BOSTON – The Whirlwind FX Element keyboard is a full-size RGB mechanical model that costs only $100. That's a promising start, but what really sets the Element apart is that it can react to whatever's happening onscreen, with any game that you choose. The process requires quite a bit of programming know-how, but if you're willing to sit down and script something ambitious, the Element can be both gorgeous and useful.
I went hands-on with the Whirlwind FX Element at PAX East 2020, and came away with two thoughts: "This has the potential to be very cool," and "Who's going to go through all this trouble?" Before PAX East, a Whirlwind FX representative got in touch with me and claimed that the Element was the "first RGB keyboard with real-time dynamic lighting effects for ANY game" (emphasis theirs). What I didn't know going in was that while this is technically true, it can take a lot of work.
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First things first: the Whirlwind FX Element is a full-size mechanical keyboard with per-key RGB lighting. That's impressive for $100. But part of the reason why the keyboard costs so little is because it will utilize Gateron switches. (The model I tested used Kailh, but there are problems with Kailh's supply line due to the coronavirus.) Either way, the keyboard's red-type switches are a little mushy and imprecise, at least for touch typists.
The Whirlwind FX Element's physical design isn't its main selling point, though; even its price is only secondary. What's really impressive about the machine is that, theoretically, it can match its lighting with whatever's happening on your game screen. It's not the first keyboard to do this, by any means; Razer keyboards have preprogrammed patterns for games like Overwatch; Logitech and Roccat keyboards can both sample your screen and adjust their lighting accordingly.
For example: In a game of PUBG, the keyboard flashed white most of the time, red whenever a player had low health, blue while they were recovering and green as soon as the recovery was complete. This can be a fairly helpful feature, since your peripheral vision is good at detecting color changes while your focus is elsewhere.
But when I asked a Whirlwind FX rep how long this profile took to create, he replied that it took a staff member about 10 hours. That's not prohibitive — and the process will probably be shorter in the future, now that there's a template — but it also means that anyone who makes a profile will have to be pretty dedicated, both in terms of game knowledge and programming skills.
However, the Element had one extremely cool feature: You can program which parts of the screen affect which peripherals. That means you can connect multiple keyboards and assign each one to change colors based on a different part of the screen. At PAX East, the Whirlwind FX team set up a "wall of keyboards" that would all change color in unison as they played different videos on a computer monitor. It was a very cool feature, although it's not likely to see much use in a home setup.
Overall, the Whirlwind FX Element will be what people make of it. If it attracts a vibrant community with a lot of programming know-how, it could be a rich repository of clever keyboard patterns. If not, it's a fairly cheap mechanical keyboard with some potential and some drawbacks. You can order one from the Whirlwind FX website now, if you're so inclined.