If you follow the world of gaming accessories you may have heard that Turtle Beach, best known for high-quality gaming headsets, recently purchased Roccat, best known for high-quality gaming accessories like keyboards, mice and – yes – headsets as well. These are huge markets, ones that will only continue to grow as competitive gaming expands into the mainstream. What, you think professional e-gamers want chopped liver when they can have filet mignon?
Unlike the recent trend to appropriate generic Chinese-made (i.e. cheap) accessories for budget-minded western enthusiasts, the Turtle Beach/Roccat pairing translates to considerably nicer looking peripherals, and certainly not cheap in any sense of the word. This means a higher quality product as a higher price, yet still desperate to compete with fire and fury while looking good in promo shots.
All these traits are present in Roccat’s Vulcan 121 AIMO Mechanical Keyboard, a strikingly pretty competitive gaming keyboard with exquisitely good looks – and maybe a personality crisis. It is possible for a gaming peripheral to be too overly engineered for its own good, almost like its ashamed of its own category?
A quick note about what – if any – differences exist between models, especially as many of the Vulcan keyboards look identical to one another. That’s because they are – minus some coloring differences: the Vulcan 120 is gray, the Vulcan 121 (reviewed) is black, while the newer 122 is an almost snowblinding white. The bulk of this review apply to them all – just choose your colors wisely.
Design: Sleek, Maybe Too Sleek
One look at the Vulcan 121 and you’ll see why Turtle Beach wanted this sitting on desks across the country: this is a beautiful keyboard that exemplifies the best of German engineering. Here the Vulcan distinguishes itself by what it doesn’t have, which are none of the angles, sharp edges, or embarrassing coloring that make similarly-priced keyboards look cheap and toy-like. This is a keyboard that looks every bit as expensive as it is.
A solid etched aluminum base looks great and sports a nice heft (roughly 2 pounds) that keeps it nice and stable on flat surfaces. Ergonomically speaking, this is your standard QWERTY-style keyboard offering a full-sized keyset and numberpad. The only additions are the tiny knob on the top-right that functions as both volume + brightness rocker. Sitting just on the left to the knob are three rubbery buttons dedicated only to swapping between these functions; why they weren’t condensed into one seems a mystery, but they do help flush out the extra space.
The Vulcan’s most standout design feature is easily those keys, which look weird and wonderful. They’ve got a quirky mushroom-style concave keycap design that not only exposes the switches and LED lights underneath, but the caps make typing an almost exquisite experience – though at an unfortunate cost (see below). This design also makes the keys appear taller than they actually are, and those raised caps makes cleaning under them much easier than with most keyboards.
There’s even a generous – and very flexible – braided USB cable that plays nicely with your other cables, never kinking or twisting at awkward angles. Unfortunately, there’s no USB passthrough – an unfortunate miss on a keyboard at this price (and extra sad when you consider it works with its Roccat stablemate Kain 120 AIMO mouse).
For slightly elevated typing there are two extendable legs on the bottom and optional wrist rest that magnetically fuses onto the bottom – but just barely. The connection isn’t strong and the wrist rest itself only provides a slightly improved elevation level. It’s better than nothing, I guess.
The Keys and Switches
The other area separating the Vulcan 121 from most of the pack are its unique keys, which are different in a few ways. Rather than use Cherry mechanical switches, the Vulcan instead uses Roccat’s proprietary Titan Tactical switches, the equivalent to Cherry brown (the Titan Speed is the equivalent to Cherry reds). Regardless, the Titan Tactical switches mean a 1.8mm actuation point (and 1.4mm actuation for the Titan Speed) with an incredibly responsive 3.6mm travel distance, a powerful combo that makes typing on them an absolute dream for keyboard purists.
Full disclosure: I’m a brown enthusiast anyway, but there’s just something about Roccat’s tactile feel and responsiveness that’s as close to perfect as I’ve ever experienced with any mechanical keyboard. In fact, the sheer joy from typing with them almost makes me feel guilty for having to bring up the negative flip-side of that quirky keycap design, which for some people may be a real deal-killer.
The mushroom-style keycaps may feel great on your fingertips, but they completely expose the LED lights underneath, which means your eyeballs will be staring straight into these bright little lights more often than not. Those with even mild forms of light sensitivity issues should be most cautious before spending money on the Vulcan, especially as the lighting features are heavily tied into its basic design and functionality.
Have you ever looked at a lamp without its shade on? Yeah, it’s exactly like that – which is why lamps have shades. Oddly, Roccat’s own website seems to think this design flaw a plus, bragging how the keys’ transparent design “has the effect of spreading the powerful LED lighting farther.” There’s no viewing angle where this can be avoided; even a slight glance down at the keys means an eyeful of ocular-numbing brightness. The only solution, ironically, would be to turn the lights off completely, negating half the reason you probably bought the keyboard for in the first place.
Here’s a slight paradox when using the Vulcan keyboard; it’s mechanical, but its propriety brown switches don’t really make any noise when the keys are mashed. Again, we’re used to this when using brown-keyed keyboards, but the Swarm software allows you to cheat by enabling a choice of sounds to accompany those keystrokes: click, typewriter, beam and sci-fi sound. Good luck if you have a roommate (or co-worker) that chooses the latter when typing on this, though I will admit a little nostalgia when hearing the classic typewriter sounds while clickety-clacking away.
The Swarm Software
The bane of most professional-grade gaming keyboards, and the Vulcan 121 is no exception, is Roccat’s propriety Swarm software. You’ll need to download, install and employ it to not only get the most out of the keyboard, but in some cases to even use its basic functionality. Yes, the keyboard will function by simply plugging it into any available USB port, but to use any of those color schemes (or turn them off), macro saves or hot-keys, you’re going to need Swarm.
Of course, once you’ve gone through the installation, updating, and learning period required to use the Swarm software successfully…you’ll still probably become more than a little frustrated in how clunky and user-unfriendly it can be. Yes, you’ll be able to micro-manage and customize the lighting arrays, add/delete macros, and even program multiple devices from the Roccat family of peripherals. You just won’t do any of this easily.
Under the “Key Illumination” menus you’re able to program that dazzling light arrays as you see fit, right down to individual key illumination. The ability to turn your keyboard into a digital light show has proven to be one of – if not the – most popular features on high-end hardware, which I’ll never understand, but the Vulcan 121 doesn’t slouch in this department. Again, navigating the menus using Swarm is far more cumbersome and intuitive than it should be, and it doesn’t take much to get lost within the cascading menus and submenus of available options.
Setting up gaming modes is just as robust, and clunky. There’s a handful of preselected macros for popular games like Grand Theft Auto 5, Fortnite, Overwatch, Apex Legends and even Call of Duty (naturally). There’s even macros for Skype. Here your mileage will vary, especially if you want to drill down to setting up hotkeys and individual loadouts per game. The Vulcan even lets you map individual keys twice using something called Easy+Shift, which lets you program a keys’ secondary functions when pressed with Caps+Lock.
All great features that obsessive gamers will love, sure, but having them tied solely to software programming can make actually using them in the thick of battle a game of memory and chance. Remember: there are no dedicated macro keys on the Vulcan, just secondary functions for keys that already exist. Remember when I said the Vulcan 121 was beautiful and didn’t look silly? This is why.
Perhaps the worst thing about using the Swarm software, as nearly all the functionality of the Vulcan requires it, is that you can’t easily (or quickly) swap keyboards out between machines, severely limiting its plug ‘n play usefulness in a pinch. I suspect Vulcan users will, with time and patience, become used to the quirks and be able to sail through its particular design issues with ease. But that’s just making excuses for bad UI. Other hardware manufacturers offer software that integrates better with users’ systems better and more flexibly than Swarm, so there’s really no excuse.
Conclusion: Almost There
I’m of two minds about Roccat’s Vulcan 121 AIMO Mechanical Keyboard, as I’m sure others may be. On one hand, this is one of the most beautiful, exquisitely engineered keyboards I’ve ever seen, with a typing experience bordering on transcendent. It’s practically sublime. Unfortunately, for a premium gaming keyboard, the available features and performance feel like major compromises to preserve those beautiful looks, a reality made worse by how closely its tied to the frustrating software. Worse, those raised keys could make the Vulcan a nightmare for users with light sensitivities. This is a keyboard that desperately wants to be loved, but will have to settle for merely being liked.