This article originally appeared on The Tech Report.
Forget, for a moment, what the Cooler Master MK850 looks like. Forget about its RGB lighting, its brushed metal top, its many keys and buttons, and the software that comes with it, because none of those things make it a keyboard of consequence. The only thing we really care about is whether or not the MK850 can deliver on the tantalizing promise of analog keyboard input for gaming.
That promise first emerged after a long and deep look at the Aimpad R5, a prototype keyboard bearing Aimpad’s analog sensing technology. If you haven’t read that article, or this one, stop now and go do it. Seriously. Because after the R5 experience, we know what we want. Combined with the resources of Cooler Master, is Aimpad’s analog input ready to “just work” on a polished, mature-feeling platform?
Analog Versus Digital
In short, here’s what analog input is all about: Aside from the Aimpad-empowered MK850 and the Wooting One, all mechanical keyboards on the market right now employ digital input—which is to say, binary input. When you press a key, it sends a simple on or off message. This makes sense when you’re typing, of course; you either want a character to appear on a page, or you don’t. But in gaming, it’s preferable to have more control.
PC gamers have long grown used to the idea that they’re working with digital input. You press W to move that way, D to move that way, and so on. But as console gamers are well aware, using analog sticks for movement gives you a lovely amount of more nuanced control.
Put as simply as possible: When you want to move in a PC game, you press a key and go. If you want to change your speed, you have to use a modifier, like pressing down left Shift to sprint. You can’t creep slowly, walk, jog, and sprint using a single keypress. But if that W key was analog, you could. If you press down a tiny bit, you slink along; if you press a little further, you walk; and if you bottom out the keypress, you’re running. Now apply that capability to things like racing and flying games, and imagine how much more control you have over the action. That’s what analog keyboard input gets you.
Aimpad uses the action of a mechanical switch to create analog input. The technology is proprietary, but basically, it shoots a beam of light from the surface of the PCB into the switch housing. When you press the key, the switch stem descends, and the beam measures the amount of reflected light and translates that to analog input. When you’re typing, you can simply toggle analog mode off. Without Aimpad, in fact, the MK850 would still be a perfectly fine mechanical gaming keyboard.
The Road To Here
The Cooler Master MK850 is the first shipping keyboard bearing Aimpad’s analog sensing technology, and just the second of its analog kind after the Wooting One. The fact that this keyboard exists at all is big deal. Aimpad is a tiny upstart outfit that makes a weird technology that precious few people even knew was possible. It was hard enough to get keyboard enthusiasts and a couple of journalists excited about Aimpad; it was quite another to convince a larger keyboard maker like Cooler Master to put it into a product.
Credit where credit is due: Cooler Master deserves a hat tip for taking a risk on Aimpad. Too many companies play it too safe with things like this, largely because there’s no guarantee of success (read: ROI). But sometimes you just roll the dice on something that seems too good to pass up. We don’t know what sort of support (or lack thereof) there is for Aimpad within CM’s ranks, but in any case, those hurdles have been cleared such that the MK850 was born.
Partnering with established keyboard makers was always part and parcel of the Aimpad plan. The company never wanted to build its own keyboard, and its technology doesn’t need any special switches. In fact, both the Aimpad R5 prototype and the version of the MK850 I’m typing on right this moment use unmodified Cherry MX Red switches. (In the case of the MK850, it’s Cherry MX RGB Red.) The patented Aimpad goodness is in and around the PCB, so although an enterprising keyboard maker definitely needs to specially design the internals of a keyboard to implement this analog tech, the other bits–layout, chassis, cable, switches, keycaps, and so on—are all off-the-shelf.
This is in contrast to Wooting, which has taken the opposite approach. The Dutch company builds its own keyboards. Everything ”Wooting” is analog, and its version of analog sensing requires the special construction found in Flaretech’s switches. Because only eight keys on the MK850 have analog capabilities (more on that later), Wooting is still the only company that has made a shipping keyboard that is fully analog.
For what it’s worth, neither approach is inherently better or worse. That two such different strategies have emerged side by side is to the benefit to this brand-new, tiny market.
Button, Button, What Are The Buttons?
Aside from the analog part, the particulars of the MK850 will sound familiar: RGB lighting, a full-size layout, multiple dedicated media buttons, a bank of extra macro keys, a metallic top plate, and a detachable wrist rest. Etcetera. Let’s have a look at how Cooler Master laid out the MK850 and implemented analog controls.
First impression: Wow, that’s a lot of keyboard. I suppose I’m not sure what I expected, but the MK850 is…horizontally generous.
There’s a lot of extra stuff along the top of the keyboard, too. There are two rollers up there, one to control backlighting brightness and one for volume. Next to those are five additional buttons, four of which are media playback controls, and one that toggles the backlighting on or off. This top row feels both like a design afterthought and a thin excuse to put CM’s new dual roller controls on something. (You’ll find them on the upcoming Cooler Master ControlPad, too. Not for nothing, that device is loaded with Aimpad technology, as well.)
Initially, I had a similarly dim impression of the extra M keys and geez, three more buttons on the upper right corner of the MK850, above the numpad. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a mainstream keyboard with this many keys, buttons, and rollers, and I generally detest extra googahs that are there for no good reason. But it didn’t take long to see that the M keys and those three buttons exist to give you better analog controls.
The first of the three buttons toggles Aimpad on or off, and the other two let you dial the “sensitivity” of the analog input up or down. You likely won’t be touching these buttons much. You don’t need to turn Aimpad off to use regular keyboard input, and in practice I found that using the sensitivity +/- buttons within a game creates buggy problems.
This is the minorest of quibbles, but I think I would actually prefer the on/off toggle to be a two-key press instead of these twin buttons. Same goes for the sensitivity +/- buttons. I know, I know, why two keys instead of the one? Well, you just don’t need to use those buttons all that often. And when you do use them, they’re interruptive anyway, so why not make them all some variation on “Fn + [something]” and skip the unnecessary burden and clutter of creating dedicated buttons?
That whole vertical row of M keys, by contrast, offers important functionality as it pertains to Aimpad, and you’ll be glad to have them available with a single keypress. Reflecting the Aimpad R5 prototype, there are multiple preset modes you can use for different games.
That includes a “Normal Keyboard Mode” that uses no analog sensing. So if you just want to use the keyboard normally, tap M1. You’ll need it if, for example, you want to type into in-game chat; when engaged in analog mode, the analog keys don’t produce letters. So you would open chat, tap M1 to enter Normal Keyboard Mode, type what you want to say, and then tap another M key to enter the analog mode you want. Technically, Normal Keyboard Mode / M1 is part of Aimpad, so entering this mode is not the same as turning Aimpad off. (Sometimes, you may need to kill Aimpad in the case of a bug or other oddity. For that you need the right-side toggle button.)
It’s important to note here that only eight keys on the MK850—QWERASDF—are capable of analog input. I’m of two minds about this. Partly, it’s a big letdown. Just those eight? Why not the whole friggin’ keyboard, like Wooting has? But if we’re being honest about the true usefulness of analog input, it’s really all about control and movement in games (and potentially some professional productivity applications). That being the case, do you need more than eight analog keys? Sometimes, yes; I wish, for example, that at least the arrow keys were similarly appointed, because I like to use them for vehicles instead of the mouse.
The eight-key-only setup, though, is for the most part an acceptable capitulation to practical needs. The cost and complexity of making the whole keyboard analog may have been just a little too much, but also a mite unnecessary.
Analog aside, the MK850 offers tons of onboard controls. Without software, you can enable up to four profiles, get creative with the backlighting, and go nuts with macros. It’s also worth noting that although the MK850 is in my humble opinion sort of ungainly, its brushed-metal top plate design is fetching. I also like that Cooler Master resisted the urge to go full gamer and instead employed an attractive keycap font. (If only the legends and sublegends were evenly lit.)
Into The Portal
Predictably, the MK850 comes with configuration software. Cooler Master’s Portal gives you some solid options for setting things just the way you want them. As with the MM830 mouse, it’s divided into a few sections, although they’re germane to this keyboard: Aimpad, Lighting, Key Mapping, Macros, and Profiles.
The latter two are self-explanatory. They’re nearly identical to the versions of Portal for the MM830 mouse, so everything we said about that holds true here. It’s pretty intuitive to use the Key Mapping area. Every key is configurable, including the two rollers and adjacent buttons. All you have to do is click the GUI of any key or button, and a little pop-up menu gives you options. You can assign an alpha, modifier, navigation key, numpad key, media control, and more. You can assign a macro to any key, too.
The Lighting area gives you numerous effects to choose from, including Static, Rainbow Wave, Breathing, Reactive, and others that sound familiar. There are a few other ones like Crosshair, Rain, Game Snake (it does what you think it does), Fireball, and even multi-layer and multi-zone options. You can also adjust the direction of effects, their speed, and the brightness. You can create custom colors, too. It’s about as robust a spate of lighting options as you could want.
However, I didn’t like that the M1 key stays white and lit no matter what, nor that the Caps Lock key stays off unless you actually press it. Both kind of through dirt on the otherwise smooth look.
The Aimpad section seems like it should be big and complicated, but it’s not. It’s refreshingly simple. There are three M keys you can select, and this would be a good time to talk about what they all do.
The five M keys’ responsibilities are as follows:
- M1 = Normal Keyboard Mode
- M2 = FPS Mode
- M3 = Driving and Flying Mode
- M4 = Advanced Flying Mode
- M5 = Speed Mode
We discussed Normal Keyboard Mode above. FPS Mode gives you analog control on the WASD keys. Driving and Flying Mode puts the left and right movement controls on A and D, and what would be RT and LT on a gamepad on W and S, respectively. Advanced Flying Mode has WASD set for up/down/left/right analog stick, while Q and E give you LT and RT. Speed Mode simply gives QWERASDF a high actuation point that’s adjustable.
Even though each mode has set assignments, you can add gamepad functions to any of the remaining free keys. For example, because FPS Mode uses only WASD, that leaves Q, E, and R open for other bindings. In the Aimpad area, you can also adjust the sensitivity of the keypress, in eight stages on a notched slider.
Note, by the way, that in Speed Mode, you can actually change the actuation point of the switch using the physical sensitivity +/- buttons. It’s a feature that’s somewhat buried amidst all of these other things, but it’s kind of a big deal. You could make a keyboard with just that as a premier feature, and it would entice people to buy.
For all the MK850’s glitz, it’s the least important part about this keyboard. Cooler Master could have slapped this all on a piece of plywood for all I care, so long as Aimpad’s analog sensing works like it should. And that, more than the keyboard itself, is what we’re interested in for now.
I recall that upon my first go-around with Aimpad, I had some issues getting it to work in some games. Partially, that may have been because the prototype keyboard itself was finicky. Now, with a polished, professional version of Aimpad in hand…it’s still a little finicky.
Although the MK850 (and the Aimpad part of it) is technically plug-and-play, Cooler Master recommends downloading Portal first. Once you have that, the next question is which games Aimpad supports. There’s a full list on Aimpad’s site that indicates which titles work best with Aimpad, which are “fully supported,” and which are partially supported, with little notes here and there for context. The big disclaimer is that if a game is not on the list, that doesn’t mean it’s not supported.
The inverse is also true: Just because it’s on the list doesn’t mean that it will work with Aimpad when you try it. We definitely had some issues at times. When you run into trouble, there are a couple of fixes you can try, such as making sure the MK850 is plugged in before any other peripheral so the system recognizes it as “Player 1.” CM suggests using Aimpad’s AXCT tool to check that. If you’re on a pre-Windows 10 system, you’ll need to install the Xbox 360 Controller Driver to get anything to work.
CM also recommends calibrating the MK850 the first time you plug it in, and then again any other time you toggle Aimpad on or off using that aforementioned button on the upper right of the keyboard. This bit feels a little frustrating; you want something like this to just work out of the box. Given that CM suggests doing so every time you toggle Aimpad off and on (not hitting the M1 key mind you, actually shutting it off), it seems like a pain in the neck.
This little passage from the MK850’s page feels extremely analog, and not a good way:
We recommend to not calibrate until after the keyboard has been plugged in for at least 5 minutes. The LEDs “warm” up over time, so if someone calibrates the keyboard right after plugging it in then you will likely have to recalibrate it again because the values will shift.
That’s right folks. You have to let your flashy new keyboard warm up before you can calibrate it. We digress.
The calibration process is simple and fast, though. You press and hold the Fn + the “-” keys for five seconds. The UIOPJKL; keys will light up in some combination of green and red. Those eight keys correspond to the eight analog keys (QWERASDF). If any of the UIOPJKL; keys are red, press and hold the corresponding QWERASDF key for a few seconds until you see the light switch from red to green. Do this for every key in each of the M2, M3, M4, and M5 modes. And then calibration is complete.
I wish getting Aimpad to work like I wanted it to was easier. Some games, like Team Fortress 2, didn’t work at all. Others, like Overwatch, worked perfectly the first time out, while still others force you to think hard about how to make key assignments before you can have any fun. For example, games like Trackmania Turbo and Star Wars Battlefront demand some remapping from things like mouse controls and arrow keys. This where it would be nice to have analog arrow keys to work with. Honestly, it feels a little bit like a crapshoot at times, and that’s disappointing.
When the analog input works, though, it’s wonderful—but subtly so. If you’re expecting a dramatic, lightning-bolt change in how your games feel, you’ll be disappointed. But in the gaming world, small changes can be a big deal. We’ve leapt from 60 Hz refresh rates to 144 Hz to VRR. We obsess over details like mouse acceleration. We can’t bear to game on keyboard switches that are 15 gf heavier or lighter than our prefered weight. And so on and so forth.
So, yes, the difference in feel in a game with analog keyboard input switched on or off is slight, but you will absolutely notice it. Maybe not so much at first, but when you revert back to digital input, you’ll see what you were missing out on.
I’ve said this in print before, but the best comparison I can think of is when Blu-ray became a thing. I was unconvinced by the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray at first; DVD was amazing compared to VHS. How much better could Blu-ray be? The first time I watched a Blu-ray, I could see that it was very nice, but it wasn’t until I went back and watched a DVD that I realized how much better it was. After that, I never wanted to watch a DVD again. So it is with analog keyboards versus standard ones.
Instead of tap-tap-tapping all the time to perform what are frankly herky-jerky movements, you can move more gracefully, with intuitively variable speed. If you’re like me, you’ll also notice a change in the way you game. With digital input, I often just kind of smash down each key to move. But when I have analog capabilities under my fingertips, I stop being so heavy-fingered. I bottom-out the keys less and less, often hovering somewhere in the middle of the travel to make my person or vehicle obey my will just a tiny bit more smoothly than I could before.
It’s rare that I gush about any product, but part of me wants to open the floodgates for the Cooler Master MK850. It’s by no means a perfect product—it’s kind of garish, with too many extra buttons for no reason, and there are still a couple usability issues—but if you’re a gamer who’s been eagerly waiting for analog to go more mainstream, it’s an exciting product.
But unless you’re eager to tinker and patiently map out key bindings, the MK850 might drive you a little nuts. There are some games for which Aimpad just won’t work, or will only partially work. You’ll find bugs and glitches. You’ll wait for firmware and software updates. You’ll be frustrated at times.
Even if you’re up for all that, you might wish for some differences. I would absolutely prefer heavier switches, for instance. Cherry MX Blacks are much heavier than Reds, and I believe that extra resistance would deliver a stronger feelings of control. Apparently the darker switches absorb too much of the IR light and wreck the controls (talk about subtle differences, yeesh), but in this age of switch proliferation, there’s a multitude of switches of all colors, weights, and styles that should work just fine with Aimpad. But Cooler Master is in charge of the actual products, and the company likely doesn’t want to change the variable of offering a non-Cherry switch while bringing out such a brave new feature as Aimpad.
I’m also not so enamored of the gamery aesthetic of the MK850. To each their own, of course, but there’s no reason for all the angles, and extra lighting, and tedious extra buttons. More is not more, necessarily. But Cooler Master has gamers in mind, and for whatever reason, there’s a certain look that “gaming” keyboards must have.
It’s also important to be clear that for as exciting as it is to get analog keyboard input on a real product from a big-name company, Aimpad has a ways to go. It’s still just a bit too unpolished for average gamers to fall in love with it without caveats.
But Cooler Master has certainly improved upon the R5 with the MK850, and maybe it can continue improving upon what it’s done with Aimpad. Regardless, the company absolutely deserves acclaim for having the guts to try something weird that had no guarantee of working, let alone of succeeding financially. There’s too often a crippling sameness among the approximately 80 bazillion mechanical keyboards you can buy these days, too many keyboard makers are playing it too safe.
I’m on record as saying that analog keyboard input is a game-changer, pun intended, and although the Cooler Master MK850 hasn’t brought the technology to the promised land, it’s a bold and exciting step closer.