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SteelSeries Apex 3 TKL Review: A Budget Keyboard Worth Giving a Chance

Rating:
9/10
?

  • 1 – Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 – Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 – Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 – Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 – Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 – Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 – Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 – Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 – Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 – Absolute Design Nirvana

Price: $44.99
Eric Schoon

Budget gaming keyboards can be iffy, to say the least. Walking the tightrope between affordability and quality is a tricky thing, and one of them usually winds up being left behind. The Apex 3, however, manages to balance both elegantly.

Here’s What We Like

  • Nice rubber-dome switches
  • Solid hardware
  • Water resistance
  • Good RGB lighting and features

And What We Don’t

  • Software’s lackluster

We’re reviewing the tenkeyless (TKL) model, to be specific, but the full-sized model is basically the same product with a Numpad and magnetic wrist rest. The full-sized model costs $49.99, while the TLK model we’re testing will set you back  $44.99. That’s not a huge price difference, so you should get whichever layout you prefer. Almost every word in this review can apply to both, so it’s not a big deal which one you get at the end of the day. I like TKL keyboards, so I prefer this one regardless of the minor price cut (although an included wrist rest would’ve been nice).

Besides the layout, for less than $50, mind you, you’re getting a lot here: media controls, software features, RGB lighting, water resistance, and it’s available in six different languages. Which begs the question: how did SteelSeries that price in a gaming keyboard? Well, unlike most gaming keyboards, this isn’t mechanical—it’s rubber-dome, more similar to cheaper keyboards you’d find in offices across the world. Rubber-dome switches usually aren’t a great sign for a gaming keyboard but wait, because the Apex 3 pulls this off surprisingly well.

Surprisingly Satisfying Switches

Rubber dome (or membrane) switches get a bad rep a lot of the time, and for primarily justified reasons—a lot of really cheap keyboards that don’t feel good use them. As I just mentioned, you’ve likely used a membrane board before in an office or attached to a laptop. They’re usually characterized by a shallow, mushy feeling that doesn’t compete with most gaming keyboards’ mechanical switches. I’m a big fan of mechanical switches, but the Apex 3’s is a great example of how to do a gaming keyboard right without them.

Close-up of SteelSeries Apex 3 TKL membrane switches
Eric Schoon

This is easily one of the best membrane keyboards I’ve ever used; it still keeps a surprising amount of tactility and depth to each keypress, removing a lot of issues with membrane switches while keeping the benefits like the low noise factor. It’s still a bit mushy, which is to be expected, but it’s clear that SteelSeries put a lot of effort into making sure these switches would support the budget price tag while still feeling good to type on. For gaming, they won’t be as good, even if SteelSeries optimized them for that specifically, but they’re more than okay if you’re anything other than a hardcore competitive gamer.

You could consider that a failing of the product as a gaming keyboard, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Still, frankly, most people don’t fully utilize most gaming benefits mechanical keyboards offer. Mechanical boards tend to be preferred for the feel of the switches, with some minor performance advantages that will only be noticed by the keenest touch.

Generally speaking, typing on the Apex 3 has a very soft feel to it. And while personal preference will ultimately make the final call here, I like it. Going from my usual keyboard, which has exceptionally tactile and loud switches, to this doesn’t feel worse per se, just different, and there’s a lot of value in that. If you’ve never fully understood the appeal of mechanical keyboards, or even if you do and tend to prefer smoother switches smoother with less tactility, I think there’s a good chance you’ll like these switches as well.

That’s not to mention the price tag—there are $50 mechanical keyboards, but not only are they lacking features, they usually don’t feel great. For the money, it’s just not realistic to have the build quality a good mechanical keyboard needs. While it’s not the best, the Apex 3 offers a significantly better typing experience than most budget mechanical keyboards, along as you’re willing to meet it on its terms.

The Rest of the Hardware is Great too

SteelSeries Apex 3 TKL on desk
Eric Schoon

But let’s not stop there; the Apex 3 as a physical product is great in almost every mark. While most of the keyboard is made of plastic, making it remarkably light, it still feels reasonably solid and doesn’t flex while typing. The keyboard’s body has the same soft feel as the switches, and the keycaps bold legends make it look sharp without being overly “gamer.” Thanks to the membrane base inside the keyboard, RGB lighting can smoothly glow under all the keys, which looks great regardless of the settings you’ve applied.

There are even some media controls here, with a volume dial and pause/play button located above the navigation keys. The play/pause button lacks any labels, which is sort of strange, and pressing it is a bit awkward due to how close it is to the navigation keys, but it’s helpful to have. As is the fact that you can push down on the volume dial to mute audio.

Close-up of media controls on the SteelSeries Apex 3 TKL
The volume dial and play/pause button. Eric Schoon

Besides that, there’s also a pair of quality kick-out feet on the bottom for angling the board alongside some cable routes. Pretty standard, but what isn’t is that this keyboard is water-resistantAccording to SteelSeries, this keyboard can handle some light splashes and maybe even a big spill or two, so you can be a bit more comfortable drinking things at your desk. That said, don’t expect it to survive complete submersion by any means.

SteelSeries Apex 3 TKL close-up of kickout feet
Eric Schoon

This is all what I would hope to see out of a $50 membrane keyboard and even more. Like the switches, I think the Apex delivers something better than most budget mechanical keyboards can offer here. It’s impressive, to say the least, and only makes the Apex 3 more enticing.

Software is Kind of Strange Though

SteelSeries Engine software opening page
What you’re greeted by in SteelSeries Engine

Using SteelSeries “” software for this keyboard is sort of strange. You open it up and get modern-looking, minimalist menus that are responsive and easy to navigate. But once you start customizing your keyboard, it feels like you’ve traveled back in time. The software devolves into this ugly mess of boxes and buttons that, while hiding some decent features, doesn’t make you want to spend a lot of time here. I haven’t used SteelSeries’ products in the past, so I don’t know if this is the case for all its peripherals, but if not, the Apex 3 is getting the short end of the stick here. But at least the features still make this worth talking about.

… and what it looks like while customizing the keyboard

The major stuff is all here: You can reprogram keys, adjust RGB lighting, and create macros to your heart’s content. But if you dig in the menus, you can also have keys act as macro shortcuts, open applications, and act as media controls. All great, but it’s a shame you can’t reprogram the volume dial or pause/play button—that’s a big missed opportunity to me, especially with how dials can be used in programs like Photoshop for all sorts of actions. There’s also no way to apply multiple actions to a single key, so if you wanted a key to serve its normal function but then do something extra like adjusting volume if you pressed in combination with the “Alt” key, you just can’t.

That’s a significant weakness and makes the reprogramming options a lot less valuable as you’ll always be trading functionality of keys instead of adding it. It’s not a huge deal, but it does put SteelSeries Engine behind the best of the best.

A No-Brainer for the Money

The Apex 3 offers a lot for $44.99, and it manages to stick the landing on most of it well. It’s not a keyboard to surprise or impress you, but it is good. The biggest weakness is the software, and while it’s a bit lackluster, it still delivers the essential features you’d want out of a gaming keyboard.

If you’re looking for high-end hardware and software, then this is not the keyboard for you or the right price bracket, to be frank. I’ve used mechanical keyboards that cost less than $50, and they don’t offer nearly as many features as the Apex 3 nor feel as refined on the hardware front. While the lack of mechanical switches will be a big downside for some, the keyboard more than makes up for it with premium rubber-dome switches and solid hardware.

It’s nothing inherently extraordinary, but for the money, it’s about as good as you’re going to get unless you absolutely need mechanical switches.

Rating: 9/10
Price: $44.99

Here’s What We Like

  • Nice rubber-dome switches
  • Solid hardware
  • Water resistance
  • Good RGB lighting and features

And What We Don’t

  • Software’s lackluster

This post was originally published on this site

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