Cooler Master’s peripherals division has made great strides in the last year or two. From high-end offerings to their more affordable options, Cooler Master seems able to cater to all price segments in a way that few (if any) other peripheral vendors can. Making high-end peripherals isn’t easy, but it’s simpler than dealing with the more budget-friendly offerings of the price-sensitive market. Cooler Master seems to have pulled it off (or at least produced a winning formula), with surprisingly great products at an alarmingly low price.
The Cooler Master CK550 is testament to this, and it’s not difficult to see why.
This keyboard (on paper) offers most of what keyboards double the price offer, and does it without feeling plasticky or cheap. How Cooler Master manages this is evident once you take a closer look. Yes, it doesn’t have an LCD display or touchpad – but those are gimmicky at best and better suited to a multimedia keyboard than one used for gaming, which is exactly what this keyboard is built for.
Cooler Master is able to provide this level of functionality at this price through the use of Gateron’s mechanical switches (the model I tested used the Gateron Red switches) with RGB lighting. Gateron switches are similar (if not near-identical) to Cherry MX switches, but come in at a lower price. They follow a similar naming scheme to Cherry MX, with the Red keys on this keyboard offering smooth, linear feedback. Much like the Cherry MX Red switches, bottoming out the keys means it’s a little noisier than what may be tolerable in a quiet office environment – but certainly not at a noisy LAN, for example. The CK550 is also available with Brown or Blue switches, which are again analogous in tactile feedback to what Cherry MX switches offer.
Build quality is of paramount importance to me, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the CK550 is far better than I’d expected. My go-to method for testing material quality and structural integrity is the twist test, where I grab a keyboard by its two opposing edges and gently try to torque it. Testing it in this way, the CK550 did better than I’d anticipated, only twisting ever so marginally. It’s perhaps an odd test, but it proves to me that the CK550 is rock-solid and should be able to withstand plenty of physical abuse (this isn’t to say it’s okay for you to mistreat your fancy new keyboard, obviously).
Connectivity is handled via a generous 1.8m-long cable, which unfortunately isn’t braided or sleeved, instead sporting the more traditional rubber insulation. This choice of cabling was perhaps unavoidable, as Cooler Master was targeting a retail price of $100 (around R1,300 locally). That said, a sleeved cable is certainly something I would’ve paid slightly more to have.
On to more of what the CK550 does well, it’s got a floating, bezel-less design which allows for very easy cleaning, while also creating a pleasing halo effect because of the RGB lighting underneath.
Those sorts of touches are great, but it’s what happens when you plug the CK550 into your computer that matters. And this is where the keyboard really comes into its own.
Upon connecting the CK550, you’re immediately greeted by the vivid, bright RGB lighting – which is another surprise, given that most “budget” gaming keyboards have dim, dull LED lighting. Moreover, instead of the lighting zones we often see on cheaper RGB offerings, each key on the CK550 has an individually programmable LED (something which was absent on the ROCCAT Horde AIMO, for example).
The next thing you’ll notice is the gunmetal brushed aluminium frame, which is usually reserved for much more expensive keyboards. Be warned that, at its brightest, the lighting may result in a harsh glow as the light bounces off the backplate, so you might want to turn the brightness down a notch to avoid this.
Where key layout is concerned, the CK550 takes a minimalist approach, lacking any dedicated macro or media keys. This once again helps bring down the price, as it adheres to the standard 106-key layout almost to a T. The only exception is the sole [FN] key, designated by the Cooler Master hexagon in place of the standard context menu key. Other than the expected controls for lighting and media (all handled via the [FN] key), the only other additional key is the expected Windows-key lock.
Despite the absence of dedicated media keys, the CK550 can do everything most multimedia keyboards can do and more. Instead of making a massive unit with dozens of additional keys, Cooler Master has kept the design much more compact by giving 29 of the keys an additional function when pressed in conjunction with [FN]. Most of the lighting effects and even the recording of macros can be controlled via key combinations, which are explained in the included quick-start guide. You’ll most certainly need this guide, as these combinations are very confusing initially and it may take days if not weeks to get used to how it all works.
If you’re not interested in mucking about with key combinations, Cooler Master has put together a pretty decent software package for taking full control of the CK550. You can do things that’re absolutely impossible using just the key combinations, so you’re probably better off just using the Cooler Master Portal application. Controlling the lighting effects without this software is also confusing, and anything but intuitive. Going forward, perhaps Cooler Master should consider a simpler system for direct keyboard control, and leave the more elaborate settings for the software.
The Cooler Master Portal application allows you to do a number of things, from assigning macros (including reprogramming of the default macros) to setting your own RGB lighting effects and more. It isn’t as all-encompassing as some rival software suites, but it certainly gets the job done and I much prefer this method of keyboard programming.
Typing on the CK550 is very much akin to using a keyboard with Cherry MX switches, with a slight, yet noticeable difference. After weeks of using the CK550 (a significant chunk of which was spent doing stuff like typing this review, as well as several others), I came to miss the reassuring tactile feedback I’ve become accustomed to with Cherry MX Speed and Silent switches, although this is of course purely subjective. I can say, however, that if you’ve ever used and enjoyed Cherry MX Red switches, you should have no problem loving the CK550.
As for the relatively small amount of gaming I did, the somewhat cushioned, linear action was perfectly fine. The few macros I’d assigned also worked perfectly across multiple systems.
With all that said, at this price point the Cooler Master CK550 is a solid contender and would be a definite consideration for me if I were buying on a budget. I can’t help but feel that it could’ve offered a little more at a slightly higher price point – but as it is, the CK550 is still worth significantly more than the asking price, and well deserving of our Value Award.