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Cooler Master Novatouch TKL review

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Ok I know this isn't exactly new, but my original plans to have this up earlier this year went down the gutter when I had medical issues and had to undergo surgery. So hopefully this still ends up being useful to some people. Thanks a lot to Rajiv from CM USA for sending a sample.

 

Introduction

 

Let’s begin by  taking a look at the specs courtesy the product page:

 

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Straight away we see that this is no Cherry MX switch keyboard, nor a Kailh switch and yet this is a mechanical switch. For those not familiar, the hybrid capacitive switch mentioned here is an adapter Topre switch modified such that the stems accommodate OEM height Cherry MX compatible keycaps. Topre- that brand that makes expensive keyboards you have probably never tried out yet. As much as I would like to think my review would be the be all, end all I am handicapped by the fact that I can’t convey the feel of any mechanical switch that you have not tried yet and getting hands on a Topre switch in a mechanical switch sampler is near impossible as it is. With that massive limitation out there, let’s go ahead and cover the rest as much as possible. Cooler Master intends for this for gaming and typing professionals, and there are some interesting design and feature choices that don’t necessarily seem matching at first glace- the lack of onboard LEDs (let alone per key backlighting), macro keys and a wrist rest for example- but the more you think about it the more sense it makes. Gaming professionals aren’t allowed to use macro keys in tournaments and LEDs are almost always turned off in a brightly lit gaming arena. Typing professionals also are more reliant on memory and touch typing with the right posture to make use of LEDs or an included wrist rest. To compensate for this, CM offers N-key rollover via USB, albeit in Windows only, which makes this the only Topre switch keyboard to offer this as far as I am aware but not the only mechanical keyboard necessarily. No software here or dedicated media keys, which is in line with everything seen so far and a 2 year warranty rounds up the feature set. Let’s take a look at the product now.

 

 

Unboxing and Overview

 

 

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The keyboard packaging arrives wrapped in plastic to protect from dust or minor scrapes from shipping and handling. Let’s take it off to get a better look at the box.

 

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There is a sleeve over the box that provides some information about the product name and the USP of the keyboard. On the bottom of the sleeve, we see the specifications list we covered already while on the back we see some features about the key type that the product page itself does not have. Indeed, you have to go to the global CM website and not the CM USA website to get more information and frankly a better overview too. Here you see that the actual point is just at just 1mm of travel, the keys bottom out at 4mm (3mm with included O-rings) and the average response time is all of 4 ms from when the actuation point is hit to when the controller detects and outputs the designated keystroke. Typical digital controller based Cherry MX keyboards have a ~20 ms response time which, while not as adverse as one might think, can still be the difference between a perfectly timed action on a game. Cherry has since introduced an analog controller for a rated response time of.. 0 ms. Either way, 4 ms is a feature that is important enough to be advertised prominently on the product. Finally we see an advertisement to the customization options here with the keyboard being compatible with most aftermarket Cherry MX keycaps. CM encourages this fully by including a keycap remover with the keyboard but I feel here is where they are missing a big opportunity by not offering their own replacement keycaps as accessories either included or as a separate purchase.

 

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The product box itself is mostly clean with the front and sides having just the company and product name in a subtle black on grey color scheme, and the back having a list of more features and specifications. A seal keeps the contents inside secure while also acting as a means of alerting the customer if the box has been opened previously. There are magnets on either side of the seal also helping close the box as opposed to locking flaps and the experience overall is that of a more refined, luxury product.

 

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Opening the box, we are greeted to soft foam galore. The foam actually is all around the keyboard thus keeping it from being affected by a drop or a scrape during transportation and this is very good to see. We see the keyboard immediately past the top foam sheet and below it lie the included accessories:

 

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Included is a quick start guide that lists more of the specs and features, a set of 1 mm thick O-rings (bounce characteristics suggest Buna N rubber) to lower the travel distance and reduce the bottoming out noise profile of the keycaps, a sleeved USB type A male to microusb male adapter cable which is routed such that it extends outwards into the keyboard from the microusb port as opposed to away from it (review samples had it the other way round and it interfered with right hand mouse users, so I am glad to see CM has changed it for production models) and a keycap puller which has a thumb rest for grip.

 

Now on to the keyboard itself:

 

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This is a standard TKL (tenkeyless) size keyboard with the numberpad section not included. This keeps the dimensions to a tidy 36 x 13.7 x 3.8 cm (14.1″ x 5.4″ x 1.5″). The advantage of this is you can maintain a correct posture for typing- especially if you are right handed and use the mouse to the right of the keyboard- while also making this a relatively light keyboard at just under a 1 Kg (2.2 lbs). It still weighs enough to give a solid feeling to the keyboard and not making it seem like it came out of a Fisher-Price catalog. The included keycaps are ABS and do a good job. As I mentioned earlier, I have been using this for over 4 months now and the lettering has not worn out one bit. I hear from fellow users that Topre OEM keycaps are of a slightly higher quality but I have no complaints here really- especially when you consider the part where these are Cherry MX compatible anyway, so one can replace them with double shot PBT or go all wacky with custom designs. The keyboard has a CM Storm logo on the front bottom akin to their other gaming keyboards but the Novatouch is given its own category online so this is a bit out of place. No branding on the front which is how I like it on keyboards, and we see the serial number and product number for the keyboard on the back. The keyboard has a “leg†on each side at the back which raises the board by ~20º to the horizontal but leaving them closed gave the best typing experience for me personally. As far as key layout goes, the keyboard comes in all the popular ones- ANSI, ISO and so forth with this being the ANSI layout considering the North American market here. Some of the non-standard features here include two windows keys but then there is a windows key lock also making this seem more of an attempt to cover all bases here. The function keys also act as media buttons and it works fairly well- just not as good as dedicated media keys which I still feel should have been here. They are definite time savers! Aside from this, the keyboard here follows the standard QWERTY layout with all keys included.

 

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Using the included keycap puller, one can see the Cherry MX compatible stems here in a purple color. The actuation point here is a mere 1 mm of travel while the key bottoms out at 4 mm. So touch typists can make very good use of this and get a relatively silent operation. For those more prone to bottoming out keys, the included O-rings lower the travel distance to 3 mm while also lowering the “clacking†sound of bottoming out. Here’s what the keys (the larger keys included) sounds like when bottomed out: Click here

 

and now the same sequence but with touch typing: Click here

 

Using O-rings sounds somewhere in between but I definitely encourage people to give touch typing a chance here. I started out bottoming out all the keys and now I type quieter, quicker and more accurate with this. The keys require exactly 45g of force for actuation putting these on the same level as the Cherry MX Red switches which are a gaming favorite for the linear response and relatively low actuation force, and this is also where gamers can relate to the board. In fact, calling the typing experience somewhere between a membrane keyboard and a Cherry MX Red switch keyboard but at a higher quality overall would be just I feel. But once more- you really, really need to get a feel of these keys before making a judgement call.

 

Before we open this up, here’s a demonstration of the N-key rollover via USB (in Windows OS, anyway):

 

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The test was done using Aqua’S Keytest. In comparison, this is a standard membrane keyboard with 6 KRO:

 

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Note that unlike membrane keyboards, or even some Cherry MX keyboards, this will simply not work over PS/2 with any USB to PS/2 adapter. So if you have a motherboard that doesn’t like USB peripherals during boot up (x99? Are you listening?) then please be aware of this. Now let’s take this apart.

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Disassembly

 

Standard note of caution- doing this will void your warranty, and I am not responsible for any issues from having followed this guide correctly or otherwise.

 

Cooler Master REALLY does not want you to open this up. There are the usual 2 screws near the keyboard legs, one under a “Do not remove†sticker and a cleverly hidden 4th screw under the serial number sticker. A heatgun won’t do you much good here as that is a big sticker with very little room to pry it out.

 

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Once all 4 screws are removed, there are several tiny tabs keeping the top case in place like the ones you see here at the top:

 

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You need a thin, flat object to pry the tabs out all around the keyboard and then the top simply comes off:

 

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The top case part is composed of ABS as is the bottom case part as well. To remove the bottom part, you need to unscrew two more screws under the function key line:

 

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Carefully slide out the USB connector header:

 

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We see that the USB cable is screwed into the bottom case part:

 

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The microusb header is built into a larger piece so as to provide more structural integrity to the fragile header. Remove those two screws for a better look:

 

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Now on to the meat n’ potatoes of the keybaord itself:

 

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Some excellent soldering work here. The product may be from Cooler Master but the internals are all japanese, and if you had any doubts:

 

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So rest assured that you are getting a very well built keyboard for the money. If you are going to go even further, then best do it in an enclosed space. All the screws (stainless steel and black anodized aluminum) need to be removed before you get to these:

 

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These conical springs are one part of what makes the whole Topre experience unique. They rest on an electrostatic layer:

 

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As far as I know, pressing these down completes the electrical circuit going to the controller on the PCB which recognizes where it comes from and outputs the desired keystroke. Please do correct me if I am mistaken here.

 

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The key stems are held in place on a steel plate (which is spray coated for some reason) for more rigidity. The larger keys have stabilizers in place, and the space bar has lube on the stabilizers which is a nice touch- this will help delay or even prevent the “space bar catching†that some keyboards are affected with over time. Now simply reverse all the steps and the re-assembly is complete. For those wondering, yes the keyboard is still working just fine. The only moment of concern I had was when I was one spring short but then I realized that it was on top of another spring! I wasn’t necessarily doing this with a ton of care and this just speaks to the high build quality of the keyboard to have withstood my punishment here.

 

Conclusion

 

The Cooler Master Novatouch TKL currently costs $165.99 in the USA as of the date of this article and this is down from the release price of $199.99 (which currently is what it still costs from the US Cooler Master store). In the UK, OcUK has it up from £149.99 including VAT. This is a much easier product to justify at $165.99 than $199.99 but is still not an easy thing to do. Cooler Master is aiming this for gaming professionals but they usually are sponsored by gaming brands already, including CM themselves (Team Curse, for example) but not even CM sponsored teams are using the Novatouch TKL! If that wasn’t enough, let’s look at the typing professionals part. I took this keyboard around a lot- my university library, the university newspaper editorial team, a few fellow graduate students working on their >100 page thesis documents- and just about everyone had (a) no idea what a Topre keyboard was, let along the specific Novatouch TKL here and ( B) said they would gladly pay $150-200 based on their limited experience with the keyboard and the time it saved already. There is no software bundled here, and a direct plug n’ play is what these guys all appreciate. That second part is a good place to be in, but what good does it do when potential customers have no idea the product exists? Cooler Master has had a marketing struggle with this product, they haven’t made it any easier for them aside from the price reduction and part of that struggle is mine as a reviewer. I truly believe this is an excellent product, and worth the money. But convincing Joe Enduser to shell out this kind of money when he has been browsing retail stores for $20 keyboards is a hard sell. Then add to this the absence of a numpad and wrist rest and suddenly most of the membrane keyboard customer base feels strange even considering this. I won’t even get to the customers wanting “gaming keyboards†as they fully expect backlighting, macro keys and more. I feel that a neglected customer base here is the typist who uses membrane keyboards all the time but can appreciate trading some money for time saved, and there are always the more experienced users of peripherals who have used and appreciated Topre keys before. Overall, the Novatouch TKL is a good product, it performs everything it claims to be and offers enough unique features to carve out a slice of the peripherals pie. I have become a believer myself over the course of 4 months, and this is why I fully recommend the product- to try out, at the very least.

 

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Pclinde    197

Thanks man, and yeah it's a great looker!

Yes, indeed it is. :) I love my NovaTouch TKL. :D

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