It only makes sense that after tuning the lowly mouse to gamer specifications, the various input device makers would turn their attention to keyboards. Razer's new $99 Tarantula gaming keyboard is not the first of this new breed, but it's definitely one of the best. It's also one of the most expensive. Still, if you're willing spend a little bit more for gaming-input precision, then the Tarantula should be your pick. Among other reasons, it has more out-of-the-box features that will matter to gamers as soon as they set it up.
Gaming keyboards seem to universally take up massive swaths of desk space. Although it looks very large when you take the glossy, KITT car-black Tarantula out of the box, it's only a little wider than Saitek's competing Eclipse II gaming keyboard (19.5 inches vs. 20.25 inches). And Logitech's 21.5-inch G15 is even wider.
One of the things we like most about the Tarantula is its build quality. At 2 pounds, 8 ounces, it feels more substantial than the Logitech (2 pounds, 14 ounces) or the Saitek (2 pounds, 11 ounces), even though it actually weighs the least of the three. Its glossy black finish also looks the sharpest. The Tarantula has stick-fast rubber feet on the bottom that give you the confidence that during an intense gaming session, it won't slide out from under you. It almost feels like it attaches itself to your desk. The other two don't hold their position as well.
All three keyboards have LED backlighting, making it easy to see the keys in a darkened game room. Like the G15, the Tarantula lights up blue but only on the keys along the outer edges, not the main letter keys. The Eclipse II, on the other hand gives you blue, red, and purple options, so if custom colors turn you on, the Tarantula can't compete. But we much prefer customization options with a more practical purpose, and the Tarantula beats the other two by far. Like the G15, the Tarantula comes with customizable hot keys. The Tarantula doesn't have quite as many, 10 to the Logitech's 18, but we think the Tarantula's are laid out in such a way that it's easier to remember which button does what, with 5 running down each side of the keyboard, rather than clustering the buttons like the G15 does.
The Tarantula's customization edge lies not only in the placement of its hot keys, but also in their design. In the box, there's a plastic tool that looks like a small mouth harp, as well as 10 free-floating keys, each with a different game-related icon theme. There's a button with an image of a knife on it, one with a grenade, one with a fist, and seven other game-related icons. With the mouth-harp tool, you can pry up one of the generic left or right function keys and pop in one of these handy icons, giving you an instant visual reminder of which key does what. Further, you can use the tool to take out any of the keyboard's other keys, and with the easy-to-use Razer software you can change the standard QWERTY layout to any configuration you can imagine. You can integrate the icon keys in with the letters and reassign virtually every single button. The software lets you set up to 100 different profiles. The Tarantula also comes with 32KB of built-in memory, which lets you store your profiles on the keyboard itself for when you move it between machines.
Gamers don't care about movable keys if the keys' response isn't tight. Razer has obviously gone to great effort to make sure that keys feel crisp. We can't say the same about either the Logitech G15 or the Saitek Eclipse II. Their keys feel simply, well, regular. The Tarantula's spring back satisfyingly when you press them.
Aside from the full-size keys, the Tarantula has easy-access media control and image zoom keys running down each side, and they feel more accessible than when those keys line the top edge of a keyboard. It's also intriguing that the Tarantula has a socket in the middle called the Battledock that will accept Razer-made accessories, such as a Webcam or a light. We can also imagine a microphone attachment for voice chatting. Razer has already built a headphone and microphone jack into the Tarantula. Logitech can perhaps claim that its G15's built-in LCD screen is more useful than the Tarantula's Battledock, and indeed, if you can find or write the software to make the screen work with your favorite game, you might find the G15's display more useful than a superfluous light. But there's not exactly a flood of downloadable applications for the G15, and the keyboard has been out for more than a year.