Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thermaltake eSports Challenger - Gaming Keyboard Review

Introduction & Specifications

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

Thermaltake is a well known brand for Computer Cases, Coolers, and PSUs. Due to the constant requests for keyboards and mice from gamers and end users, Thermaltake decided to create a series of gaming keyboards, mice, and headsets with the Tt eSPORTS brand back in 2009 and launched their first product in 2010.

As a large supporter of the World Cyber Games, Thermaltake has taken the input from gamers and made a line of budget oriented gaming keyboards for those users. With the challenger line of keyboards; Thermaltake has entered the market with the idea to set a trend of unique features added to your standard assortment of gaming features like Anti-Ghosting, Advanced Key Rollover, Macro Keys, Media Keys, and multiple profiles.

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

As a bit of a surprise, the front of the Thermaltake Challenger's box is not chock full of information like you would normally find on boxes. Instead it chose to list 3 features of the keyboard; USB cable positions in either right or left orientation, hand cooling fan is included, and 6 Macro keys are programmable on the keyboard.

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

Moving onto the back of the box, we have a list of specifications in multiple languages. For the ease of reading, I'll transpose what it says:
  • Up to 32KB Onboard Memory to store your preset macro key functions.
  • Provides total of 18 Macro Keys set up in 3 game profiles. Features with Anti-ghost Key function for reliable gaming functionality
    • There was a bit of Engrish on this bullet point, but what I'm assuming the last part is saying is that it has a specially design Key Matrix for gamers so that no key presses will get blocked while you are gaming and no extra keys will appear in the future.
    • We'll be testing this feature to see how it works since there are many ways to implement this.
  • One extra USB Port for other USB devices.
  • Golden Plated USB Connector for best stability & speed.
    • This is purely marketing fluff right here. Gold plated connectors do not give you a better connection nor increase the speed of the the USB ports. I wish companies would stop making such ridiculous claims. Gold plating on connectors prevents against corrosion due to oxidation of a metal. 

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard Specifications

  • Interface: USB
  • Operational systems: Windows 7/Vista/XP
  • Number of Macro keys: 6
  • Number of Multimedia keys: 7
  • 2.0 USB port: 1
  • Switch lifecycle: 10 Millions
  • Cable length: 2m
  • Keyboard Body dimension (LxWxH): 480x 205.5x 25mm
  • Fan Speed: 6,000 RPM(±15%)
  • Max. airflow:2.7CFM
  • Noise level:21.7dB
  • Rate voltage: DC 5.0V
  • Life expectancy: 50,000 HRS
  • Fan dimension (LxWxH): 30x30x10mm

Unboxing the Keyboard

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

Opening the box I almost thought I was confronted with a Razer product by the way the packaging was setup. A driver CD & documentation locked in place with cardboard flaps is definitely a good way of doing it in my opinion. A little known fact about this, is that it's more environmentally friendly than the plastic bags.

On the other hand, if you notice, the lid of the keyboard is at the top of this photo. So when you open up the box to see the keyboard; everything is upside-down and backwards. That's an oversight on Thermaltake's part that I can't imagine how it made it to production like that. It's not an issue though, as you really only read this stuff while installing the driver.

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

Fresh out of the box, we've go the the Thermaltake Challenger in hand. It's a rather standard looking US-ANSI layout with extra Media Keys and Profile Swap keys.

Other than that, nothing is really changed besides the addition of an FN key on the bottom left hand side where a Windows key would be. The windows key is still present on the right hand side though; but this keyboard does give you the option of locking out the Windows key or putting a dummy key in place, so no one should have a problem with popping out of game at random.

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

Here's the accessories package of the Challenger in full.  A product manual, eSPORTS product guided, keycap puller, windows replacement keycaps, replacement fan dock covers, 30mm DC fan, & velcro bag to hold the odds & ends.

This bundle is rather complete compared to just about any keyboard. Though, considering less expensive keyboards offer keycaps for the WASD section, I'd like to see those included with this board as well.

 First Looks at the Challenger

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

As promised by Thermaltake, we have a cloth-woven braided cable with a gold plated USB connector. I will say that this guy fit snug into my desktop, laptop, and USB hub. A bit more than my Logitech G500 does.

So as an aside, do not be surprised if the gold plating adds a bit of thickness to the connector.

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

Sticking on the topic of USB, at the top right of the board we have an extra USB port. This guy can come in handy for those of you that use wireless gaming mice that can recharge themselves with a USB cable or those with a phone/MP3 player that you can charge on a USB cable. No need to reach around the back to plug your device in with this on the keyboard.

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

Unfortunately, Thermaltake did one thing I hate with this keyboard and decided that the profile of the keyboard had to be flat like you find on most laptops and slim keyboards.
As a typist and as a gamer, this is incredibly annoying as it gives you very little definition between the keys, so typos can happen frequently.

On the other hand, both the left and right sides have these nice red accents to compliment the Thermaltake logo.

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

With the Windows Key removed, you can see this keyboard uses your standard rubber dome key switches. Personally, I am a fan of mechanical keyboards and use them when ever possible. Even when I'm on the go I pack my smaller mechanical board with me so that I don't have to use my laptops keyboard.

You'll also note the Thermaltake logo at the bottom, it's LED illuminated and looks quiet good. Thanks to being a red LED, it is not eye piercing bright.

As you can see in the photo on the Alt & Ctrl keys, they are pad printed. Which is also the least expensive and most common method of keycap printing. The keys are made of ABS plastic which is also standard of most keyboards on the market.

Thermaltake Challenger Keyboard Fan
One of the most talked about and interesting features on the Thermaltake Challenger keyboard is most certainly the optional cooling fan that it comes with.  When you pull the keyboard out of the box when you first get it, you'll find that the removable fan is stored on the top left corner of the keyboard.  This is a great idea as when you are traveling you have a place to secure with fan so it doesn't get lost. You'll notice just to the right of the fan that there is a hole that doubles as the mount and the power source for the fan.  There are two locations for the fan to go on each side of the keyboard.
Thermaltake Challenger Keyboard Fan
Here is a quick shot of the fan installed on the keyboard and twisted to where it is pointing down at the WASD gaming key cluster that is so popular among gamers. Thermaltake says that by having the fan running that you can enable better grip and superior control.
Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

Thermaltake doesn't include any RPM control for the cooling fan, but that isn't a deal breaker as it only produces 5CFM at 20dB(A) or so. These spec's are not listed on the Thermaltake packaging but are easily found by a quick Google search of the product number on the fan.  It does produce a low hum noise while in operation, but it doesn't add vibration or distraction while gaming.

Thermaltake's Software

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

Unfortunately, the first time I opened the software I was greeted with a nice bug which caused nothing besides the top bar to display.

I'm not sure what caused this to occur but given another system restart and a re-opening of the program, everything was in order after that point.

At the time of this review, only Version 1 of this software is out. So if you run into this bug, I suggest you shut down and restart your computer to see if it comes back up.

Thermaltake eSports Challenger Gaming Keyboard

When the Software is functioning properly, you are greeted with an image of your keyboard as well as some unlabeled buttons.

All documentation on how to operate the software is included in a PDF on the disk or via the manual. So operating the software is not a problem.

The little computer & keyboard symbols you see in the lower right hand corner of the image are for importing or exporting profiles to the computer or your PC. This is a nice feature to have if you friends share the same keyboard and you each want to share some game profiles or have multiple profiles on hand, as the keyboard is limited to only 3 profiles stored on board.

Each T# you see is a Macro Key. How this works is you assign a normal key on the board as a Macro Key. So in my first profile for gaming, my T1 was set to the number 5 on my keyboard. The custom Macro I used involved the melee action + reload in game, as this was my macro profile for FPS games. It allowed me to press that button quickly if I was ever caught in a tight situation in a FPS where I was face to face with an enemy but out of bullets. Which is rather common in Call of Duty Black Ops or Bad Company 2.

If you want to switch Macro Profiles, it is simple as moving to the next tab in the software. Unfortunately, you cannot rename these tabs to what you want.
I'd like to see Thermaltake implement a naming feature for the Macro Profiles so they are easier to keep track of.

The Tt Logo & Off button you see are another simple feature of the keyboard. If you click "off" it turns the Tt logo on the bottom of the board off so the LED is no longer on. A simple feature, but nice to see for those that don't want it.

The Reverse, R, & ? buttons at the top of the software are "Revert", "Register", and "Help." Revert is the most useful key up there, as it clears the current Macro Profile allowing you to setup a new one or correct any mistakes you may have made.

Though I would prefer to see a simple "undo" function added instead.

Register allows you to register your product on the Thermaltake eSPORTS websites, and the help button brings you to the FAQ section of their website.

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