’s probably fair to say that the S.T.R.I.K.E.5 will have you covered for virtually every macro you can think of. On the off chance that it doesn’t, the E.Y.E. also gives you access to three different modes per profile, allowing a total of sixty-three customisable commands – fantastic stuff, huh? While the usefulness of macro keys across the main keyboard will be appreciated by every serious PC gamer, the extra thumb wheel and button on the palm rest come in surprisingly useful during even the most basic of games. This can be seen fairly clearly with a game like FTL – the profile pack provided on the Cyborg Gaming download page maps the extra keys to various weapons, but doesn’t add very much to how you interact with the game – however, being able to control your drones with a simple flick or click of your left thumb drags you into the space combat further, allowing your combat to become more fluid instead of pause-and-assign.
Of course, the joy in such buttons lies not in profiles available online (as helpful as they are) but rather in the ability to construct your own key sequences and have them at your fingertips. The profile editing software is easy to use with virtually everything in plain sight with no explanation required. Once you’ve created a few macros and saved them to a new profile you can access that profile with a simple click of the Windows bar icon rather than entering the software fully. The only option that does seem a little hidden was the ability to add a global delay or a pause between key presses, but once you figure out where that is hiding (right click in the macro box and choose the relevant option) everything you could want slots into place. If we wanted to be picky then the lack of an option to loop a macro is disappointing but probably only appropriate in a gaming sense for particular MMO classes and situations.
The S.T.R.I.K.E.5 has a lot to offer gamers of all ilks, although it’s an expensive keyboard if you have no plans to make the most of its macro functionality. If you buy into the configurability and have grand plans to use it to its full then we think the S.T.R.I.K.E.5 is a much more viable option than the S.T.R.I.K.E.7, offering you all of the best points and missing only the touchscreen extras. Throughout though it’s been hard to ignore the lack of mechanical keys, the lack of a higher NKRO. The membrane used is of great quality and if you are upgrading from anything other than a mechanical keyboard than you are going to love it more than anything else your fingers have caressed while gaming – for others however it’s going to be a bugbear they’ll be unable to get over. Saying that, the halo backlights are the best we have seen on any peripheral so if you need control over the size of your board, a huge array of programmable keys to customise and some understated shine to both bling and assist in the dim then you probably couldn’t do any better than to let yourself become assimilated by the E.Y.E.