Let's face it: All-purpose PC gaming keyboards are about as good as they're going to get. Between mechanical keys, full RGB lighting and a variety of sizes and shapes, there's not much uncharted territory. Not so for eSports, which is just now coming into its own. SteelSeries designed the Apex M500 keyboard ($100) with the competitive scene in mind, and it shows.
This lean, mean accessory features quality mechanical switches and just enough lighting to get the job done, while charging a noticeable amount less than its competitors. While the soft-touch keys won't suit everyone, and macro recording could be a little easier, it's still a promising peripheral that feels equally at home with tournament play, or just kicking back.
There's nothing really striking about the look of the Apex M500. It's a black, full-size keyboard with neither extra macro keys nor discrete media controls. While I usually like extra buttons for play, pause and volume, there's no real reason why an eSports peripheral needs those things, and eschewing them was probably a good idea.
The Apex M500 also makes excellent use of space. Gaming keyboards can be a little bulkier than they really need to be, but the M500 measures 17.3 x 5.4 inches without feeling cramped, thanks to extremely narrow borders and well-spaced keys. Both its width and height are just a tiny bit shorter than its competitors', like the Logitech G610 Orion at 17.5 x 6.0 x 1.4 inches, and the Razer BlackWidow X Chroma at 17.6 x 7.5 inches. And when you're dealing with a keyboard that might need to travel with you from tournament to tournament, that makes a difference.
One feature that deserves special mention is the cable management system. On the bottom of the keyboard, you'll find three grooves for securing the keyboard's power cable. This ensures that whether you need to send the cable right, left or dead center, it won't get tangled on anything. This is such a quietly brilliant idea that I'm frankly surprised I've never seen it before.
In the beginning, high-end gaming keyboards used authentic Cherry MX keys. Then, a number of companies developed their own competing technologies. The pendulum rests somewhere in the middle right now, with manufacturers offering both home-brewed and Cherry systems. The Apex M500 uses Cherry MX Red keys, which is good, but it doesn't offer any alternatives, which is not so good.
While I won't give an exhaustive breakdown of mechanical key switches here, Cherry MX generally makes the best in the business. Red switches are soft and quiet, Brown switches are resistant and quiet, and Blue switches are resistant and noisy. (There are others, but they’re not as common.)
Red switches, with their soft touch, are a good choice for eSports, but there's no difference between Reds, Browns and Blues in performance. Each individual player has his or her own preference, which is why it's odd to see a keyboard try to railroad customers toward just one key switch. For some people, Cherry Reds are as good as mechanical key switches get, but for others, they'll have to choose between the M500's great design, and a competitor that offers Brown switches (like the Logitech G610 Orion) or Blue switches (like the Corsair Gaming K70).
Cherry Reds, at least, are good for typing. Tapping out an informative passage about the zebra on TypingTest.com, I managed 113 words per minute with eight errors versus 118 words per minute with 5 errors on my standard Logitech G810. It's not a huge difference, and would probably even out with another week or so of use.
The Apex M500 runs on SteelSeries Engine 3 software, an attractive, functional and intuitive program that's not strictly necessary for such a straightforward keyboard. Still, if you boot up the Engine 3, you can record macros, reassign the function of any key or play with the lighting.
Unlike more expensive RGB keyboards, the M500 has only blue illumination, which you can set at various levels of brightness and breathing effects. Although it seems strange for a blue keyboard to use Cherry Red keys, it's still a nice enough color.
My only major objection to the Apex M500 is that the website promises "on-the-fly macro recording," and yet I could not find any way to activate this feature. Macros are easy to record with the Engine 3 open, but I was unable to record them in-game. There is no macro record button, like the Logitech G910, nor a keyboard shortcut, like the Razer BlackWidow. It's debatable how much eSports players need macros, but a company that promises a feature should be able to deliver on it. I've contacted SteelSeries for clarification.
(UPDATE: SteelSeries replied, providing a video tutorial of the process. While there is no dedicated macro record button by default, users can make one of their own by reassigning another button in the Engine 3 software. The process is not that complicated, but users still need to assign macros to keys using the software. Again, this is not a huge detriment for an eSports keyboard, but it's not quite as intuitive as some of its competitors, either.)
I tried out the Apex M500 with a slightly modified array of games in order to test its eSports potential. I tested Star Wars: Battlefront to gauge its FPS chops, StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void to see how it handles RTS, and Heroes of the Storm for its MOBA abilities. I threw in Rise of the Tomb Raider as well, just to see if it could handle everyday gaming as well. (Short version: It can, and it's a fine choice for no-frills PC gamers.)
I was extremely pleased with how the Apex M500 handled competitive genres. The Cherry Red keys were both quick and responsive, whether I was blasting lightning as Emperor Palpatine in Battlefront, building up Protoss forces in StarCraft or leading Blizzard heroes against enemy bases in Heroes of the Storm.
While there's no significant difference between the M500 and any other Cherry-endowed keyboard in terms of performance, it's definitely a strong contender in its field, especially given its reasonable size and relatively low price.
The SteelSeries Apex M500 wants to empower eSports players, and that's exactly what it does. Between high-quality key switches, a streamlined design and intuitive software, the peripheral offers what competitive players need, and excises what they don't. It's admittedly missing a few features that come standard with most gaming keyboards, like a choice of switches or simple macro recording, but it's also missing those keyboards' prohibitively high prices. For $100, the Apex M500 is a great buy, although your real investment will be the time and effort it takes to master an eSport.