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There are two ways to evaluate the Razer Tartarus, Razer’s new gaming keypad. The first is as a piece of high-end gaming hardware for its own sake, and that’s where the Tartarus excels; it’s a well-made piece of hardware that feels good in your hand, especially when you adjust the palmrest to fit your needs. The Tartarus' 25 keys are all programmable using Razer’s Synapse software. Sure, Razer’s cheating a little bit here by counting the keypad's eight-way thumbpad as 8 separate buttons, but you can map command functions to each of the eight directions pretty easily so we’ll let it slide. It’s also highly portable and quick to set up, making it ideal for professional gamers or anyone who finds themselves moving between machines a lot.
The second way to evaluate the Tartarus is as a piece of gaming hardware somebody might choose to buy, and from that perspective it seems a bit pointless. I’m not entirely certain who would actually benefit significantly from learning to use the Tartarus.
Smooth design with a rough learning curve
All high-end gaming hardware comes with a learning curve; it's difficult to rewire your brain to activate your 1-9 keys with an MMO gaming mouse like Razer’s Naga, for instance. However, that initial time investment usually pays off with a big performance improvement once you’ve adjusted. The problem with the Tartarus is that even after you take the time to adjust to using it, I’m not convinced you see a meaningful benefit. Even when used to maximum effect, the Tartarus is still half a keyboard.
When I first set up the Tartarus I thought the thumbpad and extra keys would be useful as a means of controlling my character's movement in games like Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft, essentially freeing up my Q, W, E, A, S, D keys and the space bar to be bound to something else. The problem with that plan, besides how awkward it is to adjust to steering my MMORPG characters with my thumb, is that it leaves only 15 keys within easy reach of my hands. I went back and forth between playing games with and without the Tartarus, realizing that I could actually reach more keys by focusing on just a traditional keyboard and mouse control scheme. These tests helped me understand that, in addition to having to relearn how to use my keybinds, using the Tartarus requires me to accept a net loss in the number of keys I have access to.
Razer might argue that the ability to program the Tartarus makes up for its lack of keys, and in a sense they would be right: configuration options abound as the Tartarus, like most Razer products, is customizable with Razer's Synapse software.
Some customization required
If you’ve ever used a Razer product in the past you’re probably already familiar with Synapse’s pros and cons. The app is flashier than it needs to be but highly customizable— letting you bind any key to a macro and letting those macros and keybinds talk to other Razer products so that you could, for example, press a key on your Razer mouse and swap key configurations on your Tartarus. If that sounds a little intimidating, it is; the customization options can get confusing, and it takes time to learn to use them properly.
The best and worst feature of Synapse is that using it requires you to register an account with Razer. It’s the best feature because you only have to configure your Razer products once; those configurations are automatically saved to the cloud and downloaded automatically when you install Synapse on other computers, so you never have to configure a product twice no matter how many computers you hook it up to.
It’s the worst feature because the registration isn’t optional; if you want to use Synapse to configure a Razer product or take advantage of advanced product features like illumination controls or programmable macros, you have to register with Razer.
Since the Tartarus is a little bit outside of my gaming hardware comfort zone I tried to make the learning process easier by using Razer's Tartarus WoW addon. This lets you customize your keybinds in-game rather than swapping back and forth from Synapse to WoW which, in theory, should speed things up. Doing so taught me a few things about how Razer envisions players using the Tartarus; most importantly, Razer actually wants you to use the middle six buttons for movement, just like a regular keyboard configuration, and then use the thumbpad to swap between four key configurations on the fly, letting you multiply the 9 remaining buttons to 36 potential commands.
This alternate keybind configuration didn’t really help matters though. Besides it being an awkward play-style to adjust to (where did I put my taunt again? Oh right, it’s thumbstick down + key 9), the WoW Tartarus addon simply isn’t very good. It doesn’t play that nicely with other WoW addons, and it took me ten minutes to figure out I had to turn off another user interface element to even find the configuration button.
Once I had that working I learned that the Tartarus' WoW addon user interface wasn’t particularly customizable. There was no option I could find to turn off only part of the add-on’s display, so I was stuck looking at the useless bottom half of the overlay. Worse, there was no way I could find to use the addon to map buttons to basic WoW functions like, say, opening up menus, so I ended up needing to exit out of the program and configure with Synapse directly anyway.
My colleague Nate Ralph reviewed the Higher-End Razer Orbweaver earlier this year and came away feeling it too was a solid, if unnecessary, addition to Razer’s line-up of gaming peripherals. All of his critiques apply here as well, and they're exacerbated by the Tartarus' comparative lack of features. Even with access to the Orbweaver's 20 keys, Nate had trouble mapping all the things he needed.
Instead of just lopping off the right half of the keyboard, the Tartarus goes one step further and effectively does away with the 1-5 keys to boot. With just 3 rows of buttons on the keypad, I found myself constantly gravitating back to my traditional keyboard every time I was out of combat. It was the only way I could access enough buttons to open my bags, hop on my mount, or chat with my friends without any difficulty.
A smaller nitpick that most userse won’t notice: the Tartarus also lacks the Orbweaver’s mechanical keys. It’s a subtle difference, but if you’re a mechanical keyboard user like me, it’s there.
Of course, with missing features comes a much lower price tag: the Tartarus knocks $60 dollars off of the Orbweaver’s $130 price. The problem is that $70 is still a lot to ask for an extraneous piece of hardware you’ll essentially have to use in concert with a regular keyboard. The paucity of keys on the Tartarus can be ameliorated somewhat by using an MMO gaming mouse festooned with buttons, but that requires you to spend even more money on hardware.
Still, if you’ve become accustomed to this style of play by using earlier gaming keypads like the Nostromo, upgrading to the Tartarus is a worthwhile investment. I’ve used a Nostromo in the past, and the new Tartarus is both more comfortable and more functional. In the end though, I’ve never found a reason to use either for very long; you’re better off with a highly configurable keyboard. Hey, doesn’t Razer sell a few of those?
Razer's new gaming keypad is a well-made piece of hardware you almost certainly don’t need.
- Highly configurable.
- Portable hardware and settings.
- Steep learning curve.
- High price tag for hardware that's less convenient than a simple keyboard.