Cooler Master CK550 RGB

 

Cooler Master peripherals, as with most of their products in the last two year or so, have made great strides. From high end offerings to the more affordable options, Cooler Master seems to be able to cater to all price segments in a way that few if any other peripherals vendor can. Making high end peripherals isn’t easy but it is simpler than dealing with the more budget offerings of the price sensitive market. Cooler Master seems to have pulled it off or at least come to a winning formula with surprisingly great products at an alarmingly low price. The Cooler Master CK550 RGB is testament to this and it’s not difficult to see why.

This keyboard – on paper – offers most of what keyboards double in price offer, but does this without it feeling plastic or cheap. How Cooler Master manages this is evident once you take a closer look. Yes, it doesn’t have an LCD display or touchpad, but these are gimmicky at best and better suited to a multimedia keyboard rather than one used for gaming, which is exactly what this keyboard is built for.

How Cooler Master is able to provide this level of functionality, but at this price is through the use of Gateron’s Red mechanical switches (on this particular model) with RGB lighting. Gateron switches are similar if not near identical to Cherry MX switches, but obviously come in at a lower price. They follow a similar naming scheme to Cherry MX, with the Red keys on this keyboard offering smooth linear feedback. Naturally and much like the Cherry red switches, bottoming out the keys means it’s a little nosier than what may be tolerable in a quiet office environment, but certainly not for a LAN party for example. That said, the CK550 is also available with Brown or Blue switches, which are again analogous in tactile feedback to what Cherry MX switches offer.

That said, build quality is of paramount importance to me and I was pleasantly surprised that the CK550 is actually better than I had expected. For instance, my preferred method of testing material quality or structural integrity is the twist test, where I grab a keyboard by its two opposing edges and gently try to torque it. Testing in this way the CK550 did better than I’d anticipated only twisting ever so marginally. An odd test perhaps, but it did prove to me that the CK550 is rock solid should be able to withstand plenty of physical abuse (This isn’t to say you should in any way mistreat the keyboard). Connectivity is via a generous 1.8m length cable, which unfortunately isn’t braided or sleeved, instead opting for the more traditional rubber insulation or coating. This choice of cabling is perhaps unavoidable as Cooler Master was clearly targeting a retail price of $100 or less. That said, a sleeved cable is certainly something I would have paid slightly more to have.

On to more of what the CK550 does well, we have a floating, bezel-less design which allows for very easy cleaning as well as creating that halo effect because of the RGB lighting underneath. All of which is great, but what happens when you plug the CK550 into your computer is what matters and this is where the keyboard comes into its own.Upon connecting the CK550, you’re immediately greeted by the vivid RGB lighting, which is surprising given that most ‘budget’ gaming keyboards have dim to dull LED lighting. Moreover, instead of lighting zones as often seen on cheaper RGB offerings, each key on the CK550 has an individually programmable LED (something which was absent on the Roccat HORDE AIMO for example)

The next thing you’ll notice is the gunmetal brushed aluminium frame, which is usually reserved for much more expensive keyboards and of course much appreciated. Careful however as the lighting at its brightest may result in a harsh glow as the light bounces off the back-plate, so you might want to turn the brightness down a notch to avoid this.

Where key layout is concerned, the CK550 takes a minimalistic approach, lacking any dedicated macro or media keys. This once again helps to bring down the price as it adheres to the standard 106-key layout almost to the T. The only exception being the sole [FN] key, designated by the Cooler Master hexagon in place of the standard context menu key. Other than the expected controls for lighting and media (via [FN] key), the only other additional key is the expected Windows-key lock.

Despite the absence of dedicated media keys, the CK550 can do everything most multimedia keyboard can do and far more. Instead of making a massive unit with dozens of additional keys, Cooler Master has kept the design much more compact by giving 29 of the keys an additional function when pressed in conjunction with the [FN]. Most of the lighting effects and even the recording of macros can be controlled via key combinations, which are explained in the included quick start guide. Do note that you’ll most certainly need this guide as these combinations are very confusing initially and it may take days if not weeks to get used to how it all works.

If you’re not interested in mucking about with key combinations, Cooler Master has put together a pretty decent software package for taking full control of the CK550. You can do things that would be absolutely impossible using just the key combinations, so you’re probably better off just using the Cooler Master Portal application. Controlling the lighting effects without this software again is confusing and is anything but intuitive. Going forward, perhaps Cooler Master would consider a simpler system for direct keyboard control and leave the more elaborate settings for the software.

 

 

That said, the Cooler Master Portal application allows you to do a multitude of things, from assigning macros (including reprogramming of the default macros) to setting your own RGB lighting effects and more. It isn’t as all-encompassing as some rival suites and lacks obvious functionality (like adjusting LED brightness via a slider), but certainly gets the job done. Personally I prefer this method of keyboard programming by far, but I do believe it would be better simplified significantly, as having to resort to the keyboard combinations for simple tasks (control LED brightness for example) is a bit of a pain.

Finally, typing on the CK550 is very much akin to using a keyboard with Cherry MX switches with a slight, yet noticeable difference. After weeks of using the CK550, the vast majority of which was for typing this review as well as several others, I miss the reassuring tactile feedback I’ve become accustomed to with Cherry MX-Speed or Silent switches, which is of course purely subjective. I can say however that if you’ve ever used and enjoyed Cherry MX Red switches you should have no problem loving the CK550. For the bit of gaming I did, the somewhat cushioned, linear action was perfectly fine. The few macros I’d assigned also worked perfectly across multiple systems.

 

That said, at its price point the Cooler Master CK550 is a solid contender and would be a definite consideration if I were buying on a budget. I just can’t help but feel that it could have offered a little more at a slightly higher price point, but even as it is – the CK550 is still a well worth more than the asking price and well deserving of our Value award.

 

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