📅 September 23, 2018
The Corsair Vengeance K70 mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX red switches died recently (that keyboard did not last long), so I have been on the hunt (get it, hunt?) for a suitable replacement.
Having grown fond of the mechanical action for typing, programming, and Linux command line warrior stuff, another mechanical keyboard was required. Could I find another keyboard better than the Corsair that I had spent so much time with?
After looking around and reading reviews, I decided on the Huntsman Elite RGB keyboard from Razer. What was it like to type on? How did the RGB lights perform? And most importantly: how well does it work with Linux?
Despite the promises on the box and on Razer’s web site, I was not impressed, and here is the story…
“Does the Razer Huntsman Elite work with Linux?”
Only as a keyboard.
Every featured selling point is Mac/Windows-specific. Do you dream of watching fancy lighting effects as you type at the Linux command line? Too bad. You only get cycling colors with Linux. Nothing else.
I pay for all of the hardware and software that I write about out of my own pocket. Nobody gives me review samples. I am a customer like everybody else, so if I see something that looks interesting, I buy it and use it to find out how well it works with Linux and then share my experience since others might have similar questions.
If I spend a sizable amount of money on a product, then it better work as advertised. The Razer Huntsman Elite is a pricey item, but I chose this because of the favorable reviews and reported durability. …and because I wanted a really, really good keyboard!
There are many reviews online, so there is no need to repeat the basic information. It is an opto-mechanical keyboard (uses light to actuate, not switches). It will work as a basic keyboard in Linux. Plug it into a USB port, and type away. But this keyboard’s selling points are the features: RGB lighting, wrist rest, scroll wheel (located in the top right corner).
Sure, the keyboard is advertised for Windows and Mac (no Linux support), but so do many other products that end up working better in Linux than on any other operating system. So, why should this keyboard be any different?
Instead of repeated keyboard facts, this article will focus on what I think about its pros and cons and what to expect with Linux.
Durable and Heavy
The build quality is excellent. Larger rubber feet on the bottom combined with a metal/thick plastic construction eliminates sliding. It is heavier than the Corsair Vengeance.
This is important to me. I like the simple font used on the keys. Nothing weird, outrageous, alien, or anything ridiculous that screams “I’m a GAAAAAAAAAAMER keyboard!” Just a basic keyboard font that will grow well with time. It is one of the best fonts that I have seen on a keyboard, and it is the main reason I picked this one. Yes, I like the font.
Soft Leather Wrist Rest
This is a half-pro. Yes, the wrist rest is soft and feels like a premium luxury product. It is comfortable. However, the leather does not cover the entire rest. It is bordered by what feels like metal, and this ended up feeling uncomfortable on my left wrist after an extended typing session. It felt like metal was cutting into my skin even though there were no sharp edges, and it did not.
The RGB lighting produces fancy effects with brilliant and bright key lighting through the key font. Any lighting arrangement you can think of and any light can be programmed to any color or effect. Do you want WASD and Enter to be red while the other keys are blue?
Light programming must be performed through software, not the keyboard, and the software only works on Windows and Mac. It is not really programming. Rather, it is drag and drop to produce light effects. The flexibility is impressive.
The Volume Scroll Knob
Many reviews complained about the volume knob feeling like cheap plastic on plastic. That was not the case for me. The knob felt solid, and it scrolled smoothly without any wobble or looseness. No jumping or plastic grinding. It was fun to twiddle with — kind of like a fidget spinner. Once you begin playing with it, it is hard to stop. I wish all keyboards had something like this. In fact, the scroll action was smoother than the volume control on the Corsair Vengeance K70.
That is all for the positives.
“What? No mention of the opto-mechanical key action? No mention of the typing experience?”
No. Those were not pros from my usage.
Ug. There are some serious deal-breakers in here. Had I known what I know now, I would never have purchased this keyboard. Some are so serious that Razer has made it onto my Naughty List of Computer Companies, and I will never purchase another Razer product. Ever.
The Opto-Mechanical Keys
I did the reading. I watched the video reviews. I did everything I could to get an idea of what the keys were like and how they would sound. I thought, “They sound clicky, but I can live with that.”
Wow, was I wrong.
The keys on this keyboard are LOUD and CLICKY. I cannot stress this enough: LOUD and CLICKY. Yes, I was aware of the sound by listening to videos, but real life usage was completely different. After about an hour of typing, I could no longer handle it. The keys are so loud and distracting that I found them to be annoying and began wishing that I was not using this keyboard.
The best I can describe the noise would be that they sound like Cherry MX Blue switches, only louder and clickier. This is easily the noisiest keyboard that I have ever typed on.
The keys are also very sensitive. It hardly requires any pressure to activate them. I thought that if I typed lighter then the noise would disappear. No. It does not. The click is still present, and it is still distracting.
Apparently, the noisy 1980’s keyboard is making a comeback in the form of the Huntsman Elite.
Wrist Rest and Typing
One of the best features of the Hunstman Elite is also its negative. The metal-like border surrounding the soft, luxurious-feeling wrist rest is uncomfortable. Worse, it elevates my wrists too high over the keyboard.
Yes, matched styling looks good. Yes, the keyboard has feet on the bottom that adjust the keyboard height, but the wrist elevation still feels unnatural. Over time, typing became a chore, and I felt like my hands were tiring faster than usual.
Again, I began wishing I was using a different keyboard. This is about typing, after all. Typing should be natural and comfortable. I found the Huntsman Elite to be more comfortable to type on without the wrist rest. In that case, I should have opted for the cheaper Huntsman. What a pity.
The Razer Huntsman Elite fails in this critical area.
Thick Cable and Two USB Plugs
Like the Corsair Vengeance K70, a thick braided cable connects the keyboard to a computer.
Both plugs are USB 2.0, but they will work with USB 3 ports. There is no pass-through USB port on the keyboard like other keyboards in this price range. So, what is the second USB plug for? Why, to power the lights on the wrist rest!
This seemed rather wasteful to me. I would have preferred a pass-through USB port, but I knew this before purchase. What I did not know was how much I would miss having a USB port on the keyboard.
The braided cable is the same thickness as that on the Vengeance K70. Unlike the K70, the Huntsman Elite splits the two USB plugs from a bulky plastic square. Why? This makes cable routing tricky by causing the plastic to catch on other cables and accessories on a desk. What if I want to drill a hole in my desk to route the cable through? It would have to be a very big hole to accommodate the bulky plastic. For me, this is a serious negative.
On-Board Memory Not Working
This is an advertised feature of the Huntsman Elite, and it is even touted in the instruction manual: program up to five separate lighting profiles on one computer, and then activate any of those effects on another computer lacking the special software.
I thought, “Great! Even if the keyboard does not work entirely with Linux, I can at least program the lights using Windows and then plug it into a Linux system and still enjoy the lights.” This was the deciding factor and critical feature that made me choose this keyboard.
Did it work or not work? Can you guess the result?
No. Nothing. No profile switching. I spent hours trying to make this work. I followed the instructions, I followed Razer’s tech support. I followed online tutorials. Nothing. I could program the lights and macros to my liking when using Windows 7, and it would work fine. But when the keyboard was unplugged from Windows and plugged into a Linux machine, the Huntsman Elite only cycled through the RGB spectrum.
Switching the profiles using the FN key combinations had no effect. Nothing worked even the keyboard was giving the correct color codes.
After more research online, it turns out that I was not alone. Everyone else who was attempting the same trick was encountering the same issue. Apparently, on-board memory does not really mean on-board memory like we think it means. It still requires the software to activate. Other articles reported that this function did not operate at all.
In Linux, the Huntsman Elite lights will illuminate, but they only cycle through colors. You have no control over the lighting effects, and they cannot be changed. No matter how much time you spend configuring profiles in Windows (or Mac), you cannot enjoy them in Linux. Yes, the “on-board memory” appears to work with Windows IF you are running the special, required software, buy no joy for you if you use Linux and you think you can program in one OS and then plug the keyboard into Linux despite this promised feature.
I wasted hours configuring pretty keyboard layouts under the assumption that the on-board profiles would be the saving grace only to discover that they would not work with Linux. Go cry.
And now, we approach the main reason why I had so much difficulty with the Huntsman Elite: the software.
If you think you can simply plug the keyboard into the computer, download and install some software, and then have fun, then you are sorely mistaken. Oh, no. That would be too easy.
Instead, Razer requires that you have an online account and then connect online before you can use the fancy features of your brand new, expensive keyboard.
Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~?! Whose DUMB idea was that?
Razer requires that you use the Synapse software. Apparently, this is some kind of product integration software that covers more than the Huntsman Elite. Sure, you can still use the Huntsman Elite as a normal keyboard and start typing. That works fine. However, if you want to customize the lighting or add macros or reprogram the volume knob, then you must use the software to do so.
Okay, no problems there. But why, OH WHY, must I be required to create an online account first? Razer offers online cloud profile storage, but I have no interest in that. I just want to customize a few lights and then be on my merry way. It would be better to provide an option to skip that.
However, there is no option to skip this step. You are required to create an account.
Required Online Connectivity
Now, that I created a completely useless account that I will never use again in the future, Razer wants to connect to its servers using the Synapse software. All right, I am losing patience at this point. Why? It seems so unnecessary for a mere keyboard. But that is not all. Razer’s servers were apparently down at the time I was trying to set up my new Huntsman Elite keyboard, so I could not connect in order to program the keyboard.
Required online connectivity is a serious deal-breaker for me because the only Windows system I had available at the time did not have Internet access. I downloaded the Synapse software through Linux and then transferred it to the Windows 7 system, but that was not enough. Synapse demanded an Internet connection before it would let me do anything. No programming. No lights. No macros. Nothing. It was no Internet, or no features for you. Grrr!
This was a problem since the Windows system could not access the Internet in any form. So, I had to go through the hassle of setting up a Windows system that could connect to the Internet, and when it did, Synapse would still not connect even if Internet and networking were functioning perfectly. I could view the Razer web site and download software just fine, but Synapse itself refused to progress beyond the log in dialog.
At first, I used Synapse 2, but I was always greeted with an Error 8303 — whatever that means. Other users experienced the same error, and the only solution was to wait. I did, but 8303 never resolved.
Synapse 3 (Beta)
Then, I discovered Synapse 3 and downloaded and installed that. It was labeled beta, but that was all that was available. I entered my Razer account to log in, but still nothing. However, the error message changed to No network connectivity detected, which was bizarre because the whole Window system had perfect Internet access with everything else. Only Synapse raised a stink.
Keep in mind that an Internet connection is required. You cannot, I repeat cannot, use Synapse to customize your keyboard in any way until you first log in to Razer’s servers, which were apparently not responding. This means if Razer goes out of business and their servers are taken offline, then you are left with a keyboard you cannot customize, which reduces the Huntsman Elite to the level of a cheap keyboard in functionality. Brilliant idea…
Eventually, after some length of time and many, many retries resulting in lost hours of my life, Synapse 3 finally connected. (Yes, I used the same username and password each time, so that was not the issue.)
It appears that Synapse 3 requires the initial connection. After that, you can use Synapse 3 without an Internet connection. However, it is the initial connection that creates the conundrum.
I had to install the Chroma module in order to make advanced changes to the lights.
Synapse operation was simple and somewhat straightforward. Usually, drag and drop handled everything. There is no real programming as with C or C++.
As far as customization goes, this is a monster keyboard. You really can customize and fine-tune keys and macros to your liking. In fact, you can associate profiles with games so each game can be given its own illumination pattern. Are you playing Book Maker Simulator? Then you can set the alphabet keys to be brown while the other keys are white. When you start the game, the keyboard will immediately switch to that color scheme. It is a fancy effect, but only if you run Synapse 3.
However, these features only work on Mac or Windows. No matter how much time you spend fiddling with profiles and effects, they will not work with Linux. If you plug the keyboard back into Windows, the profiles will be restored.
I was counting on being able to achieve this, but no go.
Since the Huntsman Elite requires Synapse for programming, the volume wheel only acts as a volume control in Linux.
Synapse 3 with the Chroma module requires about 308MB of disk space. That seems like bloat to me for a mere keyboard.
Yes, I get it. There are other products from Razer and this is likely the one-stop-software, but it still seems like a waste of hard drive space if using a single keyboard.
“What about OpenRazer?”
OpenRazer is an open source project that attempts to make Razer products work in Linux. As of the time of this article, there is no support for the Huntsman Elite, so that is not an option.
“Why didn’t you try the keyboard out in person before buying it?”
The Huntsman Elite was not available in my area, so that was not an option.
“Is an Internet connection required to use Synapse 3?”
For the initial connection, yes. After you have successfully connected to Razer’s servers at least one time, then Razer will let you use the software and program the keyboard without requiring a network connection.
For me, this was a major bummer, a deal-breaker, and a frustrating situation since the only system I had available at the time to run the Synapse software had no Internet connection. This is terrible software design on Razer’s part for not providing a fallback for situations like this. What if Razer’s servers go down? What if Razer discontinues the online cloud service? This seriously handicaps the Huntsman Elite in the future.
“Why not purchase another Corsair Vengeance K70?”
I was not impressed with its lifespan. It was more expensive than the low-cost, out-of-production Saitek keyboard that I am writing this article on, and it lasted nowhere as long. Why buy another and risk the same result? I wanted to look for quality this time, and that meant avoiding Corsair.
Using the Razer Huntsman Elite was an onerous, disappointing, tedious chore. The main sorry state of affairs was the required online connectivity before the required software would let me do anything to the keyboard. Until I could connect online through the proprietary Synapse 3 software, the Huntsman Elite was no better than a cheap mechanical keyboard — only much more expensive.
I chose the Huntsman Elite for the RGB and macro features, but I could not use any of these features on a keyboard that I paid a lot of money for until Razer gave me permission to do so through their problematic software.
And even then I had problems. The on-board memory feature I was relying upon to work with Linux did not work. I lost count of the wasted hours trying to resolve this one issue despite following all instructions exactly.
Even as a keyboard, the Huntsman Elite fails. The wrist rest creates an awkward height that is uncomfortable for typing, and the keys are far too loud and clicky to concentrate.
I would never use this keyboard again, so I returned it, but even that made the matter worse. Since the keyboard was technically not defective, I was charged a
punishment fee restocking fee in addition to paying for return shipping. This was a significant monetary loss for me. I could have purchased two decent-quality mechanical keyboards from another brand for the cost to return this one keyboard. This is a heavy keyboard, so shipping is expensive.
If you enjoy Razer’s products, fine. Go for it. However, I cannot recommend the Razer Huntsman Elite to any computer user — not even Windows users due to the online requirement to customize the keyboard. I certainly cannot recommend this keyboard for Linux users no matter how attractive it might look in pictures. If using Linux, you will be left with an over-priced keyboard whose features are so close yet so far away. You would be left with a basic keyboard. If that is the case, then why not purchase a basic keyboard to begin with and save the money?
The Razer Huntsman Elite: a keyboard I recommend avoiding no matter who you are — especially if you use Linux.