One thing that may be a stumbling block for most gamers is their choice of a mouse and keyboard. Often when assembling a build you concentrate so much on the hardware and the gaming experience but you then forget to budget for peripherals. Oh dear, oh dearie, dearie me. You grab all your stuff along with a keyboard and mouse that cost R100 each and call it a day. Subjectively, this is the best stuff you’ve ever used so far, but you may not know how much you’re missing out on something better until much later. Sometimes, that realisation is mind-blowing. I had that realisation this past week and its thanks to the two Steelseries products you’ll see in this review. Today I’m checking out the Steelseries Sensei RAW and the 9HD Pro Gaming mouse pad, which I honestly think should be bundled together.

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Some background needs to be set up here, because you might read reviews from writers on sites online and even from within NAG’s own borders that have been checking out these kinds of things for ages. They’re not jaded hacks, far from it, but they’ve got experience with this sort of thing. Geoff ranked the Orobourous really highly recently, putting it, along with a Razer mouse pad, firmly into the Dream Machine category. Was it really that much of a change over the Kone+ they had on there? Reviewers who’ve been checking out mice for a while are used to quality and the high DPI ratios and fiddly bits. I’ve been stuck with a Prestigio USB “Gaming” mouse for the last two years, along with various crappy mouse mats. I’m not a particularly high-end user and that’s because I can’t really afford these things yet. Whatever I get, its pretty much a big upgrade from what I’m using now.

If you upgrade from a Beetle to... another Beetle, there's no hope for you. Seriously. You could have gone with a Porsche.

If you upgrade from a Beetle to… another Beetle, there’s no hope for you. Seriously. You could have gone with a Porsche.

Like when you own a Beetle and suddenly switch to a Toyota Corolla. It might as well be a BMW, that’s how good it feels. Or when you ditch your girlfriend/boyfriend for the hotter girl/boy next door, whom you always admired but never approached in the past. That’s how my experience went with these two.

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The mouse pad comes in a nondescript box that simply slides out of its cardboard cover and pops open at the seams. The plastic packaging is re-usable and won’t require a machete to hack through, while the cardboard is ROHS-compliant, so you’d be doing your bit to save the environment to recycle it. The pad itself has a textured surface that isn’t rough, but isn’t smooth either, sort of like what those Formica tabletops feel like, but without the sticky bit when they haven’t been cleaned properly (see, mom? I know how to do it properly). Looking closer, there’s small bumps in the surface that aid friction and reflect more light back into the laser sensors, making any rubber-footed mouse glide over the surface of the pad, in addition to aiding accuracy. The non-slip rubber underneath really works well – I fell forward off my chair trying to get it to slip. It sticks to glass, wood and even tiled floors, so there’s no surface or place where it wouldn’t work.

The packaging for the Sensei RAW is minimalistic and has a cover, allowing you a glimpse of the mouse before you get to open it. It only includes a quick-start manual, a product pamphlet for other Steelseries peripherals and a single sticker. Once again, the entire package can be recycled as it is fully compliant with safety standards and doesn’t use hazardous or poisonous substances in its make-up.

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The Sensei RAW is the smaller, cheaper sibling to the original Sensei, which boasts a metallic grey finish and has a choice of 16.7 million different colours. The RAW is covered in a soft-touch rubber and it’s advertised as being “anti-sweat”. Its really nice to feel up and it’s pretty big as well. Sad to say, though, the Sensei RAW won’t benefit claw-grip gamers – this is more a palm-grip mouse than anything else, although you could get used to it. When you plug it in for the first time the LEDs beneath the logo on the rear of the mouse and inside the scroll wheel light up and start to slowly pulse. It’s a cool effect and in the dark it’s even better. You can fiddle with these in the drivers later.

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There are the regular two left and right buttons, a smooth scroll wheel, thumb buttons on the left and right sides of the mouse (yes, it’s ambidextrous!) and finally a DPI switch with a status LED in the middle. All the buttons are easy to reach and using the mouse, at least for the first few hours, didn’t cramp up my hand. This is the first ambidextrous mouse I’ve ever used and being left-handed, I decided I’d take a crack at using it with my more sinister side.

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Turning it over, you’re greeted to three hard rubberised feet, a clear plastic bottom and what looks like dual optical sensors. There’s actually only one in there and when you first look at it, it doesn’t seem to actually light up. It’s a Class 1 laser and typically class 1’s cannot be seen by the naked eye because they’re running at a very low voltage. You can verify that the sensor is working by opening up your camera app on your phone and pointing the sensor the bottom bubble – it’ll be visible as a small, white lights. In the Sensei Silver, Fnatic and MLG editions, two lasers are used to provide more accurate tracking. The Sensei RAW is capable of a CPI range from 90 to 5670 Counts Per Inch.

Wait a minute…Counts Per Inch?

Here’s where there’s a slight discrepancy with what Steelseries is marketing and what the rest of the world is used to, which may confuse buyers. Typically we measure mouse sensitivity in dots per inch, derived as a measurement that inkjet printers used to draw images on paper. There’s no set standard for how big this dot is – it’s dependent on your monitor’s size and native resolution as well as the physical pixels themselves. In the early days of optical mice, the lasers would only work on pre-printed mousepads which you had to buy in addition to the mouse itself. Without it, the tracking wouldn’t work. Some enterprising guys back then actually pre-printed the pads with dots or a grid on them to accurately measure the sensitivity and calibrate them properly. Geeks will be geeks, I suppose.

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These days, thanks to the advancements of lasers and monitor resolutions (cramming in more pixels and requiring more accurate mice), it’s a bit of a back-and-forth play for you to set the optimial resolution for your mouse and monitor. Lets take a 15″ 800 x 600 monitor for example. Using this PPI calculator, the monitor has 66.67PPI and a dot pitch of 0.381mm. Moving the cursor one inch horizontally on the monitor’s surface (assuming its flat) would cover exactly 66.67 pixels. Move it twelve inches across and you’ve covered 800 pixels. To have a mouse accurately track across the monitor, it would need a 66DPI count to pretty much move in a 1:1 ratio, requiring twelve inches of free space to move from one side of the monitor to the other. Still following me? Good, because now it gets tricky.

Lets move that 800 x 600 resolution to, say, a 10″ monitor. This yields a 100PPI ratio and a dot pitch of 0.254mm. Moving exactly one inch covers exactly one hundred pixels. To have a mouse with a 1:1 ratio for accuracy, you’d need one with a sensitivity range of 100DPI. You can use the same mouse for both monitors and set it to the perfect ratio for each, but this is dependent on the drivers, the mouse hardware itself and the engine it uses to mimic pixels on a flat surface for accurate tracking. The mouse might work natively at 100DPI, but when you set it down to 66DPI, it’s actually missing that 0.7th of a pixel’s size. Its tracking slower across the monitor than you’d like because it’s not moving in a 1:1 ratio.

With a mouse optimised for 10PPI, tracking would be very accurate. To track on a screen with twice the amount of pixels, the mouse either has to be more accurate, or needs to drop tracking for every second pixel.

With a mouse optimised for 10PPI, tracking would be very accurate. To track on a screen with twice the amount of pixels, the mouse either has to be more accurate, or needs to drop tracking for every second pixel, removing the need for a hardware redesign.

To fix this “slowness”, mouse manufacturers and software developers helped create sensitivity settings and higher DPI ratios. To fix the apparent lack of speed with the mouse on the 66.7DPI monitor, they could raise it in software to 134DPI. Now the mouse tracks twice as fast and only needs half an inch to move the cursor one inch across the screen, reducing fatigue and making movement seem more fluid. However, the methods to get to that level are varied: the mouse engine can simply give it a larger resolution to play with, the drivers could tell it that the actual monitor is much larger, or the OS could tell it to skip every second pixel, effectively tracking half the pixels and reducing accuracy. The more expensive option is just to make a better mouse.

Any one of those methods can be done by any one of those entities and there are many other tricks that manufacturers use. Working out what’s more comfortable for your monitor’s physical size and resolution takes some fiddling in the drivers. My 21.5″ 1080p monitor has a PPI count of 102.46PPI. I prefer using my mouse at the 800DPI setting, cutting out seven pixels for every one when it’s moving faster, but still maintaining some degree of accuracy. However you arrive at your perfect setting is a subjective thing, but you should really sit down for an afternoon and figure it out. I have to change my settings for games that use the Source engine because Valve uses the desktop resolution as the surface area, meaning that if you’re used to using your mouse at 3200DPI on the desktop and the game suddenly halves this because of its default sensitivity setting, you’ll need to adjust it until you’re happier with the setup.

CPI settings (1) CPI settings (2) CPI settings (3) CPI settings (4)

Gamers, don’t ignore this. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not looking into making things more comfortable for yourself, thereby improving your accuracy. Oh and by the way, Counts Per Inch is an interchangeable term to Dots Per Inch. I could have said that in one sentence to clear things up, but I wanted to get the whole DPI thing across so that people understand how it works!

Okay, sweet, don’t waste my time again now…

On the desktop, the Sensei RAW is worlds away from my Prestigio mouse which only cost me a hundred bucks. Both mice are similar, however, in their DPI selectors. My regular mouse is only capable of switching from 800 to 1600DPI, whereas the RAW is more flexible, including three default sensitivity settings in the Steelseries Engine. In the custom profiles, you can have them actively switch between modes depending on the program or app in use, which you link to a separate profile for that app. Surfing the net in Firefox? You can have the drivers switch your low range to 800DPI with a maximum of 1600. Using Photoshop? The drivers will automatically switch to your configured profile tuned for extra accuracy. Firing up Crysis 3? It’ll change, without notifying you or asking you anything, to your custom profile when you click on the executable, using whatever settings that helps makes you the more efficient killer. Its really simple and quite user-friendly and quite honestly, its a killer part of the application.

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Tracking is also far more accurate compared to my regular cheapie. With both at 800DPI, there’s a remarkable difference in how smoothly the RAW moves, never skipping a beat even with lots of movement. My cheapie, on the other hand, is quite easily overwhelmed if I’m really active with it. The RAW can go as low as 90DPI, ramping up the sensitivity by 90DPI intervals to a maximum of 5670DPI. Changes in sensitivity are made on-the-fly in the Steelseries Engine and although I’d never use a mouse at 5670DPI, the RAW is still well up to the job and doesn’t seem to judder thanks to the higher polling rate at 1000Hz. Pro gamers might be able to overwhelm it, but I certainly couldn’t.

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Inside the drivers as well there’s the option to change the LED behaviour (demonstrated above) based on the selected profile. It can be a steady glow or a variable pulse with different intensities. It works a treat if you like showing off and the white light doesn’t hurt your eyes, even in the pitch dark. I like keeping it at a steady glow, the pulsing would just distract me when I was playing late at night.

Admiring the pulsing is like watching a candle burn. You have no idea why you do it, it’s just mesmerising in itself. Okay, stop, look away now.

Ping, ping! Pew! Smash! Rattata rattata!

In games, I found that the Sensei RAW was superior to other mice I’d used before. Crysis 3 was much easier to play through with the higher DPI and low sensitivity settings in-game and I found that the mouse response was excellent. The extra buttons on the side for lefties also helped because I could hit them with my right ring finger, assigning them to activate armor and stealth mode so I can alternately switch between modes quicker while moving. The customisable DPI settings were also a big help, allowing me more accuracy with a lower DPI when using my sniper rifle from a distance without wasting energy on stabilising the rifle. In Crysis 3, this mouse made all the difference.

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I’ve never had so much fun being a Billion-dollar Man than when I’m cloaked and sending an arrow with a delayed thermite bomb into a guy’s ass.

Hopping into Borderlands 2, the difference between this and my cheap mouse was even more apparent. I assign the handbrake and boost functions when I’m in a Catch-a-Ride car to the thumb buttons, changing to throwing out my grenades and using my signature weapon (playing as Axton, which means deploying my turret) when I’m out the vehicle. Its very easy to hit these keys when they’re needed and the rubberised grip means I don’t have any slip from the mouse after playing for a few hours. I’m amazed that I spent over two years with a R100 mouse and didn’t know what I was missing out on.

Then I tried out Portal 2. Now, Source-based games, as I said previously, use the desktop’s resolution for correct mouse placement. If you use a mouse with a high resolution, though, you can easily max out the vertical axis by moving just a few inches up or down very quickly. Once you do that, the mouse’s placement on the virtual desktop used by the Source engine automatically resets it to the absolute center, which you might notice as a small “bob” in the cursor and your viewpoint. That means that to go back down again only requires half the distance because the cursor is no longer at the top of the virtual overlaid desktop, it’s actually in the middle. I was able to get the “bob” to happen on demand, although this wasn’t at all irritating. In practice with other games, I wasn’t able to max out the capabilities of the RAW and I’m sure even those of you who consider yourselves “hardcore” gamers won’t be able to either. Professional eSports players? Maybe. I’ve seen Starcraft II do some weird things to a mouse in the hands of those lightning-fast Koreans.

That’s cool, but will it blend?

Yes, it’ll probably blend pretty well. The build quality is, however, solid and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to come apart any time soon. The rubber surface is comfortable and I don’t think I’ll be used to any other mouse that has a more rough or a glossy surface when the time comes to put the RAW back in its box. The soft-touch surface does pick up scratches and if they’re of the deep kind you can pick them out pretty easily. I was able to remedy this, I discovered, by using a hot, damp cloth to clean the surface, gently massaging it until the scratches were absorbed by the rubber surface. It took out the small scratches my review unit had accumulated with two weeks of use and it looked brand new. With some love and regular cleaning, say once a month, it’ll look new even a year after you’ve unboxed it.

The rubberised feet, however, don’t look very good even after two weeks of use. I’d say that’s mostly down to the fine bumps that make up the Formica-like texture of the 9HD Pro, because I first used the RAW on my fabric-covered ASRock mousepad and it never picked up any scratches. My Prestigio mouse also has hard rubber feet and only started picking up scratches on the 9HD Pro. That said, it’s still a much better mousepad than the ones I’ve owned, including a massive QCK-sized one I got from Microsoft a few years back. It measures 320 x 270mm and easily fits onto any desk. The small size also makes it a lot more portable for LANs and if you own a laptop, it’ll fit in the bag nicely as well.

button frequency macro and button setup

There’s also a very cool option in the drivers for those of you who crave more data about how how you use your data. Inside the Steelseries engine there’s a recording function to demonstrate what keys you press and how often they’re used. Its useful for tweaking your setup, for example, if you’re able to use your ring finger to throw grenades using the other side buttons in shooters because you don’t use them that often. Likewise, setting the mouse up for left-handed use requires just two clicks. Everything from the layout to the progression of how things are set up is well done.

But you said you’re a lefty, right?

Yes and I have to add, I hate being left-handed. Everything on this planet is catered to work better for right-handed people – scissors, pens, kitchen knives, sharpeners, notebooks with circular spines and the numbers on the lower right-hand corner, guitars, hand-held drills, handguns with the safety and clip ejector button on the left, laptops and even watches; it’s like the world hates us. During the dark ages when you were considered evil if you were left-handed (because the Devil is always portrayed to be on the left shoulder), if you were found masturbating with your left hand there’d probably be a very special place in hell for you once they called you out for being a witch by drowning you or burning you on the stake.

On the subject of ambidextrous mice, however, things are improving and I had a stab at using it with my left hand. It was very weird trying to re-think my muscle memory but after a few days, it became a little better. The grip feels exactly the same moving from one side to the other and I had no problems switching sides after a week. In all respects, this mouse was completely comfortable in both hands, which can’t be said for a lot of ambi mice out there. Its not enough to make me switch because I’d have to re-learn everything, but if you’re a sinister person and like using the mouse on the left, you should be satisfied with the Sensei RAW.

I, for one, would love a shop like this.

A rather weird thing is the weighting. The RAW isn’t particularly heavy and there’s no way to adjust the weight, unless you open it (voiding the warranty) and find a way of putting in some extra metal to bog it down. This doesn’t give it the kind of confidence you’d find in a mouse that’s a little heavier, as I find that weighted mice subjectively feel better. However, it’s not uncomfortably light, it just takes some getting used to.

So…you do like the mouse and the mat?

I do, I really do. On their own, both products are good and I’d recommend that every gamer or power user at least attempts to try them out. Sure, there are other products in the same or similar price ranges that could be a better fit but that’s the beauty of the peripheral market – there’s so much choice, it’s highly unlikely you won’t find something you’re comfortable with.

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On their own, however, they’re not inherently better than anything else out there, which is why I said in the beginning of this review that they should be sold as a bundle. The rubberised surface of the RAW contrasts nicely to the slightly rough surface of the 9HD Pro and together they produce a smooth, satisfying experience. I wouldn’t suggest using a mouse with Teflon feet on the 9HD, because there’s the slight chance it’ll actually wear the Teflon down quicker.

Gripes? Caveats? I guess I’d only really have to complain about the fact that I can’t afford them and that the RAW is a bit light-weight, in addition to scratching the feet on the bottom quite easily, possibly wearing it down a little too quickly (we’re talking years, though). Overall, there’s nothing irritating about either of these two products. I had no problem with the Steelseries Engine and an early firmware update for the RAW was done quickly and without fuss. I can even set the unused buttons on the other side of the mouse to perform macros, as well as re-program any button to do any other function, including a double-click – there’s so much done right here that I can’t find any bad.

Honestly, I would have to cover my right eye and say that because it’s a bit blurry when I look at it with my left it’s horribly misshapen and doesn’t deserve to be here, but that’s simply not true.

Are there any alternatives?

I suppose. From Razer, there’s the venerable DeathAdder, a staple upgrade most gamers move to on the recommendations of friends. However, the DeathAdder isn’t ambidextrous even though there’s a left-hand version. Logitech…only makes products for right-handed people, even though the G400 is apparently good. I could go on with great mice that are in the same price range but the truth is that the Sensei RAW and it’s variants are the only ambidextrous mice available in the R500 price range that I could find. Others may be able to find something similar but with the majority of manufacturers only making mice for right-handers, the lefties and people with rare, genuine ambidextrous ability are left out in the cold.

As for the mouse pads, there’s dozens of options out there that are similar or subjectively better and I think you’d only find the perfect one by testing them out one by one. For me, the 9HD completes the Sensei and would probably work just as well for other mice with rubber feet. Its a medium-friction surface that doesn’t come off as feeling cheap or tacky and the anti-slip rubber works like nobody’s business. The biggest thing about peripherals is that you have to be comfortable with them and no one mouse, keyboard or mousepad will work for everyone – its very rare that you get a product that appeals to everyone.

I’d have to say though, these two together, the Sensei RAW and the 9HD Pro, come damn close considering what you’re paying for them.

SteelSeries review Score Box

Buy them here: SteelSeries 9HD ProSteelSeries Sensei Raw Rubberised

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