Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 review: a more modular keyboard for the gaming crowd

DNP  A more modular gaming keyboard reviewing the STRIKE 7

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As a vital component of every desktop and notebook computer ever produced, the mild-mannered keyboard rarely stands out. Most keyboards are simple -- if they input text, they're at least doing something right. Gaming keyboards tend to be a little more complex, touting extra features designed to give the player a leg up in-game. Mad Catz's S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 keyboard hopes to do just that, packing in a touchscreen, a handful of detachable components, alternate key caps and a software suite to help leverage the whole package. With far more bells and whistles than the average input device, it certainly caught our eye. Is it unique enough to warrant its $300 price tag? Read on to find out.

Look and feel

DNP  A more modular gaming keyboard reviewing the STRIKE 7

In general, keyboards are fairly predictable: 26 letters squeezed between a handful of punctuation keys, essential buttons and the occasional number pad. The hardware is usually completed by a dull rectangle frame, a fragile palm rest and some light branding. With us so far? Well, the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 keeps the requisite keys, of course, but plays fast and loose with the standard blocky design: this is a modular, edgy-looking beast. It isn't the first time we've seen the Catz's industrial style, either -- the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 borrows its sharp lines, matte surfaces and metal undercarriage from the company's Rat line of mousing peripherals.

The keyboard apes the Rat lineup's flair for transformation as well, featuring three swappable palm rests (one of which hosts a horizontal scroll wheel and a customizable button), a removable four-toggle function strip and a detachable starboard side for isolating the unit's 10-key, arrow and navigation buttons. Holding this motley collection of components together is a touchscreen hub nicknamed "V.E.N.O.M.," which hosts two USB ports, a handful of productivity apps and up to 36 programmable macros (more on that later). This, too, can be detached -- though the keyboard won't function without it -- and can be relocated exclusively to the floating numpad, cutting the standard alphabet out of the equation for gamers that want a more compact input device. The QWERTY section of the keyboard can scrape by equally well without the 10-key section, and even retains most of the orphaned island's functionality through the use of Fn hotkeys.

A more modular gaming keyboard reviewing the STRIKE 7

The peripheral's palm rests snap in with simple plastic tabs. Once locked in the connection feels solid, but installing or removing the rests feels dicey -- a broken plastic fastener could render an otherwise comfortable palm rest worthless. Nothing broke, thankfully, but then again we were exceedingly careful. Fortunately, the rest of the setup doesn't feel nearly as flimsy: the remainder of S.T.R.I.K.E. 7's parts latch on to the strong metal offshoots of its undercarriage. Black and red mini-USB cables link the active components to the V.E.N.O.M. console, which pipes out the peripheral's input to the PC. The black WASD and arrow keys can be swapped out for two alternative sets, too, featuring light indentation or bright red accents.

DNP  A more modular gaming keyboard reviewing the STRIKE 7

Despite its swappable components, detachable island and fancy touchscreen hub, the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 is first and foremost, a keyboard. All other input options aside, the peripheral's standard keys need to stand on their own. That's more complicated than it sounds -- keyboard bias can run hot in the PC gaming community, and not just any slab of alphabetic toggles will do. There are several factors to consider when choosing a gaming device, but the basic factions divide into two larger categories: membrane and mechanical. The S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 falls into the former camp, but tries to appease the latter by matching actuation force with Cherry MX Blue mechanical switches while attempting to mimic the feel of MX Brown switches.

The end result is a soft-landing board that responds to reasonably light touch. The membrane bubbles supporting the key caps are quite springy, too, and manage not to feel thick and spongy like some cheaper keyboards. The keys offer a small amount of travel before registering a press, but not so much as to make quick double-tap actions difficult. Gamers clocking their actions-per-minute will be happy to hear the keys can sustain up to seven simultaneous inputs, easily hurdling most ghosting concerns. It's quite suitable for normal typing as well -- it easily became this editor's daily driver for nearly a month. Mechanical diehards may miss the harder, tactile feel they're used to, but most gamers won't be disappointed -- the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 is a solid example of membrane input done right.

Touchscreen and software

DNP  A more modular gaming keyboard reviewing the STRIKE 7

We mentioned the "V.E.N.O.M." console earlier -- the keyboard's brains, touchscreen and USB hub. Virtually every piece of the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 snakes its way to this touchable control center, making it an essential piece of the greater setup. The unit looks like a mid-'90s sci-fi device, with levers jutting out of the body and buttons to control PC audio, switch between programmable profiles and return to the home screen. Twelve toggles dance across the V.E.N.O.M.'s small display -- two for additional volume and media controls, a trio of time-keeping apps (a clock, a stopwatch and a page with three countdown timers), a toggle to disable the keyboard's Windows key, a backlight control page, a journal, a TeamSpeak menu, an app launcher and a macro screen.

It quickly becomes apparent that only a handful of these channels will get much use. Touchscreen lag, for instance, makes trusting the stopwatch and timer tools a tall order, and the memo application only saves the user's notes locally to the device, offering no way to export data to the PC should one want to save their mid-game musings. The on-screen volume and media controls fare better, however, allowing users to see and adjust levels for microphones, web browsers and general volume options directly on the keyboard itself.

The screen works well enough when properly calibrated, but the V.E.N.O.M. is still a resistive, single-touch experience, and isn't as responsive as we would have liked. The hub also adds some stylish flair, allowing users to customize the keyboard's backlighting with 16 million colorful hues. The V.E.N.O.M.'s macro menu stands out as its best quality thanks to its emphasis -- like that of its host hardware -- on customization. Combined with the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7's companion software, the V.E.N.O.M.'s macro app offers 36 touchscreen toggles across three customizable profiles. Each macro can play back delayed and timed key presses, limited mouse actions and can be personalized with a custom icon. The utility is only limited by the time and effort a user wants to put into it.

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Unfortunately, compressing complicated commands into a one-touch macro isn't easy. Mad Catz tries to mitigate the effort with its standard profile editor, but the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7's myriad of sub-menus, icon editors and programmable modes overwhelms the dated software. It's a shame, too, when paired with Mad Catz's Rat mousing peripherals, the profile editor shines. Despite sharing the same design language, the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7's editor simply offers more options than the program can handle, complicating what was once a simple and fairly intuitive piece of software.

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Worse, still, is the software's unrealized potential. As is, the profile editor can only reprogram the macro keys Mad Catz added to the standard keyboard layout -- 36 touchscreen macros, four function bar buttons and five toggles that surround the arrow keys.

That's all well and good, but those arrow-adjacent buttons tease at a possibility that is blocked by a lack of software support: a one-handed WASD gamepad. By augmenting the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7's detachable numpad with the V.E.N.O.M. control unit, four-toggle function strip and active palm rest, users can build a standalone left-handed control unit that could have acted as a substitute for the standard WASD gaming setup -- the only problem is that the arrow keys can't be reprogrammed to represent their alphabetic counterparts.

The surrounding C1-C5 buttons, on the other hand, can easily be tweaked to represent the WASD-adjacent keys, as can the toggles on the side bar and active palm rest. This hardware configuration is so obvious that the absence of software support is almost shocking. Tenacious gamers could of course go through the trouble of manually reprogramming in-game controls to use the arrow keys, but the exclusion of a simple software solution on Mad Catz's part baffles us.

The competition

Gamers in the market for a new keyboard won't find themselves wanting for options, but products boasting the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7's unique feature set can be harder to come by. Still, there are some alternatives. Razer's $250 DeathStalker Ultimate keyboard is an attractive alternative to the V.E.N.O.M. control unit, offering a gesture-friendly touchpad, a robust interface and 10 macro buttons, each sporting its own embedded LED display. It also offers a more evolved software solution, allowing gamers to reassign any key onboard to whatever function they choose. On the other hand, players who are picky about their keys might be turned off the DeathStalker's chiclet keyboard.

Mad Catz also offers a S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 keyboard for $200, which is nearly identical to the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7, except it's missing that touchscreen. The "E.Y.E. command module" that takes its place offers a built-in timer, media buttons, three game modes and nine physical macro keys -- and it could be just the right compromise for gamers who don't need touch support on every single device in their home.


DNP  A more modular gaming keyboard reviewing the STRIKE 7

Hardcore gamers know the hard facts: picking out a premium piece of kit can cost a pretty penny, and the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 is no exception. Should you be wooed by its hearty metal chassis and whimsical touchscreen, your wallet will be $300 lighter for the infatuation. That's steep -- even for a high-end gaming keyboard -- and it's hard to say whether it's worth the premium. Sure, the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 boasts excellent build quality, fancy modular part-switching and membrane keys that are among the best non-mechanical actuators we've touched, but the touchscreen hub the unit positions as its selling point isn't worth the $100 premium it commands. Despite a small handful of applications, a program launcher and configurable macro settings, we found the V.E.N.O.M.'s touch-based experience was just a little too awkward and slow to work into our gaming routine. Unless you've got a particular affinity for touchscreen macro toggles, check out the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 instead -- it has all of old number seven's best features, and costs a third less, to boot.