Keyboard Light Show
When Cooler Master announced their Quick Fire Rapid-i, they highly touted its “32 bit ARM processor” which allows for advanced lighting modes. In fact, the Deck Hassium Pro and Deck Francium Pro both contain such a processor – a Nuvoton NUC123 ARM Cortex - and it is completely programmable using Deck’s LED utility.
In their stock modes, the Francium Pro and Hassium Pro comes with four extra lighting modes. One lights up each key as it is pressed, fading out slowly one lights up the entire row of each key pressed, and one shows a ‘burst’ of light coming from each keycap pressed. There is also a “breathe” mode, which fades all the keys off and on constantly, unaffected by key presses. Here’s a quick demo, typing “HCW” in each reactive mode:
As mentioned, it’s completely programmable; the folks at Australian keyboard reseller MechKB have a forum containing several scripts to try out.
For me though, I find all the flashing to be distracting, so I just leave the lights set to a steady state. I think the vast majority of owners probably do the same.
And this is where the bad news comes into play. If you have ever shopped for backlit keyboards or keycap sets, you would have probably noticed that backlit keycaps are only made from ABS plastic. In fact as far as I know, Deck are the only ones using PBT plastic for their backlit keycaps. I’m afraid there is a very good reason for this.
Why Nobody Else Makes PBT Doubleshot Backlit Keycaps
As we’ve seen so far in our keyboard reviews, designs can vary quite a bit from model to model, and a lot of it has to do with keycap design. There are a number of options a manufacturer can consider:
- Material – ABS or PBT, the latter feels much better to most people and is more durable
- Printing method – There are several options, including laser etching, UV printing, dye sublimation, and double shot printing. The latter is the most durable and highest quality usually
- Surface texture
- Backlit or not
Based on these choices, a keycap can either feel really good, or it can make a keyboard feel worse than it should. For instance, the 1.4mm PBT caps on the Topre RealForce 87U felt fantastic in combination with the 55g weighted Topre switches. However, the 1mm UV coated ABS keycaps combined with PCB mounted switches on the KBT Race II didn’t feel so great to me. The tradeoff here is that the Topre is not backlit, and the Race II is very nicely backlit with crisp, clear lighting.
Because PBT plastic isn’t usually suitable for laser etching, it is not used for backlit keyboards. There is one solution to this problem though – use doubleshot printing, which fills the empty space with more PBT plastic. This is what Deck does:
The doubleshot printing method uses a semiopaque plastic that prevents these issues, allowing for a backlit key. To my knowledge, nobody else does this. One reason could be cost – combining the most expensive material with the most expensive printing method can’t be cheap. However, the method Deck used is not without its issues. Notably, the lighting is very uneven, even at full brightness.
If you look at the “@” symbol, you can clearly see that the light doesn’t shine through it very well. Also if you look at look at several of the main letters, you will see that the edges of each letter don’t shine through very well at all. The “CTRL” keys suffer the most, since they look pretty much like “TR” keys in the dark. The font design probably doesn’t help matters much.
Regardless of how you feel about the font, the Deck Hassium Pro and Deck Francium Pro just don’t look very good when backlighting is being used.
With that out of the way, we can continue our look at the Deck Hassium Pro and Francium Pro. Let’s dig even deeper:
The bottom of the Deck Francium Pro and Hassium Pro are very well designed, with a channel at the top to route the cable in 3 different directions. Unfortunately while the USB cable isn’t detachable, it’s braided at least.
The rubber pads are enormous, and do a great job of preventing the keyboard from sliding around. There is no rubber coating on the foot levers, but I found that the size of the pads on the front of the keyboard did a sufficient job on their own when the levers were being used.
After taking the Deck Francium Pro apart, we can see where it gets its stability from. The bottom tray is made of thick ABS plastic, and feels rigid and sturdy. Attached to this is a metal plate where the PCB and keycaps are mounted.
This thick metal plate (along with the use of thick PBT keycaps) lends the Deck Francium and Deck Hassium their solid, sturdy feel and sound when typing. The downside to this is that the switches must be removed to be disassembled. This is of course irrelevant if you don’t plan on modifying your switches.
As mentioned previously, I think that Cherry MX switches are at their best when used in a design like this. I have reviewed three keyboards with MX Brown switches now, and the Deck Hassium Pro feels the best to me.
As you can tell by now, I think the Deck Hassium Pro at their core level are incredibly well made. They feature a nice thick solid plate, 1.5mm thick PBT keycaps, and offer the best typing feel and sound I have personally tested with Cherry MX switches. They have some useful features like a robust programmable macro layer and media keys in addition to some that are less useful but not unimpressive like the LED lighting scripts.
Several design choices make it difficult to recommend outright, though. The most noticeably issue is a subjective one thankfully, but the use of a weird custom font that looks like it belongs on a discount fantasy novel cover at the grocery store is hard to ignore. More concerning is the quality of the backlighting. The Deck Hassium Pro and Francium Pro are perfect examples of why consumers must choose between backlighting and PBT caps. Deck’s doubleshot method definitely lets light through, but it doesn’t do so in a manner that gives us clearly legible keys.
You could get around both of these issues by buying an APAC version from an Asian or Australian reseller. This will get you a better font (Helvetica) and what appears to be much better lighting. In that, you give up the sublime PBT keycaps though, and the durability that comes with them.
These keyboards aren’t cheap though. The Deck Hassium Pro sells for about $170-180 in the US, which sounds like a lot when you’re used to shopping for the likes of Cooler Master, Corsair, or even Razer. Typically you won’t find many keyboards more expensive than this made outside Japan.
The Francium Pro is oddly priced though – it also sells for around $170. This is odd, considering most TKL keyboards are more significantly discounted compared to their otherwise identical full-sized counterparts.
Overall, the Deck Hassium Pro and Francium Pro are fantastic Cherry MX keyboards, and as far as typing feel goes, they show off these switches in the best possible light. If you can overlook the font and don’t need to use the backlighting features, these are both great keyboards, and easy to recommend, price notwithstanding.