Note: This article was first published on 18th January 2018.
Mechanical keyboards are expensive. That’s almost a given by now, so when something like the Tecware Phantom RGB comes along, there’s genuine reason to get excited.
At S$79, this is practically a steal for a mechanical keyboard. However, a look at the feature list shows that this keyboard isn’t some cheap knockoff that you pick up from the bargain bin, and it offers far more than its price suggests.
For starters, it uses Outemu Blue switches, which are effectively Cherry MX Blue clones with a similar actuation force of 50g. They’re nearly indistinguishable from their Cherry counterparts, with the same tactile, clicky feedback.
Blue switches have been said to be among the most enjoyable for typing, and the Phantom doesn’t disappoint. However, they can also be quite noisy, distracting, and vaguely embarrassing, especially in an office setting where everyone can hear you hammering at your keyboard.
Fortunately, it’s also available with quieter Red and Brown switches, so you won’t have to annoy everyone in the immediate vicinity.
The keyboard supports per-key RGB lighting and macro recording, which is a huge bonus at this price point. I thought the S$99 Razer Cynosa Chroma did a good job in offering per-key customizations at a sub-$100 price point, but that didn’t even come with mechanical switches.
You can set up to three profiles in Tecware’s software utility, and if per-key customizations sound too tedious, you can pick from 18 different lighting presets. The software itself is pretty intuitive to use, and first-time users should have little problem finding their way around.
It isn’t as advanced as Razer’s Chroma configurator (no layers!), and certain user interface elements could use some polish, but you can’t really complain given how much the keyboard costs.
As it turns out, you don’t even have to use the driver if you don’t want to, as the Phantom offers plenty of ways for you to adjust the lighting effects right on the keyboard itself. For instance, you can switch between nine different LED colors using a combination of the Fn and RGB key. Better still, the keyboard grants direct access to all 18 lighting presets, which can be triggered by hitting Fn and one of the six keys in the Home cluster. Each key is bound to three different presets, and you can cycle through them by hitting the key again.
That aside, the Phantom also uses surface-mounted LEDs, which means they sit directly on top of the PCB, instead of being mounted on the switch housing. Each LED is also positioned directly beneath the key legends, so you get rather even illumination. It’s a small detail, but it’s also one that many keyboards overlook.
It seems like Tecware made a conscious effort to ensure that all the legends are lighted evenly. Take the number row for instance – while most keyboards tend to place the secondary symbols below the numbers, the Phantom squeezes both next to each other, so they’re both located directly above the LED.
Another interesting feature is the modular switch design, which still isn’t all that common today. You can use the included tool to pluck out individual switches – grip the switch along its top and bottom edges and give it a firm pull – and replace them with a different switch, so you’re not stuck with the same switch type forever. However, the keyboard uses Outemu sockets, which will only take other Outemu switches as they have different pins from Cherry MX-style switches.
Also, most of the function keys double up as media controls and convenient shortcuts to your music player, calculator, web browser, and even file explorer. It’s small usability features like that that make the keyboard even more impressive, as it’d have been easy to just forget about them.
However, I’m not a fan of the secondary legends, and their bright white and slightly uneven coloring could use a little more refinement.
Nevertheless, Tecware needs to be commended for its use of double-shot ABS keycaps, which is still a rarity even on keyboards that cost twice as much. These comprise of two different pieces of plastic molded into each other so that the legends won’t fade over time.
Finally, the build quality is much better than I expected from a keyboard that costs S$79. It feels solid and well put together, and there’s barely any discernible flex to its body, despite being a large 104-key model. There are some rough edges to the plastic that could be smoothed down, but there’s otherwise little to be unhappy about.
The keyboard feet feel a little flimsier than I'd like, but they're still rubberized and do a decent job of keeping the Phantom in place on your desk. What's more, there are channels for routing the braided cable at the bottom of the keyboard, where you'll also find a plastic keycap puller!
I also like the floating-key design, which to my eyes is far more elegant than the traditional designs. This particular approach makes it easier to keep the keyboard clean as well, and any crumbs that make their way under the keycaps are easily cleared out.
All things considered, Tecware made this keyboard better than it had any right to be. I came in with low expectations, but I’ve come away thoroughly impressed by how much the Phantom offers and how little it’s asking for. If you’ve so far avoided mechanical keyboards because of their steep price, the Phantom may give you a reason to reconsider your decision.