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OCZ Alchemy Elixir Gaming Keyboard Review

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AkG

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OCZ Alchemy Elixir Gaming Keyboard Review



Manufactures Product Page: OCZ Alchemy Series Elixir Keyboard
Availability: Now
Price: Click Here to Check Prices
Warranty: 1 Year



If there is one area of PC based gaming which has lagged behind all others in terms of advancement it has to be the ubiquitous keyboard. Not only has keyboard technology and advancement lagged behind graphics, sound and even mouse improvements most people don’t even care if their keyboard high-tech or not. To most people a keyboard is a means to an end and says absolutely nothing about them as a person, a gamer, or a techie.

It is not completely the end user's fault as some of the best keyboards I have ever used are a heck of a lot younger than some gamers I played against. It seems everyone is trying to shave as many corners as they can and in the process the quality of a keyboard has suffered. Please don’t get us wrong; keyboards have advanced over the years and wasn’t it was just a few years ago the “start” or “Windows” key became standard. Think about it: can anyone really imagine a high end adrenaline junky PC gamer using an ATI 9700 now a days? They would be laughed out every LAN party out there. Yet, most people are perfectly happy with their 2, 5, 8 or even 12 year old keyboard.

Luckily there are some bright shinning examples of advancement which show how far we still have to go in terms of keyboard technology. Unfortunately, most of these new high tech keyboards cost more than many are willing to pay. This is where OCZ pops up on our radar with their new Alchemy series of keyboards. The Alchemy Elixir is a fairly standard keyboard but includes a lot of great features all focused on improving your gaming experience. Even better than its feature rich layout is the fact this keyboard is very reasonably priced. The Elixir goes for about $30-35 and is now widely available from most e-tailers and retailers throughout the country. This certainly makes it a somewhat unique item in the world of PC gaming, but just because its inexpensive, there is no promise that it is any good.

Today we will find out how good (or bad) this value oriented gaming keyboard really is and whether or not it is worth your hard earned money!


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AkG

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Specifications

Specifications


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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories


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While the packaging for the Elixir is certainly on the spartan side for most peripheral items, it is in fact on the high end for lowly keyboards. As you can see the it comes in a slim yet long cardboard box with classic OCZ themes. On the front you have a nice and near life size picture of the box and the back you have another picture of the keyboard with the various functions and extras highlighted and explained. All in all this makes for a very nice box which should help even the most novice of buyers decided whether this keyboard is right for them.

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When you open the box up you are greeted to a very low key, low protection packaging scheme. Actually, calling this is a “protection scheme” is aggrandizing it just a wee bit. In reality the keyboard is in a plastic bag and there are some additional cardboard cutouts which secure the keyboard in place (and keep it from slopping around in the box) while at the same time providing some additional protection to the accessories which come with this unit.

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Speaking of accessories, and in typical OCZ fashion, the list of what you get is surprisingly full considering the price range of this keyboard. As expected you get a software CD for the macro keys but you also get replacement W,A,S,D keys, arrow keys, shift keys and even a replacement space bar! This was definately a nice touch and really highlights OCZ’s commitment to not only their products but their customer's satisfaction. They may not cost much but they really do explain why OCZ is consider a industry leader and not a follower.
 
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AkG

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Up close and Personal

Up close and Personal


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When you first glimpse this keyboard your initial impression may very well be one of disbelief (and not necessarily because it’s such a long keyboard, which it is) but because of how much you get for your rather modest fiscal outlay. The first time I looked at I had to go and check to make sure this was the right model, as it is jam packed with features and actually has a very intelligent layout to its macro keys. If this keyboard was sold by just about anyone else you would know it would cost a heck of a lot more than $35. By the same token all these additional features do stretch the keyboard's size and makes it a bit on the mid to large side (the size of the Elixir is 20" by 7.87" by a fairly svelte 1.14" thick). It is not as large as some keyboards we have used in the past but just make sure you have the necessary space for it.

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One interesting decision OCZ made with this keyboard is the fact that it has a little bit of a quirky layout to its keys. It is a QWERTY layout and not an oddball DVORAK (which is actually faster…once you get used to it…or so I have been told as my usual 50wpm is good enough for me) it is just the layout of some of the keys are a little different.

Examples of this quirky layout are the locations of the Delete, home, page up and page down keys. This is getting nit picky but when you are used to the more typical double row of three keys, the seemingly odd layout does take some getting used to; however once you get used to that nicely oversized delete key you will wonder how you ever got by without it! Also on the positive side, the Insert Key is way up by itself so accidentally hitting it instead of the Delete, or Home key is unlikely.

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There is another small issue in the fact that the macro keys are little close to the Enter, + and – keys on the right side and awfully close to the tab, caps, shift and cntrl key on the left. Luckily, the keys are rubber coated so your fingers are unlikely to slip off them during a frag fest, BUT when you are touch typing it can be just a bit annoying to have a macro run when your pinky misses the tab key and slams into one of ‘em. Of course after a few days of use these minor issues did resolve themselves and can be considered nothing more than “teething problems” or even “learning curve issues”.

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In total you get 10 macro keys each of which can be set to repeat and set intervals (also customizable). While 10 keys does not sound like much you can basically set up a custom “profile” of what those 10 keys do for any program you like. Are you hooked on WoW, Team Fortress 2 patch 99999, Half Life 2? Not a problem for this bad boy. What is also vey interesting is not only games can be assigned their own profiles. Yes, you can set up a profile for Firefox and have Left 1 macro copy the page to the clipboard, then open up word and have this self same Left 1 macro key act as Cntl+V to paste it into the a new word page. The potential for customization really is staggering and we will be looking into these options later in the review.
 
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AkG

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Up Close and Personal p.2

Up Close and Personal Cont'd


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Before we get on to a detailed look at the keyboard, lets first start off by explaining the tech behind it. In a nutshell the Alchemy Elixir is a hybrid keyboard which relies on the inferior membrane technology.

Why do we say its inferior, and what is it inferior to? Good questions! Membrane “keyboards” are usually found on things like microwave ovens, really cheap calculators and other things were you have a flat button which gives an insufficient amount of tactile sensation when pressing it. Worse than the usual lack of feedback is the fact membrane keyboards only last about 10% as long as a mechanical scissor switch keyboard, have to travel a longer distance to have a key stroke registered and usually even take more pressure than is necessary to fully depress (though this is usual due to the lack of tactile feedback). Luckily, OCZ has overcome a lot of these limitations (or we should say Monterey International Corp, the oem manufacturer of these keyboards) by taking advantage of a hybrid technology workaround.

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How membrane keyboards work is there are two layers which are slightly separate in which a negative or positive charge is passed. The upper layer has a label/sticker/etc on it and when a person pressed this “button” it closes the gap between the two layers and closes a circuit. In a tactile membrane, keyboard there is a 3rd domed shaped layer above the two active layers. By pressing on the dome-shaped key you feel and hear a clicking sound. Thus providing physical feedback, and allowing a user to use only the necessary amount of force. In the case of the Elixir, you need about 55grams of force to properly depress the key. However, since this dome shape has a further travel distance before they key is really depressed, to type using a tactile keyboard you have to depress the key nearly 4mm. This may not sound like alot but it is quite a bit if you are used to a much shorter “throw” keyboard.

Also on the downside is the fact that the Elixir is only rated for about 5 million cycles and as it is a tactile membrane keyboard, as the keys get older (and/or get used a lot) the time it takes for the dome to pop back into position will take longer and longer until you end up with a stuck key. On the positive side of this, tactile membrane keyboards are easier to clean and provide a fairly soft feel to their keys. The Elixir’s keys are also rubberized so they tend to provide not only a soft feel but also seem extremely solid when your fingers are wet (or covered with Cheezie dust!).

On paper this is a pretty big handicap but as we all know nobody uses a keyboard on paper and it all depends on its real world performance! So until we have used this keyboard we are going to treat the fact it is a tactile membrane keyboard as a potential negative and not an out and out Bad Thing.

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As we mentioned earlier, you have row of 5 macro keys on either side of a slightly quirky QWERTY keyboard and further out on each side you also have another row of keys. On the left hand side you have 7 Internet keys (forward and back for example) and on the right hand side you have your typical 8 multimedia keys (volume up, volume down, etc.).

One thing which is missing from this keyboard are the USB portsmany gaming keyboards provide these days. This is too bad as the Monetery K3805 which the Elixir is based on does come with two USB ports. While USB ports may be missing, the vinyl-like covering on the integrated hand rest provides a nice solid surface which doesn’t get sweaty even with extended use.

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When you flip this keyboard over it becomes readily apparent it only comes with the basics. You get the two standard feet in the front to raise up the front of the keyboard (AKA Tenting the keyboard), unfortunately there is no way to provide for reverse tenting. For anyone who has never used a keyboard in which the keys angle slightly away from you, you really are missing out on something! I know for long game sessions or even when typing up a review, a reverse tent setup is much easier on the fingers (and easier on your Carpal Tunnels). This is because your metacarpal (and carpal) bones are in a more relaxed position which takes advantage of the natural arc like movement of your phalanges. Trust me, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is not something you want to suffer from and it really is too bad OCZ overlooked this potential issued when they spec’ed out this keyboard. As is becoming a reoccurring theme, OCZ really did miss (another) opportunity to prove they are leaders and not followers. Of course, buying an adapter to turn any straight keyboard into a reverse-tent keyboard is relatively easy and fairly cheap (though spending another $20 on a $35 keyboard may rub some people the wrong way).
 
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Software Overview / Replacement Keys Installation

Software Overview


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Installing the software is simplicity itself, as all you need to do is load the included CD and follow the onscreen instructions. When this is completed you will have to reboot your system but this is too is par for the course.

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Easy installation or no, the usage of said software is what makes or breaks a keyboards macro keys; and in the case of the Elixir the software is extremely user friendly yet at the same time fairly limited as well. To change either the L or R keys macro you simply have to double click on the software icon located in your Taskbar. This loads a pop up window with a graphical representation of the keyboard and its accompanying macro keys. To change a macro you click on it in this window, which in turns loads another smaller pop up where you can enter the new macro command.

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This unfortunately is where the “limited” comment comes into play as you can only enter in a 16 characters. 16 may sound like a lot but in reality each key press and subsequent release counts as two characters. This means you really only have 8 key press or key combinations (and lets not even think about what missing key releases will do to your game!...the mind just shudders at the thought of a stuck “up arrow” or jump command) This means for games where you can enter a console and “tweak” the underlying game engine with long and obscure command phrases cannot be preloaded into a macro key.

On the positive, side you can have the macro command repeat atomically as long as you hold down the key and can even specify the pause interval in between repeating it.

It is also good that the macro commands can be set up for 3 main profiles as well as for specific programs. This means they may be limited in their size but they are not limited in their scope or abilities. It really is amazing what 30 bucks can get you these days.

Overall this “limitation” and its tweakability means the Elixir will be of more use where the macro commands need to be short yet infinitely repeatable. A great example of what we mean is cheating in your favorite FPS may be difficult but having the macro key release multiple chaff or flares from you F22 Raptor will be easier with the Elixir than a normal keyboard.


Replacement Keys Installation


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Since this unit ships with replacement keys it would be a grave oversight if we did not show you how to actually use them. Over the years, I have taken apart many a keyboard for cleaning and this keyboard is one of the easier ones I have had the pleasure to take disect. All you need is a thin edged tool to pry up the intended key (a small putty knife is fine, though I prefer a good stiletto knife). In this case we have removed the space key as this is usually the one I am hardest on. If you pry straight up you will not need to worry about the “spring” nor any obstructions. The underside of the key is has (at least one) plunger which is keyed. When you have it pried out, simply ensure the spring is in proper position and then take the replacement key and gently push it down in to place.

This is in a nut shell how you replace a worn out key on the Elixir keyboard and we are pleased to say that even the greenest of novices should have no trouble doing this as long as they take their time and apply pressure only in the vertical plane.
 
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Usability and Functionality

Usability and Functionality (General Applications)


No matter how hard core a gamer you think you are, a “gaming keyboard” will still spend most of its time acting as a normal keyboard and not a game enhancement tool. To this end we swapped out our normal MS Comfort Curve 4000 keyboard and replaced it with the Elixir for a full week.

While I may use an ergonomic, reverse tent (aka “reverse slope”) keyboard as my main rigs main tool, I also routinely use my beloved Compaq IBM clone (aka heavy as a log, all metal keyboard / small shield in case of battle axe wielding intruders) and thus have not been “spoiled” by the split keyboard layout. While I usually type at a nominal 50WPM on the 4000, I still type at a nominal 35-38WPM on a straight keyboard.

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At first this keyboard does take a bit of getting used to as I am a touch typist and the F and J key bumps are minuscule on the Elixir. This combined with a tendency to hit an L macro key instead of the caps lock was annoying at first. However, after a day or so of use the quirks of the Elixir quickly settled and it became relatively docile to use.

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By the end of the week we came to love to the oversized delete key and the much more sane double row design of the of this cluster of much used keys. Not hitting the properly placed insert key was also a god send and actually slightly increased my productivity! However, not everything is wine and roses since to ensure a key command is recognized you really do have to slam the key harder and further than most keyboards we have used in the past.

To further investigate this issue we download a simple “learn to type” time key test which not only tells you how fast you are typing but also how accurate. Before beginning with the Elixir we first ran the test 4 times using the Compaq clunker and the Comfort Curve 4000 keyboards. With our older straight keyboard our accuracy rate hovered around 92% at 37WPM, and with the comfort curve 4000 we were hitting 95-96% at 49WPM. This is about right for me as can get down and boogey at about 65WPM but only with mid 80 accuracy. However, as soon as we swapped in the Elixir our best rate was only 34WPM and 88%. By redoing, and redoing the test I realized that I had to slam the keys past the point where the tactile response kicks in to ensure a “hit”, which in turn caused the slow down; however once we learned the Elixir’s quirks our accuracy went back up to a more normal 92%.

The tactile feel of the keys do take some getting used to but it certainly is not like typing on a microwave’s keypad either. Taken for what it is worth, these results are not terrible and being able to compare a “cheap” keyboard to my favorite antique or my favorite expensive keyboard (which when I purchased it was over $80) is darn good in our books!


Usability and Functionality (Gaming Applications)


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When all is said and done this keyboard IS a game enhancement tool. It may look like a regular keyboard (though one with good fashion sense…and few extra buttons) but it is in fact a PC Game / Human mind melding device and its main job is too make your gaming experience better (or at the very least keep your suspension of disbelief unbroken due to a crappy interface). The keyboard really is not the best at any one genre yet it is the best jack of all trades device ever invented.

To get a real feel for how this keyboard would performed in its “natural environment” I bravely took one for the team and went on a good old fashioned gaming bender. For 18hours I played Crysis on Delta setting while eating roasted coffee beans (tanzanian pea berry coffee beans to be precise), a big bag of Cheetoes, home made beef jerkey (extra spicey, smoked over apple w/ alder than hickory) copious amounts of diet sprite and Mountain Dew. In other words I did my darndest to reenact a good old fashioned LAN party with all the fixin’s.

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During the whole time using the Elixir for gaming, not once did my fingers slip from the W,A,S,D, no matter how greasy those little suckers got. The macro keys while unable to allow me to do on the fly tweaking (AKA cheat like a dirty dog) they did come in handy for things like throwing grenades. You wouldn’t think hitting one key instead of another would make much difference but by mapping L2 key to it I was able to keep my right hand on the mouse and keep my left in position for moving nomad. This subtle refinement brought my game to a whole new level of enjoyment as I fragged and fragged and fragged all the while ducking and weaving.

Even more impressive than upping my enjoyment level, was during this marathon test the keyboard was pounded on hard when I hit that horror of horrors the dreaded Crysis endgame error! Yes after fighting my way to the end the game I was unable to get a target lock on the final boss, with that annoying {FRIENDLY} {CLASSY LADY} nattering in my ear about “use the tac gun nomad, use the tac gun!”. Even more impressive than it standing up to my impromptu caffeine fueled rage torture test was not that it survived intact (even though I pounded on it hard enough for it to bounce); no, what was most impressive was it still works even after bouncing off my table and slamming to the ground.

This keyboard can certainly take anything you can throw at it…and maybe even can take anything you can throw it at! This is no mean feat as I have literally destroyed more expensive keyboards with a lot less effort than I inflicted on this inexpensive (yet oh so durable) keyboard, which to me makes this accomplishment all the more sweeter.
 
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Alternative Usage for Macros & Software

Alternative Usage for Macros/Software


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While this is keyboard's main focus is gaming, these macros keys are a very powerful tool when you think about it. Not only can you set up 8 character key combinations but you can also use them to run programs. At the very least this allows you to extend the multimedia functions of this keyboard to nearly the Nth degree! While you do get the standard multimedia keys with just a few moments you can easily add in ALL your favorite programs on your “speed dial”. Who needs rocket dock or other similar programs when all fav 10 are just a click away. One great example of this which comes quickly to mind are the control panel components (all of which MS treat as individual applications). Why bother waiting for control panel to load and then digging down to the right component when just a simply click will get you there.

A good example of this is to select launch app and then dig down to the System32 folder and use *.cpl to search for the programs. From here simply pick sysdm.cpl to open the System Properties applet without going through the control panel.

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Even better than just being able to load programs (no matter how esoteric) is the fact you can also write simple batch files to allow you to run more complicated routines and then have one of the macro keys run the batch file or even just a modified shortcut file. The best and easiest of these shortcut files would be a sleep function which can easily be set up by making a new shortcut and using “%windir%\system32\rundll32.exe PowrProf.dll, SetSuspendState Sleep” (though the sleep part of that command is implied and not completely necessary) as the Target and “%windir%” as the Start In location. For Hibernate simple change Sleep to Hibernate.

These are just a few ideas for extending the macro keys' functionality on the desktop; but with a bit of creativity one could also extend those 10 magical keys to other areas. For anyone who uses Photoshop or MS Word or even MS Excel a lot knows: keyboard shortcuts are your best friends when it comes to meeting deadlines. I used to use a Nostrom N52 Speedpad filled with key combinations to help me but having a keyboard with the macro keys built in means not having to take your fingers out of position to hit those time saving macros.

In this section, we have discussed quite a few things which you can use your high tech, low cost keyboard for besides just fragging your friends. With some thought and a little bit of ingenuity we are sure you could think of many other great uses for those 10 magical macro keys. In the end this flexibility and power really does take this keyboard out of the “gaming” arena and allows it to be used as your main keyboard for everyday tasks…as well as getting you frag on! I’d like to see someone try that with a Nostromo!
 
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Conclusion

Conclusion


When you take a long hard look at this keyboard you realize that the demographic the Elixir is aimed is the casual gamer. This is not a bad thing as there is a heck of a lot of people who don’t want to go the $100+ elite gamer keyboard route, nor the SpeedPad route. However, there are plenty of people out there who want a good solid product which works equally well everywhere from a heavy LAN Party environment to a multimedia / internet surfing implementation. Regardless of what you are looking for in a keyboard there is certainly a lot to like about this product. Those rubber keys are truly a godsend when it comes to sticky fingers and / or Cheetoe crumbs as you can be a slovenly as you want and it will never cost you a slipped key press.

More importantly than its ability to shrug off copious amounts of nastiness is the fact this OCZ's keyboard has a lot to offer even for people in your household who don’t game as the macro keys can do a lot more than allow you to tweakyour favorite game. Heck, even taking those 10 macro keys and the multimedia keys out of the equation means you are still left with one very durable QWERTY keyboard. This keyboard gives you plenty of tactile feedback that even if you never use it for games it still would be a good investment…though one with a few caveats.

As we said this, keyboard is aimed at the gaming contingent so high speed (yet accurate) touch typing may require a period of adjustment when using it. The F and J keys do have raised positioning bumps which all touch typists (or at least all QWERTY ones) rely on to know when their fingers are back in position. Unfortunately, the Elixir’s bumps are extremely small and for the first few days you may find your fingers hunting for them. However, once you get used to it this issue does go away.

The only real issues we have with the Elixir is its underlying tech. Tactile membrane keyboards are an interesting work around to fix many of the shortcomings of a typical membrane keyboard. The Elixir does provide more than enough tactile feedback but it is different than the feel of a more typical keyboard. One really needs to train themselves to continue depressing the keyboard past the tactile response to ensure a key command is recognized. This is only half the problem and is easily overcome with a bit of practice. The larger part of this issue is the relatively long key travel required to get that key press recognized. Now if you are the type that hammers away at the keys then you will be more than happy with this keyboard as it is the perfect one for your needs. However, if you believe in the “softly, softly catchee monkey” approach then you are in for a steeper learning curve; however, it is not that bad nor long of a curve and I personally was back to my old self after only a few days.

This is not the biggest concern with the membrane technology; no the above is nothing more than a minor annoyance which can easily be overcome. The real issue which is impossible to get around is the relatively short life span. The tactile membrane keyboard is only rated for about 4 million key presses. This means if you do use it a lot it will only last a few years and will not be around in 10 years like the older mechanical scissor switch keyboards. Of course, when you are talking about a product which only costs $35 this is not a big deal. In a couple of years if you do wear it out, simply get the Elixir 9 (or whatever model number OCZ is up to by then!) as it will owe you nothing after doing yeoman's work for you for so long.

In the end, there really is not much dislike about the OCZ Alchemy Elixir. Sure it’s an older straight style keyboard and it doesn’t do reverse tenting but it still provides a great value for your money. If you are in market for a relatively inexpensive, yet still really good keyboard you should take a long serious look at the OCZ Elixr.


PROS
- Inexpensive
- Tactile Keys do provide feeback
- No slip keys
- Free Replacement Keys included
- Macro Keys


CONS

- Only moderate life expectancy
- Long Key “throw”
- short character limitations for macros

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