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Gadget Review

SteelSeries Apex 100 Gaming Keyboard

A near-perfect mix of mechanical style typing, noise, and incredibly solid build quality for budget-minded fans.

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One look at the prices of most gaming keyboards and, if you’re like most human beings, the sticker shock may send you fleeing for the hills. There’s no way around it: enthusiast products are pricey, and most “gaming” branded keyboards are often absurdly so.

Of course, these keyboards are often larded up with bonus features and fancy things like sweet mechanical keys, backlighting, and enough macro-options to fight a real war. In truth, dedicated gaming keyboards can be in a class by themselves, often segregating their best features away from the jealous masses. Heck, even just getting decent backlighting without the mechanical noise and price is a chore (though it’s possible).

Incredibly, SteelSeries’ Apex 100 Gaming Keyboard somehow manages to distill many of the most luxurious features that are byproducts from all that advanced technology; fast, responsive keystrokes, rhythmic clicks, and backlit illumination to help ease the pain of darker rooms. Well, two out of three ain’t bad!

Let’s talk about the design and build quality. Two words come to mind: damn good! Not to sound vulgar, but the Apex 100 clearly benefits from the initial engineering of its spiritual successor, the Apex M500, aping the general design and casing. If you’re at all familiar with SteelSeries design aesthetics you’ll be right at home here, though your brain might go bonkers wondering how they made a budget keyboard feel so solid.

The first thing you’ll notice is how attractive and solid the Apex looks and feels; a slightly chunky base is accentuated by a matte bezel dotted with glossy stripes (the only place glossy belongs). At an equally chunky 2.42 lbs it’s no lightweight, though thanks to generous spacing it somehow feels heavier (not that I’m complaining). Two extendable legs help raise the keys to near-perfect typing angles, accompanied by strategically placed rubber pegs to keep things stable when the action heats up, gaming or otherwise.

There’s no wrist-rest or bonus features for comfort, the only extra accommodation for this being an actual ‘gaming keyboard’ is slightly embarrassing. Two slits on the bottom are actually drain holes, just in case (as SteelSeries hilariously notes) the game “gets intense and you spill your drink, we’ve got you covered.” Hey, don’t laugh; anyone who’s been around a few rowdy gamers know that, when things get excited, liquid be flying.

Happily, the Apex 100 doesn’t include any additional bulk or dedicated macro-key options; this is a standard QWERTY-style keyboard full high-profile keys with full-size Shift / Backspace (bless you, SteelSeries). It eschews the second Windows key (on the right) for a branded SteelSeries’ branded button, essentially a dedicated function key that unlocks the full power of the top-row Function Keys, which include standard media playback, as well as the ability to dim/brighten the illuminated backlight.

Sadly, the biggest victim of the cost-cutting is one of the keyboard’s marquee features: the backlit illumination. Yes, the Apex 100 does have backlighting, technically, but probably not the kind you want – or would even find useful. There’s just one color, neon blue, that’s straight out of the TRON movie, only more abrasive. There are four levels of brightness to cycle through, but there’s no way around the crushing disappointment these aren’t individually backlit keys. Rather, the entire undercarriage is illuminated instead.

While not a deal-killer (the typing experience is too good for that), why companies still persist on using such a hackneyed method of ‘backlighting’ is beyond me. In darker rooms the backlit only serves as a distraction, more a service to actually find the keyboard itself then individual keys to start plucking away on. I understand this is a budget keyboard, one from a company famous for professional-grade keyboards, and compromises are necessary to hit that magic price-point. On this, if a true backlit typing experience is positively paramount, you may want to save up and opt for the next tier in the series, possibly the Apex 300.

The Apex 100 boasts 24 anti-ghosting keys, ensuring silky-smooth button-combos and macros, and those accidental Windows-key presses won’t take you out of the game. Those wanting to slightly extend features of the Apex 100 can install the SteelSeries Engine 3 software, which adds some macro support, key customization, and – most notably – the ability to make the backlighting “breathe” i.e. pulse. Of course, the Apex 100 doesn’t actually need any of these additions to work out of the box, but it’s nice to know extra goodies are available.

I need to stress that, for all its clicky-responsiveness and incredibly solid build, the Apex 100 is NOT an actual mechanical keyboard. Rather, what SteelSeries has done is reverse-engineered one of their premier options, the Apex M500, to fit within cash-strapped budgets. Thus, you’ll get most of the design and quality benefits that originated there, minus the price name-brand tactile keys that make great bullet points on the box.

This means no Cherry MX Red or Blue switches for the ultimate fusion of noise and actuation response time, but SteelSeries’ unique “Quick Tension Membrane Switches” make really good approximations of them. The company says this innovation helps assist standard keystrokes by, essentially, cheating: halfway through a key press activates the Membrane Switch, which pulls it down quickly for that true ‘mechanical’ feel. And do they ever feel great, with incredibly fast and responsive actuation to reduce errors and accidental keystrokes with all the audible “clicks” and noise to help make your room sound like a 19th century sweatshop.

To paraphrase Joe Pantoliano’s Cyber from The Matrix: I know these aren’t real mechanical keys, but my fingers are telling me they’re fast and responsive. Ignorance is bliss!

SteelSeries is selling the Apex 100 as a true gaming keyboard (it’s right there in the name), and I can’t fault them for that. In truth, it might’ve been wiser to market it directly to hardcore typing enthusiasts wanting the crisp accuracy and satisfying noisy Pavlovian click of a true mechanical keyboard, because it excels at both.

With its extremely solid build and superbly responsive keystrokes, the SteelSeries Apex 100 Gaming Keyboard is a perfect entry-level choice for those gamers and typing fans jonesing for the noise and feel of higher-priced options. While the promised “backlighting” is disappointing, there’s no denying that SteelSeries’ membrane-assisted keystrokes mimic the feel and sound of the real thing better than a budget keyboard has any right to, which are paramount when speed and accuracy are essential. The only other company that trickles down their technology as well is Logitech, making SteelSeries a surprising option for those lower-end dollars. Definitely consider this one.