Once you’ve created a market, how do you stay at the top of it? For Metadot, which in 2005 all but pioneered the commercialization of mechanical keyboards with the Das Keyboard, the answer seems to be: Keep doing what you do well and hope people will continue to pay a premium for it. Though its price ($169 to $173, depending on model) makes it a tougher sell now that it’s no longer the only game in town, the Das Keyboard 4 Professional is unquestionably the company’s finest keyboard to date. It’s also our Editors’ Choice for general-purpose mechanical keyboards.
Design and Features
The Das Keyboard 4 dispenses with much of the plastic that had previously defined the line’s looks. The fine-if-flimsy top deck has been replaced with an aluminum one that, despite barely altering the weight (from the previous-generation Model S, it’s increased only from 2.51 to 2.56 pounds), makes for a noticeably sturdier, firmer feel beneath your fingers. One other major change is that there are no longer flip-out legs on the underside of the keyboard for adjusting the typing angle; now you prop up the keyboard using an included magnetic footbar, a workable, if inelegant solution.
Otherwise, the overall design of the Das Keyboard 4 is largely unchanged from that of the Model S: The black exterior finish is now matte rather than glossy, and a different font is being used on the keycaps (unless you opt for the all-blank Ultimate version), but that’s about it.
The biggest visual departure is a functional one. Whereas the Das Model S added media capabilities by using a devoted key to flip the actions of many of the F1-F12 keys, the Das Keyboard 4 introduces dedicated hardware controls. Located just above the number pad are buttons for Sleep, Mute, Play/Pause, Track Back, and Track Forward, along with a large volume knob, the addition of all of which thrusts the Das Keyboard 4 into the 2010s.
One further change nudges it further to the front of the pack: The two-port USB hub, also located in the upper right, now supports the faster USB 3.0, an industry rarity. (If you’re using an older computer or you don’t have a free USB 3.0 port into which you can plug the keyboard, it will still work as USB 2.0.) Those USB ports have also been moved from the keyboard’s right edge to its rear edge, which is more convenient if you’re a right-handed mouser.
Metadot is still using high-endurance, gold-plated switches, in your choice of two styles. The Cherry MX Blue switches, both tactile and clicky, provide two kinds of feedback; Cherry MX Brown, on the other hand, is tactile but not clicky, producing less sound to annoy workmates or housemates. (My personal preference remains for the Blue.) The switches also account for the difference in price—you’ll pay $4 more for the quieter, Brown-equipped keyboard.
Performance and Conclusion
Mechanical keyboards are the way typing was meant to be; mashing your fingers against mushy, nonresponsive plastic switches isn’t good for either your hands or your word-per-minute count. On my Blue-armed test unit, typing was every bit the joy it’s been on the Das Keyboard II I’ve owned for almost seven years, my fingers bouncing between keys like the feet of an expert tap dancer, and both my hands and my ears registering when I’d typed what I meant to (or, occasionally, what I didn’t mean to). Though my right pinky occasionally bumped into the oversize volume knob, it and the rest of the Das Keyboard 4′s media controls worked properly, and are a definite improvement over the kludgy handling of those features on the Model S.
If there’s no question about the Das Keyboard 4′s worth as a keyboard, whether it’s necessarily right for you is another question. Priced nearly $100 more than I paid for a (non-USB, no-media-controls) Das Keyboard II in 2007, and $40 more than the last iteration (with the integrated media controls and a USB 2.0 hub), it’s not inexpensive. And the larger range of mechanical keyboards on the market now means that many competing products give you as much or more for less money. The Roccat Ryos MK Pro, our new Editors’ Choice for gaming keyboards, costs the same but also delivers a raft of customizable lighting modes, programmable macros, and a built-in audio pass-through—something the Das Keyboard 4 noticeably lacks, but that is beginning to look like as significant an omission as media keys were five years ago.
Because of its superior design and functionality, the Das Keyboard 4 Professional easily replaces the Das Keyboard Model S as our Editors’ Choice for general-purpose mechanical keyboards. But that high price and increasingly stiff competition should remind Metadot that the pride of place it has enjoyed for a decade is hardly a guaranteed lifetime position.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc