Just over a week ago, I attended a function in Cape Town hosted by Wootware and AMD for the Ryzen family of processors. I didn’t expect to find any gems at the event besides Ryzen, but there was one that took me by surprise. Wootware had a Wooting One analogue mechanical keyboard on display! It’s the only one in the country, and its also a pre-production model, assembled by hand and without any of the issues that Wooting had in the factory. I had to put my hands on it for some tests, and I came away somewhat surprised with the short amount of time I spent with it.
The Wooting One is a tenkeyless design, with optical switches designed by Flaretech, designed around the idea of keeping both the switches and the chassis modular to allow users to customise it. Indeed, one of the perks of being a Kickstarter backer for the Wooting One is that you get extra switches of the opposite type you ordered to test or mix in with your current setup. The options so far are only red and blue Cherry MX-like switches; the former features no tactile feedback, while the latter has the familiar half-depress tactile feedback characteristic of Cherry MX Blue and Brown switches. The one on display at the Ryzen event featured Flaretech reds, even though this is difficult to tell just by popping off a keycap and looking at the switch alone.
Flaretech’s red switches have very little feedback, so it was a bit weird trying to use the Wooting One in analogue mode to play games. Unlike an actual controller, the actuation force is low and feedback while depressed is minimal because the springs are light, so there was no control over how far, or how lightly, I could really press the keys in. Coming from a now-ancient Cooler Master Quickfire Pro with Cherry MX Brown switches, I suspect that I may be a bit heavy on the keys as well, but having no feedback really hindered the experience.
The analogue input worked properly when testing it out in the joystick control panel, but the game on display, Rocket League, didn’t work all that well with it. Rocket League correctly identified the keyboard as an Xinput device when the mode was switched, but it did not respond to slight depressions in the keys when turning or accelerating. There may be several reasons why the keyboard didn’t work as well as I expected, but potentially one of them is that the travel distance you get with proper joysticks on a controller is much higher than the distance the keys have to travel up and down. Some games may need their sensitivity settings tweaked to suit Wooting One owners, but I’m of the opinion that the kind of input Wooting is trying to mimic is going to be very hard to nail down. Sometimes, controllers just work better (sorry, r/pcmasterrace).
Switching the keyboard to digital mode turns off the analogue measurement that the Flaretech switches allow through the use of a laser, and it becomes a plain old mechanical keyboard with knockoff Cherry MX Red switches. The keys all have the same linear response and the same feel to them, so that’s good – the quality is up with there with other red switches I’ve used or tried briefly. The per-key RGB coverage is pretty cool too, matching those by other vendors playing in the same price range. The RGB controller should be similar to the one that Corsair uses in their keyboards, so it’s programmable in the same way that industrial RGB controllers are and will probably be supported by third-party controllers such as ASUS Aura Sync, or MSI Mystic Light. I didn’t get to try out the Wooting One software on the device since that’s not available yet, but I think the customisation aspect of the keyboard will be a killer prospect for owners looking for something different.
There were several other things I wanted to try, but didn’t have the time or tools to test things out at the event. Wooting made the switches modular, so you can theoretically pull them out and replace them on the fly without the USB device driver in Windows throwing a hissy fit, but I didn’t have a flathead screwdriver on hand to try pop it out (plus, the keyboard easily costs over R3,500). The faceplate is also removable and can be swapped with another of the same simensions, so that opens up the avenue for crazy 3D printed designs, or one-off custom designs made by modders and fans. Wooting will have the schematics of the face place up eventually, but some people who have the prototypes already can scan them into a CAD project and let others use it as a template.
Since it’s also based on off-the-shelf parts, there should also be drivers for the RGB controller in Linux already. Wooting has no plans for launching software for the One on Linux, but that might happen anyway thanks to community members who will be able to slap up something quickly.
Finally, I really want to see how this works for more games and software as time wears on. Analogue input devices on the PC have been limited to just handheld controllers and dedicated joysticks for now, but it provides a range of motion not offered previously. Flaretech’s switches can detect not just the distance to a fully depressed key, but the logic can also figure out the force of the key stroke, or the intention of the user to push down again or let off the key. You could hit a key harder or faster than normal for a secondary function, or a special symbol. Contextual switches for typists would be a fantastic option, and it opens up a bunch of designs for new slim form factors.
This means, as well, that USB polling at higher rates might finally have a point. Mechanical and membrane keyboards have no need to push up the polling rates to 1GHz. It’s a useless feature. There’s no human alive that can overwhelm a keyboard at 100MHz (depressing keys faster than one hundred times a second), and switches today only have “on” and “off” arguments to their operation. Having analogue input means that you can map motion accurately according to key input, and software could even detect when a key press is accidental and when it is intentional based on the force you used to depress it. Autocorrect in Word based on how you pressed a key? Yes please.