- Typing Test
- Packaging, Unboxing, and Contents
- Build Quality
- Layout and Function Keys
- Summary & Conclusion
- Full Gallery
- Where to Buy
Keycool has always been a budget mechanical keyboard brand, but they’re stepping up their game with the Hero 104 RGB. Keycool’s moving up the food chain and going after the high end of the market.
The Hero 104 RGB is a full-size Cherry MX-compatible keyboard with Kailh RGB switches. Unlike earlier generation Kailh RGB boards like the Rosewill RGB80 which were limited to per-keyboard RGB, the Hero 104 sports a controller and firmware capable of per-key customization, plus a solid selection of active backlighting modes. Overall, it’s a tight package. Its street price is ~$130 plus import fees, as up until now it’s only been available through Asian export channels. Fortunately, it’s now available from Massdrop for just $89.99.
However, it’s competing against a lot of boards like the Ducky Shine 4, the Corsair K65, K70, and K95 RGB, the Razer BlackWidow Chroma, and even the Royal Kludge RC930 series. RGB by itself isn’t enough to make a keyboard stand out in 2015.
Is the Keycool a true Hero among its rivals, or just An Hero? Keep reading to find out!
Packaging, Unboxing, and Contents
My review unit was the same keyboard Massdrop used for the current drop’s photo shoot, so it came as an open box item. I suspect some of the internal packaging (e.g., bubble wrap) was previously discarded, since inside the box was just keyboard against cardboard. The box is sturdy when closed, although its sidewalls are thin. Take a look at Royal Kludge RC930-87 packaging (left) vs. Hero 104 packaging (right):
The box is very plain, printed with little more than a few black Keycool logos. It comes with a more decorative cardboard sleeve, which is the only part of the packaging marked with the keyboard’s model information. Most of the details are in Chinese.
Inside the box, you’ll find the keyboard with a permanently attached braided USB cable, a cheap plastic ring-style key puller, and a half-page instruction sheet. The braided cable on my unit is white with gold accents, which nicely matches the keyboard’s case. Braiding is a nice touch for a fixed cable, as is the included Keycool-branded velcro cable tie.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the instruction sheet is also in Chinese. No sweat though; I’ll explain all the board’s features in this review, including how to use its backlighting modes.
The Hero 104’s case is plastic, like nearly all mechanical keyboards in its price range. Mine is the lighter colored gold variant, finished with metallic paint that’s reminiscent of the gold iPhone. The board is also available with a non-metallic black finish.
The case has an average to low amount of torsional flex (the grab ‘n twist test) on par with my KUL ES-87, and doesn’t creak at all. Tapping the case all around the bezel produces no rattling or signs of hollowness. Overall, the Hero 104 feels very solid, and compared to what I remember of my old Keycool 87, definitely a step up from normal Keycool standards.
Aesthetically, it appeals to my tastes. I like the thin bezels; this board has about as small a footprint as a full-size board can have. The sides are nicely angled, with slightly dished curves. Of course, a positive tilt causes ergonomically undesirable wrist extension, but the Keycool is no more culpable in this respect than any of its peers.
I did notice some paint chipping on the keyboard’s corners:
I’m not sure when this occurred or whether it was user- or factory-caused, but it may be an indication that the paint is a weak point on the Hero 104’s case design.
Reverse side (rubber pads, feet, etc.)
On the flip side, the Hero 104 RGB features a white color scheme with a big ugly black sticker right in the middle. The underside of the case has considerably more texture than the top painted side. Pressing down on it reveals no mushy spots.
The board has three sets of rubber feet–two for normal usage and a third under the front lip to ensure skid-free operation while typing with the two rubber-tipped feet flipped down. The rubber feet feel just OK to me. Unlike the Royal Kludge RC930-87 I reviewed earlier this month, the feet aren’t spring assisted. They don’t feel weak or brittle but they’re nothing inspiring. At least they’re rubber tipped, unlike the HHKB.
The Keycool features a 3-way cable routing system for the permanently attached braided USB cable. No cable customization here, folks, unless you’ve got a soldering iron and are willing to open your keyboard. I do like the routing system on the Keycool, though. Unlike my Realforces, it’s not too tight, so it’s no big deal to reroute the cable whenever I want. The connector is also encased in a plastic or acryllic strain relief connector, which is secured by screws and is very effective for both lateral and direct pulls on the cord. If you trip over your Hero 104 table, you’ll be much more likely to rip it off your desk, along with your monitor and PC tower than you are to rip the cable out of the keyboard.
One flaw I noticed on my unit is that a couple of the top case clips seemed not to be completely flush on the underside of the unit, although this didn’t seem to affect the keyboard’s integrity at all.
Of course, I had to try barcode scanning the QR code on the Keycool’s label. I was a little disappointed to find it just links to Keycool’s site. 🙂
The Hero 104’s stock keycaps are average to slightly above average for stock caps. They appear to be white ABS with translucent doubleshot legends, which is certainly better than some of the reverse-coated backlit stock keycaps out there whose legends quickly flake apart. (These caps are totally transparent, and are painted everywhere except the legend to let light shine through.) Keys with a Fn-layer option are marked with blue side pad printing. Thickness is average, on part with boards like Filco, QFR, and KUL. The cap surfaces are very slightly textured, with homing bars on F and J.
The legends, like all legends, are a matter of personal taste. I’m not a huge fan of these but I’ve seen worse. There are some interesting choices, like “PU” and “PD” for Page Up and Page Down, respectively, and the general theme is futuristic, which is not out of place on an RGB board. The typesetting is competent; the legends line up pretty well and
none of the legends are obviously out of place. EDIT: As pointed out by NateHawk on Massdrop, the – and + keys show reversed legends compared to 1-0, which have the main character on the left and the shift character on the right.
Keycool was one of the first brands to switch from genuine Cherry MX to Kailh clones when the latter came out in 2014.
Kailh… what can I say?
Initially, the community was skeptical of Kailh. It was understandable, given that a known and well-liked product was being replaced by an unknown, low-cost alternative. Warnings of broken switch stems and contact problems swirled for a while. Except… here we are today and there is pretty much zero hard evidence that there’s anything wrong with Kailhs. They haven’t been around long enough for us to get a true sense of their longevity, but anyone who pays attention to /r/mechanicalkeyboards and GeekHack knows that there have not been widespread reports of malfunctioning Kailhs.
So again, what can I say? I have no particular love for Kailhs, and would probably take Cherry if given a choice, but at this point it’s just plain disingenuous to claim that there’s anything wrong with them.
My Hero 104 has Black switches–the heavier version of linear Reds. They’re as smooth as genuine Cherry switches, and they work flawlessly. They do feel a tad heavier than genuine MX Blacks, though the Kailh data sheet posted on the /r/mechanicalkeyboards switch wiki says that they should have the same 60g weighting as Cherry MX Blacks.
Of course, these aren’t standard Kailh switches, they are Kailh RGB switches. I have to say, it was a smart business move on Kailh’s part to pump out an RGB switch while Cherry’s official MX RGB switch was locked into an controversial 1-year exclusivity agreement with Corsair (though that deal has now expired).
Kailh RGB switches use in-switch LEDs, a design that closely resembles standard 1-color backlit Cherry MX switches. This is a substantially different approach than Cherry MX RGB switches, which have surface-mount diodes on the PCB that shine up through the transparent housing. Cherry claims its design results in better light diffusion. I don’t have an MX RGB board to compare the Hero 104 to, but the Hero achieves pretty darn good light diffusion through the use of a white painted plate underneath the keys, similar to the WASD CODE:
It certainly diffuses the light better than the Royal Kludge RC930-87, and the LEDs are plenty bright. More on this below, in the Backlighting section.
Layout and Function Keys
The Hero 104 has a completely standard layout, which means it’ll work with any modern Cherry MX replacement keycap set. If you’re picking up a Hero 104 and want a keyset to go with it, I highly suggest joining the current KeyChatter – Massdrop joint Triumph Adler group buy.
Unfortunately, there is no tenkeyless version of the Hero 104 yet. The Keycool 87 currently on Massdrop is backlit, but not RGB.
Function keys include:
- F1: Windows Explorer (Windows only)
- F2: Browser (Windows only)
- F3: Calculator (Windows only)
- F4: Music player (Windows only)
- F5: Previous track
- F6: Next track
- F7: Play/Pause
- F8: Stop
- F9: Mute
- F10: Volume Down
- F11: Volume Up
- F12: Win lock (disable Windows key, e.g., for gaming)
All function keys aside from F1-F4 work fine under OSX except Stop, which isn’t recognized by the OS. Also, on my Mac at least, pressing Fn+F12 to lock the Windows/OS key also sends an F12 scan code that opens up the Dashboard in addition to locking the key.
The Hero 104 also has several additional backlighting-specific function keys, which are discussed below.
Now, the good stuff. 🙂
The Hero 104 features per-key RGB backlighting, meaning you’re able to customize key colors individually. Additionally, it offers a variety of active backlight modes. Check out this video for a quick 5-minute overview of the Hero’s backlighting capabilities.
- Fn+Ins: 7 color cycling mode (all keys rotate through 6 colors+white). Use Fn +/- to choose between 3 speeds. Press again to pause/resume.
- Fn+Home: RGB burst (RGB explosion from center of board outward). Use Fn +/- to choose between 3 speeds. Press again to enable RGB burst only while typing. Press again to lock the current color in place, then use Fn+L/R arrows to change the color. Press again to return to basic RGB burst.
- Fn+Page Up: Side sweep (gradient sweeps from left to right). Use Fn+L/R arrows to change direction. Press again to pause/resume.
- Fn+Del: Side RGB sweep (like side sweep, but multicolored). Use Fn+L/R arrows to change direction. Press again to pause/resume.
- Fn+End: Per-key RGB mode. Press once to enter per-key typing mode, and again to program. The Win Lock LED will come on. Press keys to rotate through colors. Press Fn+End again to save configuration.
- Fn+Page Down: Ghost trails (typed keys briefly illuminate and fade). Press again to toggle through colors.
Brightness can also be adjusted in most of these modes using Fn + Up/Down. The Hero 104 has approximately 25 brightness levels.
The Hero 104’s active backlighting modes are very smooth, and to my eyes appear to operate with thousands of colors, if not more. Is it 24-bit (16.8 million colors) like the Corsairs? I can’t say for sure based on eyeballing it, but I can’t differentiate the stepped color changes in modes like 7 color cycling.
However, it’s very important to note that the Hero 104 is limited to 7 colors (6+white) in per-key programmable mode, as illustrated in the video above. When I got the board, I suspected that it might have a desktop utility like the Royal Kludge RC930-87 to set colors beyond the built-in ones, but I could find no such utility on Keycool’s site. It’d be really great if the keyboard were capable of being programmed precisely this way, but unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be the case. If any Chinese speakers come across promising information on the web, be sure to let me know.
Hero 104 RGB vs. other backlit & RGB boards
- vs. Ducky Shine 4: Unlike the Hero 104, the DS4 is not true RGB; rather, each key has two colors that can be mixed to create a limited range of hues. The DS4 also has per-key programming, but with 2 layers instead of just one. The two boards share many backlighting modes. The Ducky has a couple the Keycool doesn’t, like snake mode (though the Keycool’s boot sequence looks kind of like this). However, even with its extra modes, the DS4 looks a little antiquated versus the Keycool’s advanced active RGB modes.
- vs. Corsair RGB boards (K65, K70, K95): The Keycool outshines the Corsairs in terms of active backlighting modes, as the Corsairs only feature color cycling, waves and ripples, and ghost trail typing, compared to the Keycool’s larger portfolio of modes. The Corsairs are also still limited to 512 colors for the time being. However, the Corsair CUE software is powerful and really highlights the Keycool’s need for a similar software package.
Summary & Conclusion
- Good overall build quality, especially for a Keycool board
- $89.99 price point from Massdrop is very competitive with boards like the Ducky Shine 4 and Corsair RGB models
- Advanced RGB backlighting with many active modes and per-key RGB programming, unlike first-gen Kailh RGB boards
- RGB appears to be thousands or millions of colors in active backlighting modes (though not per-key programming mode)
- Permanently fixed USB cable is braided
- Available in black or gold
- Compact, attractive case with thin bezels
- Easy to use cable-routing system with excellent strain relief mechanism
- Keycaps are doubleshot rather than painted translucent
- Standard key layout works with any modern replacement Cherry MX keycap set
- 25 brightness levels
- NKRO over USB, including on Macs
- No backlight control software, at least as far as I can tell
- Despite overall good build quality, some small quality issues like easily chipped paint and loose tolerances on case clips
- No programmable layers; beaten out by the Royal Kludge RC930 in this regard
- Only 7 colors available in per-key RGB mode
- Permanently fixed USB cable
- Lacks some of the backlighting modes that are commonly found on other boards, e.g., breathing
- Lousy extras in box, only a single instruction sheet in Chinese and a throwaway key puller
- Ho-hum packaging
- No tenkeyless model available
Final score: 7.5/10