SteelSeries SHIFT Gaming Keyboard Review

Posted Feb 6, 2011
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The only reason that PC gaming is still alive and thriving is because it offers customizability and adaptability beyond any other gaming platform around. From custom game mods to custom tweaked hardware, true gamers prefer the PC platform over anything else. That’s why there’s a lot of burden on gaming peripheral manufacturers to deliver high quality, extensible and customizable hardware to keep the market alive, and the SteelSeries Shift gaming keyboard is a prime example.

Read on to see it’s detailed review.

For those who don’t know, the SteelSeries Shift is an evolution of the Zboard line which SteelSeries acquired a couple of years back. This new iteration offers a lot of enhancements on the Zboard design while retaining most of the features that made it stand out, like interchangeable keysets. Through on added features like extreme durability and support for remapping any key on the board with custom macros, and you have yourself a solid gaming peripheral for a $90 price tag. But don’t just take our word for it, dive into the full review to find out what makes the SteelSeries Shift so special.

Packaging and Design

The SteelSeries Shift comes in a nicely designed cardboard box. While the box has a lot of branding and feature previews, it doesn’t really do much to stand out from packages from other manufacturers like Razer etc.

Inside the box, you’d find the Shift keyboard with the standard US keyset, along with a wrist wrest, a sticker and a couple of user guides.

The overall keyboard design is nice sturdy. Its engineered for durability and can easily withstand long and treacherous gaming sessions.

As for ergonomics, the detachable wrist rest is an added bonus for those who like to rest their wrists on a surface while typing or gaming. The Shift also has three different height adjustment options beneath the keyboard so the user could get the perfect elevation he desires.

The keys on the Shift have different tactile feedback based on their intended use. The alphabets for example are easier and softer to press because they are used most often, compared to say the function keys etc. Still a key press on the Shift requires a little more heft compared to your average keyboard.

Also while the shift may not be mechanical, its rubber domes are designed to survive up to 15 million keystrokes per key which is a good 3 to 4 times your average keyboard.

The keyboard has for different I/O connectors. Two USB 2.0 ports, one headphone and one microphone jack – both gold plated, 3.5mm connectors. All the connectors have corresponding ports on the keyboard itself so you basically get your real panel ports on a more accessible location.

One of the USB ports on the Shift is also powered, which means you can use it to charge devices that require more than average power, like cameras or even an iPad.

While virtually any key on the Shift can be remapped to custom actions and macros, there are still 12 dedicated keys thrown in for good measure. Located on the top, the first 8 buttons are used for custom actions that you can map via the SteelSeries Engine software or record them on the fly using the record button on the end of the button array. (more on this later). The next three keys toggle three Hotkey profiles so the previously mentioned 8 hotkeys can have three different actions assigned to them. Interestingly, these profiles are different from the custom user profiles you can define via the configuration software. In effect, you can have three different hotkey profiles per user profile, and it gets even crazier when you factor in the fact that each keyset also supports multiple layer profiles.

There are also six dedicated media keys to control media playback which comes standard on most keyboards these days.

The keyset itself can be removed by opening the latch on the right side of the keyboard and simple lifting the keyset up. You can swap in any Shift keyset designed for specific tasks and the keyboard is also fully backwards compatible with Zboard keysets as well. An individual keyset retails for around $25.

Features

While you don’t actually require the SteelSeries Engine to use the Shift keyboard, it adds a ton of extensibility and usability features which make it worthwhile to have. For instance, you can use the SteelSeries engine to manage different keyboard profiles which can be targeted to run in conjunction with specific applications like a web browser or a game.

Like I mentioned earlier, virtually all the keys on the Shift can be customized with macros or custom actions. There are two different ways to record macros. First is using the Macro Record button on the keyboard. All you have to do is simple hit the record key, and then hit the key you want to customize, followed by the sequence of commands you want to record. When you’re done, just hit the Record button again to save your configuration.

The other way is to use the SteelSeries Engine. Just select the key you want to customize and record the macro. Every profile in the SteelSeries Engine has three corresponding profiles on the keyboard which you can switch between using the profile hotkeys on the top of the keyboard. Apart from that, each keyset comes with their own layers of customization, where each layer roughly means a separate hardware profile.

For example, the standard keyset comes with two Layer toggle keys situated on the top right along the SteelSeries Engine key. The Bar and Pad layers toggle the functionality of the function keys and the number pad respectively. But what they actually do is toggle the layer profiles for the entire keyset so you can have entirely different set of macros mapped to any key on the keyset per layer. The four layers available on the default keyset are:

  • Primary (both Bar and Pad locks are off)
  • Bar (Bar lock is activated)
  • Pad (Pad lock is activated)
  • Bar + Pad (both Bar and Pad locks are activated)

So you have four different macro profiles on the standard keyset per user profile on the SteelSeries Engine. And it goes without saying that the macros support timed delays and can accommodate up to 255 keystrokes each. You can also configure the keys to launch specific applications as well.

Another neat feature of the SteelSeries Engine is that it can track your Actions Per Minute and report which keys you used the most during your gaming session (or any other activity you want to track). For example, if you check your stats after a round of Black Ops and notice that you used the L key a whole lot more compared to the V key, you might want to swap their actions so that it might be more accessible. While this may not matter to most people, every fraction of a second counts if you are a Pro Gamer.

Performance

I’ve been using the SteelSeries Shift as my primary keyboard for several weeks now, and I’ve been using the Standard Keyset the most. During that period, I’ve tested a lot of different games spanning multiple genres which include FPS titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops, Left 4 Dead 2 and Counter Strike: Source from Action/Adventure titles like Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City to driving simulators like Need For Speed Hot Pursuit and RTS games like StarCraft II.

In every game, the Shift was a pleasure to use. Its Macro functionality came extremely handy in games like Counter Strike: Source where I mapped my frequently bought weapon profiles to the hotkeys on the top. Macros were also useful in titles like StarCraft II where I used them to issue several commands with a single keystroke – making use of the time delay capability of the macros. While I’m not much of an MMO player myself, I did lend the Shift to a friend who is a World of Warcraft player and I had trouble getting it back from him. I wonder if he ever would have returned it if I had given him a World of Warcraft: Cataclysm keyset along with the Shift.

For other tasks like web browsing and productivity, the Shift turned out to be a pleasure to use which is rare for a gaming keyboard. Like I said, I’ve been using it as my primary keyboard for a while now and in fact, this review is also written using it. I’m making use of the Macro functionality in every day tasks like as well like using a single key press to launch Internet Explorer 9 and another key press to launch Facebook, Gmail and Google Reader in separate tabs and log me on.

The only occasional complain I have with the Shift is the relative stiffness of the keys which require a little more push compared to most other rubber dome keyboards but after using the Shift for a while, you would get used to it as well.

Conclusion

Like I just mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I’ve been using the SteelSeries Shift as my primary keyboard for several weeks now and I’m simply in love with it. It is a good, well designed keyboard which is durable yet comfortable to use and has a lot of flexibility and extensibility options. If the fact that you can swap out keysets for specific tasks isn’t enough for you, then you would find tons of customizability with macro recordings where you can customize each and every key on the keyboard with multiple profiles which you can switch between with the touch of a button.

Add ergonomic features like a comfortable wrist rest, adjustable height, and more accessible USB and audio ports and you have yourself a killer keyboard for a pretty decent price tag of $90. The only minor issue I have with the Shift is the fact that individual keysets cost an extra $25 which can quickly ramp up if you begin collecting. Nevertheless, the SteelSeries Shift is one the best gaming keyboards I’ve seen and something I personally would be using for a long time – that’s why we are awarding it with our Editors Choice Award.

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