Tom's Guide Verdict
The SteelSeries Apex 3 will get the job done, but a cheap office keyboard would serve almost as well.
No game mode
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The SteelSeries Apex 3 ($50) is part of the Danish manufacturer's new lineup of budget-friendly gaming gear. This membrane keyboard sounds good on paper, with a reasonable price, RGB lighting, water resistance and an included wrist rest. But, like most membrane keyboards, it's simply not that comfortable for either typing or gaming, and most of its features feel half-baked.
Granted, no one should expect a top-of-the-line gaming keyboard for $50, and I understand how the Apex 3 could be a good stepping stone for young, cash-strapped gamers who want some of the bells and whistles of a higher-end device. Comparable mechanical keyboards tend to cost between $100 and $120 — but if possible, I'd still recommend saving up for one of those. The Apex 3 will get the job done, but a cheap office keyboard would serve almost as well — and a mechanical-gaming keyboard would serve much better.
SteelSeries Apex 3 design
The Apex 3 measures 17.5 x 5.5 inches, although the width can increase a bit, thanks to a magnetic, detachable, 3.1-inch wrist rest. The black plastic chassis feels thin, light and a little cheap, as to the humdrum keycaps. The wrist rest, though, is surprisingly solid, offering sturdy, comfortable support.
As the keyboard is a little on the small side, there's not much room for extra keys. In the upper-right corner, there's a volume dial (very handy) and a "multimedia button," which can theoretically play, pause and skip songs, depending on how many times you press it in rapid succession. In my tests, though, I couldn't get the button to do anything, even after updating the firmware and trying it out with different media players. However, SteelSeries tried to replicate my issue on a variety of machines, and wasn't able to, so this could be an issue unique to my system. Either way, the multimedia button is nice to have, but it isn't a make-or-break feature.
SteelSeries Apex 3 keys
I compared the typing experience on the SteelSeries Apex 3 with cheap membrane keyboards from Dell and Microsoft; the Apex 3 was actually a little more difficult to use. The keys are workable, sure, but they feel stiff at first, and mushy once depressed.
Even though they’re not that comfortable, the keys are effective for typing. With the Apex 3, I scored 117 words per minute with 98% accuracy on a Typing.com test, as opposed to 119 wpm with 98% accuracy on my regular Logitech G913. This difference is negligible, considering my familiarity with the latter device.
SteelSeries Apex 3 features
For a $50 keyboard, the Apex 3 has fairly robust software. That's because it runs on SteelSeries Engine 3, which has been one of the better gaming-peripheral programs on the market over the last few years. You can use this software to adjust the lighting, program macros and remap keys. In fact, you can reprogram almost every key on the device, which is something that even many fancier keyboards don't offer.
On the other hand, the RGB lighting leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of per-key lighting, you get 10 different "zones" to customize. This is par for the course among cheaper keyboards. But the lighting itself looks a little anemic, especially in bright rooms. None of the colors are especially vibrant, and the lighting effects are pretty tame.
There's also not much synchronicity between devices. I tested the Apex 3 alongside the SteelSeries Rival 3 mouse, but there was no way to sync the lighting or to create gaming profiles that would encompass both gadgets.
One feature that is worth discussing is the Apex 3's IP32 water resistance. This means that "vertically dripping water shall have no harmful effect when the enclosure is tilted at an angle up to 15° from its normal position." In practical terms, this means that if your keyboard is tilted upward (it has two adjustable feet in the back), it can probably survive an accidental water spill.
I tested this claim and found that the keyboard did indeed spring back from half a bottle of water splashed over its surface (after letting it dry first, of course). This could come in handy if you're accident-prone — although, to be fair, all keyboards are somewhat resistant to water damage, as the keycaps tend to protect the switches.
SteelSeries Apex 3 performance
The Apex 3 performed well in-game, from zipping around the battlefield in Overwatch to building up an army in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. Comfort aside, the keys were responsive and never missed one of my commands. The device is also suitable for a wide variety of games, since you can program macros and assign them to lesser-used keys.
One quibble, however, is that the Apex 3 doesn't offer a "game mode," which many comparable models do. These modes disable the Windows key, Alt + Tab and similar commands, so that you'll never accidentally minimize a game window in the middle of a heated session. It's usually one of the big reasons to buy a gaming keyboard over an office model, so its absence here is disappointing.
The Apex 3 isn't the kind of keyboard I'd buy. The keys don't feel great, it doesn't have many extra features, and the lighting isn't very pretty. But for the price, it does what it's supposed to. In the same price range, you could consider the Razer Cynosa ($60), which has better lighting and somewhat more comprehensive software. But, if you can save for a mechanical selection from our best gaming keyboards instead, that'd be my primary recommendation.
Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.
Heh. I made an account just to comment here. You say at the end of your article to buy from your list of best gaming keyboards instead of considering this one. However, the SteelSeries Apex 3 is #2 on your list of best gaming keyboards at the link posted. I'm assuming this is due to different authors, but I thought I'd point it out since you say don't get it then you say it's second best.Reply