A hands-on with the Razer Anansi

When I first heard about the Razer Anansi, I was beyond excited. Razer had, after all, made the supremely excellent Naga specifically for MMOs, and the Naga is as close to a perfect peripheral as has ever been made. (The original wasn't wireless, which is a big deal for some people, but it doesn't bother me -- and there's a wireless version out now anyway.) I was pretty much certain that the same team working on a keyboard would produce the ultimate one-two punch for online gaming accessories.

Sadly, the Anansi isn't the Naga. And therein lies its biggest fault -- you can't help but compare the two products, and the keyboard comes up short. It isn't a bad keyboard, but it lacks what made the Naga so excellent, and for the several things that it gets right it also manages to get a couple of things wrong. Without a doubt, it's going to serve better than the stock keyboard that comes with a new computer, but it's far from a must-have addition to your hardware.

Let's get the broad sweep out of the way first. The Anansi, retailing at about $99.99, is part of the same general "family" as the Naga, designed specifically for the needs of the MMO player. In addition to the features that are fairly standard for Razer peripherals -- backlighting and keys that can be remapped or associated to macros -- it features a row of five macro keys to the far left, seven thumb modifier keys under the spacebar, and a special on-the-fly macro recording function. It also features a "game mode" toggle to disable the Windows key, something that many Final Fantasy XI players have wished for for many years.

As could be expected given the source company, the keyboard is responsive and sturdy. The associated taskbar program is lightweight, with a minimal memory footprint and the ability to set up a variety of profiles for given games. You can also switch profiles on the fly with the use of the Function key plus the number keys, rather than using the system tray icon, which is a convenient feature.

"In fact, in the default layout, the modifiers seem to be set up almost at random."

Unfortunately, the Function key is also where I have one of the problems with the keyboard's functionality. See, one of the wonderful promises of the Anansi was to make the vital keybindings and modifiers more accessible via the left hand alone, while the right hand could stay glued to the mouse. Unfortunately, the function key is on the right side of the keyboard, just between the right alt and menu keys. Normally, this wouldn't be an issue at all, except that the keyboard's media control keys, game mode toggle, and even macro recording all require you to use the Function key. In other words, in order to record a macro on the fly, you have to stop using the mouse to start recording.

OK, it's not a deal-breaker. The important thing are those extra keys, right? And the array of five keys on the left can certainly help with that all-left-hand functionality from before, letting you bind anything awkward right over there. The thumb modifier keys, meanwhile, let you use any combination of modifier keys, from Shift to Control-Shift-Alt, effectively giving you theoretical access to a huge range of keybinds in second. It does work with the Naga, as well, which could be a wonderful combination if you have a lot of commands to enter in short order.

However, there are some issues, starting with the fact that the thumb modifier keys are placed on the wrist rest of the keyboard.

Maybe it's just me, but when I sit down to play a game, I don't keep my wrists hovering above the keyboard as if I were playing the piano. They rest, well, right where the thumb modifiers are. And that means it's awfully easy to find part of my hand accidentally tripping one of the modifiers without intending to.

Another issue comes in the way that these thumb modifiers are laid out. There are five smaller keys and two larger ones, but contrary to what you might think (or what I thought), the two larger ones aren't bound by default to the more common modifiers (Alt and Control). In fact, in the default layout, the modifiers seem to be set up almost at random. You need to either go in, manually change all the bindings, and then learn them -- or learn the bindings as they are in the default, which doesn't have any particular rhyme or reason.

Oh, and if you've been accustomed to the layout of a normal keyboard for, say, the past however-freaking-long of your life? Yeah, it's going to take some effort for a while to remember that the keys are there below the spacebar.

"Once you've customized everything and have it working just the way you want, it can give you a lot of extra flexibility for extra keybinds and more convenient access..."

Compare this to the Naga. Right out of the box, the Naga works exactly as you'd expect it to work, with the keys laid out logically and reasonably for normal functionality. Yes, you can rebind things as you get more accustomed to the layout, but you don't have to fuss with the system settings right away. Similarly, its barest functionality works right alongside pretty much every MMO on the market -- I can only think of a few that don't include an action bar bound to the number keys by default.

The Anansi, on the flipside, forces you to immediately start fiddling with the settings and the keybindings of your favorite game to get working. Out of the box, it provides no real additional functionality. Once you've customized everything and have it working just the way you want, it can give you a lot of extra flexibility for extra keybinds and more convenient access, but it requires a fair bit of learning to use effectively.

I suppose that's the real takeaway from all of this. The Naga is an elegant and simple accessory that has a very short learning curve and a huge amount of benefit to the player. The Anansi, on the other hand, has a steep learning curve that may or may not help you much, depending on the game and your ability to relearn the layout. It doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement -- and I'm sorry for that, because I really wanted to adore this keyboard.

But I just don't. It works, it's good, and it's as high-quality as you would expect, but it isn't intuitive, and it's not the must-have product of its sister mouse. If you're looking to replace a stock keyboard, it's well worth considering, but it isn't significantly better or worse than other gaming keyboards overall.