Mad Catz has a history of making unusual input devices, most famously, the R.A.T. range of customizable gaming mice. To partner that lineup, and sharing the same enthusiasm for meaningless pseudo-acronyms, Mad Catz has now released the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 keyboard, which features a modular design, a touchscreen hub, and currently has a worldwide SRP of US$299. While that's already quite expensive, locally, it's even more pricey, with a whopping retail price of S$499!
With a similar design flair to the R.A.T., the S.T.R.I.K.E. is replete with sharp lines, matte surfaces and a metal undercarriage. The S.T.R.I.K.E. also shares the R.A.T.’s transforming abilities, featuring three swappable palm rests (one of which hosts a horizontal scroll wheel and a customizable button), a removable four-button macro pad and a detachable right side, which contains the numberpad, arrow and utility buttons and five more macro keys. All of these components plug into a touchscreen module located above the keyboard, which Mad Catz calls ‘V.E.N.O.M.’. This module hosts two USB ports, a handful of apps and 36 programmable touchscreen macros arranged in three screens of 12 icons. This too, can be detached - although the keyboard won't function without it - and can be relocated to the top of the numberpad if you want to use the S.T.R.I.K.E. as a standalone gaming unit using the arrow keys instead of WASD on the main keyboard.
Replacement WASD keys and a key cap puller are also included, with options for lightly indented ones or ones with bright red accents. Surprisingly, for all of this customization, the height of the keyboard can’t be adjusted, as the feet can only be positioned either open or closed. It would have been nice to see some notches to allow for a different degree of keyboard tilt as, even with the feet out, it's quite shallow thanks to a combination of fairly short feet and fairly high wrist rests.
Setting up the keyboard requires some IKEA-like assembly. The palm rests snap into position with plastic tabs, which, once locked in, feel fairly solid, but we were a bit concerned with breaking the thin plastic joiners when installing or removing the rests. Fortunately, the rest of the setup doesn't feel nearly as flimsy, with the remaining parts using metal tray fasteners to hook onto the main keyboard. Braided mini-USB cables link each component to the V.E.N.O.M. module, which connects to the PC via another braided USB cable. The keyboard (and touchscreen module) will work fine with USB power from your computer, however, for the backlighting to work, you will need to connect a 2-pin power adapter as well. As you can guess by now, it's not a very neat nor convenient looking setup once you've got everything fastened in place to get it working.
What may come as a surprise - especially when you consider the price - is that the S.T.R.I.K.E. is a membrane based keyboard, not a mechanical one. Mad Catz claims that they have tried to simulate the feeling of a mechanical keyboard by matching actuation force with Cherry MX Blue mechanical switches, while mimicking the feel of MX Brown switches, however, in actual usage, we found the keys to be far too soft and have a mushy feeling. They also lack any of the tactile feel people usually associate with MX Blue or Brown switches. Even when compared to other membrane-based gaming keyboards, such as Logitech's G19, we still felt that the S.T.R.I.K.E. was a bit on the mushy side. Furthermore, as a membrane keyboard the S.T.R.I.K.E. will only support up to seven simultaneous key presses, so do watch out if you have a particularly high APM (actions per minute).
As mentioned previously, the V.E.N.O.M. touchscreen module is the brains of the keyboard. This unit includes buttons and levers for controlling volume and media controls, as well as three profile buttons and a single-touchscreen with twelve apps controlling: additional volume and media controls, a clock, a stopwatch, countdown timers, a setup page, a toggle for turning off the keyboard’s Windows key, backlighting options, a journal, a TeamSpeak menu, an app launcher and a macro screen.
The module looks quite stylish (although the large Mad Catz claw logo spoils it somewhat), but is let down by some perceivable touchscreen lag, which makes apps such as the timer and stopwatch somewhat unreliable. Additionally, other apps such as Journal, which lets you type notes into the device only saves data locally, offering no way to later export your mid-game musings to your PC. We were hoping that the screen could be used to display in-game information such as stats or maps, or customized in some way to be used as a secondary display, such as the functionality offered by the screens on Logitech’s G19 or Razer’s Deathstalker respectively (both of which cost much less than the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7). However, no such customization is possible, which somewhat detracts from the usefulness of having a small screen on your keyboard.
Ultimately, we found ourselves using only one or two apps, namely the backlighting control, which lets you change the color of the keyboard backlighting (unfortunately, while there are 16 million hues to select, there are no options for different light styles like pulse, flash or color shift), and the macro app, which helps you write macros and scripts for customizing the keyboard’s multiple macro keys. To our disappointment, rather frustratingly, macros can only be assigned to the keyboard’s pre-assigned macro keys, and not to other alphanumeric keys that you might want to use (such as F1).
All things considered, while Mad Catz’s S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 scores points for originality, we felt that it was lacking in a few key areas. The primary purpose of a keyboard is to input information and for all the S.T.R.I.K.E.’s bells and whistles, we felt that other keyboards do it better. Likewise, while the V.E.N.O.M. unit certainly looks cool, we found that it wasn’t all that useful, especially when you compare it to the functionality provided by some of the other screen-equipped keyboards out there. Taking the QWERTY part of the keyboard away and using the numberpad-module as a standalone macro pad is somewhat intriguing, although in reality far too expensive to justify, and somewhat limited by the fact that many of those keys can’t be macro'ed by the V.E.N.O.M.’s macro software anyway. In such a case, you would probably be better off with Razer’s Nostromo device or Logitech's G13 Game Pad.
While hardcore gamers are certainly prepared to pay premium prices for equipment that will give them an edge, the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 is probably not one of them. At S$499, it’s one of the most expensive keyboards around (certainly the most expensive membrane keyboard we’ve ever seen), so unless you've always wanted the ability to split your keyboard in two and have a really cool looking input device, there are just better options out there.